Patricia Hampl on what makes a memoirist

“My fundamental instinct remains a sense of wonder, a luminous amazement at existence”

McKINLEY: 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.

McKINLEY: 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 some-thing of a hide-and-seek game, not a tragedy.


ABOUT Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl is the author of several award-winning essay collections, memoirs, and books of poetry, including A Romantic Education, The Florist’s Daughter, I Could Tell You Stories, and Resort and Other Poems. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Granta,the American Scholar, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series. She is Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where she teaches in the MFA program of the Department of English.

About the Author

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Heidi McKinley

Heidi McKinley is an MFA nonfiction candidate at the University of New Orleans. She won the 2017 Samuel Mockbee Award for nonfiction for her piece “Grandma Says.” Her work was a finalist for Cutthroat’s 2017 Barry Lopez Nonfiction Award and has appeared or is forthcoming in the McNeese Review, The Hopper, and elsewhere.

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