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On Joyce Maynard's Writing Classes ( and More)

Joyce Maynard has a big mouth. It’s either that, or she has too much integrity to lie about anything, despite the fact that telling the truth often gets her into trouble.

When you hear our podcast interview, you decide which it is.

I first met Joyce Maynard when I signed up for one of her writing critique classes which she conducts here in the Bay Area of California. I’d written my first full-length work ─ a memoir ─ and had signed with a literary agent within six months of actively looking for one. But I was having misgivings about that agent, and with the changes that she’d made to my manuscript. That’s why when I heard about Maynard’s classes, I decided it might be worth the investment to see what someone who is one of our best living female authors, I’d been told, had to say about my writing.

Interestingly enough, when I mentioned to my agent that I was planning to attend this workshop, she warned me to be wary of any advice I received, because Maynard was known in the industry for being “a little wacky.”

“She had an affair with J.D Salinger, you know,” Ms. Agent informed me, as though this added credence to her contention, “and she wrote about it in a tell-all exposé.”

Hmmm. That last comment should have rung another mental bell for me, since said agent was in fact representing me for what some have said is my own “tell-all”. But I was still at the stage in my career where I believed that any agent was better than none, so I went off to Maynard’s workshop prepared to be ‘on my guard.’

It was a good thing I was braced. Joyce critiqued my pages, sentence by sentence, without mercy or delicacy. And although I agreed with much of what she said, (my reason for going to see her in the first place), it was panic that made me argue defensively when she said this last, “I seriously question your agent’s abilities.”

And an astonishing thing happened when I disputed what she said. She set that elfin jaw of hers resolutely, those illustrious, Lady-the-Cocker-Spaniel brown-eyes chilled over, and she argued right back!

However, I got the very clear impression that she was not arguing to win a point, but rather to save my work, work that I remembered later on she’d also said “held promise”. And perhaps because she believed it did, or simply because she’s been paid to do the job, she was going to evaluate my writing honestly and fully, to the best of her ability, and with her knowledge of the craft to back her, even if it cost her a pupil.

I left that workshop not sure if I was furious or frightened. Did she think agents were queuing up to represent me? As an unknown, I didn’t dare to be too choosy. Yet one month later, my agent and I had parted ways, and I’d rewritten my manuscript almost precisely to Maynard’s recommendations. Less than a year after that, my book was published. To this day I credit her for setting me on that path.

In between, she sent me an email in which she wrote, “I worried that I’d been too harsh on you.”

And this is precisely the sort of deportment Maynard is famous for. Instantaneous emotional involvement in any given circumstance, brutal candor in her response to that circumstance, and painful self-censure of her reactions upon reflection.

She not only conducts herself in this manner personally, she reproduces this behavior for us in her writing. She writes about things that most women only talk about hesitantly, in low voices, amongst intimate friends, if at all. When in that so-called “tell-all” memoir, At Home in the World, she writes bluntly about a fight she had with her 18-year-old daughter over a college entry essay that had them wrestling each other to the floor, I didn’t know if I wanted to cringe at her meticulous descriptions of her bad behaviors, or cheer because she admitted them, thus allowing the rest of us, who have inadvertently alienated our children now and again by being overly involved in their lives, to know that we are not alone.

I read a great deal more of Joyce’s work to prepare for our interview, and I am now firmly convinced that she does not write to be admired or influential, she writes to understand herself and others. She writes because it was first a habit born of enforced practice at her mother’s insistence, and later because it became her way of recording both the ‘beauty and beast’ sides of human relationships. By her documented admissions of her limitations as daughter, sister, student, writer, lover, wife, and mother, Joyce Maynard lets her readers know that it’s okay to fall short, to sometimes be ‘ugly’ in our insecurities, neediness, selfishness, anxiousness, fearfulness, anger, and more, because from those negative feelings come our fumbles, and from our fumbles, we gain wisdom. And if we don’t, well then, at the very least, we’ll have a good story to share.

Many of the “Literati” disagree. When 23 years after the fact, she wrote in intimate detail about that affair with Salinger, an affair which took place when she was only 18 and a freshman in college, and he was 53 and the venerated author who’d created the much-loved Holden Caulfield, her revelations were regarded as heresy. The press, angered that Maynard had dared to make public the unpleasant particulars of Salinger’s predilection for 18-year-old girls who looked like 12–year-old girls, subjected her to a literary witch burning, through a distortion of facts that smeared her reputation and continue to taint the world’s perception of her to this day.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, in likening Maynard to Monica Lewinsky, was particularly vicious and inaccurate. So much so that Jules Siegel questioned Dowd’s media ethics and accountability, and called for support of ‘truth in journalism’ laws. Nonetheless, Dowd continues to be highly regarded, and won a Pulitzer for her writing the following year after her column on Joyce. However, only recently she admitted to “inadvertently” plagiarizing TPM’s Josh Marshall. That fact somehow fell under the radar, yet the hatchet job Dowd did on Joyce has stuck in everyone’s consciousness. Is it any wonder that people are now trusting Wikipedia more than they do their time-honored newspapers?

And while we’re pondering that, we might also want to think about what we would do if a very famous, much adored writer in his fifties, started sending letters to our daughter her first year away at college. (Maybe Maureen Dowd didn’t have any kids.) We’re not talking about a daughter who’d lost her virginity at age thirteen in the back seat of somebody’s Chevy, either, and certainly not one who had the attentiveness to hold onto a sex-stained dress, “just in case”. We’re talking about a naive girl, who desperately wanted to please her mother, and who’d loved literature since she was a child. If you add into that mix that she looked like she could still be wearing a training bra and pigtails, it occurs to me that someone should have stood up and protected Joyce Maynard. If not when she finally understood what had been done to her and decided to tell her story, than certainly when she was an ingénue.

There are too many of us who have felt that desperate need to please a parent, to reach that expected point of perfection that we too late realize is unattainable. I say, ‘too late’ because by the time we see how that compulsion to please has distorted our sense of self and our attitudes about what it means to love and be loved, we are inwardly fuming about it on a constant basis, or it becomes our only method of interaction with everyone we hold dear, be it our parents, our lovers, or even our children.

Joyce has done both seething and pleasing in her life, particularly during and after her stint with Salinger. Partly because by the time she realized that she’d been sold to Salinger (my words, not hers; Maynard is forthright about her own maternal missteps, but as you will hear in our interview, she would not, even when pressed, place any culpability directly on her mother) she no longer looked like an ingénue, so the world found it much easier to discount her, just as Salinger did once he was through with her.

Despite this, and other lessons hard-learned, Joyce Maynard is a lot less bitter than you might expect, especially these days. In our interview she talks about some ─ two, to be precise ─ astonishing and delightful new changes which will be taking place in her life shortly, and her wonderful new novel, Labor Day, which was released in late July. She talks about moving forward, and as always, is as plainspoken as only she dares to be. She shows us her scars, and in doing so, let’s us know we shouldn’t be ashamed to show ours.

There will probably always be some who are made very uncomfortable with that.
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Note: This article also appears at Harlots' Sauce Radio e-magazine Joyce Maynard's newest novel, Labor Day, is now in bookshops.