Amy Hempel: “One of the most helpful things I did was hang out with stand-up comics”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of short-story writer Amy Hempel, born in 1951 in Chicago. She graduated from high school when she was 15 and drove out to San Francisco. She said, “Such terrible things were happening in this beautiful place” — she was in San Francisco during the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, a bomb in the Iranian consulate, Jim Jones’ cult, and serial murders. And then her mother committed suicide, she got in two bad accidents (one on a motorcycle and one in a car), and her best friend died of leukemia. She decided to get hold of her life and settle down somewhere.

She was a good writer, and she had studied journalism, so she went to New York. She took a fiction-writing course with Gordon Lish, and on the first day of class he made them all write down their very worst secret, the secret they would never get over. Hempel wrote about failing her best friend while she was dying. And that exercise turned into her first short story, “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” Her latest collection is Sing to It: New Stories (2019).

Hempel said: “It turned out that one of the most helpful things I did without knowing it would be helpful later was hang out with stand-up comics in San Francisco. I went to their shows night after night after night. I watched them performing, working through the same material. I saw some nights it killed and other nights it bombed. All that time I was observing nuance, inflection, timing, how the slightest difference mattered. How the littlest leaning on a word — or leaning away from it — would get the laugh, and this lesson was so valuable. And the improv work — they called it ‘being human on purpose,’ this falling back on the language in your mouth — was hugely important. Just listening to what you’re saying.

I learned this when my late friend Morgan Upton, an actor, took me to a Steve Martin show at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Back in the green room, Steve Martin was sick, but preparing to do his show anyway. I told him I admired that, I said I couldn’t go out there and make people laugh if I were sick. And he said, Don’t be silly — you couldn’t do it if you were well. A brilliant reply on any number of levels.”

Hempel said: “It comes back to the question, whom are you writing for? Who are the readers you want? Who are the people you want to engage with the things that matter most to you? And for me, it’s people who don’t need it all spelled out because they know it, they understand it. That’s why there’s so much I can’t read because I get so exasperated. Someone starts describing the character boarding the plane and pulling the seat back. And I just want to say, Babe, I have been downtown. I have been up in a plane. Give me some credit.”

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