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The Big Idea

Lesson 18 from: How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

18. The Big Idea

Lesson Info

The Big Idea

This is something that I do. I actually, part of the whiteboard would have a lot of little scribbles about particular moments. It would be things like throwing out the paella. The rat, or the rat in the drywall bucket, or stealing the hairbrush or lots of things that would mean nothing to you but mean a lot to me and I didn't wanna forget them but for the purposes of this moment I'm gonna show you one of the most important things I did on my whiteboard for this story. I made columns. I know you're on the edge of your chair wondering what on earth these are gonna be about. Your story has to move and really it moves this way and this is, so this should be a horizontal whiteboard but we are having to work otherwise and these columns indicate motion, forward motion and the passage of time and they, and time passes in lots of different ways and the big story here, I'll put the cancer, I'll put here from and it begins with, actually we always begin before the beginning with sort of, healthy.

And then pain and then diagnosis and then a whole series of procedures, a big moment, they don't all occupy equal space. Some I take care of in half a sentence and some might be five pages is the surgery. And another big moment is cancer comes back. And another would be liver infection and so forth. So that would be, this would be the physical time-telling of this story. And incidentally, I'm just gonna tell you right now, I'm not gonna cry at all when I do this. I go into work mode and it has absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about the events here but it is crucially important, when you are telling the story that you become a professional. Whether anybody's paying for your work or not you are looking at it not as, oh my God here was my heartbreak but I am going to tell a good story and I'm going to work really hard to use the tools to do it. I am going to be a professional. So, okay this is the cancer column and there are a whole lot of, I call these the beats of the story. That's, but a story is unfolding at, in lots of different levels. Then there is the, gonna have to make more, the home story. Where I used to live, Marin County. Where I eventually lived when I first got together with Jim, Oakland. Going where I, when I got confused, didn't know. Should we live in Marin, should we live in Oakland? Does this sound like a very exciting story? Marin, Oakland, Oadland, Marin, Marin Oakland, no it doesn't. This is simply one set of beats. This is not what the story is about, this is the backdrop. This is another way that we tell time, where do we live, very basic. And here comes a very big beat, buy the house in Hunsaker County. We found this extraordinary, magical place. Off in the woods, in Lafayette and we sold our houses and we moved in together and at the age of 60 we were starting this new life. So one of the ways that I'm telling this story is by home. We bought the house, excited, fixing up the house. Planting olive trees. Picturing where the grandchildren are going to be. This is all the house stuff. Fixing up the house and it includes things like the wisteria, which was where we bought the house. Here's another category. I never thought that I was going to write a book that would have this category, cars. Vehicles, cars and vehicles. Jim happened to be a man who loved a good car. I happen to be a woman who was driving a 1995 Honda Civic when I met him that I had been driving for 25, 20 years at that point. Jim was driving a very old but well loved Porsche Boxster. I am going to follow the track of the vehicles. Joyce, and it's not Jim's car story, it's my car story actually but my car story came to include his. So it's the Honda, it's the Porsche, it's the Porsche having, it is, the Porsche is the backdrop for a love affair that takes place in a Porsche. Driving very romantically up to Point Rays, top down. Driving home late at night, nobody's out there, let's just take off our clothes in the Porsche, whatever. It is the setting for pieces of our story. And then there's the, and then, somewhere around here, then there's a motorcycle that comes in. Jim goes to motorcycle school at age and we decide we're going to. First we thought we were gonna ride the motorcycle across the United States, that didn't sound like a very great idea. So we shipped the motorcycle across the United States. I wanted to show him New England and then once we get there I realize, you know, sometimes it rains in New England and we're gonna be there for awhile. So we go on Craigslist and we buy, for $ actually sight unseen a 1982, 1992 red Chrysler LeBaron Convertible. If anybody has ever seen a red Chrysler LeBaron Convertible, it's one of the uglier cars. It was rather offensive to Jim, or at least I won't say it was offensive, he was so along for my ride but it was not the kind of car that he ever pictured that he would be driving. So then we got the LeBaron. One of the beats is at the end of that summer, we certainly were not gonna bring that LeBaron back to California where he had a Porsche waiting for him. So one of the beats of the LeBaron story is that on the last day we were staying at a hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and the valet parker who was about 19 years old yesterday brings the car up to the front and says to Jim with this worshipful look, "Oh my God, that was the most wonderful car I ever drove." Jim looked at him like what have you been driving. And I said because we really, we were planning to donate this car somewhere and I said to the young valet parker, "Would you like to have it?" And gave him the keys and off we went. So that's, you see how a story can be told in a car too and then there was a story, rather near the end of this book in which Jim was by this time very very sick. He couldn't work anymore. There were a lot of things that were just too hard for him and he, and he still loved cars and the Porsche was not doing well. The top no longer went up and down and I used to see him in the mornings when he