Joyce Maynard: A Storytelling Life
(from Issue Two)
BECAUSE THIS IS about living one’s life as a storyteller, I’ll begin with a story. It’s about the person who taught me how to tell a story: my mother. She was a difficult woman in many ways—a difficult person to have as a mother, anyway—demanding, guilt-inspiring, largely oblivious to the concept of a child’s privacy, sometimes overinvolved to the point of inducing claustrophobia. What saved our relationship was the expansiveness of her spirit, her incorrigible sense of humor, and—this most of all—her tireless need to explore life and seek out the story of everyone she met. She was a lover of literature, but nothing any fiction writer ever created fascinated her as much as the adventures of real people. I never met anyone who could tell a story as well as she did.
For instance. There was the occasion when she paid me a visit, in the little New Hampshire town where I lived at the time, with the man I was married to then, and our children. My mother and I had set out for dinner, just the two of us and my best friend. I had tried mightily to describe my mother over the years: the horrifying moment when she stormed onto the playground at school to pull off the cap of a boy who had teased me, throwing it in a deep ravine; the time she greeted my 16-year-old boyfriend with the question, “At what age did you begin to masturbate?” Still, no anecdote could convey the picture as effectively as the source. Exhibit A: my mother.
We took a table in the corner. Picture one of those old colonial bed-and-breakfast settings, with waitresses dressed like Pilgrims, where the fare runs to prime rib and mashed potatoes, and a clove of garlic has never crossed the threshold. Picture the clientele: dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders. Frugal, reserved churchgoers out for Sunday dinner with the person they refer to as their better half.
Picture my mother: Wearing a big, broad-brimmed hat. A quarter-century of life in a small New Hampshire town had not made a Yankee out of her, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews. This was a woman who quoted Chaucer in line at the grocery store; a woman who wore a Mexican lace dress, braless, to my wedding; a woman who once threw a party for a hundred people at which every guest was male. A woman who—if she were sitting in the back row of the brass section of a symphony orchestra, and suddenly started laughing—could have overwhelmed the tuba.
Now, as we sat around the checkered tablecloth at Ye Olde Country Inn, drinking our three-dollar wine and sawing into our chicken, my mother began one of her stories. I can’t remember what it was about, there were so many of them—stories so rich with character and dialogue, suspense, humor, tragedy, and redemption, that if a movie were playing in the next room, you’d choose the storyteller over the silver screen.
All of a sudden, partway through my mother’s telling of her story, I realized something. Except for her voice, the restaurant was dead quiet. All eyes and ears were on my mother.
The next day, my friend called me, still recovering. “I was at the bank this morning,” she said. “And a man came up to me who said he’d been at the restaurant the night before. He grabbed my arm with this desperate expression. “
“Who was that woman?” the man had implored. “And where can I find her again?”
THERE YOU HAVE IT. My legacy. Daughter of a master storyteller—for whom allegiance to the truth took second position after reverence for good drama—I took to heart the lessons of two stories told to me when I was very young. One was of the princess locked in a room each night with a pile of straw, instructed to spin it into gold. That was what a writer had to do, I knew: Study a pile of dry sticks and grass, and figure out a way to make it glittering and precious. But the legend I loved even more came from Arabian Nights. It concerned Scheherazade, a young woman condemned to death, who kept a man from killing her by telling him a new and irresistible story every night. Spinning a tale well, I figured, could actually save a person’s life. Possibly mine.
The way my school classmates were taught by their parents how to play ball or ski, I was coached in the art of telling stories. Pace and voice, choice of language, what to include, what to withhold and when. My mother didn’t believe in euphemisms. (“Say ‘die,’ not ‘pass away,’” she’d tell me.) Child of the Depression, she favored economy over adverbs. (“You’re taking your reader to the bathroom,” my mother said of a passage in which I labored too long over the chronology of each event. “Do your job well with all the other parts of speech, and you won’t need adverbs.” Forty years later, it is a rare event to find an “ly” word in any story I tell.)
