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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 10 of 21

Deconstructing an Example Essay

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

10. Deconstructing an Example Essay

Lesson Info

Deconstructing an Example Essay

I'm going to share with you another essay that I really love and admire deeply. And this one was written by a writer named Marjorie Williams and I'm not going to tell you what this one is about and you're going to discover part way through what it's about. It's called The Halloween of My Dreams. And it's not about Halloween. I was the one who insisted on the body glitter. Normally, you understand, I am a mother who pulls her daughter's shirt down and tucks it into her waistband every morning to keep her from showing her naval to the whole third grade. We all ready know this mother. We all ready know some things about this mother. I make her scrub the supposedly water soluble unicorn tattoos off her cheeks before she goes to school. I court her wrath by refusing to buy the kid's fashions that seem designed to clothe tiny hookers. Now she could have just said outrageous outfits but she's giving us pictures. But after all this was Halloween, the holiday that celebrates license. A fifth Ki...

t Kat bar after 9 p.m., why not? Alice was determined to be a rock star and I was happy to help her. Simple enough. Do you think it's going to be simple enough? Something's going to happen. This is life before life changes. This is the normal life of a normal mother of a normal third grader, until something happens. And we know something will. Yet my joy in conspiring with her, this is now paragraph two. And incidentally, I always name, when I'm reading out loud I always say a new paragraph because paragraphs are important. Paragraphs are a cue to the reader, should be if you're doing your paragraphs right, we are moving forward in this story. I always think of your essay as a kind of road trip that you're taking the reader on. And every time there's a new paragraph you have crossed state lines. Since I started out in New England and I won't say ended up, but currently planted my roots on the west coast. I always picture this road trip as going from New Hampshire to California. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Ohio and every time you start a new indentation, we know you're crossing state lines. Sometimes I'll see, incidentally, a piece of student writing that has no paragraphing, it's much harder to read that. And I'm much less likely to do it. Okay, paragraph number two. Yet my joy in conspiring with her felt so big. Usually I'm not much of a Halloween enthusiast, not since I was 13 or so. For a while having children of my own brought me a new version of the old childhood thrill. One year Will came home from pre-school and told me he'd learned about a new Halloween creature. One that lurches through the nights swathed in flapping bandages. Oh, I said casually, what's it called? The mommies, he announced, with much more excitement than dismay. And incidentally that's a little bit like that digression that Jonathan Lethem allowed himself when he wrote about talking with his grandmother in the Paul McCartney song. Why does that belong, this little story about her and her son being this monster known as the mommies? Paragraph three. But my delight lasted for only a few years before I returned to thinking of Halloween as just a silly, gaudy night that strains at symbolism. The floozie among the family of big holidays. The floozie among the family of big holidays. I thought for a while, and incidentally, this is an example of I used to, but now I. That absolute bare bones structure that tells me there's a story in between. I used to think that Halloween wasn't a very great holiday but now I. And we don't know what the now I will be yet. And that's what she's about to lay out for us. I thought for a while that I had simply buckled under the demands of costume hell. I want to be a computer, but also my feet will be like a robot and you can make me a head with glowing red eyes and a voice like Darth Vader. Dialogue in your essays? Good idea, yes. We can really hear that child and we may have had a child who ordered up a costume like that. But that explanation has become less and less convincing. At 11 and almost 9 after all, the kids have more and more fun making their own costumes with minimal help. Really, I think that I'm just not one of those people who easily climbs into fantasy and achieves flight. And she has just said something that we're going to remember. She's not a person who climbs easily into fantasy. She doesn't allow herself crazy dreams. Paragraph four. Recently, after my dear cousin Sally spent a night guarding my sleep in the hospital. Ooh, hospital. That word's embedded in the middle. She says it so casually. We talked about the one part of the experience I remembered as clearly as she. When I'd finally taken aboard. Taken aboard, not simply taken, but taken aboard. Enough pain medicine to dull the effects of the procedure I'd just been through. Pain medicine, dull the pain, procedure. I'd said clearly out of my cloud of Dilaudid I love all of these random thoughts. All my life I've worked so hard to get words and sentences into line. They had to have a point. I love floating along on all these random thoughts. Paragraph five. So now there are clouds on the horizon. Big ones, gathering. It made me hugely sad to see that my escapes from the task mistress of literalism are still so rare and hard one. And in the days before this Halloween, the days before this Halloween. In those days, Jonathan Lethem said. It was especially hard for me to avoid interpreting its elements too bluntly. If you have cancer, she doesn't say I have cancer. But we know that's what she means. If you have cancer, if you've had it for a while, at some point you start seeing all those skulls and skeletons and styrofoam headstones all those children in hooded capes. Pictures, pictures, pictures. She doesn't just say that trappings of Halloween. She names them, she shows them. Baring scythes on their little shoulders. So how can I explain the euphoria of the 45 minutes Alice and I spent in her bedroom. Container, the 45 minutes Alice and I spent in her bedroom. Colluding over her hair, giggling at her faux leather, deeply fringed bell bottoms. The pleasure of watching her strap on those awful silver platform shoes, like something I wore in 1973. Paragraph six. Because Alice was getting picked up to join friends for trick or treating, I kept my eye on the clock. I kept my eye on the clock. Suddenly that phrase has a little more meaning. And shooed her into the bathroom just in time to add makeup, grown up lipstick, a layer of shimmery lip gloss over that and an overall and emphatic scribble on her neck and face with a body glitter crayon. Remember, she was the person who didn't believe in body glitter and now she's using it? I used to not use body glitter but now I do. What happened in the middle to change it? Every other day of the year, any mother knows that glitter is the work of Satan but last Sunday it lit her skin with a dew of every color. She is not writing one of those poetic reverie essays that I'm not particularly fond of. She's putting poetry into a story. Paragraph seven. We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. She's got a movie going here. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, and incidentally, this whole story takes place over a matter of minutes. She's slowing her focus down that much. We're just talking about a few minutes on one Halloween night. As the momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me... Tossed, look at that verb. Think about every single word you choose. The verb tossed. She tossed me a smile. Tossed me a radiant smile. I'm going to give her that adjective. She had become my glimmering girl. She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes. We don't just see her, we hear her. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me. What fantasy. Remember how she feels about fantasy? What fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween. Last paragraph. I'd just seen Alice leave for her prom. Or her first real date. I'd cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I'd played was the 52 year-old mother I will probably never be. It was effortless. She died. Marjorie Williams died five weeks after this essay was published. Which was over ten years ago now. And you know, she lives on. And that's another great reason for writing a personal essay. For writing our stories. We live on. That essay, incidentally is 812 words. That one will also be linked to you on the CreativeLive page for this class. Okay, we've been talking about structure and story arch and the big macro picture of the point of entry and the point of landing and everything in between. Let's not forget what writing is built from which is language, words. You've got the story so where is the language? And it's not enough. There are so many plates you've got to keep spinning in this line of work. And anybody who ever thought, nobody ever says, you know, I'm going to take up brain surgery. But people do say, well I think now I'll go and write a book. Well, that's great. But like brain surgery, it takes a little work. And I mention that, not to say you shouldn't do it but you shouldn't expect it all to come easily. It's going to be some hard work. And part of the hard work that we're going to work on here, right now is using language. Respecting the richness and texture of language and letting language help you in moving your reader. The way Marjorie Williams did in that last piece.

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.