Issue #67, Starting Over
An interview with Patricia Hampl
Patricia Hampl is a daydreamer. “I waste my life. I want to. It’s the thing to do with a life,” is how she put it in The Florist's Daughter (2007). The New York Review of Books has described her as “a memoirist almost completely devoid of ego.” Instead of self, Hampl lauds the mystery of being. “Observing it all,” she declared in Virgin Time (1992), “noting it, seeing it—this was the real point not only of literature but of life itself.”
Hampl, who received an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor in the MFA English program at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, has authored two books of poetry and six prose works. When she started writing memoir, the genre was very different. Save for notable exceptions like Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Conroy, only the famous or incredibly odd found an audience. Hampl’s A Romantic Education (1981) and other works, especially Virgin Time and I Could Tell You Stories (1999)—all New York Times notable books of the year—contributed to breathing fresh air into the now-popular genre.
Hampl is sometimes labeled a “Catholic writer,” and religion is visible in much of her work, but it is like the lead in a stained-glass window, providing only the soldered framework. Her thoughtful reflections are the colored glass. Virgin Time—still Hampl’s best-known work—tells the story of a pilgrimage to Assisi, where she focuses on practice (there is a lot of walking and gardening) and shows there is something to be said for that which is beyond language. She writes, “Like poetry, monastic life seizes upon daily life and renders it as symbol.” One cannot “tame the metaphors” of life, she says; instead, Hampl tries to “get in there with them,” spending much of her time gardening with Brother Thomas, “a man of few words.” While Hampl left the church long before her pilgrimage, her time in Assisi redefines how she once perceived it. She writes, “[The church] ceased to be the imprisoning cell of catechized thought and repressive habit, with its egregious insults to common sense. It became, simply, my most intimate past. It returned to its initial state, it became poetry.”
For Hampl, practice is what matters. Her work is not about answers; it is about action—the lifted spirit after a long walk around the lake need not be named “God” or “biology” to be real. In her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, which Publisher’s Weekly said “captures [the] art of daydream with astonishing simplicity and clarity,” Hampl describes herself as a “contemporary believer” or “one whose respect for the range of beliefs (and disbeliefs) is so strong that ‘proofs’ seem childish. Only the living, incontrovertible experience itself, mystical and unbidden and therefore unspeakable, will do.” Hampl refers to this ineffable sense of being as “It.” Perhaps this is an iteration of the personal I, though Hampl’s work is far from solipsistic. Alternatively, maybe she conjures the mysterious I am that I am of the Bible, the disembodied voice implying existence itself.
Toward the end of her new book, Hampl makes a realization about a favorite James Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” The poem’s narrator lounges all day and, startlingly, claims a “wasted life.” Perhaps, Hampl says, Wright did not mean that his day spent idly noticing the details of the farm was a waste, but instead, that all days not doing this were.
I interviewed Patricia Hampl last winter. Our conversation ranged from her new book to her inspirations and writing process and made it clear that although Hampl may be a daydreamer, she definitely hasn’t wasted any time.
CNF: What inspired your new book, The Art of the Wasted Day?
HAMPL: Now that I’ve finished the book (if any book is ever finished—I keep thinking of things I want to change, add, subtract), I see I’ve been writing on the margins of the subject of daydream and leisure from the start of my writing life. The emptiness of the mind that is the core of the imagination has always felt like home. It’s possible the increasing rush and crush of life (especially since the internet made us all virtual, connected, and jabbering and multi-tasking our lives away) had something to do with giving the book focus.
CNF: Though rooted in St. Paul, you write about exploring the larger world. How important is travel to you and to your writing? Where are some of your favorite places?
HAMPL: Memoir can’t rely on plot as a novel does, yet it has to move over some kind of narrative high wire. Our most ancient metaphor is “Life is a journey,” and I think that provides memoir (and other first-person nonfiction) a natural form. So, travel has been—for me and most (not all) of the books I’ve written—the narrative spine. But beyond that, some of my subjects have required travel. My first memoir, A Romantic Education, is a Cold War book, and going “behind the Iron Curtain” to Prague was both an adventure and a revelation. Prague was not then (in the 1970s) the tourist destination it has since become.
