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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 6 of 21

Big Ideas to Small Stories

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

6. Big Ideas to Small Stories

Lesson Info

Big Ideas to Small Stories

I'm going to give you an example of a few of them from my own writing life over the course of many years, and I could probably give you 100, but you'll be relieved to know I'm limiting this to just a few. It took me a long time to get over the death of my mother. Any pictures come to mind from that one? No, it's an abstract concept, it's a feeling. There are no pictures. The chutney. You don't have a clue what that means, but I wrote an essay, published an essay, about an 800-word essay that tells the story of how after my mother died, way too young, age 66, I was 35, after I cleaned out her house in Toronto, and there was all this stuff, and I didn't know where to begin, what I brought home were 30 jars of her homemade peach chutney. I brought them across the US border to New Hampshire, and it's the story of how, over the course of the next few years, the chutney inventory slowly narrowed down to the single digits and then to the last chutney. Is that a piece about chutney? Absolutely...

not, you know what it's a piece about. But I used chutney as the container. It's hard finding, I've just heard this news, I wouldn't know personally. It's hard finding a partner when you're a single mother in your late 30's, actually. My date with Steve Martin. This was actually a story that I wrote, obviously years ago, because I was in my late 30's when I wrote it, when I was a single mother, and I had had a lot of pretty disheartening experiences trying to not be a single mother anymore. I still wanted the mother part, but not the single part, and I decided to change it up a little bit, and instead of just going on one more horrible date, I would decide who I wanted to meet and then I'd go out and find him, and I decided that who I wanted to meet was Steve Martin, and I did go out and find Steve Martin, and I did, to call it a date, I doubt that Steve, as I like to refer to him, would have called it a date, but I did get myself in the same room with Steve Martin, and you will notice that I am not married to Steve Martin, but, I'd have a very big diamond on if I did, but it's the story of my date with Steve Martin, and obviously, it's not the story of my date with Steve Martin. It is about being a single mother and having a little fantasy. My first husband and I saw the world very differently. There's a few euphemisms involved in that, and he'd totally agree with me on that one, I have no doubt. Does that feel like a story yet? No. That's very generic, everybody could say that. It's blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The Oriental rug, that was the container. One crazy day, we were not a couple that had a lot of money, we were not a family that had a lot of money. I think most of our furniture came from yard sales, but one day I got this sort of unexpected windfall check. Something of mine was published in Australia, I don't remember what it was, and I went out, I saw a sign for Oriental rug sale, and I came home with a $2,000 Oriental rug to surprise him, and I actually thought he would be happy. I don't know if I did, but anyway, he wasn't. And I mention this one because I've probably received more letters, even now when I go speak somewhere, somebody will say to me, there'll be somebody in the audience who remembers that column from like 1987, and they'll ask me, "Do you have an Oriental rug yet?" I had to return that one, but really, and I returned the husband, or he returned me. I think that's more accurate. (laughs) Anyway, it's not about the Oriental rug. The Oriental rug is the container. When my son was 12, my older son this was, he worried a lot. He was just worried about how the future was gonna go. Our visit to a fortune teller. It occurred to me one day, he was just so troubled, and it occurred to me that, I don't want to say, if there's any fortune tellers out here, I don't want to cast any aspersions on your line of work, but there are a lot of huckster fortune tellers out there, and the huckster fortune tellers are probably in the majority and they're likely to give you only really great fortunes, so I decided to bring my son, Charlie, to one of those, one of those people with a flashing neon sign, and I felt very confident that she was gonna tell him that everything was gonna be fine. (laughs) Sure enough, she did. He was gonna be rich and famous, and President, but I think first he was gonna be a movie star, and he was gonna have two children, marry a beautiful woman, of course, and have two children, a boy and a girl, and he walked out of that fortune teller place like he was walking on air, and said to me, "I'm going to be a Dad." And he wasn't worried anymore. (laughs) Best $5 I ever invested, okay, that was obviously, the visit to the fortune teller was a little story, a container. It all happened in the course of 20 minutes for $5, but it was about a bigger idea. My relationship with my sister is complicated. Yes, she could say exactly the same thing back to me. We love each other, but it's definitely complicated. Can you see a story yet? No. How about why I am called Joyce and not Daphne? Yes. Quickly I'll tell you the story. My sister, who's four years older than me, was given, my parents, our parents anticipated already that she was going to resent and probably hate me. Bad way to enter into this situation, and so they thought they would ease the blow by giving her the opportunity to name the new baby. She was a very precocious child, she loved Greek mythology. She chose the name of her favorite character in Greek mythology, and my name, to this day, on my birth certificate, is Daphne. But on day two, after being home from the hospital, my sister informed our parents, who were crazy enough to go along with what she said, that under no circumstances was this baby to be called Daphne anymore, and from then on, I was called by my middle name, Joyce, and only about 30 years after that did she explain to me what I probably already knew, that the last name on Earth she wanted me to have was her favorite name. If you want to call me Daphne, you can, that's fine. I haven't quite gotten over that one yet. I could not bear to see my children's pain. Every parent in this room knows that story. It is a theme, an obsession of my life, but it's not something that I can dramatize on the page. But I can dramatize the day that my daughter got a Crystal Barbie for her birthday, loved best of all the little plastic see-through shoes, lost one at the birthday party and I tore the house apart like a crazy woman, until my own daughter, who had been crying over the shoe, was crying now over the fact that I was tearing the house apart. That is a story about an obsession, and I have found a container for it.

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.