Bear River Writers Conference

I'm giddy with excitement. This week I sent in my registration for the Bear River Writers' Conference. Normally, I spend a week during the summer at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival but I had mixed feelngs about returning this year. I'm not sure how much I got out of last year's workshop, although the real indulgence is a week spent focused on writing, reading and the discussion thereof. Last year, when I was taking a fiction course in U-M's grad school, our esteemed instructor -- and accomplished author -- Nick Delbanco, pulled me aside and mentioned the Bear River Writers Conference. He thought I might be interested in it because this year's guest is...Amy Hempel. My jaw dropped. I can't really think of another writer who had such a direct and powerful effect on my desire and decision to become a writer.

When I read Amy Hempel's short story, "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" in high school, it was what made me want to be a writer. Up until that point, I knew I loved to write, but I wasn't making an emotional connection to the male-dominated texts we'd been reading for years -- Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Conrad. That's not to say that I didn't appreciate their work, just that it didn't speak to me on the level that moved me to say, "I want to do that." Amy Hempel did.

During the short story revival of the eighties, Amy Hempel was one of the many young female writers who emerged to well-deserved critical praise. Along with writers like Lorrie Moore and Mona Simpson, she redefined the short story and blazed a path for writers of all ilk, but especially young women. Now "In The Cemetery" has been anthologized to death but still stands, I think, as one of the great short stories of all time -- beautiful, spare, poignant and funny. If you have dealt with loss or grief or, hell, even just thought about it, it will make you laugh and weep and wonder how on earth someone can do all those things without delving into melodrama, without taking it over the top. In other words, if you haven't read it, do.

All of that is my long-winded way of trying to explain why I'm giddy to be spending a week at Bear River in early summer in lieu of going to Iowa this year. The conference takes place in Northern Michigan -- a really beautiful part of the world -- at Camp Michigania, the U-M alumni camp. And while Hempel is not teaching an actual workshop, I'm hoping I can bribe Nick Delbanco to broker a very brief introduction so that I may drool all over her and perhaps have her sign the gorgeous hardcover anthology of her collected stories, which Chris bought me last year.

The fiction workshop leaders for the week are Delbanco and Elizabeth Kostova, the local writer who sky-rocketed to fame and best-seller status with her vampire tale, The Historian. So while I'm not really into fantasy writing, I signed up for Kostova's workshop as my first choice and Delbanco as my second, because I figure the latter has probably seen enough of me and I don't want him to think I'm stalking him. Plus, a different perspective is always good.

Now, how long until May 29?