CNF: What are some of your literary touchstones? And what are some non-literary things that inspire your writing?
HAMPL: I started with poetry, and the lyric voice remains clarion for me. This early relationship with poetry started up during the Vietnam War when poets—Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, James Wright (my particular favorite—and a beautiful prose writer too), and many others—were giving public readings of highly lyric poetry but in the spirit of protest against the war. Poetry mattered. To me it still does. And then I was devoted to [F.] Scott Fitzgerald—a St. Paul boy who wrote the great lyrical novel of American empire. I remain devoted, perhaps even more, to his essays (he opened the personal essay door with “The Crack-Up” pieces in 1936) and Tender Is the Night, a novel I love even more than Gatsby. A lot of Eastern European writers have been important to me—Czeslaw Milosz, Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera (even though I often am exasperated by him), of course the essays of Václav Havel. And the great nineteenth-century novelists—Charlotte Brontë for the inner turmoil of a life and George Eliot for the sweep of society, and those seeming opposites, Austen and Thackeray, both of them geniuses of social satire. I was deeply affected by the stories and even more by the journals and letters of Katherine Mansfield as a young writer. All these early passions made a deep imprint.
CNF: You’ve said that “memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story.” Which memoirists’ minds do you find the most interesting?
HAMPL: I suppose I veer toward memoirists who have an essay mind—that is, writers who aren’t just trying to purvey how-I-got-to-be-me. Rather, I’m interested in writers who come out of the first essay tradition—Montaigne, who certainly isn’t interested in peeling the onion of himself. He pursues the mystery of consciousness, of what his mind makes of the world (not of himself). This, I love. I think a great memoirist like Nadezhda Mandelstam, who is writing about her life in her times (rather than about her psychology), is far more riveting than some of the self-obsessed memoirists of our time.
CNF: Steven Harvey wrote in The Art of Self that “the urge to shape begins in loss.” How do you interpret this idea, and in what ways has loss prompted your writing?
HAMPL: I don’t know if I could quite sign on for that—though my current book is partly an elegy for my husband, who died two years ago. I think my fundamental instinct, the thing that brought me to writing as a child and beyond, was and remains a sense of wonder, a luminous amazement at existence. Loss is a big deal—no question. But it is not, at least for me, the core of the artistic impulse. Life is evanescent, and a child’s first consciousness is that when Mother leaves the room she may be gone forever, but hey—she (usually!) comes back. So, there’s magic in loss, and it’s something of a hide-and-seek game, not a tragedy.
CNF: As the theme of this issue is “Starting Over,” what would you consider to be some major turning points in your life or in your writing where you felt you were beginning again?
HAMPL: Plenty of turning points in a life at my point! Heartbreak of various kinds—definitely. I just read (in an obituary, appropriately) something Saul Bellow said to a woman who had lost faith in her writing and had sunk into a depression. It’s the best thing for pulling up your socks: “As for writing (your writing!), I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.” I’ll sign on the dotted line of that statement.
CNF: You often explore faith in your writing, and the idea of praying without ceasing. Do you consider writing to be an avenue to the contemplative life, a means of payer? And is writing for you a vocation (or an avocation)?
HAMPL: No, I don’t experience writing as prayer. (I think Kafka did.) But I like your typo: a means of payer. I am paying for something when I write—for the abundance of life, I guess. Writing is a vocation for any real writer. But I don’t like saying that—sounds heavy.
Memory and perception come together, often, to make imagination. They do not make invention.
CNF: There is a question left unanswered in Virgin Time: “Do you write from life or from imagination?” Perhaps the answer is elusive or obvious, but could you talk more about the distinction between memory and imagination?
