Dissecting a Good Container Essay
I'm gonna dissect a container essay. And the container essay that I feel best equipped to dissect is written by, guess who. Me. So I can talk about why I made and how I made the choices that I did. So I'm gonna, I'm gonna actually read you a container essay that I wrote. It was a modern love column that ran in the New York Times in 2016. At the time that I wrote it, my husband was battling cancer, but he was still alive. And I wanted to, the big global idea that I wanted to explore was my marriage and the possibility of losing my husband. But that's huge. And it contains a lot of elements. It first of all contains how long I was alone before I met him. 25 years after my divorce, for 25 years, I was on my own. So that's part of my story. Who I was, that's the curtain goes up. And of course part of my story with Jim is meeting Jim. And part of my story is falling in love. And again, I'll choose a small container for that, but that isn't the container for today. That was another container...
, a different day. A summer that we shipped his motorcycle, first he learned how to ride a motorcycle, then we shipped the motorcycle that he just learned how to ride to New Hampshire and spent the entire summer riding. Thank God, because he was healthy then, riding that motorcycle all around the backwards woods of New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. And then I'm gonna talk, and then there's the story of his asking me to marry him. And me not really wanting to get married. Me no longer trusting marriage and feeling very uncomfortable. I wanted to be with him, I loved him, wanted to live with him even, but didn't feel like I needed to get married or wanted to get married and was actually afraid of getting married. And we'll come back to that one. The wedding. The diagnosis. The struggle to save his life and pursuit treatment. In particular, pursue the operation that we had been told was his one chance at life, which is a truly horrific surgery called the Whipple procedure. And then the moment when we learned that he could get the surgery. Those are all surgeries I wanted to tell. But I only have 1700 words in a modern love column. And so the container that I chose was a single day and the single day that I chose was the day that we were in Boston to have the surgery. And this is an essay called, What Luck Means Now. And I'm gonna read it, but I'm gonna talk you through it at various points. Paragraph one, curtain goes up. The room where I'll spend the day if I am lucky is fluorescent lit, lined with hard plastic chairs that face each other, with a scattering of magazines and a reminder on the wall concerning the importance of hand sanitizer. What do you know? You're in a hospital. Though friends have offered to accompany me, I have chose to come here alone. On the opposite side of the room, a family has gathered. A man in his early 60s, like me, and four young people around the ages of my children. They are engaged in cheerful sounding small talk about their jobs, the Red Sox, now you know I'm in Boston. As for me, I don't feel like talking to anyone right now. And that is the landing place of that paragraph. And let's we're gonna consider this family a little bit later on. I've put in these strangers, I don't even know their names. They function a little bit like the cabbage patch doll in Liza's story, they're the back story. They're the thing that's going on while a bigger thing is going on. Next paragraph. I arrived here a little after 6am, after kissing my husband Jim goodbye, before they wheeled him into surgery. The surgery is expected to take 12 hours. Now at this point, you don't know what the problem is, but now you've heard 12 hours. Doesn't sound good. Though somewhere around hour three, we have been told the surgeon will have gotten to the place in Jim's abdomen where he can actually see the tumor, known to us so far, only as a deceptively innocuous looking gray area in Jim's CT scans. I can't describe the tumor, but I can describe seeing the scan. And because I want to make my story visual at all possible moments and I want you to know what it was like to be me, I'm going to show you me seeing the scan of the tumor. I want you to experience that. Sometimes, this turns out to be the moment when I was talking about how hour three we find out if the surgery can continue. Sometimes this turns out to be the moment when the surgeon discovers the tumor is not operable after all, in which case they stitch every up and deliver the news, we tried. I want you to hear voices wherever you can. Next paragraph. The tumor in question, I have never allowed myself to call it Jim's tumor. I want you to be that careful about language. I don't even wanna just say Jim's tumor. I don't, I have never allowed myself to call it Jim's tumor. I don't want to see him take ownership. Is two and a half