used to work on cases but he didn't have any more cases, even an attorney to work on and I would see him looking at the website of the Tesla and what I really wanted was to get him a Tesla but we couldn't afford a Tesla but I said to him one morning, let's get you a BMW. I said, I didn't even know what the car would be. I said, let's get you a great new car. And I said, what car would be a good car? And he knew right away what model of BMW it was. He was a little foggy at this point. He was on a lot of drugs and we, and I didn't know much about any of these things and we went to, we didn't buy the car the way I would which would be very used, very beat up on Craigslist. We went to a BMW dealership and we bought, I am now confessing to you the level of my madness, we bought a almost new, one year used BMW M3X something. I don't know what it was, but I used to drive it. A very expensive car. We did not lease this car. Do I need to tell you why we didn't lease this car? No, I didn't want Jim to be driving a leased car and I wanted Jim to see me believing that Jim was gonna live. So we spent a whole lot of money and eventually lost a whole lot of money 'cause of course I had to sell this car. But, so there's the BMW and it, very soon after part of the story is Jim couldn't drive anymore. So who's driving the fancy BMW? Me, the Honda Civic girl who really doesn't care at all about cars, so now there's Joyce driving and Jim dies and for the first time I take the wheel of the Porsche that I've never driven before. I do drive stick but I had never been the driver. I loved being the passenger. All my life I've been the one driving and I loved being the passenger and now I'm driving the Porsche and I'm thinking, wow I have a Porsche now. Who would have ever guessed I'd be the owner of a Porsche and that lasted about three drives and then I'm driving along route 580, outside of Berkeley and all of a sudden smoke begins coming out of that car in all directions and flames out the back and the Porsche is dead. Towed away, never seen it again. And guess what I'm back to, the Honda. Okay, there's a whole story, a whole story told in cars and that's only one of my columns. Look at all the other columns. I'm gonna name a few of them. I'm going to name, photography. Jim was a photographer so there's cameras, and there's the pictures that he took and there's the new special lens and losing the lens and the portraits of me that he took. Right down to the very last picture that he took in the Owens Valley on a trip that he, when I didn't think he could get out of the car and he set up his tripod and he took a picture and I took a picture of him taking that picture. Okay, there's music. He played the bass. And I'm gonna talk about, and actually, another whole section is the Beatles. He loved the Beatles and there's somebody here. Who is there, it's Bambi. Bambi said your official religion was the Beatles. Well Jim too, Jim actually loved Led Zeppelin, he loved all kinds of music but when he got near the end of his life, the Beatles, the Beatles came up in a lot of different times for us. As did some other people. And we saw many of them live and we went to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and that would all be in this music. We went to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The first time we went I made him run frantically from one stage to another 'cause I didn't wanna miss any of the music and he was really good at doing that. He was not a pushy person and guess what, I'm a very pushy person. So I'm elbowing through the crowds and he's like, oh my gosh but he is keeping up with me. And we're running through and the last time we go to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass he can't go to any of the other stages. We set up our blanket in one spot and we stay put. So there's music, the Beatles. The end of his life, Jim began ordering. He began ordering a lot of stuff from Amazon. Like shoes, every day another box of shoes. He began to order remastered Beatles and when we made that last trip, trips incidentally is a column. And one of them is Paris. There's a whole Paris column because we went to Paris right after we met and we went to Paris many other times or four other times and I went to Paris alone. That's the end. After Jim died, I had to go to Paris alone. But the Beetles, he's buying these remastered Beatles and when we drive to the Owens Valley, a very long drive, we go through the entire Beatles catalog from the beginning to the end. I don't need to say anything about that. Our lives, I was 11 years old when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. Jim was 12, Jim's father wouldn't let him watch the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. That'll tell you something about the father he had. The Beatles spanned our lives. The Beatles contained our, they were a container for our lives. So okay, we've got the Beatles. Oh my gosh, we've got so much more. I've got dogs and cancer wives. All the women that I got to know and talk to on the phone. There was something called the pancreatic cancer men's club. I thought it would be a really, Jim was a much more private, introverted kinda guy and I was all about sharing and I learned at my hairdresser's one day that there was a little group of men who all had pancreatic cancer and got together for breakfast once every couple of weeks and I kinda pushed him out the door, you need to meet these men 'cause they were gonna network and find out about treatments and clinical trials. What I didn't recognize was, they were all gonna die one by one. So the cancer, the pancreatic cancer men's club column is first Steve dies, then I won't name them all but one by one they all began to die. I had not figured that one out. Clothes, Jim was a very snappy dresser and he had really beautiful clothes. I was more of a thrift shop kind of a girl. But I, we had a whole thing about the closet and he took that, as he took so many other things, even though his clothes were very beautiful, they were in the box and mine were the thrift shop ones and they were in the closet. And ultimately of course, his clothes were falling off of him. Which brings