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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 1 of 21

Class Introduction

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 1 of 21

Class Introduction

 

Lesson Info

Class Introduction

Starting right off, what is a personal essay anyway? You know, in the years that I've been teaching memoir, so many people tell me they want to write a book. They want to write a memoir. And then I'll ask them what they've written so far, and they say, well, they're working on their memoir. And there's nothing wrong with that, I'm not gonna criticize anybody for being ambitious and diving right into the ocean. But I wanna suggest the smaller pool as a good place to begin and to develop your skills. I'm never going to say that the personal essay is a lesser thing than the memoir. But I will say that it's a great training ground for the bigger project of telling the whole story of your life. And we never wanna tell the whole story of our life, we'll get to that a little bit later. Actually, we'll get to that in the class about writing the book-length memoir. But the personal essay is a more manageable form, probably, if you haven't been doing a lot of writing. And it's a way to put your ...

toe in the water and then you may fall so deeply attached to it, you might just stay there a long time. I have. I've written many books over the years, but I always go back to the personal essay. And one of the satisfying things about it is that the end is within sight for a personal essay. Many times, for those of you who are Facebook friends of mine, you know that sometimes, some morning, you might turn on my Facebook page and I just post a personal essay that I wrote probably 20 minutes before about something that happened in my life. It feels very good to do that sprint, which can be a personal essay. So what do you want to accomplish in a personal essay? And why a personal essay, not a book? Well, we know we're gonna get to the end of it. We also know, or maybe you don't know but I'm gonna tell you, that if you're interested in publishing your work, a personal essay is probably more easily publishable. That's very good news for writers. The whole world of magazines, and I know some of you know me originally through the magazine world. I supported three children on magazine writing for many years as a single parent. I couldn't do it now. The magazine world has really dried up. But it has been replaced by all kinds of Internet options. So if you write personal essays, you can probably find a home for them there. And maybe some other places, too. And we may talk about those later. A personal essay is a glimpse at your life. But first, it is a way that you say, here I am, let me tell you about me. But it's not a random glimpse, either. I'm gonna take a few words about what a personal essay is not. A personal essay is not an anecdote. It's not a funny little story about the time that you met Beyonce in an elevator. But we might get a little glimpse at Beyonce, we will get no glimpse at you. And a personal essay ultimately is a small window into a very big story, and the story is who I am. A personal essay is not a journal entry. Fundamental, and many people take their journal entries, and think, oh, I've already got all that great material, I'm just gonna paste it in and add some stuff and there will be my personal essay. And I have to tell you, I have just about never seen that work. And I think the reason is, there's an essential difference between the personal essay and the journal entry, which is the journal entry is written to yourself. You're not trying to communicate to a world that doesn't already know you. And it is the place where you can speak, I want you to speak very freely and authentically even when you're speaking to the world, we're gonna talk about that one, but fundamentally the voice that you use in a journal is completely different from the one you do when you're speaking to the world. A rant. Believe me, over the last couple of years I've been tempted to write a rant or two. But ultimately, it doesn't feel very good to hear a rant. Rants are sort of noisy and abrasive. I want you to keep reading my personal essay, and if I'm just blowing off steam, I'm not sure that you will. A poetic reverie. And some people might disagree on this one and I'll say it right off, this is just my personal view of the personal essay. There are people who have spent their lifetime writing lovely meditations on nature or science or religion. That's not really what we're going to talk about today, at least, because I'm all about story here. I'm about motion and change and telling a story. And a poetic reverie probably doesn't move. It captures a moment, almost as a photographer does. So 1,500, 1,700 words, which is about the length of the personal essay that we're going to be talking about today, sometimes 1,000. If you can do it in 800 words, more power to you. But 1,500 words about how beautiful rainbows are are probably going to lose me round about word 100. The cuteness of your cat, the lovableness of your children. These are all subjects about which we could hold forth and we could probably be very enthusiastic and maybe even dramatic, but they don't yet move. A tribute to someone you love. And once again here, this is a little bit up for grabs. I have read wonderful personal essays that really are less about the story of action and motion and events than a person's life. Actually, I'll tell you where you can find the best examples of a tribute to someone. The New York Times Obituaries. It's often how I start my day. After I watch my Stephen Colbert, I go to the New York Times Obituaries. Because really they're not just tributes. And that's an important distinction. They're not written by the person who loved the dead person. They're written by a very skillful obituary writer. And so that person is going to talk about the problematic aspects of the dead person's life, as well. And those are essential for honest writing. So just how wonderful your dad was, how much you loved your best friend, is going to be perhaps very important for you to write, and perhaps very important for that person's eulogy, though I have to tell you that even in a eulogy, I believe in authentic writing and embracing the problematic aspects of a person, too. But a simple loving tribute might feel very good at the time but it's not what you do. Over the course of this class and even more so my memoir class, I'm going to be referring-- I'm going to refer a lot to my own work, because it's the work that I know best, not that it's the work that I think is the best in the world, but it's the work that I can speak about with most authority. And my most recent book is a book about finding and losing my very dear second husband, Jim, who I met when I was 59 and who died four and a half