Behind the Words: Christine Hale

Posted by on Sep 6, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Christine Hale’s essay, “Milk” is a complex journey. In this small essay—or more appropriately, flash essay—Christine moves her readers through small, quiet scenes that evoke emotions beyond what is written. She has mastered the ability to keep her writing calm but strong, simple but intentional. She was kind enough to answer some questions regarding her craft, her use of symbolism, and what brought her to write this captivating essay.

 

Zac: What made you decide to go in the direction of a collaged memoir? How do you think that changes the experience for the reader? Do you think there any disadvantages to this approach?

Christine: I do think collaged creative nonfiction offers readers something different compared to the more traditional linear form. I am drawn to the non-linear or fragmented form in memoir because the result is, I believe, more “like life.” In daily life, it seems experiences just happen to us. Even experiences we’ve sought out, such as a date or a job interview, often turn out to feel different than we expected and lead to outcomes we couldn’t anticipate. In memory, too, there’s an element of randomness; sometimes we notice what’s triggered a memory but more often the memory just appears, lingers a moment, and disappears as our attention moves on to the next thing. Many people feel driven to “make sense” of life’s apparent randomness. That’s another way of saying we’re striving to retrofit a narrative to the sometimes bewildering flood of event, emotion, and memory that comprise our lives. Writers, of course, write down those narratives, as novels and memoirs. But in a fragmented or collaged piece (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction) the work’s narrative element—the explicit cause-and-effect sense-making—is effaced. It’s submerged beneath the color and sound and mystery of lived and recollected experience.

Since this form offers readers something different, it also asks of them something different. A collaged memoir has, I think, more in common with non-narrative poetry or with music or even dream than with autobiography. So, readers who want a straight story may be frustrated by the inconclusiveness of collaged memoir.

In your essay, you use milk as a means of symbolism: your father’s love of the butterfat to the rage of your mother to the fear of your father. Do you think, in terms of craft, that having a grounded starting point—in this instance, milk—is necessary to develop a story? In other words, is it necessary to introduce readers to something common or relatable to successfully take them on a more complex journey?

I do believe strongly that story—whether fiction or nonfiction—must be rooted in the sensory. The world we think of as “real” is only what we perceive it to be through our senses. And stories, whether we read them or hear them told, are satisfying and seductive in part because they offer us a chance to escape temporarily from our personal world to participate in someone else’s. So, to create an alternate world the writer must build it, using objects—concrete or sensory detail—the reader can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Those objects excite the reader’s senses and invite her to feel the sensations and emotions she associates with those objects.

Of course, objects on the page are nothing but words. This fact offers writers both a problem and a power. This problem is that it’s quite difficult to choose precisely the right words to signify to others the exact thing and the exact feeling that I associate with my childhood experience of “milk.” But the cool thing—the expansive excitement available in writing and in reading literature—is that tangible objects and the words we choose to label them carry powerful associations. Some of those associations are unique to a given person but some are common to many or most people. And in a way that may at first seem counter-intuitive, the more specifically the writer “builds” the object on the page, the more associations it’s likely to evoke in readers: this is because the more particular the object, the more tangible, the more “real” it seems.

So, this little piece of memoir is not about “milk”; it’s about full-fat milk in those particular rough-lipped, frangible, slippery, heavy bottles, served up in the very specific context of my babyish affection for milk playing out amid familial tension that was ever-present but mystifying to me. As a writer, then, I set out to play with the power of evoking those associations. If I’ve done a good job, the vast complex of associations evoked by this highly specific sensory detail—milk—will strike resonant chords in at least some readers who liked or hated milk, who remember or are too young to ever have seen those bottles, and who hated or loved or feared an explosive-tempered parent.

 

What do you think is the most important part or aspect of your essay? Do you think what you find to be most important is what the reader will find most important? (I think this is a difficult question because one must feel connected to it all, but I think it’s interesting to imagine what the reader might feel most connected to.)

The most important aspect of this little piece for me is the feeling I want it to evoke. The intensity of feeling that particular memory gave me is what caused me to want to write about it. The moment is, in fact, not a single crystal-clear memory but a web of intense, conflicting emotions—love for milk, love for mother, fear of mother, fear of making mistakes, and the terror of abandonment—set off by the image of milk in a sweating glass bottle. This image was a common one in my childhood but must be almost non-existent today. For that reason alone I wouldn’t expect readers to value the image of the milk bottle the way I do. What I hope is that I’ve caused most readers to recollect, even very briefly, an emotionally complex moment of their own childhoods, and to value that feeling for what it reveals to them about themselves.

That said, I’ve had several readers old enough to remember when milkmen brought milk to the back door in bottles tell me how it pleased them to be reminded of that.

What is your process of writing nonfiction? Do you find yourself stuck on a memory and then attempting to textualize it? How do you decide which length is most appropriate for your subject–flash vs. standard length?

I have a mantra for writing memoir: go for the object. In light of what I’ve said above, this probably won’t surprise you. In the process of writing my own memoir and working with quite a few new writers of memoir, I’ve realized that many of us begin by writing down our feelings rather than our experiences. This makes sense, on the one hand, because it’s usually the feelings our memories give us that impel us to write about them. But explaining our feelings drains them of their power, because the reader is then shut out of direct experience of those emotions. To get the reader to feel what we felt, what’s necessary, I believe, is the process I described above: re-build the world of memory so as to immerse the reader in its sensory experience.

Putting the mantra “go for the object” into practice has other benefits, too. The more objects a memoirist finds to write about—whether she’s rummaging in an attic or just the recesses of her own mind—the more lost memories and feelings she’ll recover. Emotion and memory attach to objects and place; this is a fact of neuroscience.

The stories I tell in my memoir arise from recollected objects. So, being “stuck” on a memory is a good thing; the longer I’m stuck—compelled to stay with it—the more story I find. When I am no longer stuck—when I sense I’ve written all this object or this memory has to offer—then the moment—a little “wholeness” of story—is done. My memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is made of many, many of these moments. They vary in length; “Milk” is one of the shorter ones.

Christine’s essay, “Milk” can be found here.

 

Zac Zander lives in Connecticut with his dog, Kaki, who is named after the musician not the pants. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University and is working on a collection of essays.

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