How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 17 of 21

Finding the Through Story

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 17 of 21

Finding the Through Story

 

Lesson Info

Finding the Through Story

I invited Matthew to come, obviously, I knew Matthew from before and I've worked with Matthew and Matthew has a lucky problem, which is a really screwed up childhood. And this is great for writing a memoir. Yay me! (laughing) Matthew, tell us a little bit about your life. Um, so the point of entry. And you don't even need to think of the point of entry, that's my job. But now I do, after, yeah. I was, I think the most important, the most important bit of my childhood was that my mother was institutionalized when I was about one years old, but I didn't know that until I was about 16. Very good point here, because the history that you recount in your memoir needs to come not through when things actually happened but as you learned about them. So the moment that you discovered this is when it entered your, is when and how it entered your, okay. Right, so I realized what the secret of our family was when I was about 16, and I was living with my grandparents. What was the se...

cret of your family? That she had actually been institutionalized, and that-- Are you able to say why she was institutionalized? Yeah, so she, in her early 20s, she basically had a psychotic break and thought that she was Jesus Christ, like so many of them do. And I was only one. I do have a memory of it, but not-- Wow, can you describe what a one-year-old's memory looks like? I just remember the ambulances coming. You do? I remember ambulances coming and I remember her being taken away, I remember her being on the stretcher. But like, and I remember being at the neighbor's house. But you know, and feeling distress. I definitely recall that feeling. And I'm going to, because I know this story, I'm not going to make you share this, but I recognize that there are some things you're not telling about this story. You don't have to tell them here. Because even now you're protecting your mother. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And um, that is an impulse that, I wouldn't want that impulse to be totally gone from you because that's the part of us that is the most compassionate and loving and good, but at the same time, I'm glad, the fact that you're here today means that you're also willing to own your story and give yourself permission. Right, exactly, exactly. Even as you are being kind to your mother. Right, yeah, and thank you for saying that. I think that, I think that having some understanding about mental illness and some empathy, even when someone doesn't address their own mental illness, and it wreaks havoc on your life, you can still have a certain level of understanding for why they are doing the things that they're doing. Then, to take it to the next step, I would say that you can lovingly set boundaries with people and basically be able to say this is not okay and if you are not going to get the professional help that you need, you just can't be in my space. I can still love you, but you just can't be in my life, basically. So what did you, you grew up with your grandparents, in the household of your grandparents. So did that make it all okay? Yeah, so, I was with my mom, I grew up with my mother, my mother and my two siblings basically up until I was 12, and then I was removed from the house and moved in with my grandparents. And my grandparents really were sort of like the satellite parents during my entire life, and then they took full ownership, I'd say, from seventh, eighth grade, all the way through college. Why did you think you were living with your grandparents, Matthew, if you didn't know until you were 16? What's that? Why did you think that you weren't living with your mother? Why did you think that you were living with your grandparents? I'm sorry, you-- You said that at age 16 you found out about your mother's psychotic break. Oh, yes, yeah. So what did you think was going on here? Um, what did I think was going on, why I remained with my mother for all those years? No, why did you, what was the big thing that happened when you were 16? You found out that this happened. Right, so, yeah. And how did that change your world? So how that changed my world. It just, all the pieces, everything made sense. Things didn't make sense before. I definitely had my own experiences with my mom, I think, that, what precipitated the reveal of her psychotic break and the explanation of actually what had happened was my grandparents actually having to kick her, she showed up at the house and they had to kick her out because she was having what we refer to as an episode. And that's basically when she's experiencing a very high emotion or a low emotion, and I had had major surgery, reconstructive surgery on my ribs, and so it was a very traumatic procedure that had taken place. And so during those type of life and death situations, my mother would basically push herself into the, basically she would take advantage of any type of situation that would warrant a mother's