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22 • The Writer’s Chronicle • Volume 43 Number 2
An Interview with
by Katherine Jamieson
atricia Hampl is the author of eight books,
most recently The Florist’s Daughter, a
family memoir about “middle class people,
living in the middle of the country, in the middle
of the century.” Her work has been described as
“delightfully fluid, artful without being arty, ever
attuned to ambiguity.” The Los Angeles Times has
called her “the queen of memoir.” Her last four
books have been on the 100 Notable Books list of
the New York Times Book Review.
Ms. Hampl graduated from the Iowa Writer’s
Workshop with an MFA in poetry in 1970. She first
won recognition for A Romantic Education, a cold war
memoir about her Czech heritage, which has shaped
the rise of autobiographical writing. Her fiction,
poems, reviews, essays, and travel pieces have appeared
in the New Yorker, Paris Review, the New York Times,
Best American Short Stories, and Best American Essays.
Ms. Hampl is Regents Professor at the University of
Minnesota in Minneapolis where she teaches in the
MFA program, and is a member of the permanent
faculty of the Prague Summer Program. In 1990 she
was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
Katherine Jamieson: As an opponent of the
Vietnam War, you have written about the impact
the war had on your generation: “We had lost the
national connection and were heartsick in a cultural
way.” How do you think the wars are impacting the
youth of today? What does this generation’s reaction
to war indicate about American society?
Patricia Hampl: I’m not sure I’m the one to tell you
what they’re thinking—the generation now sitting
in these chairs in the Iowa Union, the way we did
during the Vietnam War years, should answer you.
But I do think it’s worse now—more heartbreaking
because the problems have leached into a much
larger part of the society. Not just the culture, but
also the economy.
I was thinking about Lyndon Johnson, whom
people like me got out of office. Yet his great push,
Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the University of
Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays have appeared
in the New York Times, Narrative, and Terrain, and
are forthcoming in poemmemoirstory. Some of her other
writings can be found at <www.katherinejamieson.com>.
I sometimes have thought of Iraq as the credit card
and Walmart war because a lot of the people joined
the National Guard in order to improve their lot in life.
his great platform, was the War on Poverty. He’s
looking pretty good now!
I’m married to a man who was sitting in the
Iowa Student Union about a generation before I
was, during the McCarthy period. He says that
this is definitely worse. I mean, think about it.
A while back, the University of Iowa published
a small, beautifully done book of poems from
detainees in Guantanamo—an historic publication,
with an introduction and all kinds of wrap-around
materials to help you read these poems. They were
written not by professional poets, but by detainees
who turned to poetry out of their desperation.
This book was reviewed in the New York Times
negatively. The poems weren’t up to scratch. A
complete misunderstanding of the documentation
going on here. This disjunction between
documentary work and aesthetics was shocking to
me. It would be as if saying that words scratched on
the walls in Dachau were somehow not quite up to
Jamieson: Where do you think the awareness and
resistance to this war is coming from? What’s the
nexus of it? In your generation, it was the youth; in
this current generation, it’s hard to pinpoint who’s
Hampl: There isn’t much resistance at this point.
One thing that is different too is that it isn’t
generational anymore. My generation persuaded
everybody not to trust the government. Not always
to good effect, unfortunately.
Culturally speaking, it wasn’t as if my generation
was entirely about barricades and fighting. This same
disjunction that I just described existed not just in
politics, but also in documentation and in art and
aesthetics. I can remember when a friend of mine
who had been to prison as a draft resister published
his first book of poems, and it was reviewed in the
American Poetry Review. The reviewer said that,
unfortunately, “he traded on his prison experience.”
This was a criticism. When you write about
your grandmother or grandfather, or look out the
window at a tree, are you trading on your “window
experience,” your “grandchild experience”?
