Patience and Memoir: The Time It Takes to Tell Your Story

by
Joyce Maynard
8.16.17

Nobody but a writer, or someone who loves a writer, would understand this. The night my husband died, I began to write a book. Not in the first hour. First I just lay there beside Jim with my head on his shoulder, my body pressed against his. We had stopped weighing him a couple weeks earlier, but he was probably down to ninety pounds by this time. Just a year before, almost to the day, he had undergone a fourteen-hour surgery to remove a tumor in his pancreas—remove the tumor and reroute his entire digestive system to the point where it was no longer possible to touch his abdomen; there were so many tubes and drains and stitches, and everything just hurt so much. All feeling having left his body now, I could place my hand on his belly again, and I did that. 

I have come back many times to the question of how to know at what point you possess sufficient perspective to write about the events of your own life.

For one hour—a little longer, maybe—I lay there with my husband as his skin grew cold. This was the last time we would ever lie together like this, and I wanted to take in every single thing about this moment. I took it all in, as a woman who adored this man and was mourning his departure from earth. But here is another hard truth: I was taking everything in as a writer, too, and as a reporter. For close to half a century I’d been telling stories about my life. Already, in my head, this one had begun to take shape. 

Sometime around 3 AM I went downstairs, made a pot of coffee, and with my husband’s well-loved body still in our bed in the room above me, I opened my laptop and wrote the first sentence of what would become my next book: “On the Fourth of July weekend three years ago, at the age of fifty-nine, I married the first true partner I had ever known.” When I was done with that sentence, I went on to the next one. 

Some history: I began working full time as a writer when I was eighteen years old. In the more than four decades I’ve been writing for my living—not only to keep food on the table, but to nourish my spirit as well—I have come back many times to the question of how to know at what point you possess sufficient perspective to write about the events of your own life. 

I write fiction, too, but for that I am not required to reach a place of distance before I can begin the task of making sense of what happens in a story. Even when my characters speak in the present tense and recount situations still unresolved, I maintain, from the start, a certain crucial awareness of the themes that lie at my book’s center. With the stories that unfold in my own life, however, it’s important to arrive at some kind of landing place before the act of writing can get underway. Tackle a memoir too soon and you may miss what it’s really about. 

I didn’t always understand this. For eight years, when I was in my thirties—living in a farmhouse in rural New Hampshire, married to my first husband and raising our three children—I wrote a weekly newspaper column in which I explored our life. That column, Domestic Affairs, was a kind of ongoing report from the front: an imperfect marriage, seen through the eyes of a wildly devoted but flawed mother, a young woman struggling to find a balance between meeting the needs of her family and locating some shred of space for herself and usually coming up short. 

At the height of its popularity, the column was syndicated in more than fifty newspapers around the country, with a deadline requiring my nine hundred words delivered onto my editor’s desk every Monday morning. I needed to arrive at an ending to every column and some kind of conclusion about what had taken place, even though in my real life, more often than not, no such resolution existed. 

Many times over those years I’d find myself in the middle of a raging battle with my children’s father, or wading through grief over the ending of a friendship, or worrying about what seemed at the time like heartbreak in the life of one of my children. 

One Saturday afternoon I received a windfall check for two thousand dollars, some unexpected foreign rights for a book I’d written. That afternoon I spent the whole thing on an oriental rug that I brought home to our humble farmhouse with the plan of surprising my husband. He took one look and demanded that I return it. This didn’t sit right with me, but I was still working that out when Monday morning rolled around.

Unable as I was to know where we’d landed yet, I turned in a column that transformed an ominous fault line in my marriage into a comical episode, when how I really felt was that my husband had failed to recognize my yearnings, and a part of myself, that should not have been shut down.

Perceptive readers spotted this and told me later they realized in that moment that my marriage wouldn’t last. It didn’t. 

Looking back now over essays I wrote in the early days after my divorce, I hear the voice of a woman still too hurt and bitter and—most damaging of all for a writer—too angry to write with compassion and clarity. One of the worst things that can happen in a piece of personal narrative takes place when a writer’s uncontrolled emotion spills out onto the page and allows her reader to form an assessment of what has taken place that differs substantially from what the writer intends. At that point the writer has lost the reader’s trust; instead of identifying, she stands at a distance, shaking her head. 

Over the years, I grew less inclined to write about what had happened the week before, or just yesterday, and instead focused my attention on those parts of my story from which I’d gained sufficient distance. Sometimes that takes a few months, sometimes years. In one notable case, it took decades. 

When I was eighteen years old, shortly after publishing a cover story in the New York Times Magazine (with a title whose irony escaped me at the time: “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”), I received a letter that altered my world. The letter was written by J. D. Salinger—fifty-three years old at the time but already living a reclusive life in New Hampshire. I embarked on a correspondence with Salinger that led to my leaving college and largely abandoning the world—friends, family, my aspirations to be a writer—and moving in with him. 

A year later, on a trip to Florida with him, the man I believed I would stay with forever put two fifty-dollar bills in my hand and sent me away with the instruction that I clear my possessions out of the home we’d shared and disappear from his life. 

For twenty-five years I never told this story. Eventually I married and gave birth to three children; I published essays and, later, novels, though Salinger’s voice, and the knowledge of his disapproval, haunted me. Not a week went by in which I wasn’t asked about Salinger, but I held to the belief that it was my obligation to protect the privacy of a man I considered so much more important and spiritually elevated than I.

But when my own daughter, Audrey, turned eighteen, I looked at what had happened to me when I was her age from a new perspective. For the first time my principal loyalty shifted from the great man to the young girl in the story. I could not have seen myself as worthy of something better than what I received at eighteen, but when I imagined Audrey in that situation, everything appeared different. 