centimeters in diameter and located in the head of Jim's pancreas. Power word, the head of Jim's pancreas. For my husband to survive, to have a shot of survival, this tumor must come out. Feel that rhythm? This tumor must come out. I let that screw gun fly. The operation we hope will accomplish this calls for the removal of a part of Jim's pancreas, his gall bladder, his duodenum, part of his small intestine and part of his stomach. Now I could've saved a whole lot of dollars by just saying a very involved surgery, but I want you to actually feel it in your gut. I want to list every organ. Picture gutting a fish, Jim, a fly fisherman, explained to a friend. That's roughly the idea. New paragraph. It's an odd thing. Now I'm gonna show you how I begin to use the container to hold some of those other stories that I talked about. Meeting Jim, falling in love, the motorcycle trip, the diagnosis, the wedding. First one. It's an odd, it's an odd thing to say of a surgery like this one that a person is lucky to be receiving it, but Jim and I do feel lucky today. Seven months ago, here comes a flashback contained in the day, when we went to the doctor anticipating a diagnosis of gall stones, they told us the tumor was probably inoperable. Power word, inoperable, end of the paragraph. New paragraph. That's as much as I'm gonna telling you about the diagnosis, but I let you experience that moment in my life. Next paragraph. Oh, pardon me, I'm still in the diagnosis. There's a surgery that gives you a shot, Jim's doctor told us. We've talked about dialogue. The doctor in fact said a whole lot of other things. Do you want me to give you a transcript of everything the doctor said? Of course not. The big idea is a surgery that gives you a shot. A shot, just that, but suddenly a shot is everything. It's called the Whipple Procedure. From that moment on, the focus of our lives had become this, shrinking the tumor to the point where Jim could get the Whipple. And now after eight round of chemo therapy and two of radiation, the day has come. Power phrase, end of paragraph. Next paragraph. The Whipple is a brutal surgery in the best of circumstances. The best, notice I'm talking about words a lot. Lucky, the best, Jim's tumor. The best being an odd phrase to employ when discussing a form of cancer with a two year survival rate of somewhere around five percent. Don't Google it, they told us that first day, but we did. Here comes another flashback contained within that one day. The day we learned the news, just 15 months had passed since our wedding on a New Hampshire hillside with our friends and children gathered around. And fireworks exploding over us and a band backing us up as we performed a duet on a John Prine song. And talked about all the trips we'd take, the olive trees we'd plant, no matter if it took five years to reach a harvest. Do I have to explain about that one? Each of us had been divorced, here comes another piece of the back story, our histories. Each of us had been divorced almost 25 years by this point. How lucky, everyone said, that we'd found each other when we did. New paragraph. Now luck means getting to have this operation. Four hours later, luck means getting a call from the operating room from a nurse who tells me they've reached the tumor now, they're going in for it. Again, a human voice. Not everything the nurse said. Oh, how are you doing? Are things okay up there in the waiting room? No. Next paragraph. I have brought a book with me today, but keep reading the same sentence. On the other side of the room, remember that family that I told you about? The 60-something, here they come again. The 60-something year old father and the young people are unwrapping sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria and laughing. The 20-somethings are reminiscing about their mother, familiar family stories from the sound of it. If not for the institutional decor, you could think they were enjoying a family reunion. So there's me, alone in the room. And then there's a family with the father and the kids and everybody having a good time. I want you to feel what it was like to be me that day. Next paragraph. Again, I'm going to contain within this story some back story information. My own children and Jim's are nowhere near. I'm 3,000 miles away from home here. In those terrible weeks after the diagnosis, after speaking with many surgeons, many hospitals, sending out copies of scans, waiting on hold, one phone against each ear, I want you to have a picture of me. What does a desperate woman look like? One phone on each ear. It was in this city, this hospital, where we found the surgeon who told me, I believe I can get your husband's tumor out. Next paragraph. So that's a big moment. That's one leap. Next paragraph. Now here we are. Here comes another flashback, to yesterday actually. Not even 18 hours before coming to the hospital