How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 13 of 21

Choose Your Words Carefully

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 13 of 21

Choose Your Words Carefully

 

Lesson Info

Choose Your Words Carefully

My mother used to say to me, along with if something bad happens, you can always write about it. "Write as if every word cost a nickel." But that was in the 1950s and '60s, so I revised this somewhat. And I'm gonna say, "Write as if every word cost $5." And I, by that I mean economy. Look at how much Jonathan Lethem and Marjorie Williams were able to tell of their stories in 800 words. I'm now going to share with you, and I have permission to do this, an essay of a student of mine. Unfortunately, she couldn't be with us today, Diane Carigenakas. I hope I said that right. Wonderful writer, but she's gonna get to be an even better writer, as we all are. Diane, growing up Diane was an ice skater. She was many things. She was also an animal lover, and in fact that's what she's doing professionally now is working with people who have lost pets actually, sort of grief counseling of people who've lost their animals. But, the part of Diane that she was exploring in this particular essay was ab...

out her life as an ice skater, and she was a very serious skater. She had Olympic dreams. And she skated with enormous passion and discipline when she was a little girl. And I'm now gonna read you Diane's essay, but I'm going to stop every paragraph or two, and go from how Diane wrote it, to what mean Joyce does when she gets her hands on that essay. Okay, paragraph one, the long Diane version. "My picture appeared in the Review Journal, Las Vegas' only real newspaper, on August 21, 1974." You know what I think about dates. Also, is that a powerful landing place of the sentence, August 21, 1974? Probably not. "I didn't know my picture was going to be taken that day, so I wore one of my plainer skating dresses to practice. The news crew just showed up at the rink. Someone called me, me of all the skaters on the ice, over, and posed me in front of a popular local anchorman, his hands on my shoulders. But I was the focus of that picture, featured in a story about the upcoming skate-a-thon at the Ice Palace, happening at the same time as the Jerry Lewis Telethon." My version: The news crew that came to the rink chose me for the pictures, posed in front of a popular local anchorman, his hands on my shoulders, announcing the upcoming skate-a-thon at the Ice Palace, in my hometown, Las Vegas. It's less than half the length. Paragraph two, Diane's version. "I hated Jerry Lewis because of the last day of the summer of freedom, his telethon preempted Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." See, her comes her animal part of herself. "And the Wonderful World of Disney. My shows were interrupted by this sweaty, middle-aged man (imagine a middle-aged man) screaming at people to send more money to his kids for another God damned year. What about all the other sick kids out there? The ones dying of cancer, and MS? And the starving kids Sally Struthers was trying to feed? But no, Jerry only cared about his kids, and that pissed me off almost as much as the fact that he interrupted my shows." Here's the Joyce version of that paragraph: It doesn't exist, I axed it. (audience laughs) And I axed in spite of the fact that there's some really nice writing there. There's some lovely detail, I hear her voice. "That Goddamned telethon." You know, there's lots of good stuff in there, for another day. This is not, we're not hearing that story. Remember the first thing you do, write about what you're gonna write about. Is she writing about the Jerry Lewis Telethon today? Is she writing about her love of animals at all? You know we could chalk it up to one of those Mull of Kyntire digressions, or the Marjorie Williams song, "The Mummies." But no, it's just too early in the story for us to go off on another whole passion of Diane's. Stay with her first passion. Paragraph three, the Diane version. "I collected two pages worth of pledges to raise money in the skate-a-thon. Not only was I going to skate the 24 hours, I was going to perform a short routine to Georgie Girl, after one of the breaks, when they Zambonied the ice. I thought that would please my father that I chose a song named after him. Sports was the language of love with my father. He shared that with my brothers, watching the New York Jets, Yankees, and the Rangers together, and attending their hockey games. Between their hockey and my figure skating, we practically grew up at the Ice Palace. We knew the owners, the Carlson family, and all the parents of all the kids who also skated. I wore my favorite dress that I designed, sewn by Mrs. Palmer, the mother of my first instructor, Lorie Palmer. Burgundy with capped sleeves, white underlay over a faux bodice. I got the idea from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean characters from the Disneyland ride. The event began at 7 a.m, and the ice was packed. They zambonied the ice every three hours, and the later it got, the less people returned to the freshly resurfaced ice. I skated through the day and night, fueled by adrenaline and pride, and concession stand hotdogs." My version: I collected two pages worth of pledges. Not only was I going to skate the 24 hours, I was going to perform a short routine after one of the breaks, when they zambonied the ice. My dress was burgundy with capped sleeves. I got the idea from one of the characters I saw on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. I chose a song that would please my father with his name in it, Georgie Girl. You have to be very careful and specific. We don't wanna suggest that Georgie Girl was her father's name. The event began at 7 a.m, and