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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 9 of 21

1 Story 5 Ways

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

9. 1 Story 5 Ways

Lesson Info

1 Story 5 Ways

We need to build a picture. I want to mention something else which is that if you've had a big loss, you don't just tell that story one time. That story becomes a part of you. And you tell it in many different forms at different stages. You know, my mother died 30 years ago when I was 35. I have probably published easily 10 essays. Some people could say, oh my god, there she goes with her dead mother again. But they're all very different. And they were written at different stages and looking at the death of my mother from different vantage points and different angles. As a 35 year old woman, who is experiencing the loss of her mother in terms of no longer having a grandmother for her children. I wrote about it when I was going through the divorce from my children's father, not having my mother to call up. I wrote about it when I was making Thanksgiving dinner and I didn't know how to make gravy and there was a phone number that I could no longer dial. There were different aspects of th...

e same experience. When I turned 50, I thought of my mother at 50. And I am very sure that when I turn 66, it's just over a year from now, the age that my mother was when she died, I'll be writing, looking at it once again in another way. Speaking for a moment about the death of my husband. My husband Jim died two years ago, and I have already published, in addition to a book about that experience, I've published a number of essays. And I'm going to read you the beginnings of a few of them. And you'll see how very differently I approached that experience. And they're all completely different essays exploring different aspects of grief. Because grief, as we all know, is not a straight line. Essay number one. This past spring, as I moved closer to the date that would have been my husband's 65th birthday, and four days later the anniversary of his death, the calendar was filled with landmines. I never knew which one I might step on. Next piece. Some months back, when so much seemed possible that no longer does, I asked my husband Jim to get us tickets to see Bob Dylan at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. They didn't come cheap, but he bought us two great seats. We were probably a year into cancer treatment by this point, and as much hopefulness as we still possessed, we had also learned that when there's something you really want to do, you shouldn't put it off. Essay number three. Back in the old days, my husband always picked me up at the airport, but that night after the plane landed it was a BART train that brought me to the stop closest to home and from there a cab that carried me on the last leg of my journey. And that piece actually it was published in AARP magazine, but it was first a Facebook post interestingly. Somebody at AARP saw it and called me up. That piece is about coming home to discover that my house had been robbed, or actually my house was robbed in the night when I came home. I woke up the next morning and discovered that a thief had come into my house in the night. But it wasn't a piece about the robbery. It was a piece about a different robbery that I experienced. And I never said that. I didn't have to. And here's a completely different take. Actually, this one I wrote just about a week ago. There is a man with whom I start my mornings, though he comes to me only on the screen of my laptop. When I think about how it is I've navigated the months since 2016, and the people who helped me get through the hardest time I ever knew, one name that comes to mind is that of Stephen Colbert. (laughing) Who happened, if anybody ever saw a picture of my husband, Jim, he looked a lot like Stephen Colbert, except more handsome. And so I say I get to have my coffee with Jim, cause they share a very similar view of politics, as well, and Jim was also very funny. So it's a piece that kind of backs into the loss of Jim and it's actually also about, it's about two losses that I experienced in 2016. One that was very personal to me, and everybody else who loved Jim, but still a smaller group. And one that was experienced by a few million people in our country. And I put those two together. That's a new way of looking at the death of my husband. So I want to say to you, that you know, we have many stories but we only have a few true obsessions. Honor them and don't be afraid to spend a lot of time looking at them. They deserve more than one look probably.

Class Description

Bundle this class with How To Write a Full-Length Memoir and save!

How many times have you read the Modern Love column in The New York Times and thought, “Wow, I wish I could write an essay like that!” If you feel you’ve got an incredible story to tell but don’t know how to transform it into a powerful piece that can win a prized spot in the Times or another major publication, this is the class for you.

Celebrated essayist and memoirist Joyce Maynard will take you on a guided journey through the process of writing a kick-ass personal essay that will get you noticed and published.

Maynard will go through the steps of figuring out your big theme, creating a strong outline, identifying the beats of your narrative and writing a compelling column. By the end of this course, you’ll not only have an amazing essay, you’ll have a whole new skill set that will make your writing the best it’s ever been.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Identify a single big idea and weave it through your narrative.
  • Focus on a small event or moment to make your abstract theme concrete.
  • Build an outline so you can structure your story and identify the beats.
  • Figure out the stakes, conflict, discovery, transformation and redemption.
  • Create interesting characters and understand their motives.
  • Wander off course but not too far—and only for a good reason.
  • Add cinematic elements to your story, including a climactic turning point.
  • Write a concluding scene that emphasizes your final discovery.


a Creativelive Student

Wonderful high points from this class for me: - Very generous analysis of one critical scene in At Home in the World - super gripping and a good scaffolding of how the scene works - Lovely and generous live critiques of her students’ work - first sentences shown on a projected screen. Maynard does a great job procuring from the students why the information is important, what the material means, how they can stretch themselves as writers. - Helping the students to identify a theme that runs throughout their stories is very actionable and is certainly something I took away from this class as I could see how one susses it out from an ordinary paragraph full of sequential events and other information. - The way Maynard shows how she categorized themes for her memoir The Best of Us was an excellent tactical show-and-tell. The pricepoint for the class, roughly $150, seems more than fair given the material, the rare and intimate looks Maynard offers on her own writing and the coaching she does for several writers in various stages of memoir writing. The course contains 25 live lessons — that’s just over $5/lesson with a master teacher. The added benefit of being able to rewatch the videos makes CreativeLive such an excellent venue and I am considering purchasing Maynard’s Personal Essay course next.

Kati Nagy

This was an excellent course on so many levels. Joyce's way of imparting her knowledge with such verve and humor really captivated all of us. Ii was so thrilled to work with her one-on-one and the way she helped me develop my story via her whiteboard really helped me see how I can get started on it. She is truly inspiring and I loved her insights and guidelines.

Anne Caverhill

Highly recommend this class, not only for the insights about writing and some of the technical information as to why something does or doesn’t work—but I would recommend this for anyone who loves stories. There was so much depth to the participants stories and I loved how Joyce M gently takes them apart and asks probing questions, almost like a good therapist. Well. Maybe that is what good writing is all about anyway. Facing and getting at and then writing those emotional truths as she puts it. Joyce Maynard is the queen of making that happen. Take this course.