An Interview with Patricia Hampl

Laura Wexler | March/April 1998

Patricia Hampl
Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl is the author of two memoirs, A Romantic Education and Virgin Time, both named by the New York Times Book Review a Notable Book of the Year. She has also published two volumes of poetry, and a prose meditation on Antonin Dvorak's 1893 visit to Iowa entitled Spillville. She has just finished I Could Tell You Stories, a collection of essays on memory and imagination. Ms. Hampl's poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published widely, and she has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in poetry and in prose), the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bush Foundation and others. In 1990 she was named a MacArthur Fellow. She has taught at the Breadloaf Writers Conference and is on the permanent faculty of the Prague Summer Seminars. Ms. Hampl is Regents' Professor at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Wexler: I think there's been some confusion-or at least a lot of discussion-about the various labels for some of the genres within nonfiction. What is memoir as opposed to autobiography as opposed to essay?

Hampl: My immediate response is, who cares about genre definitions? What difference does it make to label a work one way or another? But definitions for these words do seem to be up for grabs right now. My own working definition is that autobiography is ruled by chronology, and is date-driven. It's a line running through time, punctuated by incident. A memoir, on the other hand, takes on the narrative and formal demands of a novel: How to draw the reader forward? How to establish theme through incident and portraiture? What holds it all together, and what keeps it all moving forward? Chronology-which is autobiography's bedrock-is the most flaccid, lifeless response to those questions. So, the very thing that would seem to be the basis of autobiographical writing-a life over time-is not the ground the memoir can stand on. It has to root itself in the same dilemmas and adventures of poetry and fiction. It has to make a story. In doing that, it has to disregard a lot of the life. As for the essay, I don't make a profound distinction between the personal essay and the memoir, though some people do. It's hard to make a sharp rule when so many contemporary essays are memoiristic at their base. The essay today has a relationship to the memoir roughly analogous to the short story's relationship to the novel. It is the short form of personal nonfiction. Writers often publish as an essay what later proves to be a chapter of a memoir. I did that with Virgin Time. Chapter Six was published as "Parish Streets" in a Graywolf annual long before it became part of a memoir.

Wexler: If memoir has to "make a story," do you see it and autobiographical fiction as closely related?

Hampl: Maybe we should be asking whether memoir is autobiographical fiction! The connections are certainly there. But I think autobiographical fiction is married to narrative in a way that the memoir isn't necessarily. Though it also has to "tell a story," memoir stands at the intersection of narrative writing and reflective writing. It's the crossroads genre between-or uniting-story and essay. The appeal of memoir, for a writer, is that you get to tell your story and you get to talk about it. Not "Show, Don't Tell," but "Show and Tell."

Wexler: What do you think readers like best-story or reflection?

Hampl: Depends on the reader. There's more immediate appeal to a story. What really matters, though, is the palpable sense of presence on the page, of a human being speaking. So I would say that voice is the most important thing in memoir. It arches over story and reflection. What really matters is: do I want to listen to this voice? In that way, we're back to lyric poetry.

Wexler: If you like the voice, you're willing to go where it takes you?

Hampl: If you trust the voice, you aren't aware of story and reflection being two different things. The voice balances the distinction. Carl Klaus, at Iowa, who has written a lot about the personal essay, says something about the essay having to find "the story of thought." So even thinking has-or is-a story. The right voice can reveal what it's like to be thinking. This is memoir's great task, really: the revelation of consciousness. That's been the main task of lyric poetry, too, at least since Keats.

Wexler: Do you feel that the memoir allows you to explore the intellectual part of your mind more so than autobiographical fiction, which seems to restrict reflection?

Hampl: Well, no. I'm reading Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine right now. A gorgeous book, drenched in memory. It's written in the first person and must draw on memories of Makine's childhood. But it's a novel, not a memoir. It explores Soviet history and French history deftly. The novel wouldn't be the resilient form it's been for centuries if it didn't allow writers to be intellectual as well as experiential. So, of course novels do intellectual work, eloquently. But there's no doubt that in our times, for whatever mysterious cultural reasons, the memoir has stepped into the light and claimed a voice both personal and public, which is extremely appealing. The real issue isn't to compare the novel and the memoir as if they're duking it out for Best Genre of the Year. James Atlas did this in his cover piece on the literary memoir in The New York Times Magazine, where he said that today's novels aren't delivering the news, memoir is. That's silly. The interesting thing is that a genre that used to have only a retrospective impulse has changed its purpose. Memoir isn't for reminiscence; it's for exploration. In my opinion, the real kinship among genres today is less between the memoir and the novel, and more truly between memoir and poetry. Someone once said we make a mistake in thinking of memoir as nonfiction. It is really nonpoetry. I don't think we can understand the strong impulses of the memoir if we only look to fiction for its roots.

