The Accidental Memoirist: How a Writer’s Rare Disease Became the Catalyst to “Overnight” Literary Success

I am thrilled to share with you a lovely essay written by Jon Reiner, whose new memoir describes what it is like to live with the medical command NBM, nothing by mouth — no food, no drink. For three months.

If you want an excellent introduction to the memoir, read the Esquire essay that preceded it. Now to the exciting back story written for the 100memoirs.com audience.

THE ACCIDENTAL MEMOIRIST

By

Jon Reiner

This story begins with one man in very bad shape in a hospital bed and another man sitting across from him in a battered hospital chair. Permit me to peel back the hospital curtain.

The sorry sack in the bed is me. I’m two months out from emergency surgery that saved my life but planted so many post-surgical complications that I’m sliding toward a lousy end and in a last, desperate, counter-intuitive, medieval act, my doctors have prescribed a nothing-by-mouth sentence that will last a while longer. No food, no drink, 18 hours a day on a pump feeding me through an IV.

The visitor sinking into the springless chair is my friend Mark Warren, a Happening Guy in dark jeans, pressed white shirt and natty blazer. Mark has been a pal during my ordeal, bringing me shopping bags of galleys and review copies cleared off his desk. He’s the Executive Editor of Esquire, and we’ve known each other for a decade since our sons were in pre-school together. Mark’s been to see me several times and checked-in on the phone, as well. He’s offered good counsel to my depression and existential angst.

The room is bathed in the ghoulish green light that gets creepier when visiting hours end, which will be announced in a few minutes. “I want to talk to you about something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Mark says, pinching the rimless glasses off his bridge and folding them into his breast pocket. His delicate features look more open and sturdy with the glasses off. “I want you to write about this experience for the magazine.”

I raise the head of the mechanical bed to sit up and reach something close to a conversational position, absorbing Mark’s offer. I speak before thinking. “Mark, I’ve been waiting for that kind of an offer for 25 years, but not for this. This is awful. No one will want to read about it. I wouldn’t want to read about it. I don’t even want to think about it.”

Before throwing up your hands and calling me an ungrateful S.O.B., I must share a little background information. For the previous quarter century I had studied and written fiction and drama, and, though I remained frustratingly unpublished and unproduced, the dream I still held was to see my name in print on the cover of a novel or on play. In fact, Mark had read my most recent manuscript just a few months earlier and helped me with introductions that led to some spectacularly enthusiastic, maddening rejections. “Jon Reiner, novelist,” yes – but this? Write about me? Write about being sick? I don’t think so.

“No, no, no,” Mark responds strongly. “The story isn’t about how miserable you are. The story is about what it’s like to have to live without food, here and outside when you’re home. What impact does food deprivation have on your life – psychologically, socially, culturally. You’re in an existential crisis. Craving what you can’t have is the embodiment. Everyone has a relationship with food. Everyone will be interested in this.

“Uh-huh.”

Mark left, and I didn’t think about the offer. I didn’t think about much but my encroaching doom, for a few days. I had asked for pen and paper immediately after I came to from the surgery and had recorded a page of notes about the shocking and surprising events that led me to Dr. Paz’s table. However, I’d stopped after a page and not returned to the notebook. My life was just so bleak, I didn’t need to plumb it on paper. But, I was thinking about food – constantly, vividly, desperately, nostalgically, hopefully – and I came back to my smart friend’s story pitch. The story is food. I also thought of a quote of John Berryman’s that I’d long loved in the abstract, and which, now, had more meaning than I ever could have imagined: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

Fiction shmiction. You’re a writer. You’ve been presented with a compelling story. What can you do with it?

I was discharged from the hospital and started writing, got sick again and went back in, continued writing, was discharged again and finished writing the feature story titled “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.” It was published in the September 2009 issue of Esquire and included a full-page photograph of me. I was published. The following spring, astonishingly, excitingly, absurdly, the story won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for Feature Writing. I was the anti-food food writer. It’s a niche, and I’m the only member.

The story also afforded me a creative benefit I didn’t appreciate until writing. Because of my circumstances – sick, starving, afraid, depressed, unemployed, son, brother, husband, parent – I was a sympathetic character. The reader’s compassion granted me wide latitude as a protagonist, and I could probe a difficult, flawed, conflicted, interesting character without worry of offense or alienation. I could be brutally and refreshingly honest without fear of losing the reader. It was the ultimate creative liberation. Like St. Augustine, I selected my sins in the story in order to heighten the drama of my reform.