the ice was packed. But as the hours passed, more and more skaters left the Ice Palace and headed home. There are so many ways you can convey the passage of time in your stories. And you need to convey the passage of time. One way, the way that Diane conveys the passage of time is fewer and fewer skaters on the ice. But as the hours passed, more and more skaters left the Ice Palace and headed home. I kept skating, fueled by concession stand hotdogs. We don't need adrenaline, we need the best one, and that's our landing point. Okay, next segment. "Finally, after midnight, it was time for me to perform my routine, the opening notes of Georgie Girl over the loudspeaker. I played to the people who would one day fill the highest balcony seats, once I made it to the Olympics. My mother, my biggest fan, had been there for the first several hours, and now returned just to watch me. After I finished, she said she was going home to get some sleep, but would be back when it ended in a few hours, at 7 a.m. Familiar faces remained after my mother left, so she knew I was safe. My father wasn't there for my performance. He worked nights. Each passing hour grew a little longer, my legs a little heavier, my head a little foggier. There were now few enough people on the ice, twenty-two including me, that I could count them all. Much as I hated to cover my amazing dress, I was getting cold, and got my burgundy warmup jacket out of my locker, wishing I had brought the matching pants as well. I was starting to pay attention to the clock more and more, wishing 7 a.m. would come already. Finally, it was 6 a.m, just one more hour to go. At 6 a.m. my father did show up, with my two older brothers, to my delight." Do we need to hear to my delight, no. "He couldn't make my performance, but he was proud of me, and wanted to witness my accomplishment, as we entered the final 24th hour." My version: It was after midnight when the time came to perform my routine. Stepping out on the ice, I imagined myself at the Olympics. My biggest fan, my mother, had been there for the first several hours. After I finished, she went home to get some sleep. She'd be back for the great moment when I finished up my 24 hour skate. My legs grew heavy as the hours passed. Only twenty-two skaters of the original crowd remained on the ice. I hated to cover my amazing dress, but I was getting cold. Finally, 6 a.m. Just one more hour to go, sixteen skaters left, and I was one. That's when my father showed up. Put a spotlight on him. This is going to be the big moment. That's when my father showed up, along with my two older brothers. I thought he'd be so proud, but he only looked mad. Diane's version of the ending: "No daughter of mine is going to spend the night out at some ice rink! What are you talking about, the Carlsons are right over there. Get off the ice! Just watch me skate, there's only one hour left. Get off the goddamn ice! No! He sent my two older brothers, in their sneakers, onto the ice to get me, in front of all those people. Sixteen skaters now, plus an employee and spectators, kicking and screaming and fighting the whole way. They dragged me off and into the car, still in my skates. We drove home in silence. I slammed the front door, which woke my mother up. My father told her I needed to come home for breakfast, then I could go back. But she figured out that what he had done and flew into a rage. She didn't get to dream after the age of ten, my age now." Too late to start talking about her mother's dreams now. "And as her only daughter, my dreams were her dreams. And he killed this one." Last paragraph. "I swallowed two spoonfuls of oatmeal as quickly as possible, and my mother drove me back to the Ice Palace. But really there was no point. I didn't skate the 24 hours skate-a-thon, just 23." My version: This is a devastating story. No daughter of mine gonna spend the night out on some rink, he said. Get off the ice. Only one hour left. Get off the goddamn ice. Now my two brothers were headed my way, out onto the ice in their sneakers, in front of all those people. They dragged me screaming off the ice and into the car, still in my skates. We drove home in silence. When my mother heard what happened, she drove me back to the Ice Palace, but there was no point. I didn't skate the 24 hour skate-a-thon, just 23. It's half the length. It's actually less than half. And actually I'm really torn. It could even end just with 'We drove home in silence.' Cause you know the rest. You know that she didn't skate the 24 hours. And just about nothing has to be said about the mother's dreams. We have just a few minutes left in this segment. And I wanna use them for some questions. Because we haven't heard from you yet. And from you on the computer. Is there anybody who wants to.. Has anything been unclear so far that I can clear up, or.. Anybody out in internet world, Laura? There's a hand in the audience. I'll take a look at the online. This is just a practical question. Yes. I'm just having trouble finding places to submit personal essays to, other than Modern Love, or maybe Huffington Post, and I look online. Oh there's so many. There's so many. And once you let go of the idea of making money, there's many more. (laughter) I wanna suggest a wonderful website called the Medium. Medium.com. They publish and they highlight certain people's essays, but actually if you subscribe to Poets and Writers Magazine, or just buy a copy, you probably don't even need to subscribe, I'll say because every issue has lots of suggestions. The best known column in the New York Times is Modern Love, but there's half a dozen other personal essay columns. I've published in a number of them. One is in the Well, in the New York Times. And many other newspapers, the Boston Globe has a column called