at home in the world

I’ve been reading a lot of Joyce Maynard lately. I didn’t know of her until recently—I had never read any of her work—but saw a mention of her memoir The Best of Us somewhere, maybe in connection to my rereading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. They’re both memoirs about widowhood and endings, written by women who have been writers their entire long lives. I read The Best of Us over the span of a few days. For the first quarter of the book, I thought, “It’s OK, but it ain’t no Joan Didion.” Then something shifted. I fell in love with her voice. Not just with her words, but her person—her perspective, her mind, her sentences, her flaws, her transparency about her flaws. And with the fact that she has written for her entire 60-some-year lifespan, which means that she is a writer to her core. My love for Joyce Maynard feels similar to how I felt about my thesis advisor in journalism school, Ed Dobb; there’s something profoundly comforting to me about knowing people who are writers to their core—who, in the midst of multimedia journalism and multi-platform storytelling and social media strategy, continue on with the humble written word. (I’ve never been able to say whether I identify more as a writer or as a photographer. I am amateur at both, and long to study both over a lifetime.)

I’m now partway through Joyce Maynard’s earlier memoir, At Home in the World, which details the story of her early life and the culmination of her 11-month-long relationship with J.D. Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53. The publication of At Home in the World, in 1998, made Maynard a literary pariah. Critics called her “shameless” and a “predator.” Many found it unconscionable that she tell a personal story involving a famously reclusive Great Man.

In this climate of #MeToo and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing/drama/crisis, Maynard’s memoir seems particularly pertinent. In the preface to the 2013 edition of At Home in the World, Maynard writes:

There are many things to say about me (good and ill) besides the fact that for a brief time in my late teens I was the follower (a more apt word than “lover”) of a famous man. But to excise the story of Salinger from the rest, out of a sense of obligation to protect the great man’s secrets, would have made it impossible to know myself, or to be known, or to pursue what every human being deserves—the simple right to tell her story.

I was forty-four years old when I wrote At Home in the World, having at that point maintained my career as a writer for twenty-five years…. Still, when this memoir was published in 1998, many people expressed the view of me as a “leach” (the word selected by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times) who had made her living off the flimsy story of a brief girlhood affair.

…At a literary gathering the winter after this book’s publication… a stunning thing occurred. As I took the stage to speak, an entire row of highly respected literary types got up from their seats—en masse—and exited the hall. Their message was clear: what I had to say did not deserve to be heard. Their sense of my story, and their outrage that I’d written it, would be preserved.

I think I’m reading Joyce Maynard to more closely touch the power, skill, and profound risk of telling one’s story—both the good and the ill, the messy and flawed, the decisions that were mistakes only in retrospect. That Maynard survived the near-universal criticism of her memoir and her very character, and continued to write and publish anyway—successfully—does more for my imagination than I can say.