When I read Maxine Clair’s new book, Imagine This, I was struck by many things. The beauty and grace of a woman I have known since childhood. The fluid expression and craft of a brilliant writer and storyteller. And the evolution of an extraordinary life.
I met Maxine when I was about ten on visits to her house, around the corner from mine, in the all-black section of Kansas City, Kansas, immortalized by her award-winning first work of fiction, Rattlebone. Her younger sister and I were best friends. I’d come to the house for meals on “chalupa” night, when Maxine’s mom would cover the table with all manner of great food—hand-made flour tortillas, red beans, cheddar cheese, chili seasoned beef, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and sauce—to be pilled up and rolled into a gigantic, unwieldy, and wonderfully messy one-dish meal.
Maxine was already away at college by then, a star student at the University of Kansas, bound for a brilliant career as a medical technologist. On her visits home, I’d watch as she breezed in from a night with old high school friends, always with a genuine smile and kind words of acknowledgment to me, her kid sister’s buddy. My friendship with Linda put me in Maxine’s company many times during those years, and from a distance, I watched her develop into a beautiful, intelligent, confident young woman. I watched her rise in the world, and as little sisters (even honorary ones) do, wanted to emulate her.
When she married after college, Linda and I would sometimes babysit her young children. We’d put them to bed early and while the night away raiding the fridge and plowing through her phenomenal collection of jazz recordings: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and so many others.
Sometime after she moved to Washington, D.C. I learned of her struggles. A marriage that caused her pain, physically and mentally; four children to raise; and long hours of work in a field that was yielding less and less fulfillment, and becoming more and more bereft of joy.
Then something amazing happened: Maxine divorced, went back to school to study writing, and published a book of poetry.
Later she would not only receive a master’s from American University in writing, produce two more books—Rattlebone, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland award, and October Suite— but also take on a full-time associate professorship in creative writing at D.C.’s George Washington University.
How she did this, with little money, no husband, four kids, and little encouragement from a world unkind to those who in mid-career opt for the risks of the creative life, seemed a mystery to me.
But I’m sure it was not as easy as it seemed. I’m sure there were moments of self-doubt, second guessing, and discomfort. I was never sure how she did it, but the fact that she did do it was enough to inspire me.
After Maxine’s first novel, October Suite, I was so inspired that I began to do something I’d always wanted to do: become a writer of novels myself. I was not unhappy in my job as a classical symphony violinist, but I knew that as a creative spirit, I had more to say. October Suite gave me the courage to set out on my own writer’s journey. And within a few years, Agate published my first novel, More Than You Know.
After reading Imagine This, I now know that Maxine’s evolution was not a function of luck or genius, or mystery. It was the result of challenging work—the work of daring to create your own reality. Imagine This is no ordinary self-help book. Using her own very touching and very personal story, Maxine shows how it is possible to live fully and consciously, fully immersed in that which gives you passion and joy, no matter how much or how little you have, no matter what you are going through, and no matter where or when you start.