years later, two years ago. And sometimes people will say to me about that book, oh, but what a great tribute to Jim. Well, if it was a tribute to Jim, there's no reason on earth why you should read that book. That might have been an important thing for me to do, but I'm all about communicating a story. So your writing had better be more than a tribute. Here's one that a lot of people talk about. And some of you in this audience talked about it. I want to publish a collection of personal essays. Excellent ambition, but you're kind of jumping ahead of the game. It would be a little like a person who's never had a baby saying, you know, I think I wanna have a family of five. Let's try one first. And do one, you know, you're not gonna probably do one all the way through before you go on to the next. But in the personal essay-- my metaphor just died on me totally-- because you might work on your personal essays kind of simultaneously. But instead of thinking of a whole group of personal essays, let's write one really good one. And when you've done that, take the skills you've learned from that one and go on to the next. However, don't do it with any big illusions about publishing a collection of personal essays. I did it once in the 1980s, a very different world. I was writing a syndicated newspaper column at the time called Domestic Affairs. Some of you may have read it, ran in about 50 papers nationwide a the time. It was a column about my life with my children and then my husband, my first husband. Over the course of the eight years that I wrote that column, a wonderful discipline for a writer, eight years of every Monday morning no matter what I had to deliver 1,000 word essay. And that was really a training ground for me on how to write a personal essay, because it could not be 1,200 words. It was 1,000 and it taught me very well the importance of economy, not just to fit in to the paper but actually because 1,000 words was usually better. And there was a collection of those Domestic Affairs columns published back in the 80s, in the first few years of it. But I have to tell you, that doesn't happen much any more unless you are one of the handful of writers, Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Oliver Sacks, writers whose name is enough reason for somebody to read a book, a collection of your personal essays probably isn't going to work. So think about just writing the personal essay before going on to the next stage. So, why do we do this anyway? What is the point of it? One thing that it is unlikely to do is allow you to quit your day job. You know, I'll probably mention a number of times during the day, the single place to publish a personal essay that more people want to publish their personal essay than any other, and that's The New York Times Modern Love column. How many of you read that? If you don't, you should. It's a wonderful way to learn about the personal essay. It appears in the Sunday Styles section of the paper, and it's very widely read. I've published two of them over the last many years. And that's probably as many as I'm ever going to get to publish, cause usually it's one only. And interestingly, it is a rare example of a place where it makes absolutely no difference if you have an agent, if you've published books before. In fact, it's probably an advantage if you haven't. If you're not a known name. So so far, I'm sure everybody's thinking, oh great, I'm going to publish a Modern Love column. Minor detail. Everybody thinks this. In the 20 years that I've been teaching the personal essay, there's never a class where somebody doesn't bring a piece of writing to me and say, oh, I wrote this as a New York Times Modern Love column. And none of those were published. Actually, I have to say, I'm very proud of this. A number of my students after taking my class have published New York Times' Modern Love columns. And I'll take just a little bit of credit for that. But it's an extremely tough discipline. I was talking about how you couldn't quit your day job. If you are hard working and talented and fortunate enough and patient enough to do the work before prematurely submitting, that you publish a New York Times Modern Love column, anybody want to take a guess as to what they pay for it? Three hundred dollars. Many writers would pay $3,000 to be published in New York Times' Modern Love. Three hundred dollars. So we do not write the personal essay to buy ourselves a new car or quit our job. I think we write the personal essay because it is hugely personally satisfying to be known, to say, let me tell you what I lived through. And it connects us with the people out there, and it might be a million and it might be ten, who will be moved and changed and possibly helped by our story. And in my opinion the best way to help a reader is not to say, let me give you some advice, but simply to say, let me show you who I am. One of the great gifts of publishing my work for as long as I have, almost 50 years. I started publishing when I was 14 years old and I'm 64, so long time. One of the greatest gifts has been readers. And recognizing, publishing my work for as long as I have, I have recognized an extraordinary perception and intelligence and wisdom of readers. You do not need to explain what your lessons are. Just say, here's my story. And they're gonna figure out. I know many of you are my readers. And some of you, I'm pointing to Laura as if you're personally holding all those people in your hands, the people who are watching this have read work of mine, you don't go to my work because I give you advice for life. In fact, sometimes, you may go to my work thinking, what crazy thing has she done now? And that's okay, too. Because part of what I think my function is as a writer of the personal essay is to reveal my flaws, my failures, the moments when things went wrong. The moments when I've been human. Because so are you. And those are more likely to be the moments that you'll connect to than the stories of my great achievement and success and triumphs. So, small story, but not a random small story. Not a story about how you got up this morning, brushed your teeth, got ready and came over to the studio. A small story selected because within the container, I'm going to be talking more about the container, within the container of that particular story, you give us a glimpse, more than a glimpse maybe, an understanding of big things, big challenges, big questions in your life. And I'm going to be the huge proponent today for you to narrow your focus from trying to tell everything to telling one story really well. Personal essay keeps you on track, that's a problem with the book, it's a little harder to keep on track. Clarify your themes. Build your story-telling skills. And then move on to a book or more personal essays.

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.