Skip to main content

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 15 of 21

Handling Two Stories At One Time

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

15. Handling Two Stories At One Time

Lesson Info

Handling Two Stories At One Time

I'm going to look at the story of one of the members of our audience here. I grew up with strong patriotic notions having been raised in a military family. My dad was invited into the US Navy after guerrilla fighting as a teen during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Wow, and that opened the doors for my family to come to America. My older siblings-- I have a brother 10 years my senior and a sister who is three years older than me-- were born in the Philippines. I was the first child born in the states, just a few miles from where my dad worked. Incidentally, that's where her story begins. Everything before this, as interesting as it is, happened before she was born, and it's for them to tell the memoir of that story. She can tell the story of being the daughter of that dad, the sister of those siblings, but her story begins as the first child born in the states. That's a big piece, I'm guessing, of Edna's identity. Just a few miles from where my dad worke...

d at the WH. I assume that's White House. Is that what that is? Yes, whoa. Storytelling is a significant facet of my life as is evident with my lifelong hobbies turned careers as a professional dancer in the highly narrative form from Hawaii, the hula, and as an artist/writer teaching specialist in the schools. I believe that my story as a Filipino-American is an important tale worth telling in an era in which immigrants are misrepresented, misunderstood, and treated horribly. I believe my story is an American tale that transcends the color of my skin and my outward appearance. Where is the most concrete information in this story? Where is the picture in this story? Anybody wanna take a guess? You're veterans of several hours of classes at this point. Well, it's the hula, of course. It's that word hula. In between, we've got White House and Japanese occupation and guerrilla fighting and all kinds of big, really interesting stories, big stories. The nice little container is right in the middle, hula, and that's, Edna, where I would love to see you start with a personal essay. And, of course, I always have to qualify because nobody should write any personal essay because I say it. Does that appeal to you at all? I guess, yeah. It is a huge subject for me, the hula itself. The hula. So, even hula, it's not like hula is small for Edna. Hula might look this big for us, but it's this big for you, right? How do we take a big subject like that? Remember when we were talking to Kati about the extraordinary love affair over the, over 35 years? How they met, that's a pretty safe beginning. How you first met hula. How did you first encounter the hula? You're not from Hawaii. I started hula when I was a teenager and I danced in a hula group. Whoa, whoa, whoa, you're jumping way too quick. I danced in a hula group. How did you begin? Everybody's doing this, jumping ahead. Don't... Take your time with this. What was the moment, when did you first see hula? When were you first aware of hula? When did you first put on that skirt? Oh, okay, then I should backtrack. Yes! (laughing) I visited my brother who was living in Hawaii at the time. He was in the military, and... Do you feel what just happened? The whole story shifts. Now, we've got a character going to a place. Continue. And I fell in love with the hula when I was there. Okay, fell in love with the hula. Can we see that? Oh, no, we can't. No, no, no. What's the scene? How did you fall in love with the hula? Well, I... We stayed in the plantation with some friends. We woke up with the roosters, and they lived in the plantation housing, and the girl, she's a good friend of my sister who lived in Hawaii too with my brother, and we went with her to her halau, her school of hula. And that was... Any particular reason why you went to the hula school? Just to hang out. Just to hang out. You didn't have any passion to learn the hula? Not necessarily. We were visitors, we were guests with her. Were you dancer before this? I was, I was a dancer. You were a dancer. Yeah. And, but this was not your culture, this was just... You were just dropping in on the school, and what... Describe seeing that very first hula. I'm sure you've seen hundreds, maybe thousands of hula performances, and you have yourself participated in them. Tell me what you remember of that very first. What was it? I mean, I'm sure you've seen the ballet, you've seen modern dance. What was it about the hula? It was the combination of expression and the movement, it was... Tell me what she did with her body. Well, it was... It was a