Last year, one of my New York writing students mentioned two wonderful books in class: Why We Write, and Why We Write Memoir: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. Both books had been edited by Meredith Maran, a West Coast writer I had never heard of. But I had read many of the writers she interviewed for these books: The Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan had been my professor in graduate school, and the novelist and memoir writer Dani Shapiro had been a couple of years ahead of me at the high school we went to in New Jersey. I downloaded Why We Write Memoir and read it in two days. Within minutes of finishing it, I downloaded Why We Write. Both books are wonderful. If you are a writer, or you just want to learn how great writers write, work, think and rationalize, read these books. They are funny, entertaining, a little unnerving, and in many places, the writers are brutally honest.
Then, a year later, my publicist emailed me. She had publicized my first book when she was working as a freelancer. Now she was now working for a big publishing company and one of her authors, Meredith Maran, had a new book out, The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention. Meredith was available to come to speak to my class in NYC. Was I interested in meeting her? You bet I was. Never mind that by the time Meredith was going to be in NY, my winter classes would be over for the season, and I was not teaching the week she was in town. I scrambled to see if the lovely people I work with at the JCC Manhattan would let us use our regular classroom for two hours. Yes, they would. We settled on a date and my New York and New Jersey students came in for a Q&A with Maran the first week in April. We had a wide-ranging discussion about her writing process, where she writes, how she protects the identity of some of her characters, why she writes about some people and not about others, her father’s last day, and the highlights and lowlights of her book tour.
Maran is charming, candid, sharp and observant. But her real genius is in turning a story of grief into a deeply moving story of resilience, humor, love and reinvention. Over the course of the book, she loses her dear friend, her wife, her money and her father. She gives up up her life as a freelance writer and political activist, sells her lovely Victorian house in Northern California, and goes to work at a women's clothing company and couch-surf with friends in LA. This book is deeply moving and also funny as hell. You don't have to be gay, straight, married or divorced to enjoy it. You just have to revel in great writing. There are so many gorgeous sentences, and so many witty observations, it's hard to include them all but here is a sample.
"Since age fifteen, I’ve been burying my emptiness under the rock of marriage. That rock has rolled. There’s no left to fill that space. My own efforts will have to do.”
“Or maybe my usual defenses, judgments and desperation have fallen through the cracks in my broken-open heart.”
“My father was a Madison Avenue ad man, Don Draper without the booze or the cigarettes or the style. His longing to be a real writer went underground in him and resurfaced in me."
“I’m blessed and cursed with a journalist’s nosy nose.”
“Hello God? It’s me Meredith. Where’s my serenity? “
“Loss is a slow, slow walk. I’ve been sad about my dad for a long time. Now I miss him every day.”
“Biggest. Surprise. Ever. That cheery feminist crap is true. For the first time since childhood, I’m responsible to no one. I can be Helena’s girlfriend or break with her without upsetting my kids or my own living situation or my finances. I can make money or rest on whatever laurels I’ve got without depriving anyone of anything. I can binge-watch Girls till midnight or go to sleep at nine. The bad news and the good news is the same. I have nothing and no one to lose.”
“Even before I open my eyes, waking up on this birthday feels different. The solitary day I’ve planned is a long, quiet tunnel, one way in, one way out no interventions. No one around me knows, so no one will disappoint or rescue me. The day will be as pleasant or as unpleasant as I choose to make it.”
“I force my focus to the spicy snap of the pine needles shattering beneath my wheels.”
“Her eagerness to escape the emotions of the moment makes me smile.”