University of Minnesota
Department of English

Department of English

Amy Shearn

Your Hypothetical Pen Pal

MFA alumna Amy Shearn blogs about the books she's reading—but not the books shes writing

Amy Shearn photo

After Amy Shearn (MFA 2005) graduated from the Creative Writing Program, she moved to New York and began work on a novel. In early 2006, she also started a blog about books—in part because she missed graduate school and “those lengthy, winding conversations you have about reading and writing.” Shaye Areheart/Random House publishes the novel How Far Is the Ocean From Here? in August 2008. The lively, addictive blog—Moonlight Ambulette—is available anytime at Shearn generously answered via email our driving questions about blogging. 

One of the things that makes Moonlight Ambulette stand out among book blogs is that you write about books as a writer—it's like those "Reading as Writers" classes in the MFA program.

I think it’s exactly like a “Reading as Writers” course. . . . One of my favorite books is Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature—it actually teaches you how to read as a writer, picking apart scenes and stories with the precision of a scientist and the excitement of an explorer. Of course, it’s both a blessing and a curse, that way of reading. Once it kicks in, you never experience books quite the same way.

In a cyberspace crammed with blogs, many of which are under-read, what keeps you going? (I think for example of the blog’s description of the despair you felt walking away from the Associated Writer’s Program convention last January. . . .) What have you experienced as a blogger that you didn't expect?

I’ve always been vaguely embarrassed about keeping a blog. It just sounds so self-indulgent and MySpace-y. There are so many excellent book blogs, many much more comprehensive and thoughtful than mine. It’s also true that I got a bit of AWP madness, feeling like there were so many writers, so many people trying to be writers, that it was a little wearying. So many people in this country don’t care about literature or art or creativity. The more who do, the better. It’s just overwhelming to have them all in the same room! So much . . . wanting. It’s like being in a singles bar.

In the end, I keep doing it because every time I stop posting for a while I come across something that makes me think, Oh, I want to write about this on my blog. I’ll read a passage in a book and like something about it and not know quite what that something was until I’ve tried to write a blog entry about it—it makes me slow down and articulate my thoughts in way I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise.

I know it’s silly to write a blog and expect no one to read it or take it seriously, but I am always both flattered and alarmed whenever someone does. But maybe what’s surprised me most about writing a blog has been the really lovely ways in which it’s connected me with other people. On one hand, several of my MFA classmates are now bloggers—Kevin Fenton’s wonderful Unprintable Version really inspired me to start mine, and I love Kate Hopper’s Mother Words and Amanda Fields’ When in Cairo—and so we’ve kept in touch with each other, in a sense continuing certain conversations that were started in grad school. On the other hand, I’ve met some wonderful new people through my blog. One of my favorite people in New York City, who I now count as a close friend, I met after reading her blog Try Harder, and I’ve gotten to know fascinating, bright writers like Rhian Ellis and J. Robert Lennon through their blogs. It’s an odd way to get to know a person, but I love how it’s worked out.

It's fun, for this Midwestern reader at least, to read the blog and get a close-up view of living in New York and partaking of the cultural opportunities therein. Yet your blog is not focused on "you” or even on what you’re writing: it's focused on what you are seeing/hearing/reading. It’s reminiscent of one side of the correspondence between two 19th century writers: how do you envision the other side of that correspondence?

I keep a private, longhand journal for the really personal, emotional, and, I’m sure, boring-and-irrelevant-to-anyone-but-me stuff. My blog is a way for me to shut out those other daily-life distractions and organize my thoughts. In a way I’m taking notes for these imaginary literary essays I keep thinking I’ll write some day.

Like right now, I’m reading this vast, 12-volume, now-out-of-print Modernist novel called Backwater, and I think it will take me a long time to get through the whole thing, so I want to take note of my experiences reading it. I don’t think anyone else (in the whole world, maybe!) is reading this book right now, and I really don’t know if my blog readers care at all, but it’s helpful for me.

Then again, it can be really satisfying and interesting to write about a book or short story that other people are reading, and engage in blog-conversations-of-sorts about it. I was reading Roberto Bolano’s book The Savage Detectives last summer, when it seemed like everyone and their mother was just salivating over it. I loved the first part, but then I got really bogged down, bored, and impatient with the second section. I literally looked the book up to make sure this was the one everyone was so in love with! I wrote about this on my blog, and a reader—an old MFA classmate, actually!—posted a long, thoughtful, wise comment (exactly how he used to speak in class, it was amazing) about why he liked the book, what that second section was all about, and what, maybe, I was missing. How satisfying is that? It was a singularly wonderful experience. It didn’t make me like the book any more, but it did engage my mind in a more active way, make me think a little harder.