We don’t have a place for thinking politically in
our literary culture, and this is very odd given the
example of Whitman. Literary culture, since I’ve
been publishing, has largely been interested in talking
about process. Nuts and bolts, and sometimes about
theory. But we don’t seem to have a way to take a
position as a citizen.
Jamieson: A citizen and an artist.
Hampl: There were certainly many examples during
the Vietnam War, people like Robert Bly, of course,
Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell,
Donald Justice. I could go on and on. Robert
Creeley, Ginsberg. All of these people, who had
aesthetic differences across a wide range, got together
and went all over the country doing “Poets Against
the Vietnam War.”
When they were doing that, they were encouraging
young men to turn in their draft cards, which was a
felony. They had no way of knowing if they would
be arrested. They weren’t, as it happened, but they
didn’t know if they would be.
The draft in some ways made it easier for us to
protest the Vietnam War. I sometimes have thought
October/November 2010 • The Writer’s Chronicle • 23
Jamieson: When you say mercenaries, are you
talking about Blackwater, or these hired firms?
Hampl: Mercenaries. I won’t call them what they
want us to call them—“private security firms” or
“independent defense contractors”—any more than
I will use the term “ethnic cleansing.” If there’s one
thing that writers should hang on to, it’s the use of
Look at what they’re calling torture, the terms
they’re coming up with: “harsh interrogation,”
“enhanced coercive interrogation technique,” “sleep
management.” Words that obfuscate, that veil.
Jamieson: You’ve talked about how remembering is
a political act.
Hampl: It’s an act of the imagination, but since
when is the imagination not the real resource for
one’s ethics? The imagination is where empathy
happens. If I can imagine that you might be pained,
wounded, harmed, by something I would do or
say, and if that has meaning for me, then that’s the
beginning of empathy.
It takes imagination to do that, because left to my
own devices, I want to eat the whole sweet roll. I want
everything for myself, and you can just take care of
yourself, kiddo. And that is the tragic direction we
have taken our great birthright of individualism.
It is the great American gift to the world, the idea
that the individual matters. But we’ve cast away
Whitman’s vision of “the dear love of comrades.”
We’ve acted as if, I get to carry my gun, and if you
don’t have health care, there must be a reason that
you don’t have a decent job. It must be your fault. A
lot of these economic problems are making inroads
into the middle class, and of course everyone likes
to think they’re the middle class, including the
Jamieson: I’ve heard the criticism that everyone
uses the term “upper-middle class,” but no one ever
admits to being part of the upper-class.
Hampl: Those categories which gave people, among
other things, a sense of solidarity, connection,
commitment and empathy, and self-connection
with a bigger thing, are becoming really brittle, or
already have turned to dust.
Maybe that’s why a lot of people turn to these
mega-churches, which many of us find repellent,
both politically and aesthetically. They just seem to
be an extension of the mall—you liked the mall, well
come to this mega-church and you’ll feel right at
home. But really, they exist for a reason, and they’re
serving a function—what is it? It’s a cracked attempt
to make some kind of communal connection that is
not so easily found elsewhere.
We can’t even get together to get decent mass
transportation. We would rather get in a car and sit
PHOTO BY BARRY GOLDSTEIN
of Iraq as the credit card and Walmart war because
a lot of the people joined the National Guard in
order to improve their lot in life. They wanted that
SUV or they wanted to put an addition on the house
for the kids. Some consumer or service issue. They
were trying to make ends meet, maybe get college
benefits. There’s a quality of life that they were
trying to achieve, and they bet on the odds.
We also have to remember the huge numbers
of mercenaries that we have. It was a much more
ideological war with Vietnam, whereas now there’s
no way to get around the oil.
there, wasting gas while we’re stalled on the highway.
I’m speaking now, even of Iowa City, but certainly of
a metropolis like St. Paul-Minneapolis where I live.
To get mass transit in this country is a huge struggle,
a huge fight.
