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? I will admit that some of these very possibilities — some perhaps laudable, some less so — had tempted me when I was laboring with my own memoirs.
Then, as Hall proceeded to name the intentions she did not want to shape her writing, the word forgiveness came up. As a possible goal, or ethos, or governing principle, perhaps? I asked. Did she never write to achieve, grant, or express forgiveness? Or as a prerequisite; as in, you can’t write a memoir until you’ve reached a place of forgiveness?
No. She was emphatic. Some things — many things — that human beings do to each other, to the earth, to nature, and to themselves, cannot and must not be forgiven. Moreover, even though literature may contain forgiveness, such reductive responses are never what great writing ultimately is about. No.
“I write,” Meredith Hall concluded, “toward a messy and uncertain grace.”
Sitting next to her on the dais that day I reached for the nearest pad of paper and scribbled down that phrase: a messy and uncertain grace. I knew as soon as I heard them that these five words represented an idea worth examining.
Because they really do sum up the goal that all serious writers hold dear. Flannery O’Connor didn’t aim for tidy, absolute answers, much less absolution for her deeply flawed and helplessly human characters. Can you imagine T. S. Eliot having anything to do with easy sentiment? Or James Baldwin letting his protagonists — or readers — exit his stories without any lingering doubts? Certainty would defeat the entire purpose, because real writers embrace the full complexity of truth, and they understand that their job is to reveal the very unruliness of whatever grace dwells within that complexity.
Which is to say that truth contains beauty, balance, empathy, mercy, love, and insight, but also horror, brutality, and desperate need. And these elements are rarely obvious or neatly arranged. For the grace that they encompass to be made visible, all aspects of truth need to be unpacked and contemplated, absorbed, then reassembled and expressed anew through the mystery of art.
As a result, when we read a truly great work of literature we feel empathy even for characters who commit unforgivable crimes — think of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov as “the feeling of loathing” surges up in him after he commits a double and desperate murder, when “a sort of blankness, even dreaminess had begun by degrees to take possession of him.” We feel uplifted by the beauty of the language, even if it makes us gasp with horror; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness comes to mind, with Marlow’s portrait of a head on a stake: “black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids — a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.” Literature also reliably shakes us with insight, even if delivering it with snorts of laughter, à la David Sedaris’s mordant description of another painful smile in his immortal “Santaland Diaries”:
Taking someone’s picture tells you an awful lot, awful being the operative word. […] I often take photographs of crying children. Even more grotesque is taking a picture of a crying child with a false grimace. It’s not a smile so much as the forced shape of a smile. Oddly, it pleases the parents.
Grace, in all its messy uncertainty, is the beating pulse of art. And although it’s ephemeral, it’s also absolutely tangible. When we say a piece of writing “works,” what we mean is, it’s alive with grace.
By extension, we mean that the author of the piece has composed that sense of grace.
And to take it just one step further, we mean that the writing embodies grace that the author has found within himself or herself — most likely through the very practice of writing.
All of this is what Meredith Hall had in mind when she said she writes toward grace.
Mess and uncertainty, of course, abound in the writing life. In the countless scribbled notes and wayward journals, draft after draft in the wastebasket or trash file, mountains of dog-eared books and literary journals cluttering up our non-writing partners’ orderly decor. In the carnage of each “final” draft lying sliced, diced, and hemorrhaging after agents and editors have had their go at it. In the vise of despair and desperation that seizes us as we gaze at this mess and wonder how we will ever manage to regenerate it into a “real book.”
And yet … out of all the chaos and confusion we do create poems, stories, essays, memoirs, each of which embodies our own unique and hard-earned grace.
What this means is that grace resides in the writing life even when we’re least sure of it. We have to believe that. We have to feel the grace in our words and characters, and we must search it out in the truly beautiful and horrible struggles we witness every day. In our families and friends, our communities and — perhaps most difficult — in ourselves.
Because writers can be a pretty unseemly lot. Most of us can only fantasize about a future filled with Pushcarts and fellowships and bestseller rankings. We’re masters, however, at the art of procrastination through laundry, or Flappy Bird, Candy Crush, or YouTube cat videos. As news of our colleagues’ latest publications pop up on Facebook, many of us find that our newest Friend is a green-eyed monster named Envy. And even when our books come out, with a prestigious New York publisher no less, we waste countless hours obsessively checking Amazon rankings — we all do. So much for beauty, balance, empathy, mercy, love, and insight. But we can tell you all about horror and brutality and desperate need. And if we’re wise, we’ll pay attention to all our moments of truth and learn to appreciate the mess and uncertainty in even the most awful of them.
Meredith Hall concludes her fine memoir by declaring the uncomfortable magnitude of this challenge:
I have lived this life, and no matter what others may decide about it, I must claim each decision as mine. I have caused harm, failed in the expectations and obligations of love. I have loved well. What I do each day is carried within me until I die.
May we all fill our days and many, many more pages with the messy complexities of our own evident and not-so-evident truths and, through them, may we always write toward grace, however uncertain.
Aimee Liu is the author of the novels Face, Cloud Mountain, and Flash House and two memoirs, Solitaire and Gaining. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA program in Creative Writing at Port Townsend, Washington.