group of dancers communicating expressively at the same time to the music. Communicating, can't see it. Expressively, this is my annoying self. Okay. Hammering away at you. It made my heart move to see... Describe what she did with her body. Okay. Come on up here. (laughing) You're a hula dancer. I'm not gonna do hula in front of this crowd. Come on up here. Okay, I will describe. This is my first vision of hula. Okay, well, this is a basic movement in hula. It's the hala. Okay, so you saw her... Beautiful. Do a little bit more. Okay. (laughing) This is the kaholo. Okay, whoa, okay. So, now there's a thing with the hips, and I, if I had more time and I were able, I'd wanna study you doing the hula for a while. I would want to talk very specifically about the thing with the hips, and you're not just looking at the thing with the hips and saying that's a really interesting thing with the hips, you want to do that with your hips, right? That's what I feel when I see you. I think whoa, that must feel good being able to do that, especially if you're a, what, 16-year-old girl, 15-year-old girl? Yeah, 15. Yeah, yeah, and a tall girl and a girl who loves to dance. When did you start to actually learn it? Soon as I got back. As soon as she got back. So, now we have what we want. I hope you don't feel put on the spot, but it was so beautiful. I feel lucky. You can sit down now, that's okay. Now we have, instead of this abstract concept of expression, cultural (mumbling), we have a girl, 15-year-old girl, who sees somebody... I won't do it, I won't, I can't do it. And we see her with a quest as soon as she got home, and where was home at that point? Back to the Bay Area. The Bay Area, not a noted hula center, probably. So, was it easy finding a hula teacher? Actually, a classmate was telling other students at school that there was a halau opening up, and I was one of the first students. Okay, now I don't know the landing place of this story, Edna, but this, now we have a story. And is there anybody who doesn't feel the difference between where it was and where it is now? What has hula, I said earlier, that the... An essential element of the personal essay is that it take us somewhere, and it's not just gonna take you to I used to not know the hula, now I know the hula. What has the hula given you? Well, the hula is a narrative form so it allows me to tell a story and... (mumbling) And how interesting that you're at a storytelling workshop and you know how to tell a story with your body, and you're learning how to tell a story with words. I'd like just the opposite. I'd like to learn the hula, actually. In fact, I think this is my last day as a teacher of writing. I'm just gonna give it all up and study hula. So, you get to tell a story. What are some of the stories you can tell or have told in hula? Think about, in fact, I won't say some of the stories 'cause you already know. Instead of a big group, choose one. What's a story you have... Have you lost a parent yet? Yes, I have. I've lost two. You've lost both your parents. Have you... Do you dance your stories of your life? Yeah, they're contained. I'm using your word. They're contained in the songs that I learn as hula dancer with a company. I danced in a company in San Francisco. Yes, what's the name of the company? Nā Lei Hulu Ka Wekiu. So, we... When we dance together, we personalize the songs and so, there's some personal stories for me coming through that. So, have you danced the death of your mother? I've danced a love song to her. A love song to her, yeah. And did the audience know that you were doing that when you did that? I think they could feel it. I think they could feel it on that level. Yeah, is there one night, one performance, that stands out for you as a hula dancer? As a dancer of hula, I'm guessing that's the way to say it. Yeah. And what night is that? It's dancing with the rest of my hula sisters, all of us on stage, and it's dancing to Roberta Flack's First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. So, we, in our group, we danced hula mua, and that means hula moving forward, and that's a term that the director of the company uses. Using non-traditional hula music for a hula dance, and when you danced The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, whose face were you thinking of? I was thinking of my mom's. Yeah, there is a container. And my dad, too. It is... How recently had your mother and father died when you danced? Well, my father died when I was very young. My mother died in 2010. And when, how old were you when your mother died? Well, that was later. I have to say, I hadn't seen my mom in a long time. So, she was living in another country. Does that feel like part of the story? Yes. Had you become alienated from your mother? No, I just couldn't visit her. You couldn't