HAMPL: Memory is perhaps our most enduring relationship with the springs of the imagination. It may be the imagination, in a very real way. It’s an unfortunate miscue that memoir and the personal essay are called “nonfiction.” This puts them under the same umbrella as the daily newspaper, and people get all heated about whether you “allow” yourself to “make things up” or if you “tell the truth.” These questions make it almost impossible to consider the mind at work on its experience, both inner and outer. If I say a tall woman entered the room in a red dress, am I being more “factual” than if I write a statuesque beauty swanned into the room in a scarlet gown? Memory and perception come together, often, to make imagination. They do not make invention.
CNF: “She wished her own life to be absorbed by a vast plot,” you say of Edith Stein in I Could Tell You Stories. It seems that story and plot are necessary to giving human life meaning. Do you think it is possible to be conscious of the plot and to choose it? Or do you think it is already there to be found? (Like a mathematical equation, is it something created or discovered?)
HAMPL: What a great question! Deserves an essay in itself. Edith Stein is another of those memoirists who saw herself as a figure in a vast pattern—she wrote her memoir in the touchingly hopeful (if hopeless) attempt to place her life in opposition to the racial hatred of the Nazis. So the “vast plot” was history itself. Something of this needs to be at the heart of all great memoirs. Not a search for the self, but a search for the world and an attempt to articulate it in time. Memoir is a subset of history, I suppose.
CNF: Some of your books, such as Virgin Time and I Could Tell You Stories, are framed with a journey, in the course of which you, the narrator, reach discoveries about yourself and the world. How do you relate writing to personal growth? Could one exist without the other, or are they inseparable?
HAMPL: I don’t think of personal growth when I’m working on a book. Actually, I’m not sure it’s a term I think of at all. I believe in work and keeping at it. If I were focused on my own personal growth I would be taking my eye off the ball.
CNF: In Blue Arabesque you say, “This created, not rendered, world follows (or helps to establish) the tendency of modern art to be about the mind of the practitioner, about perception and consciousness, and not about . . . the stuff,” and yet, in I Could Tell You Stories you talk about how the self must die in order for the writer to become a “mythic tool” or a “weapon.” How, as a memoirist and artist, do you reconcile these ideas?
HAMPL: I don’t remember using that weaponized language! Seems alarming. I do remember speaking of the self as an instrument, the tool of discovery and of search.
CNF: Sometimes in your writing you revisit the past, as in The Florist’s Daughter; sometimes your writing carries you forward to the future and the unknown, as in Virgin Time; often, these “time zones” are interweaved throughout the work. Can you talk a little about how the writing process is different for you (in terms of note taking, research, etc.) when writing about the past, the present, or the future?
HAMPL: The beginning, middle, and destination of a book is entirely different from the chronology of a life (or can be). In The Florist’s Daughter, not having a travelogue as the spine of the book (my parents stayed in St. Paul!), I reversed field for the form and located the entire story of being a daughter on the single night of my mother’s death. This meant that the book went backward in time, and forward into the “now” of her dying, and then past her death, to a recent memory of being with her toward the end, a moment when her drifting mind gets the last word, the last image of the book. The time zone shifts a lot, but the reader knows where she is at every step.
CNF: What are some concrete aspects of your writing practice? Do you have a strict routine?
HAMPL: Different stages of a book (if we’re talking about writing a book, not writing in general) require different moves. Sometimes I’m reading a lot and taking notes. Sometimes, especially when the research part is mostly done (is it ever done?), I’m full speed ahead and live in the book. I know that’s happening when I move my operations from my desk to the dining room table and live there.
CNF: Real-life “stories” don’t end, so how do you select an end point?
HAMPL: As with a lyric poem, an image usually appears somewhere in the middle, or maybe two-thirds of the way through the book, and you know—ah, that’s what I’m swimming toward. You don’t quite know how you’ll get there, but that image is a destination with metaphor torque.
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