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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 2 of 21

A Short Story About a Big Idea

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

2. A Short Story About a Big Idea

Lesson Info

A Short Story About a Big Idea

So let's talk about this essay. Where do you begin? First you need your idea. Where does your idea come from? Your idea, you're not a reporter, you're not a researcher, you're a reporter on the topic about which you know more than anything else in the world, yourself. You know there are some people, and I'm sure, they are actually very good people, probably much finer people than I am who come to my classes with an issue, ah, it seems awfully self-involved to write about myself. I just, I never have this problem incidentally. I've been writing about myself for a very long time as some of you know, and I don't think that there's something sort of narcicisstic and egotistic about that. I think probably you'd rather that I have spent these years writing about myself than writing about you, for instance. In as intimate and open a way as I've been writing about myself. You're the world expert on you and nobody is going to give you an assignment to write your views on what's going on with im...

migration in this country, or the healthcare situation or climate change. They're not going to turn to you for that. That's not your platform. Your platform is your life, and specifically the aspects of your life that are least likely to have been shared by everybody else. The piece of your human story that is most unique, that you own, and it may be a very painful piece. There are people in this room, and I'll be talking to some of them, who are experts on very painful things. So what are your areas of expertise on yourself? What are your themes, what are your passions? What are your obsessions? You know, our obsessions get us into trouble in life. For most of the rest of our lives we sort of, we shy away from going to our obsessions. You know, I'm obsessed with food. I'm obsessed with shopping, you know, I'm buying from Amazon every single day. I don't wanna be doing that. That's a problem in life. In writing your obsessions are exactly what you want to go to. It's counterintuitive, the things that may be, that may have created a lot of issues and challenges in your life are the same things that you need to look at in your writing. And I urge you to write them down. To keep a notebook, even, of your obsessions. Some of you may have watched my first class on CreativeLive. I talked a lot about the obsessions list. You might not think you have to write them down. Does anybody wanna name an obsession right now? Something that just keeps on haunting them. They don't want to but they go back to it again and again. This is still, you're, yes. Speed! Going fast. You don't mean the drug. You mean going fast. Yes. (audience comment) Okay. Important to know that about yourself. And I know exactly who this is, this is Carolyn we're going to be talking later today about. Important to recognize what the themes of your life are, that link all your stories. And in fact, when we were talking about a collection of essays, a collection of essays that stay on theme cease to be just a collection of essays. It becomes Carolyn on speed. Which might have two meanings. The experiences that have defined you. And you don't have to tell them to us today. The important thing is that you identify them for yourself. The biggest challenges, the greatest obstacles, sorrows, losses, and sometimes victories. I want to be mindful of the fact that not every personal essay has to be about the hard stuff. Locate your themes. Write them down. And then. Link them to a story.

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.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

How to Write a Personal Essay - Essays and Articles

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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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.