visit her. So, there was trouble in some way. Yeah. Yeah. It wasn't just logistical, it wasn't that you didn't have the money for a plane ticket. Yeah, it was... There was something else. There were some challenges. Yes, so, does that feel as if it belongs? Absolutely, and if we had the time that we don't have to work on the whiteboard, Edna, I would have a couple of columns, and one would be mother and the other would be hula. And it would all come down to the Roberta Flack song The First Time Ever. How... And it would include the fact that you didn't see her, and I'd wanna know what preceded that. So, you were not there when she died? No. You got a phone call? But I did see... I did see her the year before she died. See her, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and you had not seen her face for a while, but you had seen her for the first time in a long time not long before that, right? What were the circumstances of seeing her? She was very ill. Okay, didn't see her for a long time, then you did see her, then you learned she died. How long after her death did you perform that song? Actually, that was while I was... That was while she was alive. I was missing her. You were missing her. That's... That is a personal essay if ever there was one, and we will certainly hear about the hula, but it is not an essay about the hula. The hula is the lens through which we explore the story of you and your mother, and notice what's not there that are very rich in important studies. The guerrilla fighting, the first child in the family to be born in this country. Guerrilla fighting she only knows through hearsay, through stories, which is not the best way. In fact, not a good way, I would say, for you to focus for your own storytelling, but you are the daughter of that person. You're the daughter of somebody who... And I'm sure that shaped you enormously, and all of those are stories for you to tell, but first tell this one. Thank you. Thank you for this. I didn't wanna put you on the spot, but I just, (clapping) I couldn't resist. Keep it concrete. Hula, very concrete. I mean, it's also a whole idea and an art form, but it was very concrete. Keep it simple. This point, I'm going to read you the little bio of a member of our group, Bambi. (laughing) I grew up in the Owens Valley. This is okay, right, Bambi? Yeah. Yeah. It's too late now. (laughing) No, I don't mean that if you said no. My firstborn son in named Cameron Whitney after Mount Whitney as it is near where he was born. I want to write about the three letters my daughter wrote to her brothers and me before she took her life. In what others often call a selfish act of suicide, she did the most unselfish thing. During her most painful moments, she lovingly told each one of us what we would need to be able to take the next breath. My mother raised three boys and a girl in a small mountain town in the chaos of a messy house. Look what just happened. We just heard about Bambi's daughter taking her own life and writing the letters before she did it. Very, very generous thing for a person in that level of distress and pain to do, and now we go back to her mother, new paragraph. My mother raised three boys and a girl in a small mountain town in the chaos of a messy house, often bare cupboards, laundry piled high, until we were old enough to take care of these things ourselves, but our lives were full of love, creativity, art, sports, music, humor, gratefulness, belly laughs, and we loved in a wonderful... lived in a wonderful home. Well, you know that I would do some work on all of that, but that's for another day. In the 60s, our mother wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper titled What A Woman Thinks. I love the title of that column. The memoir about my mother is ongoing, poignant, humorous, loving, painful, all the things that make a family real, and the many encounters we experienced with celebrities we thought happened to all families in all small towns like Mammoth Lakes. I wanted to mention that because I just wanna say forget the celebrities, I'm... Who are we more interested in? What famous person Bambi met at, you know, that hotel in... What is that hotel, it's a great... Where all the western movies were filmed? I know you know it. (audience member mumbles) Yes, anyway. Well, anyway, who are we more interested in, a brief encounter with John Wayne at a diner or Bambi's life? Obviously, Bambi's life. Okay. I dance every night under the stars, rain or shine. I started doing it honor my daughter now. To honor my daughter. Now, I do it for her and my boys and daughter-in-law even though they don't know. If we just saw a scene from a movie, Bambi, she is not Edna, she's not trained as a dancer, she doesn't belong to a professional troupe, she doesn't have an audience, she's