Wexler: So, for you, the impulse to write memoir came from writing poetry?

Hampl: Yes, and more generally, I think what lyric poetry does without question is what, in another way, the contemporary memoir is trying to do in the midst of accusations about its motives. When a lyric poet uses-typically-the first person voice, we don't say accusingly, "But did this really happen exactly the way you say it did?" We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit. I think the reason we don't interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and pretty sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find a kind of emotional truth within experience. So we aren't all worked up about the literal. We don't have that history or tradition with the memoir. We persist in seeing the genre as a summing up of a life, even though that is not, typically, how the genre is used in the great rash of memoirs that have been published in the past twenty years or so. When we housed memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we took the word "nonfiction" very seriously. We act astonished, even dismayed when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts. We know that that is not the case, but we're constantly struggling with this inevitability as if with chronic crime. I think we need to see the genre in poetic terms. I don't mean some kind of soft focus lens when I say this. I don't think it's mere coincidence that many poets have made the move to prose by writing a memoir, not a novel. Take away the memoirs by poets in the past ten or fifteen years, and the genre is impoverished.

Wexler: Do you think that stories that might once have been told as autobiographical novels are now getting told as memoir because of the popularity and salability of memoir?

Hampl: It's true that books that, thirty years ago, might have been published as fiction-maybe, for example, Michael Ryan's book about sexual addiction-are today written as memoir. Much of this has to do with forces outside literature, belonging to the wider culture and what it allows people to speak about in the first place. In fact, it's hard to imagine a trade book, memoir or novel, thirty years ago, with the direct treatment of Ryan's subject. I think these days there is more invitation to talk turkey about your own experience. Of course, a lot of people find this self-indulgent, self-absorbed. There's a knee-jerk negative response to the memoir even as its popularity grows. It's seen as the narcissist's genre.

Wexler: How do you respond to this type of criticism?

Hampl: Well, sometimes it's true. You can't have a culture as rich and self-indulgent as ours and not have it show in the literature. But the automatic way the criticism is usually employed about memoir-that I don't trust. William Gass wrote a wrist-slapping piece a while back in the Atlantic Monthly that was way off the mark precisely because it appealed to people's willingness to disapprove of "personal" narratives automatically, to assume they're compelled by a worthless self-promoting egotism. Even Thomas Mallon, who knows the territory and brings a much better will to bear on the subject, recently scolded the genre, and made the case for the novel against the memoir. At some point in these accusatory pieces, the word "memoir" is supplanted by the word "confession." And then they're off to the races because a lot of memoirs are self-absorbed, many American memoirists in particular are screamers and whiners. But this should not call the genre into question, any more than all the crummy novels out there for the last couple of hundred years should convict the novel. Mallon's point is mainly that the memoir exalts feeling over thought, and therefore narrows the range, limits the genre, and lacks the capacity to do the historical, intellectual, and even descriptive heavy-lifting that the novel can shoulder. He has his culprits, and some of them are mine. He hates "the moist quiverings of the writer's moods"-great phrase! Me too. But he seems to think that's all memoir can do. As for me, I'll take Nadeshda Mandelstam's memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned any day over Solzhenitzyn's Gulag. I'll take her books for the urgency and passion, the "life felt upon the pulses" as Keats said. What you get in such memoirs-Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman is another-is a sense of history so profound and electric, so immediate, it's breathtaking. What I don't understand is the desire to deep-six the genre. Why not just dump on the failed attempts? But the memoir is the one genre that is accused simply of existing. Well, it's still a Puritan culture, isn't it?

Wexler: If memoir is so maligned, why do you think it remains so popular?

Hampl: Right now, one of the strongest instincts the culture at large has about trusting memoir has to do with something strangely impersonal. At its best-the books that will last-the genre allows one to investigate the world, place oneself in political and historical reality. It's no mistake that a while back when I was on a panel with four other memoirists, and we were asked to name our favorite memoir, the one book we all had in common was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We need to hear the voice of a culture coming to us. And if we have silenced a whole group, then what we will love when we finally realize what we're missing is the personal voice of that culture-not the overview, not even the authority of the fictive voice. You'll notice that many contemporary novels naturally adopt a faux memoir narrative voice in order to capture this same quality.
Wexler: Do you see American memoirs as different from those of writers of different nationalities, in terms of their goals and their focus on the self?