While writing the magazine story, my dear friend and old college classmate, Mitchell Waters, said, “Esquire will be a great opportunity, but I really think of this story as a book. You should, too.” Mitchell is a literary agent. He was excited by the story when it was published and offered to represent me.

“Yes, a book would be a great opportunity,” I said from my living room couch, “but if we sold the proposal to a publisher, I’d be worried about being pigeon-holed as a memoirist, a non-fiction writer. You know that my real ambition, my real love is fiction.” Okay, I do grant you permission to throw up your hands and call me an ungrateful S.O.B.

“I understand that,” Mitchell said. “But the genre really doesn’t matter now. This would be good for you, good for your health. A writer writes.”

Jon Reiner, accidental memoirist

Underestimating the blessing of friends in your life does both them and you a disservice. I did prior to this episode in my life, and haven’t since. With Mitchell’s skilled guidance, I wrote a book proposal, and he submitted it to publishers. The morning after receiving a phone call, I was sitting at a conference table inside the Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books offices. Me – inside the Simon & Schuster building! By the time I arrived at my sons’ school to pick them up that afternoon, I had an offer. The next day, we accepted. I was a 25-year overnight sensation. I was a memoirist.

The end.

There’s so much to talk about in this essay! Story as food. The advantage of disadvantage in memoir. Genre doesn’t matter. Please offer your thoughts. What lights went on for you about memoir when you read this essay?

And what about the story itself? Have you had any similar experience with food deprivation?  Know anyone who has?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Guest blogger and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Accidental Memoirist: How a Writer’s Rare Disease Became the Catalyst to “Overnight” Literary Success

  1. jzrart says:

    Wow! I can’t even imagine not being able to eat or drink! But I do know that writing about it is probably the best thing he could do for his health and healing!! I want to read it!!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks for the comment, Joan. I’m going to invite Jon to comment also. I know he’ll be delighted you want to read his book. My father was unable to eat at the end of his life, and I remember the glare he gave me when I opened a pack of crackers in his presence. This article made me realize just how painful food deprivation would be and that I would do the same in his position.

  2. Jon’s compelling story sent me straight to his Esquire article. That sparked a flood of comparisons⎯what I think memoir should do even if one side of the comparison can’t match the seriousness of the memoirist’s: Jon, hungering for food he can’t have vs. a serious dieter hungry for calories he shouldn’t have; spouses whose stories would tell the other side. (Look at Buturini’s Keeping the Feast.) And more.

    Mostly, his story underscores my belief that memoir can be one slice of life as long as, like all best reading, it leaves me replaying, wondering, wanting more. This story does that.

    About genre, interesting that he’s reluctant to leave fiction for memoir. I cower in the face of fiction when limited information demands invention to complete the story.
    Thanks for bringing us this blog. It will stay with me awhile.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    Yes, this story does enter into the bones and blood, doesn’t it? And I hope you’ll buy the book to get the “more” you are looking for.

    Thanks for your comment and good luck with your own blog. You have experience in memoir that will be helpful to all readers here. I hope you’ll come back often.

  4. Lisa Steinke says:

    Shirley,
    Jon’s memoir is a must-read. Thank you for sharing it with your readers.
    All the best,
    Lisa

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Lisa. I was honored.

  6. Crystal says:

    I absolutely adore this essay and gobbled up the book – Jon’s story is an inspiring one on many fronts, thanks for sharing!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi, Crystal. Your use of the verb “gobble” was more intentional than usual, I suppose. I’m glad you loved the book. What inspired you most on the “many fronts”?

  7. Friesen Group says:

    Two things stand out to me in this post: The quote by John Berryman, “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” And Reiner’s reflection, “Underestimating the blessing of friends in your life does both them and you a disservice. I did prior to this episode in my life, and haven’t since.”

    I am thinking about the amazing sculptures flowing out of my father-in-law’s studio these days, partly (or largely) influenced by existential crisis. I am thinking about how much I have hated the cliché, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (I have never used the word “hate” lightly. It is on my list of quotes offered by my “well meaning people club.”) I am thinking about my family and friends who stood with me, freely offering their love and strength so that I could be strong.

    What forms can memoirs take? Essays? Books? Sculptures? Music? How do the different forms reflect the memoirist and her experience? How do those forms represent and change the community that surrounds the memoirist?

    With gratitude,
    Kathleen

    P.S. Off to encounter the book on my Kindle. Thank you for pointing the way to this memoir.

  8. shirleyhs says:

    So glad you were as impressed as I was by Jon Reiner’s writing, Kathleen, and that you are going to read the book. Do come back and offer your thoughts here again once you’ve done that.

