Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Joyce Maynard: On diving in and sometimes failing

Travel writer Joyce Maynard had many stories to share during a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society – and a few cautionary tales.

In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by fellow travel writer Don George, Maynard spoke of her most memorable journeys, her love of water – she now owns a home on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, the deepest in Central America – and her joys and missteps as a parent.

Chief among these was her story, told publicly for the first time, of her failed adoption of two Ethiopian orphans, and of her decision to take them on a disastrous road trip around Ethiopia before returning with them to the United States.

These decisions were “foolish and naïve, but my impulses were honest and well intentioned,” she said, noting that this nuanced story,  neither simple nor quick to tell, served to illustrate “how easily, especially in the culture we live in now, failure of understanding of the depth of a story can occur.”

Speaking out forthrightly about painful and personal matters such as this is part of Maynard’s appeal as a writer. Her “deep and abiding belief in telling the truth” springs in part from her own experience as the daughter of an alcoholic father – “a brilliant and extraordinary man who got drunk every night, and we never spoke about it.”

“I know what it would have meant to me to have some girl out there write about a father who got drunk,” she said. “As long as people don’t tell the kind of story that I sadly have to tell, there will be more.”

Maynard, now 58, also has been criticized for speaking out about her relationship as a young woman with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, now deceased. She described Salinger as “a bitter person” who she claims wrote “hundreds and hundreds of letters to teenage girls.”

Not all the evening’s stories were bad ones, of course.  Maynard spoke of the importance of traveling with children, and described her three natural children as her “biggest adventure.”

Without travel, “you think that life in your particular culture is the way it is,” she said. Afterwards, you realize it is just one way of living. “As soon as you have entered a culture and sat down and broken bread with them, you experience their lives on a whole different level. … I haven’t traveled to a place where I haven’t made a friend.”

But that is not to say that you ever truly belong there.

While living in Guatemala, Maynard said she had finally accepted that “I will always be a foreigner there,” and had come to terms with her status as an outsider.

That can be a good thing, she said, as writing about a place requires that you “recognize with humility that you don’t know it.” At the same time, “when you distance yourself from the familiar place, you see the familiar place better.”

Asked about traveling to dangerous places, Maynard said she was “just about never afraid,” as her most dangerous life experiences had occurred in her home state of New Hampshire.

“There’s danger everywhere,” she said.  “And the biggest danger is going through your life and not experiencing it.”

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