Hampl: I do see a difference. I think it's rooted in different literary traditions. In his memoir Native Realm, Czeslaw Milosz says, "I mistrust the probings into the subconscious that are so honored in our day." He stakes a different claim for the memoir: he says you can put yourself in the background and your country or your time in the foreground. I think a lot of Eastern European memoirs have an enormous project before them, often related to the Holocaust, but even on the part of non-Jewish memoirists relating to the destruction and anguish of the War. These writers tend to place the personal story more obviously in political or historical terms. Someone like Alfred Kazin-who, in fact, was writing memoir in the 1950s and 1960s-understands his project historically, also, rather than purely psychologically. But it's probably true that for many American memoirists, especially the younger ones, the autobiographical enterprise tends to be psychological. I happen to be more interested in the kind Milosz describes. But the line isn't rigid, of course. "Historical" memoirs can also be "psychological."

Wexler: Why is it, do you think, that younger memoirists are more interested in using the memoir for psychological exploration?

Hampl: The whole culture has been drenched in psychology. In our culture, psychology has managed to equate itself with reality, or more exactly, with authenticity. Europeans, particularly Eastern Europeans, think this is nuts. How many times has one of my memoirs been described as "a young woman's search for herself, a Midwestern woman's search for herself, a Catholic woman's search for herself, a Czech immigrant's daughter's search for herself..." All these selves out there. I'm not looking for myself! If anything, I'm trying to lose myself. Or I'm looking for a way to use myself to render a world. It was not good news to me when I found out I had written a memoir. That was not my initial instinct or wish.

Wexler: You're speaking of A Romantic Education. What did you think you were writing when you began that book?

Hampl: I'd been writing poetry and I assumed someday I'd write fiction. But in between, I thought I'd write a biography of my grandmother which would tell a lot about immigration in America. I wrote maybe 80 or 90 pages. It was like moving through cement that was still wet but had started to harden. It got more and more difficult. By the time I reached about page 80 I couldn't lift my feet anymore. I was stuck. I put the whole thing away. I knew it was dead. It was very distressing because I felt that here was a fascinating character who was in my life-I knew her the way I knew very few things-and if I couldn't write about her, could I ever hope to be a writer at all? I put it away really feeling a terrible failure. A few months later, just out of desire-like a bird to sing-I wrote a piece about her garden. Then I wrote another piece about her serving Sunday dinner. These two little scraps-about 10 or 15 pages each-I also put away. But in a very different drawer. I knew they were alive. I didn't understand why, because I certainly didn't think the two scraps had the makings of a book, and the word "memoir" wasn't part of my vocabulary then. But that was the real pivot point in my writing. It was at that moment-thinking about the pieces that were alive and ones that were dead-I realized the difference between them: there was a protagonist in the short pieces about the garden and dinner, and the protagonist was me. I didn't want that because I completely subscribed to the notion that if you were writing about yourself all the time you were a self-absorbed narcissist. However, I was desperate enough to write the book that I would do what it took. So I wrote the book. Later people started to say, oh, that's a memoir. But when I wrote it, I didn't know that it was. It was just an odd amphibian thing. I was aware that I was "telling stories" and that I was also writing little essays in between.

Wexler: So you're saying that when you tried to write your grandmother's story as a biography, it failed. But once you entered-unwillingly-and wrote in your voice, it gained life?

Hampl: I think it's more than a question of voice, although the voice picked up. But there was somebody carrying this project over time, over narrative. There was a quest figure, and it was me. I think of the memoir as the quest literature of our time. It's mid-life work, not wholly retrospective.

Wexler: What about young writers?

Hampl: Well, your "mid" can come at a lot of different times. A certain kind of mentality takes over the memoirist, no matter what age you are. It's like this: there is a life back there, and you're here, and you need to move forward to the next place, whatever it is. I think memoir is all about the future, not about the past, and any memoir which does not have that sense of urgency about moving forward ends up being reminiscence, and in that way it becomes flaccid and loses the dynamism that a work of art must have.

Wexler: Would you say the urgency comes from the fact that the self of the memoir isn't completed yet, even as the memoir is being written?
Hampl: That makes sense, though language itself contains the truest urgency: the urge to make something real, to make sense. The inevitable incompleteness of memoir may account, though, for the fact that people can write more than one memoir. Presumably you would only write one autobiography. But you can write multiple memoirs, coming at your life from different angles. By the time I was done writing A Romantic Education, which is about my ethnic background, I was aware I had another book about my Catholic background-Virgin Time. I also knew it had to be as urgent about trying to understand the religious impulse as I had been about the effects of immigration in the first book.

