“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Christine Hale, novelist and memoirist, has collected experiences and adventures as if she knew she would one day write a memoir. Difficult family relationships—check. Struggling to find her niche—check. Divorce and single parenthood, times of doubt, epiphanies and spiritual awakening—check.
This the stuff of which memoirs can be made. Yet just living through tough times does not a memoirist make. Hale says that to write a good memoir, one “needs to be introspective or at a time in their life when they can look back with the benefit of hindsight and some dispassion,” to take lessons learned from difficulties and forge them into an experience readers can relate to and empathize with.
She says, “It took a long time to get to the place where I could bring a memoir out.” (Hale’s memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations, was published July 1, 2016.) For years, she reflected and analyzed to find a way to get past what she calls the “tremendous blows that have humbled you, given you a reason to plumb the dark night of the soul.”
Hale began her journey in Bristol, Virginia, one of three daughters born into a chaotic household marked by alcoholism, abuse, a mentally handicapped sister, and strained relationships. She left that world for Pfeiffer College, now Pfeiffer University, near Charlotte, North Carolina, where she studied literature. After a semester in a languages Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she sought a different track. “I was smart enough to figure out that if I had an MBA, I could get a job with the salary I wanted.”
Despite her lack of interest in business, Hale entered the MBA program at Chapel Hill as a first step in her goal to get to New York City. After graduation, she moved from her “conservative, Bible Belt roots” to Manhattan (“during the go-go ‘80s”) and worked eighty hours a week, first for Bankers Trust and then for Morgan Stanley as “a baby investment banker.” She recalls how she “spent all night at the copy machine, travelled a lot, and had to carry the bags and pay for everything.”
Hale loved living in the city and immersed herself in “the diversity of the world in one place.” She marveled how she could walk down the sidewalk with her laundry basket. “People went out in sloppy clothes. I could do anything I wanted and nobody cared.” People-watching in Central Park, sunbathing in the Sheep Meadow, discovering bagels with a schmear, enjoying the American Ballet—all of these cultural experiences introduced Hale “to a sophistication I’ve never gotten over. I became a food snob, too, so that works well here.” Home is now Asheville, North Carolina, where she lives with her second husband, writer and editor Kevin McIlvoy.
But a darker aspect of that diverse, sophisticated city shocked Hale. She endured disparaging comments about her southern accent, comments based on assumptions that people who spoke with a drawl or a twang were somehow less intelligent or sophisticated. She consequently worked hard to lose her accent, noting that, while New Yorkers “believed they weren’t racists, they had their own system of racism, which is classism. It was mind-boggling.” That racism, coupled with the “unmitigated misogyny” in the investment banking business, drove Hale from Wall Street after five years.
She already knew what her next career would be. From childhood, she had always loved reading and books, but back then, “It never occurred to me to be a writer because all the writers I read were dead, weren’t they?” Ready to join the world of living writers, she took workshops at the New School and began writing fiction as well as freelance pieces combining writing and business. She wrote for “monthlies, local publications, and the Irvington (New York) School Board.” Now married with children, she was “a full-time mommy and part-time freelancer.”
Hale eventually moved to Tampa, Florida. While her marriage didn’t last, her love of writing did. Teaching at the University of Tampa and now a single mother, Hale pursued an MFA in creative writing in the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville. She considered herself a fiction writer and produced short stories and her first novel, Basil’s Dream.
Although fiction was Hale’s genre of choice, she began writing essays when she had “a life problem” she couldn’t make sense of. “I wrote to myself about myself to try to make sense of myself, which is the territory of memoir.” Yet at that time, she had no intention of writing a memoir. “I was a very private person, so why would I?” She had no plans to use the essays as anything other than a vehicle for self-exploration.
As she puzzled through her personal and professional journeys, Hale turned more and more to essays in an effort to find the narrative threads that wove the tapestry of her life.
Her introspections seemed to center on her relationships with her parents and with her children, and on her spiritual growth.
During Hale’s parents’ last years, she spent time with them, trying to understand them, their relationship, and her relationship with them. In 2000, her mother died. “I found myself writing kind of helplessly about her, our difficult relationship, my parents’ marriage. I had a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) to work on a novel. I got there and life fell away from me, busyness fell away, and all I could write about was why did my mother marry my father when she had such contempt for him? Why could I never please her? Why, why, why? I tried to speculate, just clattering the keys trying to make sense of it all.”
