Hacking and Packing
by Carissa Halston
This year’s winner of the Bambi Holmes Award for Emerging Writers is Carissa Halston, who won for her short story, “Hacking and Packing,” published in Fourteen Hills 19.1. The Holmes Award, which annually awards a cash prize of $500 to an outstanding writer published in one of the previous year’s two issues of Fourteen Hills, is made possible by a generous donation from the family of Bambi Holmes (1946-1996), in order to continue her lifelong patronage of aspiring writers.
In this essay, Carissa talks about the creative process behind writing her award winning story, “Hacking and Packing.”
There are certain themes I revisit in my fiction—even when I try not to, they’re there. In the case of “Hacking and Packing,” those themes are loss and isolation. Though when I started drafting, it was just isolation.
Hard as it may be to imagine, the first draft of “Hacking and Packing” was considerably darker than the final draft. Leslie didn’t talk to anyone. She had no parents. She had no friends. She had no job. She had no guilt. She was just a girl who had stopped eating and started hallucinating. She thought her hands were loaves of bread. She tried to feed the bread to birds, then pulled back two bleeding loaves. So she went home and, barely able to keep herself upright, cooked bread soup in the bathtub. My first reader asked, Isn’t there someone who knows her? Someone who might care enough to worry about what’s happening? So I added her father and his unfortunate demise. Leslie still wound up as soup. My second reader said, Maybe she should have a job. Since Leslie has such a tumultuous relationship with food, I wanted to make her job seem a little like a bad relationship—so she gives the meat packing plant a pet name (The Chop Shop) and makes jokes about it (when asked what she does for a living, she tells people she “makes food edible”). Between Leslie’s quips and her coworkers, The Chop Shop inadvertently became one of my only opportunities to inject a bit of humor into what would otherwise have been a series of sad occurrences in a brief and lonely life.
That humor may be the only other throughline (apart from the aforementioned themes) that joins “Hacking and Packing” to my other fiction. Formally, it’s very different than so many of my stories because I often use first-person narration and dialogue to reveal my protagonists’ character. But Leslie’s so unwilling to show her hand that there’s not that much to say. Her guardedness is inextricable from her problems. She can’t tell her father what she’s giving up, but she needs him to understand that her sacrifice is for his benefit. I wound up working around dialogue by having Leslie let other things speak for her. The notes she writes are her attempt to prevent self-sabotage. But they’re written from her, to her. And the conversations she has with her father after his death are both a way to grieve and another method of talking to herself. So perhaps there is more dialogue in there than I planned.
That said, the descriptions were my focus through each successive draft, with meaning remaining most important, and second to that, sound. I know it’s strange for a prose writer to talk about meter or cadence, but there’s a rhythm to prose that I chase after—though sometimes it finds me. I occasionally edit it out, but I often leave it in. In “Hacking and Packing,” it comes with repetition or parallel clause structure. You’ll see both here, though in reverse: “Her toast and tea arrived and Leslie’s mouth sealed shut. … But she did lift the plate to her face and she did close her eyes and she did breathe it in, deeply, patiently.” Six syllables between her and arrived, six more between and and shut, and the stress is exactly the same in both series. Plus, tea and sealed have the same initial phonetic vowel. And she did lift the plate and she did close her eyes and she did breathe it in. I can’t resist patterns like this, as a writer. Musicality speaks to me.
However, I want to reiterate that meaning does trump music, and the process of defiling food while drafting this story was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had writing. Not just for the joy of describing ham as “maps with veins of fat for rivers and pinkish flesh for land,” but also for the way those descriptions can change a reader’s conception of a thing they see all the time. We exist in a culture wherein the presentation of food is tantamount to eating it. We’re so enamored of our meals that we take photos of our food and we spend hours looking at photos of other people’s food. Similarly, we love writing that details the beautiful parts of eating: the meal rituals, the preparation, the scents and presentation—from M.F.K. Fisher to George R. R. Martin, you’ll hear readers lauding pristine renderings of delectable food. I don’t disagree that there’s merit in that sort of rendering. I simply have no interest in telling stories that way. Reading about a character who finds beautiful food attractive reveals nothing surprising about her interiority. But reading about a character who finds something beautiful repulsive, lends insight into a potentially intriguing existence. Creating resonance from an unfamiliar feeling is one of the most challenging feats a writer can perform, but when it works, it’s well worth the effort.