As I’ve raved about many times, I love the work of Amy Hempel. I came to Amy Hempel via Chuck Palahniuk, which seems an odd connection, but a direct one, Palahniuk also cites Hempel as one of his major influences. If you’re a writer or aspiring writer and you’ve never read any of Hempel’s work, I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I think it’s worth seeking her out – the paperback of her collected stories is less than $13 on Amazon, which is criminally cheap.
Hempel is both entertainer and educator in her writing. You wanna’ learn what show don’t tell means, she’ll teach you. Her stories are stripped down, her sentences constructed carefully, every single word is another brick added to the whole. Even describing her work doesn’t do it justice, so here’s an example of Amy Hempel – this is a complete story, six paragraphs in total. I challenge you not to read it and feel caught up by the strength of it.
The Man in Bogota
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.
More information on Amy Hempel.
National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – begins this weekend, spurring all those would-be authors willing to put themselves on the line to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s an excellent initiative, and has now become grown into a global event. For those of you who are considering joining in, or have heard about NaNoWriMo and thought ‘that sounds kinda’ cool, I really should look into that’, here’s the what and the why of how it works.
NaNoWriMo started in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. It was originally held in July, but moved to November because the weather in the US is worse then, inspiring more people to stay indoors and write. The event was started (‘accidentally’) by freelance writer Chris Baty, who organised the event up till 2011, when he quit to write full-time, largely based on the works and contacts he’d made through his work with NaNoWriMo (Baty now teaches at Stanford University, amongst his various creative pursuits). The ethos of the event was not only to inspire those who’d always wanted to write a novel, but to also build communities of like-minded folk, to get writers to connect with one another.
The event has grown year-on-year and is now a truly international event. In 2013, 400, 000 people participated in NaNoWriMo – including 4, 400 from Australia. The collective word count from those 400k writers was close to 3 billion, a massive achievement. Many of these stories would’ve never seen the light of day, but they’re now out there, being worked on, being discussed and connecting people in a discussion about the written word.
The rules of NaNoWriMo are as follows:
- Starting at 12:00 am on November 1st, novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before 11:59:59 pm on November 30th, local time.
- Planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no earlier written material can go into the body of the novel, nor is one allowed to start early and then finish 30 days from that start point.
- Participants write either a complete novel of 50,000 words, or simply the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later.
To ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, participants need to write an average of approximately 1,667 words per day. Organizers say the aim of the event is simply to get people writing, using the deadline as an incentive to get the story going and to put words to paper. There is no fee to participate in NaNoWriMo, registration is only required for novel verification.
No official prizes are awarded – anyone who reaches the 50,000 word mark is declared a winner.
Do any of these books get published?
Yeah, they do. More than 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been published since 2006, including the New York Times Best Seller ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen, which was later adapted into a Hollywood film. Many established novelists have used NaNoWriMo as an impetus to get their novels done, along with the thousands of first timers – just having it set aside as a time to write has kept many writers going.
How do you get involved?
You can visit the official NaNoWriMo website to register and put down details of your project and aim for the month. There are a heap of resources on the site, worth checking them out and reading through the various notes on inspirations and ideas. From the site, you can connect to the home for your region, where you can find info on events happening in your city and ways to connect with other NaNoWriMo folk – the Melbourne community page is here.
There are a heap of resources and posts online documenting people’s experiences and inspirations for NaNoWriMo, if you’re not sure about participating, have a look and you’ll be able to get a better idea of whether it’s for you.
Almost everyone has thought about writing a novel at some stage. Everyone has an idea in mind, a story they’d love to get down but they never have the time to actually do it. NaNoWriMo is a great initiative to help give people that push, that impetus they need to get it down – and it’s only for a month, you only have to make the commitment to write for 30 days. The bottom line is that a writer writes. That’s what you do – if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. NaNoWriMo could be the first step towards getting your story together, to making something from nothing, creating a whole world of characters and happenings, right there on your screen. It all starts with you and the blank page.
If you’ve ever thought about it, maybe this year’s the one that you actually sign up.
Why are we afraid to call ourselves writers? This often comes up if you’re in a writing course or at a writing event, if you were to ask the room ‘who here would identify themselves as a writer?’ you’ll see a lot of hesitancy. People aren’t sure they have the right to take that label. It’s as if saying you’re a writer is aggrandising yourself, as if, by owning it, you’re immediately putting yourself up alongside Hemmingway and Tolstoy and writers you’ve idolised your whole life. ‘What right do you have to such a title? Because you ‘try’ to write?’
Why are we afraid to say ‘I’m a writer’?
Here’s a couple of things to consider:
There are billions of great stories in the world, more than could ever be told in the history of time. There are not billions of great storytellers. That’s the way it is, not everyone’s a great writer destined to produce works of literary brilliance. Almost everyone has at least one great story to tell, but for the majority of us, that story will never be heard or written. For every great film or book you read, there are probably thousands more you’ll never experience, because they simply don’t exist.
There are billions of writing tips and strategies and people who’ll tell you what, in their experience, is the best way to go about creating stories. But they’re not all right. There is no ‘right’ way to go about producing literature. There are certain things that you should do – like writing everyday, reading everything you can, learning and taking on feedback – but no one can say ‘you do these things and you’ll become a published author’. Because there is no one way to go about it. If there were, everyone would do it. It always reminds me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’, a novel which includes pictures as part of the text. Next time you go to your writing class or group, you put your hand up and ask whether you should put images in as part of the text in your novel. No doubt you’ll hear scoffs and someone will tell you ‘no, absolutely not’, which makes sense, you would advise against it. But that book sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. There are no definitive rules on how to write great literature. You can make anything work, within reason.
The thing is, if people are afraid to own the label ‘writer’, people are at least somewhat afraid to write. At the least, people are afraid to show their work to people, because ‘it’s just something silly I’ve been working on, nothing really, forget about it’. If people are afraid to be writers, we’re missing out on great stories. You need to do it, you need to put your words down, do what you feel. You need to get it out there – yeah, you might get criticised, but that’s part of the process. Every author gets rejected and trashed and hurt. You take on what you can while staying true to yourself, want to achieve. What you think makes your work great. You only have to answer to yourself, know that you’re doing the best you can to achieve what you want.
We need people to own that label, to stand up and say ‘I’m a writer’, because we don’t want to miss out on great stories. It’s quite possible that the greatest novels of all time have never been put to paper, and that’s a massive shame. And maybe your stuff isn’t going to change the literary landscape, sell millions of copies, affect the lives of people in generations to come. But it might. Why not you? Kurt Vonnegut sold cars before he became ‘Kurt Vonnegut’. JK Rowling was a secretary. Great writers are people, just like you, doing the same things you are. Why can’t you succeed like them?
And that’s the one thing to keep in mind.
There are billions of people in the world. But there is only one you. No one else can write what’s in your head. And if you write, you are a writer. So be it.
I am a writer.
Maybe one day, you’ll read my stuff.