I think that all this connects to our inability to
have grasped Whitman’s idea of the “dear love of
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24 • The Writer’s Chronicle • Volume 43 Number 2
comrades.” He thought our cities should be like
great broad-shouldered men with their arms around
Jamieson: The issue of leisure figures largely in your
work in seemingly contradictory ways. You refer
to one of your literary heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
lifelong rage against the leisure class, and your
own mixed feelings about class growing up in the
“middle” in St. Paul.
You also quote the nun in Blue Arabesque who
says that leisure is the core of contemplative life.
How have our definitions of leisure changed in this
century? How can a spiritual person ensure that
leisure is not apathy, but a serious engagement with
Hampl: What a good question! F. Scott Fitzgerald
had a lot of fury and resentment against the leisure
class. And of course, he was fascinated by wealth
and power. Another Minnesotan, Thorstein Veblen,
wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was
published in 1899, three years after Fitzgerald was
born. Veblen’s sense of leisure has to do with a
leisure purchased at the price of other people’s labor.
It’s interesting that it’s used as an adjective there. In
other words, to say “leisure class” is not the same as
what I mean in talking about “leisure.”
In Blue Arabesque, I ask the contemplative nun,
what’s the core of your life, how does this work,
contemplative life, monastic life? I expect her to
say, it’s the search for God, it’s the search for inner
peace. But she says the core is leisure. In some ways,
what she’s really inviting one to do is to relinquish
consumerism, to relinquish greed, to relinquish
ambition, in the outer sense of it. None of which I
have been able to relinquish, by the way.
The idea is that leisure is a kind of openness to
the world. We’re having a leisurely moment right
now. We’re working in the sense that we’re having a
special kind of conversation. But we purposely chose
this table, this place, because we could look at the
river going by and could just be here. Leisure has to
do with just being. Like that line from Wordsworth:
“getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
But instead to just exist. There’s a quality of refusal
to sign up for all the activity on the gerbil wheel, and
I think many of us feel that. One of the things Blue
Arabesque is about is the pace of contemporary life
and the complaint we have against it.
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Jamieson: Which seems to only be intensifying.
Hampl: There are also more gerbils than there used
to be. The demographic has changed. More people,
more speed, more people trying to get to the same
place—and the place is exactly the same size that
it was before. I notice that rapaciousness on the
highways. They call it “road rage,” but really it’s
everything rage: it’s “getting-on-the-elevator-rage.”
Leisure allows you not to rush. It allows you to
let the other person go first. In our world, there’s an
element of delicious sinfulness in the idea of leisure.
I should be working, I should be doing something.
In that regard, if you can find leisure, you have
participated a little bit in the supposed pleasures of
the leisure class.
People talk about it now, the smaller carbon
footprint. It has to do with deciding what you don’t
need. They say the happiest person is someone who
desires nothing. I also haven’t quite signed up for
that; I’ve got a lot of desire in my heart. But a little of
this kind of thinking can make the difference.
Jamieson: When you were working with the nun,
Donnie, in Virgin Time, were you aware that she had
scaled back her desires? Was that part of her spiritual
Hampl: Well, monastics sign up for a particular
way of life, and every hour is, in a sense, spoken for.
Typically, the contemplative nuns, the ones that I
know, have a fantastic interest in the world, and they
read a lot. People come to them. There’s an oasis
quality to their life. People who live at the oasis and
water the camels get to see a lot of the world go by
without leaving. That’s the way they are.
On the one hand, this contemplative nun doesn’t
go to Nordstrom’s to see what the new clothes are,
and whether the boots have square or pointed toes
this season. That’s taken care of, in a way. On the
other hand, she has a fantastic interest in what’s
going on in individual lives and in the world.
There’s a line in the Gospel when Martha complains
to Jesus that her sister, Mary, isn’t helping with the
clean-up and the dishes; she’s sitting there having a
conversation instead. Jesus says, “Martha, Mary has
chosen the better part.” There’s been much discussion
in women’s and feminist circles, as well as scriptural
study circles about that. And lots of jokes too.