not up on stage, she is alone in the darkness, under the stars, dancing alone to honor her daughter. And I'm not gonna make you come up and do your dance, Bambi, but it is every bit as beautiful as Edna's dance, and it is concrete, it is a scene, and it is a container for an almost uncontainable amount of grief and pain. Even though they don't know. If anyone every looked through my fences, yikes. My life is underscored... This is a new topic, but I wanted to mention this one too. My life is underscored by Beatle lyrics. They are officially listed as my religion at Kaiser. Don't you love this woman? (laughing) I am a polyana by nature. The first album I bought was the soundtrack to the Unsinkable Molly Brown. I remember that too, Debbie Reynolds. Then Meet The Beatles, and this lifelong part of me struggles daily with the new part of me that will forever live with a mother's broken heart. There's a lot in here, and obviously, there's too much for one personal essay, but in a way, it can almost all be there. So, we've got happy home. One of the rarest things to find in a memoir workshop, may I add, a happy childhood, and optimistic nature and unsinkable. How many people have seen Unsinkable Molly Brown? It is the quintessential optimist's movie. Sing me a couple of bars of one of those songs. ♪ Belly up to the bar, boys ♪ ♪ Only drink when you're all alone or with some ♪ I can't say the rest of that line. Okay, belly up to... (laughing) Perfect, perfect, and Molly Brown had plenty of challenges, but she didn't let them get her down. Does that sound like anybody we have here before us in this room? I am going to... You know, sometimes you have really good stories that don't belong in your story. Witness Dianne's, what Dianne wrote about Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom and how angry she was at Jerry Lewis for preempting her animal show. Great story that didn't belong there. Listing The Beatles as her religion? Great, but not for today. For today, it's Unsinkable Molly Brown. So, we get a picture, pretty clearly, of a woman who grows up in a small town. House is messy, cupboards were bare, but does anybody feel sorry for her about her childhood? I want that childhood, that sounds just great. Optimistic nature, we can always over... Incidentally, how old were you? I'm guessing we're about the same age. How old were you when Unsinkable Molly Brown came out? Do you remember seeing that movie? I think I was 12. Did it come to Lone Pine or... It came to Bishop. To Bishop, okay. We had to drive a long way. Okay, so you drove to see that, and in the same way that I wanted to hear how Edna encountered hula, I might want... When you dance out alone under the stars, do you sing as well? In my head. Sometimes I take music out there and do, but I just usually sing in my head. You take music, like you take a portable stereo or something? I used to, but then I was afraid the neighbors would look through to see what was going on. But you have done that. You have actually brought a boombox out there. (mumbling) This is why I love memoir, you know? We can't... I'm a fiction writer, I've got a good imagination, but I cannot invent scenes better than your lives. And you were sitting there thinking that you had to tell us about the celebrities you met? You know, who among them has done this? Okay, so this is who... This is our curtain goes up person, and her whole history of what a family was was happy, things go well. You don't have money, you don't have some other stuff, but it's okay. And you have how many children? Three. Three, and your daughter was where in the order? She was second. Second, and can you tell us her name? Kenna. Kenna. Would you... Would you have known from Kenna's childhood that this... Could you ever have imagined that Kenna would take her life? No. No. Before the incident that caused it, it was unthinkable for her, for any of us. It was something we all thought, like many people, that it was cowardly, that it's something you would never do. Did you know anybody who ever took their life? No. No. You lived in a small town happy world, and the big dramas were like shoot 'em up in the movies or.. Yeah. Yeah, and may I ask you what changed? She was gang raped when she was 17 by four men that came to our house, and she lived until she was 30. She was very independent, always worked, always took care of herself, but things had greatly changed after that, and she, you know, she had a lot of counseling and a lot of help, but and then she also became sick and couldn't take care of herself, couldn't work the last year. Sick, mentally ill sick? And that changed for her. Physically, she became sick, and when she couldn't work and be independent, things changed for her, and that's part of the letter writing. Okay, this is a lot for one essay, but