Meet Our New Columnist: Joyce Maynard

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Photo: Sebastien Micke

Long ago (the early 80’s, when Kim Kardashian was in diapers and Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been born, when telephones had rotary dials and a woman was more apt to be found giving herself a home permanent than attending a yoga class), I used to write a newspaper column about my life, called “Domestic Affairs”.

At the time I started writing the column, I was 30 years old, married six years, with three young children. I‘d been publishing my stories since I was 14, first in Seventeen, and then in other magazines, but I mark the time when I started writing those once-a-week reports on my family’s life at the end of a dead end road in a very small New Hampshire town as the moment I learned about the rich relationship a writer can have with her readers. 

When you’ve taken the time to tell a person an honest story, particularly one that doesn’t star your most virtuous or heroic self, that person may come to view you as a friend. It was a two-way street. I cared a lot about the women who read my stories and wrote to me. 

As a former journalist who had briefly, in my twenties, labored in the newsroom of the New York Times, I set myself the goal, with my column, of approaching my tales of our family life as I would have approached the task of being a foreign correspondent or a theater critic. I would be a reporter, covering the beat of relationships and home, as if they mattered just as much as what was going on in the Middle East or on Wall Street.  Because to me, and to a lot of other people, they did. Still do. 

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Maynard’s author photo for Seventeen magazine.

I grew my own tomatoes back then, canning them in the fall so that we could dine on spaghetti with homemade sauce each week.  One terrible night, the jars started exploding. First one, then a few dozen more, until our pantry looked like a crime scene and I was weeping on the floor, covered in sauce. In those days, I thought that’s what trouble looked like. 

Another time, in the middle of a particularly rough patch, I held a pair of shears up to one of my two long braids. “I’m going to cut this off if you don’t talk to me,” I said to my husband, too foolish to recognize that I would be the one to suffer the loss of my hair the most. 

I didn’t publish newspaper stories about every single thing that happened in our lives, but I didn’t ever pretend that things were easy when they weren’t.  What happened over those years of sharing my stories with women in Portland, Oregon and Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and a few hundred other towns and cities I’d never been to, was that I acquired a deep sense of responsibility, to give those women an honest story. I wanted to share the kinds of experiences a woman and her family had in real life, not on the TV shows of my sixties childhood, the ones that made me feel ashamed and guilty for coming from something other than a perfect household. 

I wanted, I said, to tell the story of being a strong, independent woman—I call myself a feminist, without apology—who had come of age in the early seventies, who also believed that raising children constituted one of the most meaningful acts a person (man or woman) might engage in. (Not the only deeply meaningful act, just one of them.)  I wanted, in an honest and unsentimental way, to report on the life of a woman struggling through a complicated marriage (which is to say, a marriage), trying to figure out how much she owes her children, and how much she owes herself. Like a lot of women I knew in my daily life (and from those letters), I put my needs last.

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The author with her children in New Hampshire.

The summer I was 35, my mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I left home to take care of her for what I knew would be the last months of her life.  That October, the week she died, my husband told me he didn’t want to be married to me any more. He’d fallen in love with someone else. Our babysitter.

Of the many difficult things about that fall, one was what happened to my writing life. Of the fifty newspapers that ran my column, nearly half dropped it. An editor in Chicago said, “Joyce Maynard is no longer equipped to write about family life.” In fact, the opposite was true.  I mark that year—no more parents to please or husband to protect—as the moment I was able to begin telling the most honest stories. 

In the 25 years since the day I drove that U-Haul truck down the driveway of our old farm and into my new life as a single mother, a lot has changed. Eventually, my kids and I moved to California, just north of San Francisco. I wrote more books, including a memoir in which I told a story about a relationship I’d had with a very famous and hugely admired man who’d written to me when I was 18. It shocked a whole lot of people who said I should have kept my mouth shut on that topic.

My two older children, and finally my youngest son, left home, and when he did, I had no choice but to take care of the only person who was still around: myself. I had a few hundred first dates with men who listened to my story, as I listened to theirs. A few of these men stayed in my life.  Most didn’t, but I think I learned something from them—about what I wanted and deserved, and what I didn’t. 

As a girl, and then as a young woman who had struggled with anorexia and bulimia, my main goal was a thin body. In my forties I realized I needed to be strong and healthy. My body was in the best shape of my life, but I studied my face in the mirror and wondered where the girl went. I had to let go of some parts of me that I had taken for granted. My knees, for instance. A certain kind of crazy, reckless abandon where love is concerned. Being noticed when I walked down the street. 

Three years ago, on a Match.com date, I met Jim, a very good man who was also a single parent and veteran of his own hard divorce.  A year ago, on a mountain in New Hampshire, with all three of my children present, and all three of his, we got married. When our parents were the age we are now—60 and 62—they might have called themselves old. As for Jim and me:  we celebrated our honeymoon with a four-day hike in the White Mountains. 

I write novels these days, stories that come from my imagination.  But I‘ve never stopped wanting to share the stories of my own life too.  Doing this connects me with all those other women out there who read what I write—men too, on occasion—and may feel slightly less alone because of it. Some of these are the same women whose letters filled my mailbox back in 1984, when they and I were starting out with the husbands of our youth and the babies who’ve since grown up now, the crazy perms, and skin that looked great without any expensive procedures.

Last year, a novel of mine called Labor Day, the story of a woman with a few miles on her, played by Kate Winslet, was turned into a movie. Jim and I were flown to the Telluride Film Festival for the premiere screening and I happened to bump into a woman a few years younger than I am, whose name was known to me from the pages of magazines—the same way some women have known me over the years. Bobbi Brown liked the movie and we got to talking, the way women do; we discovered we had plenty to share.  

“If you’re ever in New York, I’ll do your makeup,” she told me.  It was probably reason enough to go to New York. Then last week, Bobbi sent me an email, suggesting that I write for this new magazine of hers, and though nobody would call me an expert on beauty (particularly if they saw my fingernails, or the absence of sunscreen on my bathroom dresser), we both understood that the idea of beauty is a lot more than cosmetics or laser peels. So I said yes, I’d love to get to know your readers, and give them the opportunity to know me. 

And now here I am, to share my stories. 

So, let’s get started.  You’ll be hearing from me.  I hope I’ll hear back.  So much of what I’ve learned in life comes from what other women tell me about their lives. I’m always here to listen.