The nuns have chosen the better part. They may
not be doing all sorts of things that other people
do, but they also have the freedom of their minds
in a way that most people don’t. We look and we
say, oh my god you don’t have any kids, you don’t
have sex, where’s the fun? Yet when I’ve stayed at
monasteries, I’ve never laughed as hard as anywhere
else in my life.
I guess I would say what comes with this kind of
leisure is relish, enormous relish for life.
Jamieson: It seems like a misconception that there
is a great loss and a great sadness associated with
Hampl: Yes, well look at the Dalai Lama, Mr.
Contemplative. He’s always smiling and laughing,
almost inappropriately. Anybody not like the Dalai
Lama? There’s therapy for that. He is another
example of relish.
Jamieson: You mentioned that your next book, The
Virtue of Heresy, is about a priest who has stayed true
to the Catholic Church, balancing his faith with an
understanding of the flaws of the church.
Hampl: Actually, the book I’m working on now is
The Art of the Wasted Day—more on leisure and with
Montaigne and the idea of essay-writing at its center.
October/November 2010 • The Writer’s Chronicle • 25
s a r a b a n d e b o o k s
Leisure allows you not to rush. It allows you to let
O u t ta k e s
the other person go first. In our world, there’s
an element of delicious sinfulness in the idea of leisure.
I should be working, I should be doing something.
But I do plan to return to the heresy project. The
priest in the heresy book has a kind of wry, wicked
humor. I too am a practicing Catholic and curious
about why I am. It connects again to this notion
of being part of something bigger than oneself, or
putting your faith only in yourself.
In a way, I’m speaking in favor of religion instead
of spirituality. I know that most people, including
atheists, have no serious problem with the word
“spiritual.” But the word “religion” makes people
crazy. It makes me crazy too, especially at this
moment in our history, which is a very different
moment from when I wrote Virgin Time. We can
point to a lot of reasons to get rid of religion,
Books on atheism have been extraordinarily
popular lately. One of them, God is Not Great by
Christopher Hitchens, was a National Book Award
finalist. It was as if a little salute had to be made to
this strand of cultural thinking and passion at the
moment. The idea that ridding ourselves of religion
would resolve base instincts is as absurd as thinking
religion can save us from ourselves. We have had
a couple of major attempts at running the world
with an overtly atheist polemic. The Soviet Union
and the countries behind the Iron Curtain, and, of
course, China. Let’s count up how many people were
murdered, tortured, abused, and ruined using that
as the inner engine compared to religion. I think
we’ll find some parity.
We have to quit thinking that if we can just
do away with God, then we’ll do away with evil.
Atheism doesn’t bother me. It’s a belief system. I’m
an American, I believe everybody should be able to
have his or her own belief system.
What surprises me is the virulence, and the
inability to see one’s own atheism, when it comes
out that way, as being anything but another
fundamentalism. Also, I don’t see that atheism has
the capacity, any more than “spirituality” does, to
draw people together for the greater good. In that
way, I would say contemporary American spirituality,
individualistic spirituality, and passionate atheism
are quite alike in their inability to address our real
problems, the problems of empathy and community
Jamieson: Given the invocation of religion in this
current war, how can we understand that in relation
to this conversation?
Hampl: Religious people need to reclaim their own
traditions. I belong to a faith tradition—Roman
Catholicism—that is repellent in many ways,
repressive and encouraging of denigration and giving
nonhuman status to whole numbers of people, some
of whom are in my family. I have an adored gay
niece. We all have these examples.
I’m furious a lot of the time. However, that
means I’m mad at the family. I’m mad at the larger
Catholic family. When people ask me, they seem to
not understand why I would go to Mass on Sunday,
why I would hang in there with this thing. But I’m
an American, and most of my adult life I have not
been in register with what this country has been
doing with its foreign policy, but that doesn’t mean
I suddenly decide I get to be a Canadian. I’m not a
Canadian; even if I moved to Canada, I wouldn’t be
If I were to pick a more aesthetically and politically
appealing religion, I’d probably go to Buddhism.