I'm maybe gonna surprise you and say that I actually think you can tell these. There is life before. When there is life before things, before the terrible event that changed Kenna's life. So, then there's life when you were the daughter and the happy family, and then there's the life of you as the mother of a happy family, right? Married to her father or not? We were divorced, but we still raised our kids together. But even all those things... My parents got divorced too, but still, my unsinkable... I call those get-overables. Get-overables, okay. Those are all things you can get over. This is an example of the kind of thing I would write on the whiteboard. Get-overables, I love that. Those are all get-overables, Kenna is not. You know, you move beyond. She's never gonna be a get-overable. I wanna hear that word, get-overable, early on because I'm gonna hear it at the end as the thing that is, the first... Was anything ever a not get-overable before? I lost my eyesight in my right eye when I was 12, also about that same time of Unsinkable Molly Brown, but the way my mom handled it and the way my family handled it, it was a get-overable. That actually does belong because that's an early experience of a loss, only that was a get-overable loss. Loss of sight in one eye, a get overable. Okay, so then you marry, the divorce, get-overable. Definitely. (laughing) Get-overable. Yeah, I mean, your parents' divorce and then your divorce, and then there is the rape. You know, I haven't talked much about proportion, but we do not need to give equal or huge proportion to all of these things. We can actually quite, in the same way that, I'll go back again to Johnathan Lethan, half a sentence, seizures, diagnosis, unsuccessful surgeries. We can jump pretty quickly to she was not okay again. She was really never okay again, and we probably need just a very couple of, a very few images, three. Kenna, at 18, she.. Or maybe she was okay for a while and then less okay, but maybe three images, and then she took her life. Now... And it is the not get-overable, but it is also true... Remember I said early on, it's not necessarily a happy ending, but I look always for redemption, and actually, it's not hard to find it with you, Bambi. She dances, and that's the redemption that she carries on, that she was not destroyed by it. Bambi dances, and I... I, more and more in my writing, I do not feel a need to offer any big conclusive sentences, but I choose very carefully what the image is that I wanna leave you with, and the image I want you to leave me with, and I actually don't think this is manipulating the truth, I think this is your truth, is you... Yes, it is a not get-overable.. No, you will never, your heart will never be the same again, but you still dance, and it's Bambi under the stars with her boombox. Well, and part of that is because Kenna asked us not to let her life become our life, and to honor that, we have to do that because one thing I took from that was that she always tried to make everyone happy and she always wanted us to be happy, and why wouldn't she still want that? Yes. And that's a... That was a big moment for me when I finally got that. Why wouldn't she still want that? And now I'm gonna tell you one thing I don't want you to do. I love it, I love it that Kenna wrote those letters. You are not allowed... What am I gonna do, I'm not gonna be able to stop you, but I don't want your essay to be Kenna's three letters. Those were Kenna's voice and they were Kenna's voice talking to you, and you are talking to us. And you're maybe coincidentally, and I'm sure John can tell you more about this, talking to other parents who have lost a child. So, Kenna's voice was for you. That's her gift to you, and this story is your gift to us, and it'll be a gift to you to write it, too, but you cannot seed the floor to Kenna. It is your story, and it is a gorgeous story, and I don't know if... I don't ever wanna create false bookends if they aren't, but whatever the piece of music It]s, if it happens that you dance to Unsinkable Molly Brown, great, but what do you dance to? It's different every time. Sometimes it's her songs, sometimes it's a Beatles song, sometimes it's Eric Clapton. Great, and actually I love that better because it's not as neat, it's not as perfect. And sometimes it's Bob Dylan It's everything. Yeah, it is (laughs). That's great, and I want you to be very specific. I want you to name three songs. It might be, you know, sometimes it's this, sometimes it's this, sometimes it's this, and sometimes I don't even play any music 'cause I don't want the neighbors to hear, but the songs are going on in my head, and that's... You've got... And that, actually, she can do all of that in 1700 words, possibly less.

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.