Connections, that is very similar to the Modern Love. Other questions? Any from back at home? Yes. These are so visceral? Is there a way to do this like spoken word, at a coffee shop? Oh, I'm so glad you said that. One of my, in fact I'll mention this to you John, when you speak about places where you can share your stories. One area that is so growing, and so vital for storytelling, personal storytelling, is the Moth. The Moth. And you can google themoth.org. I started, the Moth is a group that started in New York City, but now it's proliferated all over the country. And they host events, I'll say in the Bay Area, there's one in Berkeley once a month, and one in San Francisco once a month. And they're all over the country. They're oral storytelling. The deal is you cannot read it. You have to speak it. And there is a kind of vitality that comes from the person on the stage. It doesn't mean you do it off the cuff. You plan it out, but you don't just memorize the story, you tell the story. I think it was named, the Moth was created by a Southerner, he's a friend of mine who remembered in his childhood in Georgia, people sitting on the porch, sharing stories. And people would gather around as a moth to a flame. That's where the Moth comes from. But one of the best things you can do to improve your storytelling is go on moth.org and listen to a lot of moth stories. A few of mine are on moth.org, and there's also moth radio. Oral storytelling is a fabulous training ground for writing. And I learned more from being a Moth storyteller. Because one of the things that you don't get as a writer is the response of the reader. I get letters afterwords, and I treasure them. But when I stand on a stage and tell a story, I can feel the audience. I know when I have them, I know when I'm losing them. I certainly know when I make them laugh. Or if I make them cry. And when you write, I want you to be always thinking about the person reading it. I always say I'm only half of this experience. The other half is my reader, and I'm always thinking about that reader, listening to that story, and how it falls on his or her ears. And I do incidentally greatly believe in reading your work out loud. You will learn so much about what needs to change in your writing. You'll certainly hear when there are rhythms in your sentences that don't work, and when there are words that are repeated. But just the act of standing up and reading your work out loud. Other questions? When I write a personal essay.. What's the person's name? John. John. Says when I write a personal essay, I usually have my last paragraph or two complete first, then I write the lead, then finally fill in the middle. Is that strange? There is no rule book for this stuff. So, I think it's very important to know where your story's headed, but also leave room for discovery, both at once. You know, we do not, when we're taking.. I spoke earlier of thinking about the personal essay as a road trip. And when I take a road trip, I know what my destination is. And I prepare, pack the car very differently if I'm driving from New Hampshire to California, than if I'm driving to the grocery store, or to Vermont. So having the landing place clearly in mind, John, I'm looking at you Laura as if you were John, I'm looking at the computer now, is a fine idea. The only thing I would say is what I hope you don't do is tell us your conclusion. I hope you leave us with an image that allows us to know. For instance, Diane's story could have ended with we drove home in silence. Because there was no need for her to say I was devastated, my mother was going to be angry. Any of that, as I'm thinking about it, we just have a child who has been practicing her skating routine, who's looked forward to this day, and know she is sitting in the back of the car with her skates still on, a wonderful image. I mentioned earlier that for eight years I wrote a newspaper column called Domestic Affairs. I loved that, I loved that job. I loved writing those columns. And I'm still very fond of a lot of those columns. There is one thing I would change, if I were going back and like revising those pieces now. This one thing I would change almost across the board, and it's the last paragraph. Or the last sentence. When I was writing, in my 30's, I felt I needed to wrap it all up, and give a conclusion. I had not yet acquired the level of respect that I have now for the intelligence of the reader. Not to end like that. Probably by the time I'm 90 if I'm still writing then, my stories will be 50 words long, because I'll know you're so smart, you hardly need to hear anything from me. You'll just know it. I'll just say getting old, knees, and that will be enough. (laughter) Anyway, it's fine to know your ending as long as your ending is not, 'and that's when I figured out that I really needed to call my mother up more often,' or whatever. Don't know why I thought of that one. (laughs)

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.

Reviews

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.

Deb Boone
 

Joyce does a great job of helping you understand how to narrow your story down to key moments and to think about meaningful details to include (and which to leave out). She also shares examples from her own body of work and that of writers she admires, so you get a chance to see what a polished final essay can look like.

Margaret Lovell
 

I love how Joyce conducted this class. While I have an English degree, it's not in writing. At least, not in creative writing. That said I've always toyed with the idea of writing a personal essay, or two, which lead me to take this course. Joyce gave a lot of excellent advice on how to winnow down an idea to create a story. I love the idea of white board. I should have been doing that years ago.