Twenty-five years had passed before I wrote my memoir, At Home in the World (Picador, 1998), which is often described as “the book about Salinger.” In fact, it was a book about me—my development as a writer, my long struggle to locate my own voice—but Salinger had chosen to be a part of my life, briefly, and I no longer felt an obligation to protect him with my silence. When the book was published, the outcry over my alleged betrayal of him was vast, the condemnation of me for telling my story close to unanimous in the literary world. This did not shatter me as it would have once, chiefly because I was no longer the young girl I’d been—the one who wanted approval more than anything else and measured her worth by the assessment of others. 

When someone asks how long it took to write At Home in the World, my answer contains two parts. “Two months,” I say (because that’s how long it took, putting the words on the page). But the real answer is twenty-five years—the amount of time it took to understand what had happened all those years back, its effect on my life, and the long road I’d traveled to make sense of my experience and give myself permission to tell the story in the first place. 

I felt no need for similar distance in telling the story of Jim and me. In fact, I had no desire to write about my husband at all, when he was healthy. Our marriage—entered into when we were fifty-nine and sixty years old, almost a quarter century after our respective divorces—contained none of the drama or conflict a good memoir requires. This was going to be one story—the only one, perhaps—I didn’t write about. I was happy enough, living it. 

Then came the diagnosis, fifteen months after our wedding, three years after we’d met. 

The day we learned Jim had a tumor in his pancreas—his odds for survival very low—I had a novel nearly finished and a contract to deliver two more. For four decades I had maintained a strict writing practice. If a friend suggested we meet for lunch, or proposed a visit, I’d usually put her off. I fiercely protected the hours of my workday. 

But from the day the doctor delivered the prognosis—that most people with this kind of cancer were dead within a year—I barely set foot in my office. (Months later, when I ventured to my desk, I found the last cup of coffee I’d been drinking—before—with a thick skin of mold growing on the top. It had been that long since I’d worked there.)

For nineteen months I made it my life’s work to keep my husband alive—first, with a brutal surgery that required well over a dozen hospitalizations, then dealing with complications so frequent it was a rare day that we didn’t pay a visit to some doctor’s office. I, a woman who had carefully guarded her independence and her freedom to work unobstructed, now spent my days on the phone, researching clinical trials. When the day came that the surgeon told us the chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor sufficiently to make an operation possible, the euphoric e-mail I wrote telling my children and my friends declared:  “We’re getting the surgery.” Jim’s diagnosis had become my diagnosis. The cancer was located in his body, but the single-minded obsession to vanquish it had taken up residence in my brain. 

For all those months I wrote almost nothing but Facebook posts letting friends know what was happening. I managed—just barely—to finish my novel and deliver it, though by the time of its publication, my husband was failing and I canceled my book tour.

But it is not entirely accurate to say that my life as a writer ceased over the course of that nearly two-year period. I kept a notebook with me all the time, and often I’d scribble down something Jim said. (Pulling up to the house we’d bought together, just three months before his diagnosis, after a six-week hospitalization, Jim had stood outside for a moment, breathing in the jasmine and the wisteria in bloom. “This would be a good place to die,” he said, as he made his way inside.)

One of the things Jim suffered most, over the span of those months, was the knowledge that his illness had kept me from the work I love. The knowledge of this was as hard for him, I think, as the physical pain that had him on oxycodone and methadone. 

“I’m doing what I want,” I told him. “Being with you.” But I was doing something else, too. 

When I teach memoir, as I do on occasion, there is a lesson I never fail to share with my students. It is to remind them that writing doesn’t happen just when you place your fingers on the keyboard or pick up your pen. An essential and too often overlooked part of the process occurs in the not-writing time, the time when it looks as though nothing’s happening, but you’re actually making sense of your life. For me, that took place over those nineteen months I spent sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms with Jim, awaiting the results of his latest scan.

One day, not far from the end, we were lying side by side in his hospital bed, as we often did—springtime in San Francisco, the sun streaming through the window, infection overtaking his liver, Jim on morphine—and he looked me straight in the eye.

“One day you’ll write about all of this,” he said. 

The morning of his death, I began to do just that. 

Jim died in our bed, in the middle of a June night, four days after his sixty-fourth birthday, three weeks before our third anniversary. I spent the rest of that summer without him writing the first draft of a memoir, The Best of Us, and the rest of that year revising it. People hearing this often make the observation that the work “must have been so cathartic for you,” and no doubt it was.  But as I always tell them, if I ask you to read a book I write, I’d better have more than my own personal catharsis to offer.

And unlike that earlier memoir of mine—the one that took twenty-five years to put down on paper—this new one demanded to be written while everything that happened was still raw. I needed no distance to tell what was, for me, not a cancer memoir but a story about two people discovering (in my case, for the first time in my life) what it meant to be married, to have a true partner, and to be one as well. 

I felt grateful, over the course of that long, solitary summer I spent writing the book, that I have whatever tools one needs to take unprocessed grief and make it into whole cloth. As I neared the end of the manuscript, I realized I was reluctant to finish it. Once I did, my story with the man I loved would really be over, and I avoided that for a while, but eventually I got there. 

I brought to it every lesson of my sixty-three years on earth. The events I recount in those pages may have been freshly lived, but the perspective was that of a writer who had taken a few decades getting there. 

First you live through the experience. Then you find out what it meant. Then you write. The meaning just came more swiftly with this one. Maybe because it’s simple. The story is about what it means to love somebody. Till death do you part. 

 

Joyce Maynard is the author of nine novels, including Labor Day (William Morrow, 2009) and To Die For (Dutton, 1992). Her earlier memoir, At Home in the World (Picador, 1998), has been translated into seventeen languages. Her memoir about finding and losing her husband, The Best of Us, was published by Bloomsbury last year.