we celebrated with a day game at Fenway Park and after, we celebrated the Rex Sox victory with oysters and had a martini each. Jim bought a cap at the game. Bald for many months, his hair was back. He was thin, but handsome. Next paragraph. Now I'm going to go right into another flashback because when we're sitting in a waiting room in a hospital, we're not just looking at the posters on the wall. We are thinking, we are remembering. Part of our experience in one place, is remembering things that happened in other places. It was just about two years before that he'd asked me to marry him on the deck of his Oakland home, overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge, with a couple of martinis and a plate of oysters in front of us. Never a skillful liar, Jim had pointed me towards a particular oyster with the suggestion that I try that one. Tucked into the shell, a diamond ring. You notice, I had even though the marriage was short, I had hundred of experiences with this man. I'm choosing a very few. But choose them wisely. Next paragraph. By this point, I had been single, and it's another back story, I had been single 24 years. Just putting that ring on my finger felt odd, almost embarrassing as later it would be difficult to speak the phrase, my husband, or refer to myself as Jim's life. File that one away. That's called the problem. The big obvious problem is my husband has a tumor in his pancreas, but the other problem, and actually from the point of view of the essay, this is a central problem is, I didn't feel comfortable being married. To me, marriage had meant trouble, failure, pain. Why risk that again? New paragraph. Only I did. We bought a house together, made big plans. Then came the diagnosis. Short paragraph. I probably read this one out loud in a room. Next paragraph. I think it was then, not the day of our wedding, when the words wife and husband entered my vocabulary. The first time I could speak them without awkwardness. They slipped into my speech over the days, weeks, months I spent navigating the world of cancer treatment, searching for the bobbing scrap of hope in an ocean of trouble. Drug trials, immuno therapy, extreme diets, proton beams. I wanna name all these things. I want you to feel all the texture and day in, day out of the struggle. I express mailed our scans to facilities as far away as Germany and when they told us the next appointment was three months out, I pressed harder. My husband needs to see the doctor now, I said. My husband. Next paragraph. At some point over those months I realized I no longer spoke of Jim's treatment or Jim's scan. We have an arc happening. We have motion. I used to, but now I. And it's not just Jim used to be healthy, but now he has cancer because this is my story too. I used to, but now I. At some point over those months I realized I no longer spoke of Jim's treatment or Jim's scan. We're on Folfirinox now, I said of the new chemotherapy regimen. We're getting cyber knife radiation. And then we shrank the tumor by 50%. We're getting surgery. Now I'm circling all the way back, almost. But there's another backstory, another flashback. For years after my divorce, I'd called myself a solo operator, but I had longed for a big romance and with Jim I found it. The summer after we met, we found a 1982 Chrysler Lebaron Convertible on Craigslist in Maine and bought it, sight unseen. Then flew across the country to pick it up. Don't be afraid to take unexpected little back roads, literally or figuratively. We spent that summer putting 4,000 miles on that convertible. Mostly New England back roads. We ate lobster rolls and danced under the stars and talked about riding Jim's motorcycle across the country. Next paragraph. Ally McGraw and Ryan O'neal might have made it look otherwise, but cancer is not romantic. This is one of the very few moments in this whole piece that I pull back and actually speak in some abstractions that I actually offer some commentary, but not for more than one sentence. Now I'm back to pictures. Always a lean man, Jim dropped 30 pounds. I had always admired the way he dressed. Conservative, but sharp. Now he wore his suit like David Burn in the talking heads video of our youth. When it looked as if a recurrent C-diff infection might kill him, he was down to 108 pounds and dropping. I persuaded him to have a fecal transplant, donor me. I said, in The New York Times that I provided fecal matter for my husband to save him from C-diff. I did not blink and neither should you. Next paragraph. He had been, since age 13, a bass player, a rock and roll guy. Also an eagle scout. He had a good boy side and a bad boy side. I loved that about him. Now as the chemo ate away at him and his triumph gathered dust, it seemed important that he keep playing so I invited his rock and roll friends over. One day I made paella for the whole band and their wives, but