Wexler: It strikes me that one of the similarities between A Romantic Education and Virgin Time is that, while both include reminiscence, they're moored in a present-day search for something.

Hampl: A Romantic Education opens with a five-year-old-me. I made a conscious decision that I would open Virgin Time with an adult voice and in adult time. I would visit the Catholic past on occasion, as a necessary detour. But the questions had to be adult questions. I didn't want to take cheap shots at the old Church. I also wanted the narrative line to be more taut than it was in the first book. In A Romantic Education, when I wanted to write an essay, I just stopped the flow and wrote about Czech history or whatever I had in mind.

Wexler: That gives credence to your idea that the memoir is as capacious as the novel in that it can hold all of that within it-travel writing, essay, history.

Hampl: I have to admit, though, that when people came up and told me they were reading A Romantic Education, they always said they were reading it slowly. And I thought, "I wonder if they're ever going to finish it." When I started Virgin Time, I wanted people to come up and say, "I couldn't put your book down." I held off writing long essay passages about the Church and all the things I had researched. I really murdered many darlings when I wrote Virgin Time-and I hardly nicked anything in A Romantic Education. Because earlier I didn't know it was necessary to pare and pace. I thought whatever I could think of I should put in. The cram-it-all-in school of writing.

Wexler: I'm curious as to the challenges of having an adult narrator rather than a child narrator. I always thought that writing a memoir in a child's voice allows a dual vision of the child character and the adult writer. And the gap between those visions is very interesting.

Hampl: We think of the memoir as being a mono-view. Obviously it's the first person, it's limited, therefore it's one point of view. But that isn't so. The memoir actually can have several points of view and certainly the adult voice alternating with the child's lends real depth and variety to the narrative voice.

Wexler: So you didn't want to use that as much in Virgin Time?

Hampl: There was another issue at stake, which is when you ground a memoir in the adult voice, the charm quotient goes way down. It's a risk. But I thought I had to take that risk because there's something of a lie about adopting a voice you don't need except in order to charm the reader. I wanted to make a different contract with the reader.

Wexler: One of the things that comes up when you say something like "a contract with the reader" is that a memoir perhaps makes a different contract with the reader than a novel. And, even though we know-as you've written-that memory is a close relative of imagination, do you think a memoirist has a responsibility to try to be truthful? Is it about intentionality?

Hampl: The big question. I get nervous when writing students tell me they have made something up in a memoir. That is not the relationship between memory and imagination that I've experienced as a memoirist, nor is it the one that I would understand in others. If you are making things up, then you are indeed writing fiction. On the other hand, I think there comes a point in one's memory when the imagination is galvanized and is active. Therefore any memoirist is likely-inevitably-to create rather than simply to retrieve episodes or moments. The simplest example of this is to think of dialogue in memoir. It is a convention of the genre that we, the reader, accept the presence of dialogue which could not be remembered exactly. We like to pretend there are no conventions in nonfiction-"conventions" are for works of the imagination, and memoir is "nonfiction," which is the same word we use for the newspaper.

Wexler: It's our desire for absolute truth...

Hampl: Or it's our wishful thinking that says that it is possible to say this is absolutely the way it was and no other way. You read Angela's Ashes, and Frank McCourt gives you this wonderful authentic dialogue that he's remembering from the age of four, five, six. It goes pulsing down the page in a volley back and forth. We all know that he wasn't there with a tape recorder. And interestingly, for all that dialogue, there are no quotation marks. He is signaling, again and again, the life of the imagination as it breathes through memory.

Wexler: What about the dialogue between you and Elsie Pickett in Virgin Time? How did you handle it?

Hampl: I certainly took notes. I remembered things. I wrote it as I remembered it. But if I were to run a videotape of my experience with her, it wouldn't look the same, I'm sure.

Wexler: Transcribing a conversation puts you in the recording world whereas someone who tells the conversation in narrative form is participating in a more creative act?

Hampl: You'll notice that most memoirists use relatively little direct dialogue. They use indirect quotation and summary of conversation. Memoir does not-usually cannot-rely on scenes built from dialogue between two people the way a novel can. I reviewed Castles Burning, a memoir by Magda Denes last year. I gave it a positive review. It's a harrowing book about a Jewish child's experience in Hungary during World War II. But sometimes she relies on dialogue more than the memoir can sustain. And her ear isn't good enough. You feel the invention. What you should feel in a memoir is the search of the writer's memory for the past, the reach for it-which can include dialogue, of course. But wholly dramatic scenes that novels often rely on can feel-and are-false in a memoir.