I love that you said the blog reminds you of a 19th century correspondence. I often feel like I’m writing letters to some hypothetical pen pal. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing to a potential reader; I get very bossy about books I love, and I want everyone to read them. It often seems to me that there are smart people who want to read but just can’t find the good books—because sometimes they’re hard to find, you know? The most interesting stuff isn’t always on that first table at Barnes & Noble. The first review I ever wrote was of Noria Jablonski’s startling and beautifully written collection of short stories, Human Oddities. I found it in a bookstore, devoured it, and then was shocked and a little annoyed that it hadn’t gotten much press. So I wrote a review and sent it to Rain Taxi. I wish I could do more, like whisper into Oprah’s ear or something, but I figure a small gesture is better than nothing at all.

Then again, sometimes it is more of a correspondence with the books themselves. I often think of my fiction writing in that way. A book contains an image or idea or line that speaks to you and you want to speak back, somehow.

At AWP I heard someone quote Joyce Carol Oates as describing blogs as “kindred spirits reaching for one another in the dark.” I thought that was pretty excellent.

At one point in the blog you mention Pandora. When a computer program can generate lists of recommended titles/artists, what need is there for gatekeepers, critics or bloggers?

Pandora—I was briefly really fascinated by the gimmick of it. I found that it kept serving me up music I hated; it had no feel, unsurprisingly, for nuance. Listen, just because I like Cat Power doesn’t mean I like Sheryl Crow! But Pandora goes, “Oh, lady singing and playing guitar, these two are analogous.” Same with Amazon. It’s like taking reading suggestions from that coworker who barely knows you at all but declares out of nowhere, “Oh, you would love this.” Usually it’s something so wrong you’re sort of mortified, wondering if that is really what people think of you.

So, yes, of course there’s still a place for reviewers and blogs, though there is that discussion that’s been brewing for a while about whether blogs are undermining print reviews, which truthfully strikes me as being a little silly—as if one could cancel out the other. I find many print book reviews dissatisfying—I just don’t love that trend of the “book report”-style review that basically describes the plot. I think of Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays, which contain in their blunt and brilliant summations some of the best and most interesting criticism I’ve ever read. If that kind of criticism has been eclipsed by plot-retelling book reviews, I don’t think bloggers can be blamed.

Book blogs often aren’t going to be as polished as a published book review, but blogs are a great place to hear about books that aren’t going to be reviewed in the New York Times. I also value the way, in a lot of the blogs I read, you get the readers’ reaction while they’re reading a book and afterwards.

More that anything, I find the whole “gatekeeper” debate a little mystifying. What gate? What is being kept in or kept out? Is there really any value in telling certain people their opinions don’t count? The whole issue has at its heart, I believe, an anxiety about the “literary canon,” which, sorry, is a stronghold that’s been breached since the Sixties, or maybe the Twenties, or really, since the idea was invented. It’s not like because of blogs people are going to suddenly start reading the “wrong” things.

As you have noted, publishers are not hot on short stories because they don't sell (or . . . they don't sell because publishers don't like them). And yet we seem to be in the midst of a short story renaissance. As a short story writer and reader, what's your take on the form's future?

It seems so weird to me. Everyone I know likes reading short stories. Since allegedly we all have shorter attention spans now, shouldn’t short stories be selling more? MFA students spend most of their time perfecting their short stories; websites publish tons of short stories—usually, the shorter the better; there are bajillions of literary magazines that publish them. Maybe I’m just in deep, deep denial, but I have to believe that any predictions of the short story’s decline, or fiction’s decline, or the publishing industry’s decline, have to be tinged with hysteria and that endemic and eternal “everything used to be better” attitude that people have about, honestly, everything. Short stories have gotten more and less popular at different times throughout their existence. They were hot in the Eighties, remember? Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver. I think they’ll come back. Who would have thought leggings would come back?! Seriously, they make no sense, and yet here they are, back in action.

Did a particular teacher facilitate your learning here at the University of Minnesota?

Charlie Baxter’s classes felt, honestly, like a blessing—he is a truly gifted teacher, dispensing some of the most wise, practical and helpful writing (and teaching) advice I’ve ever encountered. He was also an invaluable help as my thesis advisor. Maria Fitzgerald was my other thesis advisor. With incredible patience and unrelenting honesty, Maria helped me work and rework this novel I was trying to write, forcing me to think hard about structure, which was an especial challenge to me. That novel ended up not exactly working as I wanted it to, but the drills she ran me through taught me how to write a novel, and I really believe made it possible for me to then write How Far Is the Ocean From Here. I also loved this incredibly fun seminar I took with Steve Polansky, who must be one of the most entertaining people in the world. He always gave me a really hard time, which of course I benefited from in the long run.

I feel so lucky to have gone through the MFA program at the U. I was lucky to have really smart, unpretentious, earnest and thoughtful classmates, too, which I think is (sadly) maybe unusual from a writing MFA program! I have to admit I came into the program sort of pre-disillusioned with grad school but wanting to avoid the world for a while, and it ended up being way more helpful and important to my writing and reading than I could have imagined. I love that they make you take non-writing classes, too—I took an undergraduate painting class that really jumpstarted me creatively in a way I’m still feeling today.

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