I’ve recently chosen a new story for my classes to read: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel. This is a beautiful story about a young woman who visits her best friend who is dying from Leukemia. I once met Hempel, and she told me that that story was “very difficult to write.” Being one who writes close to the bone (close to personal experience) myself, I decided to do some research about her and about the story.
Now, I know that in the past, your teachers have probably assigned you book reports and asked you to present information about the writer’s life to the class. This felt detached and silly–what did his past have to do with his poems, and should the writer’s personal life even be known?
I’ve found that I do best when reading the work first, several times, taking it in for what it is. Frankly, I’m not too concerned with the writer’s past, but if I happen to come across information about it, I’ll read it, and I might find possible connections between the writer’s life and his or her work.
What I’m more interested in, though, is critics’ ideas about the story: what do they see as the themes and why? What ideas can they bring to the table that I haven’t considered myself?
I’m also interested in researching a story’s details for the possibility of greater meaning. For example, in Hempel’s story, the narrator tells her friend a lot of trivia. One thing she tells her friend is that corrective fluid was invented by Bob Dylan’s mother. A quick Wikipedia search told me that this was not correct, but that the first corrective fluid, an early Liquid Paper, was invented by Bette Nesmith Graham in 1951. She was the mother of Michael Nesmith, from The Monkees.
Now, was this a mistake from a writer who painstakingly goes over every line, or was this intended? This makes me wonder what other trivia might not have been true. Did it even matter if the trivia was true or not, as long as something was being said from one friend to the other?
Doing research can really open a story up, and it doesn’t take long to do. If you’re in a college, hop onto the EBSCOhost search engine (contact your library or check out their webpage for how to do this) or simply run a Google search. You’re bound to find something, and then you have the power to decide if you agree or not.
So, should a story stand alone?