    Isn’t phrasing interesting? The difference between the “well-meaning people” cliche and the John Berryman quote is not great int terms of literal meaning. But I agree that the one is elevating and the other saccharine.

    And yes! Memoirs take so many forms. I am amazed by our need to tell our stories.

  9. Jon Reiner says:

    Hello Shirley,
    At your invitation, I’m going to follow-up briefly with your fabulous readers. Thank you, again, for the opportunity to submit The Accidental Memoirist. I truly enjoyed writing the essay and committing to paper a story I had told so many time it felt like lore. Thank you to you readers for their interest in the essay and the book.

    Responding to the posts about the separate camps of novelists and memoirists, and “why fiction?” and whether writing The Man Who Couldn’t Eat was therapeutic, permit me to share a story. A number of years ago, I attended a reading of Peter Matthiessen’s and got up to ask him a question. I started with a windy, but sincere, preamble, sharing my utter admiration for his memoir The Snow Leopard, offering up what a superb book it is and its profound impact on my life. Matthiessen responded to my adulation with a stony glare, silence, and then, finally, a chiseled admonishment, “I wish I’d never written that book.” I was stunned, but not deterred, and repeated what an achievement his book was, when he cut me off. “I said ‘I wish I’d never written that book.’ Its success boxed me in as a non-fiction writer and placed limits on my career as a novelist.”

    I don’t remember what happened next, if I mustered the nerve to ask my question, or if I retreated to my seat seeking medication for shell shock.

    As I wrote in the 100 Memoirs essay, Fiction shmiction; a writer writes. What’s the difference? While I did write The Man Who Couldn’t Eat with the same creative approach that I would have taken to a novel, I do worry about the market forces of publishing and finding myself in Matthiessen’s box. I got the impression it’s dark and rank in there. (It may also remind Matthiessen of his days as a CIA mole.) Perhaps, though, the greater satisfaction of having written can overcome the commercial frustrations. I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction simultaneously for the past two years and both have been intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding, even, I dare say therapeutic, imposing structure and purpose and expression on a desert of sorrow. Wherever it leads me, I can’t imagine I’d ever say, “I wish I’d never written that book” about my memoir.

    Cheers — JR

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you so much, Jon, for offering this delicious comment based on reading the comments of others in response to the essay. From your “desert of sorrow” you wrote rose up off your bed and walked. The Peter Matthiessen story helps explain the genre reluctance. Thanks for offering it. Such an interesting glimpse into the writer’s writer world. Having much more modest aspirations as a writer, I can only imagine his pain. And now I know I should read The Snow Leopard.

    I’m so glad that you are glad (and expect to be glad) you wrote this book. And I hope the artificial walls around publishing prove to be a whole lot easier to climb than the challenge of regaining health inside the desert of sorrow. You are a writer. Period. Through and through. This graceful essay seemed like lore to you but was meat and drink to me and many readers. Thanks again.

  11. Grace says:

    Yes it does seem that the silver lining to suffering is the ability to gain wisdom and then put it into words for others, and for yourself. So was it really an accident? 🙂

  12. shirleyhs says:

    I think that question is above my pay grade, :-), Grace. But I prefer to find meaning in all accidents. Others think that’s self-delusion. I wonder if Jon will come back to give his answer? I’d love to know it also.

  13. Jon Reiner says:

    Hello Grace and Shirley. I’m really enjoying the dialogue generated on the site, and can’t resist your invitation. To answer your question, Yes, I was the beneficiary of an accident. Of course, one can never determine with finality whether or not events are pre-destined or random, but in this case randomness was aided by the forces of personal history. My health emergency was truly an accident, and it did lead directly to the opportunity to write for Esquire and everything that followed. You could say that the rest of the episode was a factor of design — I chose to live in New York City and pursue a dream as a writer and have gravitated to people who share the same professional or personal interest — but all of that design had not led to an equivalent invitation previously. I’d hate to have to make the Faustian choice between getting sick and getting published, but in this case, the latter would not have happened without the accident of the former. And once it did happen, the opportunity took me in a different direction (memoir) than I had ever considered previously.

  14. shirleyhs says:

    I love both the mystery in life and the sense that powerful dreams and long preparation will eventually be rewarded. How it happens is often a surprise. Thanks for coming back, Jon. It’s always tricky to get too excited by the “fortunate falls” of others. It’s often hard to know what is fortunate and what is falling until the end. I hope you will tell many more stories with endings only you can imagine.

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