Q: The two pieces that have appeared in Creative Nonfiction [“Shunned” and “Killing Chickens”] both revolve around pretty traumatic experiences; I wonder if this is something that is typical of your work? It seems that your work is beautiful in the way that it is an explanation or a kind of reasoning out of what happened and why, and how one can live in the aftermath of it. I wondered if this is the way you approach writing in general—a way of gaining perspective?
Hall: Actually, I think a couple things are going on. One is there are moments in my life, not large events so much as very distinct moments, that tug at my memory and tug at my desire to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and understand. But, mostly, as a writer they catch my attention. I know they’re big moments; I know they’re moments that are waiting to be exploded into a larger understanding, and I can’t do that in my head so I end up doing it on paper. But I’m very aware that they hold some potential for a discovery beyond the moment itself.
You know Charles Simic, my colleague at University of New Hampshire, in a very beautiful essay called “Reading Philosophy at Night”—he’s an insomniac—he talks about what it’s like to spend long, long nights awake reading philosophy, immersing himself in the struggles of Being. One of the things he says is, “making meaning is a matter of my existence; I circle perpetually the same obsessive images.” I think we each carry obsessive images, so for me these moments are a cluster, a handful—there aren’t a lot of them. And so these two essays [“Killing Chickens” and “Shunned”] happen to be two of these moments—I don’t have a lot more of them. There may be three more that I haven’t written yet and would like to.
So I think probably all of them, those obsessive images, I suspect, for each of us, are about difficulties in our lives. They get hazy in our memory of happiness or times we are at peace in our lives. And these images are jarring to us because we’re not yet at peace with them. I think writing is a way, in part, to come to terms with them. These are stories I have not told friends; these are not stories I talk about and so there’s an instinct to finally share these with strangers. These are stories I’ve made a decision to share with people. My friends who have read these pieces are learning these things about me for the first time.
Another part of this is that I have also, in my life, been very privileged and very blessed to have experienced great passages of richness—wonderful things have happened in my life—and I have a desire, as a writer, to share these experiences, but I have a harder time doing it. I’m not sure how to write “the joy of mothering” or “the joy of my connection to the wilderness.” These are things that are profoundly important to me, they have shaped me, they are me, but, I don’t know how to write them in ways that are compelling. I plan on pulling these essays together into a collection and I want those other—in fact—larger and more pervasive segments of my life to be represented in those essays; but I do have a hard time as a writer finding meaning beyond simply conveying, yes I was happy. So, I think, by default, it is those more distressing times in our lives that yield more material.
Q: Was there a moment prior to writing “Shunned” in which you recalled one of these “obsessive images” and caused the whole essay to come into focus?
Hall: I don’t think for me it works that way. In quiet moments—in very reflective moments—we circle back around to things again and again and again. And I suspect that there may have been forces at play that I wasn’t aware of. I may have been thinking about my mother for some other reason. So there may be underlying catalysts, but no, I sat down very consciously saying, I’m ready to write this story.
I wrote “Shunned” in one 13 hour session and virtually never returned to it. It is what it was. I wish I could always write like that. I think that happened because this was a story that should have been spoken many, many times throughout my life and because it wasn’t it’s been formed in my mind for 30 years. And once I decided to say this story it was a very uncanny experience of feeling that I was simply opening my mouth and it simply poured out on the page: I didn’t construct it; I didn’t plan it; I didn’t think about it, it was just ready to happen on the page.
I write in my head. I tend to think about things—it’s not a conscious process at all. I’m not aware that I’m arranging or organizing. But when I sit down to write I’m a very slow, careful and methodical writer. I actually teach the art of the very rough draft, allowing the writing to emerge from that messiness, but I don’t work that way.
Q: In what ways do you ask your students to address language: diction; where they get their language from, how they land upon the right language for the essay? One of the things that strikes me about your writing is that the tone of your essays is pitch perfect. There seems to be a definite control there. Might this be a result of the fact that these are stories you’ve never told before and therefore it has to have a language of some seriousness and import?
Hall: I love language. I try to remember that most of my students are visual artists. I try to remember that because I go in assuming that my students are confident. I forget how scared they are. I forget, that for many of them, they don’t have a brain chattering away at them all the time. So what I try to do is lots of in-class exercises, just messing around with language: big lists of words you like; lists of words you don’t like; words that sound like the emotional impact they carry. And I also try to expose them to brief essays and short fiction by writers who are really messing around with voice: Raymond Carver’s “The Bath,” Charles Simic’s “Dinner with Uncle Boris.” I try to expose them to lots of different voices. I think that my brain chatters language all the time because it’s reading all the time. It’s always interesting to me when people say, I don’t know how to describe it or I don’t know how to express this. It seems to me that the English language is so profoundly rich, so extraordinary that it can convey virtually anything.
Q: Keeping in that same vein of teaching…A lot of times, as writers, we teach ourselves. There are some passages in “Shunned” that are so beautiful in their wisdom and in their reflective quality. Especially at the end:
“It is a function of shunning that it must eliminate the shunned completely. It feels like a murder and is baffling because there is no grave. No hymns were sung to ease my going or to beg for God’s blessing on my soul. Shunning is as precise as a scalpel, an absolute excision, leaving, miraculously, not a trace of a scar on the community body.”
That seems like very inspired prose, no doubt, in part, because it comes at the end of the journey of writing the essay. But it also occurred to me that perhaps you’d learned that or been given permission by some other writer that does this well. I wondered if there was a writer that you admire for their wisdom and their ability to evoke empathy through reflection?
Hall: If we were talking about a different essay then I would say maybe, but with that particular essay it was an unconscious act. I certainly can’t pinpoint a particular moment in “Shunned”; I was sort of on autopilot. I guess I will say this: I tell my students that you don’t have to write anything, you don’t have to put anything on paper. But when you do you must be honest, you must be willing to be frighteningly honest with your reader or don’t do it. You can smell a rat. If you’re not willing to expose yourself completely, and risk everything in that honesty, then just don’t bother—go write about something else. I definitely went into “Shunned” saying, ok here it is, just gut yourself and lay it out. That definitely is a learned instinct. I’ve learned that I don’t care about writing that doesn’t commit the writer fully.