Wexler: In that way, it's the same criticism that gets leveled at novels, where the dialogue or the voices feel forced or untrue.

Hampl: Yes, except the stakes are higher in the memoir because the falseness betrays more than a tin ear. It shows the writer has gone over the line, from memory to invention. The memoir rightly does belong to the imaginative world, and I think once writers and readers make their peace with this fact there will be less argument over the ethical question about the memoir's relation to "facts" and "truth." As long as we try to nudge the memoir into the same confines of nonfiction that we expect, for example, of journalism, we'll have these battles with people taking rigid positions and boring each other with their often terribly self-righteous arguments. Meanwhile, people will continue to write their first person tales, trying to make sense of their lives in one context or another. Let's face it, everybody feels he or she can write a memoir. And guess what? They're right. That doesn't bother me. I like being a practitioner of a mongrel form. It's a scrappy form. I like that.

Wexler: As more and more writers turn to the memoir, how do you think workshops in writing programs should be set up to help teach or let students discover the memoir form? Do you think a memoir workshop is inherently different from a fiction or poetry workshop? Would the relationship of the student writer to the text be treated differently?

Hampl: There's no reason to exclude the memoir from workshops. But I do have some thoughts about workshops in general. We have inherited a form which really needs some scrutiny and change. I don't think that simply to show up once a week to talk about students' work is really a very inventive way of helping people. The whole system encourages the group to talk about the text before them as if it can be fixed. Sometimes what you really need to say is, "Okay, you did that. Now go do something else." But what do you do with the half-hour allotted for that student? The workshop format encourages disastrous over-consideration of some writing. And I don't think all the group focus on a given text necessarily teaches much about revision, either.

Wexler: How do you run your memoir-writing workshops?

Hampl: The first part of the term we do a lot of reading. I suggest brief writing assignments which are optional. We discuss things that have happened in the writing process rather than simply parsing the text. Then, the second part of the term we do a workshop, though I hope we bring to it a different mentality. The writer is encouraged to identify for the group whether what we're discussing is something finished or is an early draft. We try to identify whether it should be talked about in broad terms or more like a close line-edit. I want it to be possible-and not damaging to the writer-for someone to leave the workshop thinking the text has to be ditched, but that what is ahead is so much more vital that it's an exciting prospect. I encourage people to ask a lot of questions rather than give a lot of opinions. I don't require the writer to be silent while his or her work is being critiqued. I explain that being quiet is usually wise in this situation. But I think it's unnatural to deny someone the right to speak up. Sometimes the writer can ask a question that's very useful.

Wexler: I remember one of the things that you said in our workshop at Breadloaf was that the day your piece is critiqued is not necessarily the day you'll learn the most about writing. That made me rethink workshops and made me less bored on the nights when I wasn't getting critiqued.

Hampl: On the day your work is "up" you're not hearing much. A lot of nerves and feelings seething around. The days when others are being discussed are your opportunities to practice objectivity. If you can learn to look at someone else's text and think your way through it fully and imaginatively-see its possibilities as well as what's on the page-you have a better chance to bring that skill to bear on your own work. But you have to learn the skill somewhere.

Wexler: One of the things that comes up in autobiographical writing workshops that may not come up in other workshops is that students are writing about very personal-often tragic or embarrassing-experiences. What do you do when things get too personal or when the actual subject becomes more discussed than the writing?

Hampl: In my experience, students tend to be quite self-correcting on this issue. Also, by the time a student has really decided to write about something, the commitment seems to bring a measure of dignity to the enterprise. Oddly enough, most of the memoirists I work with tend to be quite humble. Very far from being narcissists. And a lot of my workshops are mixed genre courses.

Wexler: Are the students in poetry and fiction able to help the students writing memoir, and vice-versa?

Hampl: They all say at first that they don't know much about the other genres. And then over time they often give the freshest, most useful remarks. They surprise themselves.

Wexler: What are you currently working on?

Hampl: I'm finishing I Could Tell You Stories, a collection of essays on memory and imagination. Some of them are little memoirs themselves, some of them are literary essays-or maybe homages in a couple of cases. I'm also writing fiction, maybe proving the point that there's no job security in being a memoirist. You have to move on.


Laura Wexler has published pieces in Double Take, Utne Reader, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other newspapers and magazines. She is currently Assistant Editor of Georgia magazine at the University of Georgia in Athens.

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