presence, and where other people would not feel comfortable saying you're acting out, you're not, you're having issues, you are experiencing a high or a low or you're not on medication, whatever people normally would say to protect, I think, the kids from her behavior, she would basically just show up and just, so she just shows up at the hospital. And nobody explained, did you think that her behavior was normal ever, did you think this is what moms were supposed to-- No, I absolutely never thought that her behavior was normal, no. So you had some kind of inner compass that told you. Oh, absolutely, because I spent a long time, she was a very, she was a very complicated figure in all of her kids' lives, and I think specifically because the same person that is supposed to love you is also a danger to you at the same time. And so it's a very, I think that people who grew up with alcoholics probably have a similar experience. Yeah, so that's basically it. So in any case, I was in the hospital after having a major surgery, and she just showed up. And so her go-to has always been this very ecstatic and Pentecostal, speaking in tongues, waving crazy hands, and just, it's just crazy talk, it's craziness. And did you have to go, did you go to that church, was that a part of your childhood, going to that church? Yes, prior to getting out of the house. And so when she, after a few years of not being in the house she shows up in the hospital, and of course all the other family members want to give her the opportunity to visit with me. I'd just had major, major surgery. Side note, I grew 12 inches in one year and so my ribs got all screwed up and so they had to cut all my ribs out and put a new sternum in, and so it was really, like, intense, to say the least. And so in any case I was in the hospital for about a week and a half before going home to be full-time care. This is totally like from left field, but did anybody explain why you grew 12 inches in one year? No, nobody knew. This was just like, throw another thing at you. And this was at what age? I was probably 14, 14, 15. Did anything else happen when you were 14? Aside from that? That, that's pretty big, but I'm just wondering, anything else that happened? When you think about age 14, I'm sure you think about the growing 12 inches. Like, almost you could feel yourself growing, almost. But um, I just wonder if anything happened. Did you move to a different place, did you-- Well, at 12 I had moved from my mom's house to basically my grandparents' house. And that's what I was thinking, because here I am, a totally non medical person. Like, you were once a short person? Yes, I was 5'2". You were short, okay. This is my point, this is my point. And I'm actually gonna, like, congratulate myself on my medical acumen here. I have a theory about that growth, which is, and I'm probably not the only person who's said that, you've probably figured this out yourself. You grew when you were able to grow. You were stunted, and then suddenly you went to a place that was safe and you grew. Perhaps, yeah. 'cause you didn't have some, like, thyroid condition, or something. They really had no idea, I mean, they thought it was something to do with my pituitary gland. Because going to your grandparents was a good thing. Yeah, when my grandmother took me to the doctor because I had grown 12 inches, the doctor came back into our waiting room, and this was just a funny anecdote and reflective of how hysterical my grandmother is. The doctor comes in shocked, and he's like, Mrs. Pulio, do you realize that your son has grown another foot? She's like, yeah, doc, do I need to buy him a third shoe? I mean, why do you think we're here? Like, he's crooked, like, look at him, you know? And what had happened was I grew so quickly that I didn't grow, my ribs just twisted around my sternum and my back was twisted, and so if I didn't have the surgery, I just basically would have been like this. So they cut all the ribs out to like open my, basically to release my rib cage, it literally became a cage for me. And so in any case, the point is I discovered this secret about my mom after-- Who told you the secret? My grandmother. While you were in the hospital, or what were the-- No, we were home, we got home. Was there any particular reason why she chose that moment? Because, so my mother came to the hospital and then she started praying over me. And so here's the scene. I can't talk, I can't really breathe because I've had all my ribs cut out. I can't lift anything off. And Crazytown shows up at the hospital and she starts praying in tongues and laying hands on me. And you can't, you have no escape. And I can't do anything, so I'm just sitting there going (breathing heavily), like that, and then I was truly panicked. I mean, it was just, I had, I mean, I'm recovering, and then to have that happen. So my grandmother came in and just basically banished her. It was like, get out, now. No, you're not doing this, get out, done, not, just shut that down. And I think that in her own, she was so activated and upset about what had happened when we started talking more about this, it was