Amy Hempel on Learning Writing

Amy Hempel

Being an amusing kid

Amy Hempel has been creating short stories for more than twenty years. In an interview, she talked about some of her origins and personality as a writer.

[The following is from the article “Her short stories have a long finish” by Hillel Italie, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007.]

“The way I got my mother’s attention when I was a kid was by putting words together in an interesting way, or a funny way — what she found amusing,” Hempel says. “Since that [her attention] was what I wanted more than anything, and as a kid was very hard to get, that’s what I did.”


Hempel didn’t plan to be an author growing up, but instead studied journalism and premed “until I hit chemistry.”

Life drove her to the page. When Hempel turned 19, her mother killed herself and within a year her mother’s sister did the same. In her 20s, Hempel was in two bad auto accidents, later writing in the story “The Harvest” that she “moved through days like a severed head that finishes a sentence.”

Drive, will, character

Her luck changed after she moved to New York and sought out the Columbia University writing workshop taught by Gordon Lish, a former editor at Esquire and Alfred A. Knopf known for mentoring such authors as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. For Hempel, it was if she were staggering up the steps of a church.

“She was shy and she was nervous and she blushed a great deal,” Lish recalls. “She was desperate, desperate in every respect a human being could be — desperate, grappling, struggling, striving to get a hold on her experience.”

Lish thinks writers don’t succeed because of talent, but because of will: You become a great writer by wanting to be one. Drive, will, character, “all of which Amy has,” Lish says.

Hempel remembers how hard it was at the beginning, how she wondered if she should even be writing.

Something is struck just right

“And then I think of a sentence I really like,” she says, “that I’m proud of having worked really hard on.

“Emily Dickinson once said that when a poem works, it felt like the top of her head was coming off. My own personal way…My way of knowing the sentence just really lands is if I get a little bit teary. Not that it’s sad, but something is struck just right. And it can be funny and I get teary.”

See list of Amy Hempel books.

Related Talent Development Resources pages:
early life
introversion / shyness
Intensity – sensitivity
Highly Sensitive blog
healing & art


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