But I learned more than craft under my mother’s ceaseless tutelage. She instructed me in the essence of what well-told stories are meant to accomplish—the idea that the joy of writing well might actually redeem and even trump the raw material of painful experience, thereby revealing deeply meaningful truths to the reader. Days when I’d come home from school, upset by some injustice or the hurtful behavior of a friend, my mother’s words of consolation seldom varied. “Never mind,” she said. “You can always write about it.”
Then she went about the business of teaching me how—by her own extraordinary example, most of all. Later in life, once my sister and I were grown, our mother published books of her own. But it may be that her finest creative work took place on those thousand and one nights she presided over our dinner table, entertaining and instructing us with her stories.
Both of us are writers now.
IF LIVING MY life has not always been smooth, the act of writing about it has provided consolation. Not that a person should use storytelling as a form of retribution or an opportunity to vent anger and bitterness, enlist a listener or a reader’s advocacy and support against an adversary, or win points for heroism. But here’s what I’ve learned in 35 years as a writer—sometimes telling my own stories, sometimes making them up, but always inspired (as I believe every writer is) by my own experiences and obsessions.
Bad times make for good art. If you are one of the three people in America who grew up in a totally happy, trouble-free family where nothing bad ever happened, you may still overcome your handicap. But it’s going to be a challenge.
Addressing an audience of young people on a school visit a while back, I spoke about my own young years—my father’s drinking, my mother’s passionate obsession with raising me to be a writer, and the stress of it all. Afterward, a girl came up to me, clutching her notebook to her chest.
“I always dreamed of being a writer,” she said. “But the worst thing that ever happened to me was when our cat died. What can I do?”
There’s hope, I told her. Life was likely to provide a few challenges along the way, if she gave it time. When misery falls short, look to imagination.
I STARTED SENDING off my stories to magazines when I was 13 years old. (Spin straw into gold. I’d learned that lesson.) I met with success. I might not have felt confident calling up a boy I liked, but I could write a letter to the editor-in-chief of the New York Times, at age 18, to say I’d like to write for his newspaper. And he wrote back.
From my late teens, writing was my full-time occupation, and it remains so all these years later. But whereas my mother did her storytelling at dinner parties and restaurants for most of her life, I do mine for pay. It’s an odd way to earn a living, I often think, and I’m a lucky woman to get to do it. But the fantasy of a writer’s life—the literary parties, readings in glamorous places, the solitary desk in view of windswept moors, fire crackling in the grate, whiskey close at hand—bears little resemblance to the writer’s life I know.
The solitary part, at least, is accurate. Except for this: A writer is never free of her characters and her story. We take them with us wherever we go. They may delight and entertain us. But sometimes they haunt us, too.
More mornings than not, I start my day performing an unnatural act in my bed. I wake up thinking about what I will write when I get up. I lie there, meditating on my characters. (Sometimes, too, I think about someone who does exist, though I may not have laid eyes on this person for a decade or more. Perhaps he is even dead. This person may have broken my heart, or maybe I broke his. He may be a murderer or a four-year-old. I may have just imagined he was real.)
I do this because I’m a writer, and that means my workplace—whatever I have in the way of a desk or a chair or a snazzy computer—is my head. I don’t drive to an office. I don’t even need to get dressed to work. Everything that happens, save a little movement of fingers on keyboard, occurs invisibly.
It’s an odd way to begin the day, this business of thinking about characters and situations. But having so little structure or routine or regularity to the work I do, I hold onto this one as a small, familiar path I take—like a daily constitutional—in a life of largely uncharted wandering through uncleared brush. For me, lying there meditating on the stories I’ll tell today (in which, incidentally, my mother or some invented surrogate continues to feature prominently, even 19 years after her death) remains as much a part of my morning routine as brushing my teeth or making my bed. Soon enough, I’ll head downstairs, put on the coffee (another dependable, repetitious act in my world of too few), and make my way to my desk.
Once I sit down, no more rituals exist to get me through the next few hours. Now there is only me and the blank screen—again. (As, in the old days, it was just me and the typewriter, me and the yellow legal pad.) Just me and my brain.