reflective of the moment that she had experienced when I was one and she walked into a horrific scene with my mother praying over, but that's a whole other thing as well, but pretty bad. And where she thought she was Jesus and she thought she was trying to baptize my older brother in the blood of Christ, and so, in a bathtub. And so what my grandmother walked into was one of those horrific scenes of seeing, hearing a kid drowning in a bathtub, for lack of a better explanation. And so my grandmother was absolutely traumatized by that. And so I think that when that happened again, even though there was all these boundaries put in place and she was no longer my guardian, it was, that's why she spilled, that's why she spilled that story. And, yeah. There's a character, I mean, in case we don't have enough going on here and enough interesting characters, there's somebody missing in this story who we might think would be looking out for you. Dad. Uh, where was Dad? So my dad, my dad, it's a, I didn't have an absentee father, I wouldn't say that. But I had a father that, he really wanted to move on from a very tough marriage and home life, and consequently, three kids. The decision that he made for himself was to leave, divorce, and give my mother the house, and pay child support. And hope that she would get better. And that was, you know, as an adult looking at that now, I'd say that was, uh, optimistic at best, and blatantly negligent at worst. And he was having a fairly comfortable middle class life with a new wife. Yes, he was the president of his company and he married the secretary at the firm, and he just basically moved on. And we would spend every other weekend at my mother's house. And so again, as an adult, going back and forth between these two households, I had insight into, like, what was a normal household with his new life and his new family and his new wife and new kids and all of that. And yet we always had to go back to the crazy house. And the new kids, that's another whole topic. Yeah, but so, it, again, I wouldn't say that it was, I think, how I would describe it is that he made a decision to do what he was willing to do, and he prioritized his own self-interests and him moving forward rather than the three kids that he left behind. And so our point to him has always been if you don't think that you could live with a woman who is, who needs professional help and was institutionalized and you signed her out and took her home and, why did you think that three kids under the age of eight would be able to, would be able to deal with her? And so the community at large during those 12 years was involved, and my father was always, I really don't want to have these kids in the same way that I would with my new wife and kids. And in case we don't have enough topics here, and I very deliberately chose Matthew for this moment in this episode because this is about as dramatic an example as I can give of just stories exploding off the whiteboard. You were also a gay child growing up in a very conservative New Hampshire town who desperately wanted, for your birthday-- Strawberry Shortcake rollerskates, like any other gay kid in the fourth grade. And when you got them, loved them so much that he wore them on the school bus. And didn't bring any shoes. That was the story that I first heard from Matthew. I mention all this, obviously, we are not gonna solve the problem in a couple of minutes. But what I want to suggest is, first of all, they're actually, even in this seemingly chaotic list, living with grandparents, the bathtub, age one, your brother, you know, your mother trying to basically drown your brother, ribcage, grew 12 inches in a year, Pentecostal, speaking in tongues, coming to the hospital, major surgery, the same person who's supposed to love you is a danger, your grandmother, your fierce, funny grandmother, your absent dad just running away from the whole situation and making a normal world somewhere else, you and your siblings, going back and forth between the households, there actually is a thread to follow here, and I think the thing that happened to be put, that you said almost first, is one landing place of one of the many essays. I mean, actually Matthew does have a book, but I think the way for him to explore it is to first tell some individual stories, is the moment that you heard. Heard what? The news of, that everything made sense. That feels like, you know, the same thing that some people would think of as bad news, you know, now I have to tell you that your mother was institutionalized, is actually very good news. For the first time, there was an explanation. It's a little bit the way I feel for you, John, about getting that news about Casey. There was a very hard piece of news that you learned in Poland that actually offered some potential, at least, explanation for some totally baffling, painful, experience that you had no explanation for before. And I could see a, one of the containers that I wanna suggest for you is the, actually the growing, is you, and it probably begins, when I left, you know, when I left the house of my mother, when I was age 12, or