But that’s not the point of religion for me. The point
of religion is connecting with my part of the story.
For instance, I don’t think that Christianity will ever
recover its sovereignty, certainly, but also its selfsatisfaction or even its honor after the Holocaust. It
is Christian Europe—no matter how many history
books slice it any which way—it is Christian Europe
that did that deed.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t priests and
nuns and plain, ordinary, churchgoing Catholics
and Lutherans—think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—
who lost their lives and put themselves in enormous
jeopardy to save people. They did. But still, European
culture, which was largely Christian, the tradition
out of which I come, is never going to recover from
that terrible wrong.
I wrote an essay in I Could Tell You Stories about
Edith Stein, a contemplative Carmelite nun of
Jewish heritage, who eventually died in Auschwitz.
When she saw everything that was beginning to
happen she said, “All this will have to be atoned
for.” As someone born right after the Second World
War, I was born into a period of atonement, whether
people are actually doing any atoning or not. This,
for me, is not the time to leave the ship, not the time
to depart just because it doesn’t appeal anymore.
On the other side of it I would say, why would I
deny myself the glory of the Scriptures, the beauty
of the way that the liturgical year is organized? Both
of those things, both the negative and the positive,
keep me in the middle.
Jamieson: In The Florist’s Daughter, you write about
your father’s belief in the necessity of beauty in life,
how it is the “highest token of reality.” In your other
memoirs, you have recounted your own faith in
beauty as a transcendent force in the world. How do
you see the connections between beauty and faith,
aesthetics and religion?
Hampl: Beauty is a much more homely thing than
we usually think. I think of it as having a lot to do
with our capacity to give meaning to the minute, to
the hour, to the day, to the week, to the season, to
the year, to the period of our lives.
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De at h O bscu ra
Rick Bursky is a master of dark
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these poems and our lives.
26 • The Writer’s Chronicle • Volume 43 Number 2
Religion has the capacity to sacralize time.
Particularly monotheistic religion. As a result, if you
sacralize time, you have the liturgical year, and the
liturgical year has enormous beauty. Not because
every part of it is a festival. Some of it is about
fasting, some of it is about grieving. Some of it’s
about torture and cruelty.
For instance, in the Christian tradition, the whole
period known as the Tridium—it goes from Thursday
night, the washing of the feet, into Gethsemane and
the torture of Jesus, “the Passion,” the Crucifixion,
through the burial, and finally the Resurrection. All
have been given their due. In that regard, it’s like
our lives, like an alternate image or photograph
of our lives that we can look at and we can have a
relationship with. To my mind, that is beauty. Not
all the brocaded stuff that the Pope wears, the funny
hats and the cross-dressing and all that.
I like ceremony, but I’m not talking about beauty
as the bells and smells in religion. I think about it as
this desire to sacralize time and the ways we do that,
either through language or through liturgical rites
M. J. Fitzgerald
In our world, there’s an element of delicious sinfulness
in the idea of leisure. I should be working, I should
be doing something. In that regard, if you can find
leisure, you have participated a little bit in the supposed
pleasures of the leisure class.
Jamieson: How are you able to handle the ways in which
the church goes against your politics? For instance, how
the sexual abuse scandals have been handled?
Hampl: I rage about it.
Jamieson: And the new Pope?
Hampl: The Pope wears Prada, what can I say? He
does, did you see his shoes? I just rave like a maniac.
It’s sort of like Thanksgiving dinner, talking about
this family—I’m never coming back again. Of course
there’s that which only draws you nearer.
In the ’70s, I went to Czechoslovakia to write A
Romantic Education, and saw people living in a
totalitarian regime and yet living beautiful lives.
