Toward a Messy and Uncertain Grace
January 13, 2015Dear Friends,
I'm pleased to share an essay just published by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It's based on a commencement address I gave last summer to MFA graduates at Goddard College in Port Townsend, WA, where I teach.
Here's the opening:
I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot about grace lately. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about it since last February, when I first met the critically acclaimed memoirist Meredith Hall.
What initially impressed me about Hall was her unusual path to literary success. She didn’t graduate from college or even begin writing until she was 44 and spurred by a painful divorce. Since then, her essays have appeared in many of this country’s finest literary journals. She’s received a Pushcart Prize and in 2004 won a $50,000 Room of Her Own Award, which gave her the freedom to write her first book, Without a Map. That memoir landed on The New York Times Best Seller list. Oh, and when not writing or teaching or winning awards, Hall — now 65 — physically builds houses alongside her sons in their family construction business. All of which should make her a source of inspiration for any serious writer … but that’s not why I keep thinking about grace — at least not directly.
Back in February, Hall and I were on a panel discussing “The Writer as Mediator in Memoir and Personal Narrative” at the 2014 Association of Writing Programs conference in Seattle. As she spoke about finding and crafting the perspective she needed to write her memoir, it became clear that this process had been emotionally grueling. The story she had to tell began in the 1960s, when she was a pregnant teenager shunned by her formerly nurturing family and small-town community and forced to give up her baby without so much as glimpsing him. Twenty-one years later she learned that this son had grown up in poverty just a few miles away, with a physically abusive adoptive father. Pain, rage, guilt, and grief dominated much of Hall’s life.
But the question before her in our discussion was: what had been her intention as she wrote this story? To punish or shame her unrepentant parents? To paint herself as the innocent victim of small-town small-mindedness — or, perhaps, as a reborn crusader for the rights of teenage mothers? To mine her own trauma for tear-jerking effect? Or just to unburden herself of an experience that was too heavy to carry alone anymore?
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Grace and love to you in 2015,