that was the day the neuropathy kicked in from the chemo leaving Jim's fingers numb, unable to play. That night, picture, picture, picture, picture. That night I stood at the, what does it look like to cancel a party that you were going to make paella for 30? I'll tell you. That night I stood at the edge of our silent yard and dumped out five pounds of seafood. No rock and roll that day or that season or the one that followed it. Dinner time now. In the waiting room, remember that waiting room? Remember that family? They're back. The family across from me have brought in food. They are just opening their styrofoam containers when a woman approaches them, bends to speak with the father, a hand on his shoulder. The daughter leans in and the son and the two others I have come to realize, must be their partners. What am I doing here? Next paragraph. Suddenly the room is spinning. The food drops to the floor. The father, and I'm showing you this as I saw it. I never even learned their names. The father just sits there, hands to his face, shaking his head, but the children are weeping, then wailing. I want the rhythms of these sentences to actually convey chaos, the kind of chaos that a family experiences in a hospital waiting room when they've heard the mother has died. Someone stands up, staggers, drops to the floor, they all rush out. Food wrappers and bag abandoned. Next paragraph. It can happen that swiftly, the end of life as you know it. Then too, time can creep so slowly. Even a minute seems endless. It's close to midnight and the call comes from the surgeon. This was the toughest Whipple I every performed, he says. They got the tumor and took 38 lymph nodes. It will be another few days before the pathology report, but things look good so far. Next paragraph. I make my way down the hall to the recovery room. Choose your verbs so carefully. I don't even say walk. I say, make my way. I find the bed with Jim in it, though he is much changed. Here comes another flashback, even now. He's much changed from that person I first met not even four years earlier on a Match.com date at a restaurant in Verin County where I kept waiting for him to suggest that we order something, but he never did. Later he explained, I was just so knocked out by you, I forgot. Next paragraph. There were tubes coming out of him. His eyes are closed, his mouth is open. He looks 100 years old right now, but he is alive. I'm his wife, I tell the nurse and take my place by the bed. The last sentence is not, he looks 100 years old right now, but he is alive because it's actually not about Jim. It's about my journey that day. That's the story I get to tell. It's about my recognizing that I was married. And that's what the piece is actually about. (applause) I think we get a little bit of time for questions.
Can we breath first? Thank you so much for not just reading that piece for us, but walking us through your mind.
Well that's the point, of course.
As you're writing it now, it's just stunning.
And ultimately, that's what you do. That's what you do when you're alone in your room with your writing and you're making those decisions. And you notice I always mention, new paragraph because I'm so conscious of those paragraphs. So what do the people out in internet land have to say?
Well we do have a--
And they don't have to be on this topic. We just have a little bit of--
No, this is great. We do have a question from Stella who is trying to get some clarification. Stella says, so if the container is best for an essay, then is a memoir a series of containers, she's just trying to clarify.
Or can the, or is the memoir just one container, it seems like it could be a series of them.
A memoir can be a series of containers and a memoir also is still, even if the memoir is 350 pages long, we still want to feel that there is a through line, a theme besides these are all the things that happened to me. But yes, within the big story of the memoir, we have these smaller stories that all support that theme. And a version of this, I'm not a big one for recycling my small work in a memoir, but a version of this, of this essay does appear, somewhat differently, in The Best of Us. Partly, I'm talking about this container because I so urge you to begin. I don't wanna discourage anybody from writing a full length memoir, but I want to encourage you to begin by telling these small stories. The one day that your mother beat you. Or rather, and most importantly the day that you said no. The day that you went to the social worker. The day that your mother got the mink coat and then didn't get it. Both of those, all of those that, the day that your father accompanied you to get the artificial leg, which is not an artificial leg story but a father story. Those are all small stories that once you've mastered the telling of the small story, it will assist you greatly in telling the big on.