when I, until age 12 I was very, I was the shortest, I was five foot two, I was the shortest in my class. I left, I grew 12 inches. And it is like a plant that suddenly gets watered, is what it feels like to me. When I heard that story, that's what I thought. Oh, of course he did. Now he's able to thrive. You were a failure to thrive 12-year-old. You weren't failure to thrive in lots of ways, you were, like, you were bold in wearing those Strawberry Shortcake, yeah. But, um, and we follow through the story of the surgery, this is one of about 20 stories that I could imagine for Matthew, to the climax is the mother coming to the hospital, it's not the first time she's done something crazy, but it is the breaking point. Yeah, I actually had a restraining order on her. It is the breaking point, it is the moment that leads to your grandmother explaining what your life has been. Right, and what I started to say, I had a restraining order, we had to put a restraining order on her for a period of time because she would just show up at school and start screaming, like from the parking lot, that her son was taken from her and, you know, all this, and so I just wanted to get on the bus and I just wanted to go home, you know? Or it was like one thing after another, so every time that I would see her I'd have these mixed feelings of like, what is she gonna do? You don't know what version you're gonna get, and so it's very distressing. And I wanna say, I mean, you know, I can't change the truth. If this weren't the truth, this couldn't be part of your story, but one piece of your story that I love is that you're okay. Yeah, yeah. I mean, he sits before you, you can kinda tell. But Matthew happens to be, in some of the conventional measures, he's an extraordinarily successful San Francisco realtor in a big deal firm selling all kinds of houses, including mine. And um, you survived it, and I think, you know, I love when there is a story, we can't make them up if it's not the truth, but of survival. And one of the things that I would want you to explore, and I wouldn't expect you to know it now, is why. I'll tell you why, because I'm gay. It's as simple as that. Wow. And the reason why is because, and this is actually where I thought the essay could really come from. I think that, so, my mother wanted us to go to a charter school, basically. A Betsy DeVos charter school that taught creationism, and are very homophobic, and, you know, it's basically a glorified home schooling. And there weren't any other adults to actually not have us go to that school, instead go to a very good public school. So from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, I was in this environment. Now, fortunately, because I spent every other weekend with my grandparents and my dad's family and my cousins, I had this insight into a different world. And so when I'd go back to school I had these questions, like, how did he put all those animals on the ark? I mean, it just doesn't make any sense. Like this, I don't get it. And so this, as a fourth-grader or fifth-grader, I was asking those questions. What was interesting at that time, and just as a sad reminder, and this was the peak of the AIDS epidemic, and so in this church and in this school the fixation on blood, on the sanctity of blood, and that gay people have contaminated blood because of AIDS. And you knew you were gay. I, well, I didn't know I was gay. Everyone else thought that I was gay. I just showed up with Strawberry Shortcake rollerskates, and then everyone starts praying over me. So it was more of that kind of a situation, where I, I wasn't aware of my sexuality at 10 years old, you know? I wasn't thinking about that, I was thinking about my, you know, I just liked what I liked, as any kid would. The problem was, I was giving every indicator that I was going to grow up to be a gay man. Which meant go to hell. Which meant first get AIDS and go to hell. And this is what we talked about, this is what they talked about in, like, every Sunday at church, and just the fire and brimstone and that this is an indicator of the end of days and it's very much a fear-mongering type of environment, that is very, I'd say prolific in America as a whole. And what do you mean when you say that that saved you? So my mother was obviously very involved in the church. I mean, she thought she was Jesus Christ for a period. Um, she had one very distressing relationship after my parents divorced, and then after that was over, and I'm sparing the details on that. But then she married a black Pentecostal preacher. And-- You have to have come from New Hampshire to know how strange-- Yeah, like, how strange that would be to have a black Pentecostal preacher with these, I'd say delusions of grandeur of having this big church and being like the head of it, and it's more, what my experiences as a kid was that this was more of a power over situation. So the reason why I say being gay saved me was because the guy didn't, it was one thing to marry a white woman from New Hampshire. It's another thing to marry a white woman from New Hampshire with a gay son, and so things got so bad