Weekly Prompt: In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried
Every post in this series will include a weekly reading and a list of prompts in response to that reading. Some of them will be focused on craft; some will ask you to evaluate content.
This idea was born from an MFA course I took that focused almost entirely on emulating the style of other writers and then reimagining that first draft into something that was our own but still had echoes of the original. It's also inspired by the heightened sociopolitical reality so many of us come face to face with each day.
Writing can be for pleasure; it can be cathartic; it can be used as a tool; it can preserve memory; it can foster connection. Whatever it may be, I hope this series helps you find what you're looking for out of your practice.
Week of October 26
Reading: "In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel
Craft element to note: Paralleling emotional experience. Death is extremely difficult to write about. It's simultaneously so universal and so personal. The lyrical can sound too harmonious, the extensive too tumultuous. Here, Hempel finds a way to manage both at once by leaning into the discord of death instead of trying to smooth it over. She does this by not focusing on the death itself (it's completely skipped over) but on scenes from before and after the narrator's visit to the hospital to see her dying best friend.
When humans grieve, they tend to do so in snapshots and remember the strangest moments together. These snapshot oddities are what Hempel captures when the narrator is visiting her best friend: conversational fluff, a visit to the beach alone, interactions with the doctors. The piece is almost completely void of any emotional explanation, but that works in the story's favor. How does a writer even begin to describe the concoction of emotion the narrator is feeling? A mix of grief, guilt, relief, fear. Instead, Hempel relies on the reader's own experience of tragedy to translate the somewhat chaotic form into what it is: a character trying to make sense of an almost insurmountable loss. When the reader is able to make that connection, it feels far more authentic than description.
- My favorite line in this story is, "Someone dies there every time the sheets are changed" (pg. 6). It's simple and surprising, and that brand of honesty always lands an emotional blow. Think of various tragedies from the life, the world, your own writing. Instead of focusing on the tragedy itself, focus on the signifiers of it. What tells you something is wrong? What's an inconspicuous change that follows?
- Throughout the piece, Hempel uses the imagery of a mask as an emotional signifier, starting with the title. Al Jolson was a performer famous for his use of blackface, a vaudeville tactic used in over-dramatization (now widely terminated because it's racist). When we first meet the best friend, we see how uncomfortable the narrator is compared to her friend's easy use of her mask. The doctors, too, wear masks. The emotional turning point of the story, when the narrator leaves instead of staying the night, the friend rips her mask off and storms out. The mask is a masking of fear, anger, and grief—but those emotions cannot stay hidden forever. Write a scene that centers on grief (a funeral, an accident, a hospital visit, a breakup, etc.) and notice what items come up. Choose one to act as a signifier.
- Part of the emotional power in this piece comes from the feeling that it isn't quite finished, that the narrator hasn't worked through her grief. This is especially evident at the end, when she's still grappling with the fact that she left and states, "It is just possible I will say I stayed the night. And who is there that can say that I did not?" In first person, write about a traumatic moment from the vantage point of only a week or two later—far enough removed that your narrator is not longer reeling from grief but is going through residual emotions, such as guilt.
- Choose a tragic and/or traumatic event, real or fictional, and bullet point it out just enough to understand what happens. Now, write the scene directly before and directly following the event itself, with the understanding that the event itself won't happen on the page.
- One of the key characteristics of our narrator is her obsession with trivia, which she uses to distract her best friend from her impending death. At the end, we circle back to a piece of information we got at the beginning—the chimp learning sign language—and understand why the narrator didn't want to share the full story with her friend. Coming full circle in any piece of writing is really effective and helps to complete the work. Think of a defining characteristic for your narrator. How can it be used to both open a relationship and close it?