me to another column, oh no room. Weight, one simple way of telling this story is what did he weigh? And when a man starts out weighing 150 pounds, he doesn't have anything to lose. So we are going down, down, down, down, down. I mean, you know, one very clear way of telling time of course, is the months. And the months passed. Oh, here was an important one for us, politics. He was a very political man. When he first started grimacing and being out of sorts and kind of grumpy, very uncharacteristically grumpy, I attributed it to the politics of 2014. I thought that was bad. And I actually said to him, "I'm so sick of hearing you talk about this election." This was just a midterm election when he, you know the worst person he knew to talk about was John Boehner. And by the time he was near the end of his life he was on hospice and staggering into a polling place to cast his vote in the California primary. So there's another, and of course after he died I experienced the 2016 election without him and reflected on the fact that if he wasn't already dead this would have killed him. Okay, photography, clothes, drinking. What happened with drinking which was, we began to drink a lot. That was the thing that we did and I actually recognize that it was a problem. I was looking forward to my glass of wine at the end of the day and then I was looking forward to another. What was going on at the meaning of home, the meaning family, of course. Actually this is not a big family story. Our children were grown and gone and far away but of course they put in appearances. This one and that one from the two different marriages and the wounds of divorce. That was a theme for both of us and ultimately it was one of the things that we were able to resolve together. We had each seen our families fall apart, break apart, felt enormous guilt over not having been able to make our marriages work and part of the arc of the family, the family column was my recognition that finally at the age of 62 I was part of a happy family. And it was a happy family of two people. One sort of odd one, I call the rat. We moved into this paradise of a place that we bought in the middle of the woods. This sort of magical home on seven acres of land that we never would've thought we could possibly afford with all these little nooks and crannies and a brook and a rat. And over the, and the arrival of the rat seemed to almost to signify the beginning of trouble. And over the course of first the couple of months that we lived in that house before Jim was diagnosed and the many months after, a theme, an obsession for both of us, but particularly Jim was how do we get of this rat. This was a super-rat. He was inventing all kinds of ways to dispose of that rat and that rat seemed unkillable until one day we came home and we found the rat lying belly up, dead. About probably two weeks before Jim died. God, actually God is there in this story. Jim was raised in a fundamental Christian family. Fundamentalist Christian family, he resisted heavily the kind of doctrines and rigidity and punitive nature of the way that he was raised but actually he always was a person of faith and I wasn't raised that way but I was his partner and I saw that happening and one of the episodes near the end of his life was going to church. Art, we, actually this is a funny one. The San Francisco art museum, was San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was expanding over the course of the period of our relationship. One of the things he talked about the very first date we had was, I cannot wait for that new Fisher collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and it, so this is not a big part of the story understand. This is just one thin little thread. We were waiting, he was waiting for that museum to open and when it finally opened, was June of, late May or June of 2016, well he died on June 16th of 2016. We went two times to that museum. And that's part of that story, finally going to that museum and what happened when we did. Okay, food is a, of course food is a, is a theme. We loved food, I loved cooking food, he liked eating the food I cooked. Then he couldn't eat the food I cooked. And I was trying desperately to find food that he could eat and I was cooking like crazy and I was shopping. I was going to the supermarket three times a day trying to find some ingredient that would work on a, the kitchen counters were filled with ingredients for smoothies that had 3000 calories. I wouldn't even take a sip of them, they were so fattening. Okay, I, this is all work I do before I write and I begin to see the way. You know, when your story has lots of elements. Like for instance, Samantha. She's tracking, she's tracking her love affair with Steve. She's also tracking what's happening with the guide dogs. She's also tracking what's happening with her daughter. She's also tracking what's happening with her career. She's also tracking where she lives, the Yukon, the United States. These are, she may not use all these things but we follow a story as it goes over time in a number of different ways simultaneously.

Ratings and Reviews

Michelle Foulia

I've been working on my memoir for over a year and was close to the end of the first draft. This amazing class is filled with so much wisdom and excellent teaching. I have watched all the videos back to back, made plenty of notes and loved every moment. I am really grateful I bought this class before moving any further with my memoir as sadly I definitely need to start from scratch. As frustrating as that is, I am relieved it happened now and I can use all this knowledge in the rewrite. I also can't wait to read Joyce Maynard's books. Brilliant!

Doris Freeston

Excellent course! Joyce Maynard provides valuable insights and practical instruction in the art of memoir writing, while telling her own stories, with grace, humility and humour. Thank you, Joyce.

Tammy Adams

I've watched this course twice now and have gotten something new from it both times. Joyce is not boring in her delivery and shares a practical breakdown of how to write a memoir. She's a great teacher in the art.

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