I had never heard of the writer Nancy Mairs when I happened to see her name on a list of writers speaking at a conference I was attending in Tucson more than two decades ago. Mairs was the last speaker of the day, and I debated whether to stay to hear her read, or begin the long drive home to Phoenix. I opted to stay, and I made the right choice.
If I had left, I would have missed the opportunity to hear Mairs read essays about her life with such courage, and without self-pity or blame, in a way I had never heard any other writer, male or female, do before.
At first I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tiny woman with the shiny cap of dark hair and pale skin wheeled on to the stage. She looked so small and powerless. A bearded man, her husband George, brought her out and then he disappeared behind a black curtain. She was alone on that big stage, but then she began to speak and in a few moments any assumption I had made about Mairs’ frailty vanished.
Mairs was self-effacing, funny even. I decided to settle in and listen awhile. The drive home could wait. Then she began to read one of her essays. I forgot about driving anywhere. She commanded my attention as well as the attention of everyone in the crowded auditorium. She wrote about her battles with depression, her marital infidelities, and the struggles with multiple scleroses, which she was diagnosed with when she was 28 years old and rendered her unable to walk. Her mind, though, stayed razor sharp.
Yes, some of it made me wince, squirm even, as someone sharing her life story with openness and truth may do, and yet I admired her courage and wondered if I could ever do the same. I wanted to hear it all. I avoid using the word “inspired” now because that word would fall short, and I don’t think Mairs would have agreed. She didn’t aim to inspire. She said so herself.
Mairs said that she never intended to be an inspirational writer, but rather a writer who explores and contemplates the kinds of questions of life that which she knows no absolute answers. If she did have the final answer to the question of, say, what it means to be a woman writer, then why write a book on that subject? She wrote to make sense of her own questioning nature. She never set out to impart any message beyond looking at one’s life in an unblinking fashion. She simply sought to convey the truth.
In the first book of essays Maris published titled Plaintext she prefaced the book this way. “A few years ago, I almost died by my own hand, and when I woke from that disagreeable event, I recognized for the first time that I was fully and solely responsible for my existence.” She continues to write in that same preface, “These essays enact that reasonability, however belatedly discovered, in the terms in which I can understand it: as a writer of my life.”
Wanting to be the scribe to her experiences made her pursue first poetry, earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in poetry and then a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Arizona. She published two books of poetry, but then her focus turned to essay writing.
Listing the titles of just a few of her books reflects what mattered to Mairs: Voice Lessons: On Being a (Woman) Writer, A Troubled Guest: Life and Death Stories, Waist-High in the World: A Life among the Nondisabled. Always surprising, and always searching for personal understanding, she wrote about her spirituality in one of her last books titled: A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith.
In fact, her life might have looked conventional from the outside. She raised a daughter and a son, as well as a foster son, remained married to George for several decades, taught school and followed her passion for writing.
In her essays, Maris never let readers believe it was easy. She described her stints in mental hospitals, getting stuck in a bathroom stall with her wheelchair, and her struggles with motherhood in a society in which women were expected to assume prescribed roles.
I heard Mairs speak twice, and then time passed and I would wonder now and then about her health and if she was writing. I would come across a book she wrote and I would re-read her work and again be moved by her often-brutal self-examination as well as apt insights. Then she died without me even knowing.
No big fanfare, or write ups in the media when she died last December at age 73 at her home in Tucson surrounded by family. I mentioned this to a few people and no one had heard of her, though there was a small write up in the New York Times.
But then, Mairs never wrote to be famous. She wrote in Plaintext, “it occurs to me that I probably won’t ever do anything distinguished or lasting.” She went on to say that she would continue to write unhindered by illusions of perfection. “None of the writing is easy,” she wrote, “but I no longer refuse to do it for fear that I’ll fail to get it right. It can never be right, I know; it can only be done. Life as scribble. And the reverse.”