If I hadn’t had that experience, I would not have
been able to stay in the Catholic church. Because
it’s a totalitarian regime, and like that regime
in Czechoslovakia, real and vibrant people are
experiencing Catholicism differently underneath the
Jamieson: I think a lot of the connotation of religion
is around stricture, what you can’t do.
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Hampl: For me, there’s a great importance to the
liturgical year. The nuns we were talking about
earlier are never further than a couple of hours away
from some of the greatest poetry in our tradition, in
our civilization. The center of their lives is not the
Mass, or the Eucharistic sacrament, really. In terms
of sheer time spent, it’s the Jewish Psalms.
Those are the greatest poetry, they have the deepest
sense of rage, fury, envy, and sublime wonder. It’s
an emotional ricochet through everything you could
possibly feel as a human being on the planet. They
live that everyday, and they read those 150 psalms
in order over and over again. It’s an extraordinary
I grew up with a good touch of that in old St. Paul,
which really was a Catholic town. I didn’t really
know any “non-Catholics,” as we referred to them.
That was everybody else.
Jamieson: Another non…
Hampl: Yes, I write nonfiction about non-Catholics.
These wonderful holidays were taken seriously.
There was Halloween, and we did all that, but the
next day was All-Saint’s Day, and we had that day
off. You had to go to Mass, but otherwise it was a
free day, and you could eat your candy. The next day,
which is November 2nd, was All-Soul’s Day, and that
was the day you pray for all the dead people.
There was a sense of season. Marilynne Robinson
has written brilliantly about it in The Death of Adam.
She has an essay about the loss of Sunday as a leisure
day; the loss of the Sabbath and what that has done
to us. It isn’t just the loss of free time, it’s the loss of
a chance to honor our deepest humanity, which is
Our deepest humanity and divinity, really, because
what does God do on the final day? He rests. We
deny ourselves that, and we deny our brothers and
sisters that. I may get my day off, but I want to go
to the mall and have somebody wait on me who’s
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October/November 2010 • The Writer’s Chronicle • 27
Beauty is a much more homely thing than
we usually think. I think of it as having a lot to do
with our capacity to give meaning to the minute,
to the hour, to the day, to the week, to the season,
to the year, to the period of our lives.
working for minimum wage. Then I’m part of the
leisure class in that negative way.
What tradition do you come from?
and more than that, but at the same time, I feel like
there’s all this other work and ferment going on—
why would I miss out on that?
Jamieson: I was baptized Episcopalian and grew up
Methodist. Now I’m a student of Zen Buddhism. A
lot of what you’re saying reminds me of Buddhism,
Jamieson: I’m constantly struck by the vivacity of
the Buddhist monks and nuns that I know. They’re
doctors, they’re veterinarians, they’re coming from
engaged lives in the world, and they’re making
informed choices to leave that world. I think there’s
a sense, sometimes, from the outside world that,
well, maybe she didn’t have anything else going on
so she became a nun.
Hampl: You know, all the contemplative Christian
monasteries that I’ve gone to since the mid-’80s
have the set-up for the Zen meditation, the mats
and the pillows. They have absolutely borrowed the
Thomas Merton is really the marker-point. I gave a
talk about The Asian Journals recently at Notre Dame.
In 1968, he made an historic trip to Asia and he died
over there, of course. But his trip made the big link
between Eastern and Western contemplatives.
The nuns that I know, the Poor Clares, will go
on Buddhist retreats and have Buddhist nuns come
to them. It’s so typical that it’s not even remarked
on. Vipassana—they love that, and other kinds
of Buddhism. They’ve had Buddhist nuns come
and stay with them; they have gone and stayed
with Buddhist nuns in China. I always say, join
the monastery and see the world. They’ve been
everywhere. These contemplatives are cultural
ambassadors, going both ways.
This is what I mean when we talk about the
strictures of Catholicism. That’s one thing, but there
are also real people living real lives. I think so much
of Catholicism needs to be rapped on the knuckles
important thing they can do in the MFA program
is to make literary friends. What’s really important
is the people who are sitting next to you and around
you. These are the ones who will sustain you because
the world out there isn’t necessarily going to do that.