When the residency ended, Hale saved all of her files but “consciously forgot about it” and moved on to other projects. A few years later, her computer was dying; as she pulled off all the files she made a surprising discovery. “I found a hundred pages of mind-dump draft. I knew it was too good to throw away. I thought, I’ll have to work on that, but not now. I put it away.”
Hale’s father lived for four years after his wife’s death. “My mother had been such a dominant personality and got between him and me and obliterated everything,” so with her mother gone, Hale “got to know him in a lot of ways, and quite imperfectly.” This spurred her to write about parents and children, death and dying, but now, as the single mother of small children, she had a more compassionate view of the challenges of parenthood. In the process, she discovered a sense of maturation. “This led to material about my childhood and my parents that was the product of a whole lot of soul-searching.” Some of this material appears in her memoir.
Hale also contemplated the push-and-pull of being a parent to her two children. “We had been a triumvirate for ten years but hadn’t been a Hallmark family. We had been close, allies through hard times, but there had been lots of fireworks, too.” So when her daughter graduated from college and her son was leaving for school, her children came up with an idea to link the three of them “physically and visually. Each of us would get a tattoo. Each would be different, but would have elements of the others incorporated into the design. We would do this in place of Christmas presents.”
Hale wasn’t enamored of the idea, but had learned “with teens, you have their time and love on their terms.” They chose a date for their inking, but when it arrived, her daughter couldn’t make it. Hale thought, “That’s the way things always were for the three of us. When that happened, I knew I would have to write about this. I wrote The Christmas Tattoo and it was published right away.”
She thought she had found the narrative line for “shaping up my material,” for drafting a memoir, but neither she nor the colleagues she shared her work with could see it. An element was missing that tied her past to her present.
Hale had been pursuing spiritual growth and enlightenment through the study and practice of Buddhism. By adopting Buddhist practice, she found the organizing principle in her search for answers and a framework for her memoir. Her journey took her along a spiritual path, charting her coming to terms with mistakes, regrets, and unanswerable questions.
“I took my spiritual practice very seriously. Everything in life that was highly charged was something I would contemplate as part of my Buddhist practice.” She began to view events through the lens of Buddhist principles. She asked four questions: “What does this tell me about myself? What are my motivations? Are they flawed? Am I responding with compassion?”
In addition to applying these questions to her reflections, she also applied them to the essays she wrote. “The art impulse insists in a certain way, and this very personal material was insisting, especially about my parents and children. But I had shut my parents out of my life for a long time, and although I made amends, they had suffered, as had I and my children. I considered very carefully the content I would include. Was I being authentic and spiritually and emotionally fair to others? I worked really hard on that.”
Hale worked for ten years to shape her essays into a memoir. “I read parts of the most personal material at Malaprop's [Asheville’s premier independent book store] or at writers colonies,” seeking feedback and validation. Her audiences appreciated her revelations about “abuse, or alcoholism, or attitudes toward the mentally handicapped child, or guns in the house, or sexual abuse. People have things in their lives they’re terribly ashamed of or mystified by. Those things, or worse things, or more appalling things have happened to them, and it helps others to see they’re not alone, that their worst memories, their worst guilts, mistakes, and regrets are not unheard of in the human race. It was that understanding that made it all right for me to write about my most personal material. It’s helpful to people, which fits with the Buddhist motivation to help people.”
To be most helpful to readers, Hale says the memoirist “needs to write authentically and honestly, and be fair to people you least like as well as to yourself. She must avoid self-aggrandizing or being a victim, and certainly being hateful. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could bring a memoir out.”
Hale has also found a way to help writers who are interested in writing a memoir by teaching the subject in the Great Smokies Writing Program. Her perspective on what memoir is and how to write successfully in that genre combines both the academic and the personal.
The essence of memoir, she says, is not in the facts of the writer’s life (the realm of autobiography), but in the experiences a reader can relate to. A critical component for making a story into a memoir is wrapping a theme around that story. An example from her life is the meaning of guns in Hale’s family.
When she was a child, guns were for “hunting, for practical things. They were all over the house. Later, they became a threat, and even later, a source of fun for my kids with my father. When he was dying, he made a big deal of handing his guns down to his grandson. Brother then shared with sister, and the stories about the guns became a theme of how guns would play out in an Appalachian family.”
Cataloguing the types and numbers of guns in her family would be meaningless to her readers, but highlighting the meaning of guns to her family and the relationships within it resonates with readers whose families may have been glued together by their own cultural symbols.
