During the second year of my BA program at Winona State University I took a class that changed me as a writer and as a woman: Intro to Creative Non-fiction. I think I was predestined to a life in creative non-fiction before I even understood the term. As an elementary student I could be found toting around narratives of Frederick Douglass. While my friends read The Boxcar Children, I read Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I wrote reports on the need to protect the manatees and the dangers of acid rain. I knew writing was a form of activism and the more I believed in something the more I needed to read about it; and then to write about it. I didn’t know this world I loved and related to had its own niche—its own name.
That class was my first introduction to the term: Creative Non-Fiction. It was my first comprehensive understanding of “memoir.” Remnants of that class appear in my writing even now; in the authors I gravitate to and the things I notice.
During the course we spent a lot of time doing exercises to enrich our writing. One exercise I distinctly remember was reading Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things.” It was incredible to see that her list had relevance even centuries later, with humor and social commentary.
After we read this piece we were to write a list of ten hateful things. Mine had a more somber tone than Shonagon’s. We were to use these hateful things as starting points for our writing but I never completed the assignment past a paragraph. Many of my “hateful things” were areas I couldn’t face past a single line. They were my deepest questions and my most wounded places.
Years later while cleaning the house I found the notebook from that class. I began to think about my current “hateful things” and noticed many were the same as the day I wrote the list in class. Some had worked themselves out and there were some new additions. I found that many chapters of my memoir embodied these “hateful things.”
Organization is something that has always come as a challenge to me. I have always known the story I wanted to tell, but how I wanted to tell it has changed. So, one of the ways I am highly considering organizing my memoir, is by having each of these ten hateful things become a chapter.It is in my humble attempt to articulate these ten hateful things that I present my areas of deepest tension, contemplation, pain, joy, and healing. But, using the term “hateful” as an organizing structure, does not come without reservations.
The word “hateful” can be an off-putting one. Hateful is a word packed with emotion. For most of us the word instantly brings up a specific experience or connotation.
Like the word love, I think some use the word “hateful” much too loosely, as a colloquial term. On the flip side, some only use it in the most extreme circumstances, where another lesser word won’t do. I am guilty of using “hate” flippantly to express an annoyance or burden. I, for example, “hate” laundry. I would prefer to just keep buying new underwear. I use love the same way. I just “love” to wear flip flops right up until the first snow.
It took me years to look at my life and admit that I had actually felt hate. Love was scary to me, too, but love is socially acceptable while hate often isn’t. It is an uprooting thing to discover that you are not immune to hate. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Hate can be a place that we get lost in, even a place we never come back from. Or hate can be a gauge of what we can tolerate, of what we believe we deserve, of who and what we will stand for.
The use of the term “hateful” in my chapter titles is two-fold. First, the wording comes from a desire to mimic the original wording of Shonagon’s hateful things. Second, as I wrote about these areas of my life and relationships there were elements of disgust, aversion, or extreme displeasure—sometimes of myself, sometimes of others, and sometimes of a circumstance. This emotion, however, doesn’t live in a vacuum. With an intense emotion such as this one there comes a gamut of other emotions, including love and eventually, acceptance; an acceptance not out of condoning but a settling calm that acknowledges an experience has been lived.
We are afraid of anger because it is not becoming. It is ugly and raw. Hatred, we are told is dangerous. That can be true. That does not mean, however, that it doesn’t exist. We are not immune to hatred just because it isn’t a pretty thing. We have a responsibility to ourselves and others not to let hatred or distain grow in us—inward toward ourselves or outward toward others. But to pretend that hatred doesn’t have a place is denying a universal experience. Anger can move us to enact social change, to remove ourselves from unhealthy situations, and to demand more for ourselves and our loved ones. Anger and hatred are messy, just like love—just like life.
When I was a child I told Mom that I hated my father. She grabbed my arm and told me to never speak this way again. I remember being shocked. I felt the distain she had for him and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed the same opportunity. Strong emotions require strong words. There are cases when another word just won’t do, such as abuse, death, loss of hope. We hope that hatred isn’t where we remain, but it might be where we start.
I am told I was an incredibly well-behaved and well-rounded child. I was never even grounded. I was up-beat and hopeful on the outside, but inside I had internalized many things that led to a growing rage. Anger was an unacceptable emotion that took me years to recognize in myself. Once I recognized it, I had a hard time turning it off.
Each chapter of my memoir centers on a “hateful” thing in my life; a place I had a hard time coming back from. What I share isn’t just the hatred; in fact, that is only a small part. I also share how I work that anger out of each of these experiences in my life.
Hateful things are not easy to talk about. They are not “appropriate dinner conversation.” They do not paint us in the most beautiful light. But that does not make them any less true, any less valid or any less a part of human experience.
So tell me dear reader: Do you think organizing the chapters of my memoir around these ten hateful things is a good idea? If so why? If not, why not? What do you think of when you hear the term “hate(ful)” ? If you were asked to write down your ten hateful things, or points of tension in your life, what would your list look like? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, and, as always, thanks for reading.