The other place is in books. You will find the people
who are speaking your language. Also, it allows you
to be with the greats before you feel yourself to be
great, even though you have that desire.
It’s very difficult for a young person to understand
that it’s a good thing to have a feeling of wanting
fame or greatness. It isn’t simply ambition in some
kind of rapacious way. Keats talked about it, and he,
of course, never got to be more than young. It’s all
about having the imagination to want to do the best,
to want to achieve. In a way, a writer has to want to
be famous, has to want that because it’s the only way
to say you want to do the best work possible. If there
isn’t a reader on the end, it is rather solipsistic, the
whole relationship with art or words.
That relationship, that intimate feeling of
connection with literary heroes, becomes a fraternity
or sorority you can enter into, a brotherhood or
sisterhood that you can confer upon yourself before
Hampl: Right, it’s a very exciting life. I can say
that almost journalistically, having observed it and
written about it for many years now, and having
grown up with these nuns. They’ve changed over
time as we have. I’m also struck oftentimes by these
big arguments about Muslim veils on women. In
my childhood, if somebody had suggested that the
nuns at St. Luke’s Grade School rip off their veils,
we would have considered that terrible. An affront,
injustice, a kind of assault.
Jamieson: The literary hero plays a big part in
your writing, whether it’s Fitzgerald, Mansfield,
Whitman, Milosz, or Plath. Is it important for
young writers to have literary “saints” as you have
called them? How do you think the choice of these
particular touchstones of the literary world has
impacted your writing?
Hampl: Oh, I think it has. Can you go through life
without friends? I tell my students that the most
Earn your creative writing
MA, MFA, or PhD in in Atlanta,
an international city with a vibrant
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Congratulations to Josh Russell
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28 • The Writer’s Chronicle • Volume 43 Number 2
They say the happiest person is someone who desires
nothing. I also haven’t quite signed up for that;
I’ve got a lot of desire in my heart. But a little
of this kind of thinking can make the difference.
you get your NEA grant or your first contract. It’s
a way that you can belong, it’s a very special way
of reading. In fact, I would say the most important
thing that happens in these writing programs is not
the actual product of the thesis. I know I would pay
a certain amount of money to get someone to steal
my thesis out of the Iowa Library.
The thesis is often not the important thing that
happens. It’s the quality of mind you bring to bear on
the reading. The intensity you bring to the reading.
That’s the thing that’s going to make a big difference
to you as a writer over the long term.
Jamieson: I remember that you mentioned the
fallout from writing about your mother’s epilepsy in
the essay “Other People’s Secrets” in I Could Tell You
Stories. Have you ever had negative repercussions
from your writing about other people?
Hampl: Oh yes, I’ve lost friendships, and sometimes
in the weirdest way. Don’t think that you can write
your way around hurting someone. Even if you want
to betray your own truth. The person you think is
going to be hurt won’t be, and the person it never
occurred to you would have a thought about it will
never speak to you again. I’ve had that experience
more than once. I also had a friend break with me
because I didn’t put her into a book. She felt betrayed.
Czeslaw Milosz once said, “When a writer is born
into a family, that family is finished.”
Jamieson: What do you think of that?
Hampl: My family had a kind of humbleness about
itself. They didn’t get on their high horses. And
then, of course, my mother adored the whole idea of
writing, so the more I could whip it up, the better.
She just didn’t like her epilepsy being mentioned,
and of course that’s what I had to mention. Let’s see,
what would Mother like me to not write about?
Jamieson: You have referred to memoir as the “quest
literature of our time” and distinguished between
memoirists who write narcissistically versus those
who represent the self as “communal,” as Whitman
did in “Song of Myself.”