in the home that when we had a physical altercation, I was 12, that's why I was removed from the house. And so what I realized at the time-- So these pieces are all coming together. At the time it was the worst thing. It was the worst thing, I mean, I didn't understand why there was so much animosity towards me and I didn't understand why he singled me out. I have two other brothers. And so the reason why I say it was, being gay was probably the best thing that happened, was because I literally one day was going to this school and was ejected the next day because I was strangled and I was punched in the face. And so when I went to school, there was no, there was just no arguing that I wasn't in a safe household. And so even though there had been a long, drawn-out custody battle, that was not successful, unfortunately, this next incident was really just, um, closed the book. So you are saying that you're okay because being gay got you out of that house. It got me out of the house, it completely got me out of this environment, and I was able to move on and be with people who just liked me for me and weren't trying to change me on this path to heaven. And it was refreshing, honestly. It was just, you could breathe, and it was easy. And so the trajectory of my life is very different than any of the kids that remained in that home. And so as an adult looking back on that, I think, wow, thank God that that happened. Thank God I had my cousins and my grandparents and, you know, all these other people who just basically shut it down and said enough is enough, we're gonna take care of him, and that was it. Obviously there are a whole lot of stories that you have to tell, and when we talked a little bit before, you suggested one that you wanted to tell, which actually is a good story. Which I thought would be interesting, because-- And it's a less ambitious one that would be a good training ground story. Matthew talked about what it meant to him to go-- To go back to the house. So I had not been back to my mother's house, my mother and my stepfather, they're still married, since I was 12, and I'm 42. We moved my grandmother into a nursing home, so I went back east to help her move and all of that. And at that point, I had just turned 40, and I thought, you know what, I need to see 8 Shady Lane as an adult. Because it held this space in my head that was bigger than what it really was, and I just felt like I needed to go and see it and experience it, not from a 12-year-old's perspective. I happen to love the address, 8 Shady Lane. What was your grandmother's address? Oh gosh, oh, even better, 69 My Way. I'm not kidding, I am not kidding. (audience laughing) Uh, okay. And your dad's? I swear I didn't know that in advance. Yeah, that's, and my grandmother got the joke and thought it was hilarious, yeah. And your dad probably moved to many houses? No, he was in Bedford. What was his address? We won't tell it, okay, yeah. So he's in someplace. And actually, here comes a theme in Matthew's life, and you know it. And actually there's another piece, which is that you went sailing. You joined Outward Bound Sailing Camp, and you lived, he lived in a tiny, tiny little space on a boat every summer, where his home, basically, was not even the whole boat, it was just your jacket, you said. It was your jacket was your home. So there's the boat, these are different homes. So basically I-- And you're going back and forth between all these places. Yeah, yeah. So when I went to college, I, uh, well, my first concept of home. When Joyce and I met before we were talking about what I should do for an essay, and my thought was that I would focus on my changing definition of home over the course of my life, and also revisiting a home that held a lot of, like, negative emotions, and it was a place that in my mind was bigger than what it was, and so for me to go back as an adult and see that home as an adult, it was, I just realized how small it was and how insignificant these people were. And you went back on the occasion of moving your grandmother, your real rescuer, from her home, packing up her stuff, into a nursing home, and P.S., Matthew sells multimillion dollar houses. Yes, and so-- He's a home guy. Right, exactly, and so it was like yes, of course, if we want to pathologize why I got into homes and interior design-- Not even pathologizing. It was like, oh, yeah, from a wound you can have your greatest gifts, basically. Yes, absolutely so. And I go right back to, thank you so much, obviously we're going to be talking all our lives about your story. I go back to your obsessions, I go back to your themes, and they're pretty clear. They are pretty darn clear. Questions, things that have come up for you? Anybody, are containers starting to come into your head that hadn't occurred to you before, things, I hope that one of the things you feel is a desire to run right home and maybe not start writing, we'll talk more about that when we have our next session, or next segment, but start thinking, start planning, start making a whiteboard of what you want to tell.

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.