Interview from Maine in Print

This Gift of Freedom award is a very prestigious prize. What prompted you to apply?

I had never considered applying for a writing grant. When a friend told me about A Room of Her Own’s Gift of Freedom award during my winter break from teaching writing at the University of New Hampshire, I decided to write the application as an exercise to familiarize myself with the process of grant writing. Of course, I dreamed of having time off from my work to just write. I sabotage my writing by loving teaching so much, so my hunger to write and the great satisfaction I find in my work create a constant tension in my life. But I never entertained the possibility that I might be awarded this grant.

Tell me about the process.

AROHO intends that the application for the Gift of Freedom award be intensive, and it is. I started it right after Christmas, planning on giving over a couple of days to writing and the application. Every single night I would regret having wasted a precious day on a goose chase and would decide to drop it. The next morning, I found myself back at it, day after day. I guess I thought, “I’m almost finished. Just one more day should do it.” Two weeks later, I was done.

A Room of Her Own Foundation is committed to Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman needs time and space to herself to write. I was asked to write five 5-page essays in response to specific questions regarding my art, my work habits, how my writing affects a larger community, why I write. I had to submit a creative sample of no more than ten pages, a great challenge for a writer who likes to let the story reach and extend. And I had to prove, through my financial documents, that I do not have the resources to stay home and write—that this project is fully conceptualized and is dependent on my having a year free of wage-earning responsibilities.

How did you learn that you’d won?

I came home one Saturday evening to a message from Mary Johnson, one of the Board members, asking me to call her. It was too late to return the call, so I had a good long night to imagine what I was going to hear. I understood that the decision would be made in early June, still a month or more away. I was certain that AROHO was calling simply to ask for more information or documentation. I thought that was a great sign. I was in the running.

I waited until Sunday noon on the dot. When Mary told me I had been awarded the grant, I started to cry. She laughed and said that was exactly the response they hope to have from recipients.

What sort of project will you be working on?

I will be writing a book whose working title is Without a Map. It is a memoir, a series of personal essays about my young adult life. In 1965, I got pregnant and gave up the baby for adoption. This book will paint a portrait of that’s girl’s gutted out world and her slow rebuilding of her life.

In what ways do you anticipate that this award will allow you more freedom to write?

That’s easy. The Gift of Freedom is just that. I will be freed for a year, starting in January, from earning my living at the University. I will be able, for the first time, to put my writing ahead of everything else each day. I love to write. It feels wonderful to me to sit for eight or ten hours straight at my desk working. I have had very, very few days since I started writing to do that. AROHO is visionary in its mission, and I am very grateful.

You write creative nonfiction. What appeals to you most about that genre? What are the challenges of writing creative nonfiction?

I am a narrative writer. I love writing story. Creative nonfiction allows the writer to embed experiences and responses, relationships, moments of transition or insight in a narrative structure. This is where we live our lives—in the concrete world, a world carried in memory like fabric woven from place, people, time. The wind stirring, someone whispering in the kitchen, car lights crossing the bedroom wall, coyotes yelping below the pasture.

The challenges of writing narrative nonfiction are tied directly, I think, to its great potential to convey the fullness of experience. There is a covenant between the writer and reader: if it is called nonfiction, the reader can trust it is true. I believe we are arguing the wrong argument when we challenge the writer’s memory in creative nonfiction. I think the real question is whether the story of the ordinary life is credible and worthwhile. I believe it is. But every writer of narrative nonfiction must earn that credibility by offering the truth, which lives, like mythic truth, beneath the quotidian story.

Tell me about the first piece you’d every published.

I am truly a new writer. I went back to college, at Bowdoin, after a divorce when I was forty. I took two elective courses there in fiction and poetry writing and discovered that I need to write. I was asked to do a Masters degree in creative writing at UNH, and started to teach in 1996. In 2002, I wrote my first piece, called “Killing Chickens.” It is the story of my realizing one day, after hearing about another of my husband’s affairs, that my marriage was over, that my young children were in for a terrible time. Scared, I did the task I had been waiting for my husband to do—killing the old hens to make way for the new chicks arriving. The hens had names, were known to me and my children. This is a disturbing story, I think, with love and violence tangled together as I prove to myself that I am capable of handling whatever is coming at me.

Creative Nonfiction picked the essay up and asked for something else. They published “Shunned” last year. That’s the essay that won the Pushcart Prize this summer and is the seminal essay for my book.

Do you identify as a Maine writer?

Absolutely. My family, fishermen and coaster captains, settled very early on the coast of Maine. The land and the people are in my cells, and emerge as assumed context in everything I write. I usually forget how deeply I am expressing this life, this history here. That I know this place, that my love for it suffuses my writing.

What do you see at the biggest challenges for other Maine writers?

Our isolation from one another. There is so much talent here, but the space is huge. Maine’s people and its powerful beauty inspire us every day. We have to work hard to find a community of writers and artists within our daily communities. That connection is vital, sustains and challenges our work.

Western writers have enjoyed great favor in the publishing world—Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abby, Kim Barnes, Wallace Stegner, all writers whose narratives depend on the landscape and human experience of the West. I think it is important for us to recognize that Maine is a powerful and unique experience, and to allow our writing to emerge from our deep experience of this place and people. We have great potential to develop and celebrate a strong regional voice.

What sort of encouragement can you offer to emerging Maine writers?

My experience should encourage every emerging writer. I have had only two essays published. This award, some days, feels as if it has dropped out of the sky on the wrong person, that they must have made a mistake. I understand that, beyond providing the time and focus to write this project, the Gift of Freedom award intends to help me make the move of seeing myself as Writer, to shifting my identity, to taking my work seriously. I think that move is very difficult for emerging writers.

Write, and expose that writing to every audience you can. Don’t wait to be famous before you seek out grants and awards. Applying for this grant was an audacious act. I encourage every writer to be audacious, to believe that our writing will be noticed, and it is worth notice.

—Meredith Hall
From Maine in Print (First Issue)