Thank you. Do we have questions in the studio? Grab a mic. Great. No, perfect.
We have time right now.
I wanna know, when you talk about writing as if you were an orphan, what if you're almost worried, like I'm looking at all of this and I'm looking at all of my stories and I'm really seeing that the container I think I've been trying to avoid the container because I felt like people would be tired of it. Or it's been a theme that's been done. It's like who wants to read another, I hate my mom story.
Oh you're jumping ahead to the next segment, Jasmine, but that's okay, that's totally fine. You know what? Nobody's had your life. Nobody has had your life. And it's not, and basically everything under the sun has already happened. So it's how it happened to you. How you experienced it. Don't be afraid of, and if you know, if you have, you said I'm afraid that I, this is one theme, great if you have a theme. Great if you are very clear on what the theme of, or a big theme of your life has been. Irene knows, years after her mother's death she's haunted by her mother. Her mother still speaks to her from the grave in her head. Great, she knows what her theme is.
We do have a question from Debbie online.
Debbie says, can you do this process with, some of the container process, with someone who doesn't have a life full of big stories?
Oh my goodness. Well once again, we are sort of jump, hold that thought, Debbie because we're gonna talk about that. But I, and I'm so sorry you're not in this room because I know I'd find your stories. Then I wouldn't be able to shut you up, there'd be so many of them. I have never in 25 years of teaching memoir, I have never not found a story for somebody. But a big story doesn't necessarily mean some huge event. It can be a big emotional change. The story that I just read all took place in a hospital waiting room basically, in an ICU. I didn't go anywhere. But I went somewhere emotionally over the course of those 19 months that my husband was fighting for his life. Hey, Rue.
What if you know it is a big story in your life, but you have a hard time connecting to the emotions of it?
Ah, you have a hard time connecting to the emotions of it. Why do you have a hard, why do you think that is? Maybe, I'm sure it's not that you're an unfeeling person. I'm gonna guess it's just the opposite. That you're a very feeling person and you're afraid of going to those emotions because once you open that dam, who knows, it's very scary, right? But I, and it's part of why I so believe in all these tools, these very discipline tools of craft because they will help you contain it. But you've got it, you've got, it isn't that you've escaped pain. You've just locked it up. And you had an autoimmune disorder for example. I'm no physician, but we, one way or another we hold our pain. And to me, I actually regard, I totally unscientifically, I think one of the reasons why I've been a very healthy person my whole life is that I have been telling my stories. I don't hold them in. I haven't held them in for a very long time. Give it a try. You don't have to let it all out at once. Try one and see how that goes. And let yourself have a good cry. Let yourself go to the, look it straight in the eye of the thing that scares you the most. There's a story that I tell in At Home in the World. A memoir that I'll talk about a little bit more in the next segment, but there is a seed at the very end of the book where 25 years after being sent away from the man who I considered my destiny when I was 18 years old, the man who I worshiped like a religion and who I protected for 25 years with my son because he was so much more important than I was. 25 years after I decided to pay him a visit. I was in my 40s. I had lived within an hours drive of him for many, many years in New Hampshire and never felt that I could go see him. But on the eve of my 44th birthday, I did. And I drove up the hill to this house that was like a fortress and I knocked on the door. And there was a young woman, a different young woman, one of a series in the kitchen and she called to me, what do you want? And I said, I've come to see Jerry. Would you tell him Joyce Maynard is here? And I waited a very long time. I think I was kept waiting about 10 minutes. But I knew he would come and he did. I looked straight into the face of the person and the experience that had haunted me so much and that I had avoided for 25 years. And I went straight to it. And do you know, it never scared me again. He did come to the door and he said some pretty, he said possibly the ugliest things that anybody's ever said to me. And shook his fist at me while he said them. But I was not afraid anymore. I had shown a light under the bed. And I had looked at the monster under the bed and it wasn't so bad. I think you can do it. I was a lot older than you when I did that.