I can’t complain. My mother raised me to be a writer, and I became one. All of my adult life, my job has been telling stories. With the exception of 11 months in my early 20s, when I worked as a newspaper reporter, and the summer I was a television staff writer in Hollywood, I have never gone to an office, answered to a boss, had to buy suits or pantyhose, or labored in proximity to a water cooler.
In a world filled with individuals whose dream is to quit their day jobs and go write novels or a memoir, I exist as one of that tiny, fortunate minority who can pursue those things between the morning and evening commutes. Writing books is my day job.
The twist is that a writer starts every new day unemployed all over again. Every time the sun comes up—or sets, if you’re a night writer—you have to start from the beginning: Make something out of nothing, transform ideas into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and sustain it all long enough that when you’re finally done, you have conveyed an experience with sufficient accuracy that even strangers can imagine what it felt like.
But your work is never really done. You are never off-duty. Even assuming you’ve written your story and sold it, and a sufficiently large group of readers liked it, your reward is to start from scratch again. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of words you’ve written, or how many books with your name on them sit on the shelf. Every day, your screen is just as blank as the next guy’s.
So I wake up thinking about my stories. I go to bed thinking about them, too. I couldn’t kick them out of my brain if I wanted to. This makes writing not only the lonely profession it’s rumored to be, but also (ironically) the one least likely to provide peace and quiet. Because our characters—if we’ve done a good job making them come alive, anyway—won’t leave us alone.
THESE CHARACTERS OF ours—the real ones, the ones we invent—move into our heads for a while, and once they take up residence, it’s hard to get them out. Sometimes they’re wonderful, in which case finishing a book and having to bid them goodbye may feel like a small death. Several years ago, after the youngest of my three children left home, I found myself alone—truly alone—as I had not been in over 25 years. I missed my children so badly, I decided to insert, into the novel I was writing at the time, the character of a young boy who closely resembled one of my own sons at age four. Loving this character as I did, wanting to spend time with him, I practically raced to my computer every morning to get him back.
As for those other characters from my life whose absence I mourn—like my parents, dead these many years—I resurrect them regularly when I write. (Also when I teach writing. And it’s as if I’m not even speaking—my mother is—when I say to a student, “Write as if every word cost five dollars,” or “You’re taking the reader to the bathroom again.”)
Of course, when you bring a character to life with depth and authenticity, you don’t always uncork sweetness and light. I brought this lesson home a few years ago when I decided to write a nonfiction book about a crime. Now, all of a sudden, before I’d thought out what this would mean, there I was lying in bed morning after morning and night after night with a murderer and her not particularly sympathetic victim in my head. For the first time in my life, I slept badly, and woke with a sense of unease. The story was fascinating, all right—but toxic, too. When I was done telling it, I knew I’d never write a book like that again.
It’s not enough, I learned, to tell a story well. It should also be a story someone needs to know. In the most old-fashioned way, I discovered that a story requires redemption. Perhaps I don’t need things to turn out happily ever after, but I want to bring the reader to some point of discovery and revelation, and to a destination that matters. I want to tell stories that matter.
MY MEASURE OF a work of storytelling is a surprisingly simple one: Was it—like a wanted child—born of passion and love? Did the teller put this story on paper because she couldn’t not tell it? I like to know that the heart works alongside or ahead of the writer’s brain.
In the end, these are the basic questions to ask of a piece of writing one reads, or a piece of writing one is in the act of creating: Do I want to keep turning the page? Do I care about these characters? Do I burn to know how the story turns out? If someone were recounting it, in a restaurant, one table over from where I sat, would I silence myself and my dinner companion so I could hear the storyteller’s voice?
When I was young, I suppose I harbored some of the old fantasies about a writer’s life: dreams of glamour and glory, fascinating friends, and maybe fame. What keeps me going now is a humbler goal, but maybe the most ambitious.
I want my characters and stories to enter your brain, as they occupied mine. I want to make you cry. I want to leave you sitting there, with your fork in midair, not even breathing for a moment, for fear of missing the next syllable.
Joyce Maynard is the author of nine books, including the novel To Die For and the bestselling memoir At Home in the World.