To develop themes, memoirists rely on the craft of creative writing to generate an experience for their audiences. “Craft begins with the techniques of fiction and poetry,” Hale says. “Using images, looking for action and dialogue, making shaped stories drawn from your life…writing with a lot of detail” all contribute to the generation of themes and consequently the resonance of the memoir. “If you’re looking at memoir material and you can’t see or feel a theme starting to assert, you don’t have a memoir yet,” she adds.
She adds that, just as fiction writers “value concrete sensory detail so the reader can participate in the story, this concept must be applied to memoir, too, to let the reader into the story.” The first draft for most writers is documenting what’s in their heads. “The job is to move it from there,” Hale says. “Take a most emotionally compelling incident, project yourself back into it, use your imagination and body—what did it smell like, what was in your hand, what was your mother wearing—to embody and ground in place the emotion of the event; then the reader is with you. This is not natural for most people, so that’s where craft comes in.”
Not all writers are suited to writing memoir. “Some people just don’t have the story, the talent, or the predilection,” says Hale. “The hardest ones to work with are very young writers. They may have had interesting or crazy or sad lives to that point, but they don’t have perspective. They just hurt.”
Once a writer discovers that her material is suitable for a memoir, she has to choose a structure for the work. The current emphasis is on non-traditional, innovative forms of creative nonfiction; that is, nonlinear storytelling. Nonlinear forms offer a breadth of options, and Hale says that’s where the creativity is today.
One nonlinear form is the collage. Here the writer “braids two alternating narrative threads separated with white space or numbers or dingbats,” says Hale. “Or the writer can alternate irregularly and add additional braids to create a collage. If it’s simple alternations, readers catch on fast and realize they are supposed to compare the braids. It’s fun for some readers, gives them agency. Some readers get frustrated and want the whole story in a linear fashion.”
Hale comments that braided storytelling, while more complex than linear, is becoming popular with young readers, probably because it’s like reading online where the reader links to other sources as she seeks to connect the dots.
Another form is the ABCDarium, where the first paragraph begins with A, the second with B, and so on. “Part of the fun is to work with the form, to work within the constraints of the form. It’s like writing a villanelle.” Other forms, she adds, are the how-to, recipes, or letters.
Hale refers to The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham as “a beautiful memoir where the narrator wrote about the effect of her father’s suicide on the family. She set it up like an index, where there is a bold-faced word you look up and then a bunch of references. It was a formalized cluster diagram, in a way.” This form helps the writer leave things out—“the boring stuff or the things you just can’t talk about because of privacy for self and others”—and helps the reader connect the dots.
Hale chose to use the structure of a collage for her memoir, making it “kind of a small test case of using a non-traditional form. I wasn’t sure if a lot of non-writers could go with the concept, and it is difficult or uncomfortable for some.” She realizes the risks of using a nonlinear format. “Like alternative music or art films, there is less than a 100-percent audience for it.”
Hale credits her twenty-one years of Buddhist practice for helping her to accept that not everyone will like or appreciate her authorial choices. “I consider everything I do through the lens of Buddhist practice and the values of compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, and empathetic joy. Everything I write is put through that consciousness so it is authentic. It has made a difference.”
A result is that she is less concerned with outcome, or with worrying that people will criticize her or her work. She focuses on “process, motivations, intentions, and actions. When you’re more concerned with what you’re doing now, you can lessen your pain. It makes it easier, more pleasurable to write.” Hale says that, while she does not and will not proselytize for Buddhism, she does urge her students and “struggling writers” to try to think less about outcome and more about their creative process.
While finding her spiritual side invaluable in crafting her books, Hale also considers her business knowledge and experience to be essential contributors to her success. “Business and marketing are not emotional. It’s hard to get writers to see that rejection is not personal, that their product may just not be what the market wants at the time. It’s also heartbreak for writers of my generation to realize they have to be their own publicists.” Hale also falls back on her business acumen. “I am the family bookkeeper, since my husband and I are essentially self-employed.”
Hale tells writers to “get acquainted with the publishing business” and offers very specific and practical suggestions. “Pay attention to who are the agents and publishers for books you admire. Follow them for a while and see what will fit for your work. Follow them on social media, on Twitter, to see what they’re looking for. If you don’t want to do that, then you should maybe get over it. Social media is where the world is going. It takes time, but it’s at your fingertips.”
As both a writer and a voracious reader, Hale hopes that people who are interested in writing will do this: “Think about being a citizen of the writing community. This means buying books and going to readings and other writing events. Books are not that expensive, especially if you have a Kindle or electronic device. Read, people. Read and think about what you read to spark intellectual and spiritual growth.”