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
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.
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.”
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.
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?