Honesty that Dismantles Your Own Sense of Self

Do you remember the first class?

HEMPEL

Vividly. The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.

-Amy Hempel, from The Art of Fiction No. 176, The Paris Review (Read it online HERE)

This is Amy Hempel describing her first class with her teacher, and a famous author and editor, Gordon Lish.

As I’ve devoted much of the last year to reading (so-called) minimalist authors, Amy Hempel has not only risen near the top of that list, but near the top of my list in general. The fact that she now teaches at an SEC school doesn’t hurt either.

Her short stories are worth the purchase price for the first lines alone. The first line of Tom-Rock through the Eels is one of my favorite sentences: “Are you here for all the things that I don’t have?” The Harvest beings with, “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” The story she’s referencing in the interview above,  In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried, has an equally good first line: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” I recommend her collected stories as highly as I recommend anything.

I want that to be the line in my comments section instead of ‘Your Thoughts:’ Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.

The disciples of Gordon Lish, and his literary descendants, use the trauma of their lives to fuel their stories. They do not necessarily tell you about their own lives explicitly, but they will hide their lives within stories. Tom Spanbauer refers to this as “dangerous writing.”

Let me get back to the quote from her Paris Review interview (there are a ton of great interviews at that site by the way). Imagine walking into a classroom/workshop with a teacher you greatly respect. Now imagine that that teacher required that you divulge your deepest darkest secret. You can read about Amy Hempel’s in In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried.

Here’s the deal as a Christian. What we do is this: we try not to tell lies. As long as we’re not fibbing we convince ourselves that we’re honest. But honesty may well involve much more than how we speak. It has to involve how we deal with ourselves.

Personally, I am so prone to bury all of my hurts, fears, and anxieties and pretend that they don’t exist. If they start creeping up I tell them to go away.

One of my good friends is going on this journey through minimalist literature with me. We each read things. We share what we read. We share how the things we read help. And so we help each other. He preached a sermon recently on 2 Cor. 1:3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

He actually referenced the above Amy Hempel quote in the sermon as evidence of the fact that some writers solicit more honesty of students than the church does of its disciples. The point of the sermon was that if we’re not honest about our hurts, then God cannot bring comfort. And it is through the comfort that God brings, which we often miss, that we are actually able to minister to others. You can listen to the sermon HERE.

In their own ways, the ‘minimalists’ use their hurts in their writing both for catharsis and to help others.

Here’s the thing for Christians, or at least for me: Are writers at writing workshops more honest than Christians? I tend to bury my pain and anxiety. I stick my fingers in my ears and say la la la really loud and hope that they’ll go away.

We are scared of digging up things that will ‘dismantle our sense of self,’ that will expose us, make us vulnerable. We think that ‘thou shalt not lie’ simply means that we don’t tell fibs. We never consider that we ought to be honest with ourselves.

We bury old hurts, they become scars, if you scratch them they start to bleed. We don’t want that. We want them to stay buried. Who would risk the danger of dismantling our sense of self?

The thing is, since we’re so content to bury it all as if it never happened, we never leave opportunity for God to truly heal the wound. Like a man with a gash that needs stitches, and he bandages it and refuses to see the doctor. We won’t dismantle our sense of self, and so we never really figure out who we can be. We never open up the possibility of the God of all comfort ministering to us so that we can minister to others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

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