Hampl: If we divide the two camps of memoirs
into being based either in psychology or history, I
from The Florist’s Daughter
by Patricia Hampl
hese apparently ordinary people
in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives, and
believing themselves to be ordinary, why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t
ordinary at all?
What’s back there? Back
there, I say, as if the past
were a location, geographic
rather than temporal, lost
in the recesses of old St
Paul. And how did it
become “old St Paul,”
the way I habitually
think of it now, as
if in my lifetime
had lifted off the planet and
become a figment of history, and
from there had ceased to exist except as an
invention of memory. And all the
more potent for that, the
way our lives become
imaginary when we
try most strenuously to
make sense of them…..
Nostalgia, someone will
say. A sneer accompanies
the word, meaning that to
be fascinated by what is gone
and lost is to be easily seduced
by sentiment. A shameful
undertaking. But nostalgia
shares the shame of the other
good sins, the way lust is shameful or drink or gluttony or sloth. It
doesn’t belong to the desiccated sins
of the soul—pride, envy. To the sweet
sins of the body, add nostalgia. The sin
Excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter, copyright © 2007 by Patricia Hampl, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
belong on the history side. I’m interested in memoir
largely as a feature of history, so that I’m interested
in reading and writing works that somehow fill out
the bigger picture. Of course, there are psychological
aspects to it.
Having said that, the book that I just did is most
highly personal, about my family, which is inevitably
psychological. However, I clung to my beliefs about
memoir having to do with history by really seeing
us as features of a middle-class family, in the middle
of the country, in the middle of the century. That
middle-ness and that ordinariness were what I was
trying to reveal.
I couldn’t have written it if I didn’t believe there
was that bigger context. At a certain point you don’t
need to write about the self. And I never did go to
memoir for that purpose. I think poetry, maybe, as a
young person, was a bit of that for me.
Perhaps this is because I’ve always lived in the
“flyover,” the place where you don’t feel that you’re
significant or that there’s any history. I’ve always been
drawn to history and to a sense of documentation.
Jamieson: Is that why you were drawn toward
memoir rather than fiction?
Hampl: It’s a mystery to me because I adore fiction.
And there weren’t any memoir courses, and I didn’t
think of memoir as something I wanted to write. I
drifted into it by accident. My first book didn’t even
have the words, “A Memoir,” on it. There weren’t
coming-of-age memoirs then.
Now people come to our graduate program at
twenty-two and say, “I’m working on a memoir.”
It still surprises me. But the literary landscape has
changed since I first began working in this way, and
memoir has now become a “field.”
Jamieson: It changed a lot because of your work.
Hampl: It was an idea in the air. I was interested
to hear David Hamilton say the other day that the
year A Romantic Education was published, Richard
Rodriguez’s first memoir, Hunger for Memory, was
published. I had remembered that they came out
around the same time, but I hadn’t realized it was
the same year.
I think what we were seeing there was a zeitgeist.
A kind of cultural change that just happened and
that veered off in that direction and I followed it, as
many others have too.
Jamieson: How do you help your students break out
of a psychological self-focus in their writing?
Hampl: I encourage attention, descriptive writing.
Not just looking to the past, not trying to understand
it, but to attend to images almost as if they were
photographs, and to write those. To discipline
yourself to say what you see, rather than what you
feel. Let the feeling flow through the seeing. I think
it’s a liberation.
The way we were talking about meditation earlier.
One of the things that meditation tries to liberate
you from is the terrible strictures of feeling, of the
emotional batting about of rage and joy and anger.
Mostly anger and frustration. All that thrashing
around. Describing what you see liberates you from
those feelings that are strictures.
They feel like your reality, but they aren’t your
reality. Your reality is your ability to see and say. But
we think our reality is our ability to feel. Try just
off-setting that a little, and saying my truth is saying
what I see. It offsets the self, just a bit.
I’m so far from being able to do that in what we
affectionately call “real life.” But in writing, I do
have a sense of the discipline of it.