Skip to main content

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 19 of 21

How I Write a Personal Essay

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

19. How I Write a Personal Essay

Lesson Info

How I Write a Personal Essay

I'm going to begin by looking at my themes, my obsessions. And one of my obsessions is certainly not one I would have chosen, it's divorce. I go back to it again and again and again. I was married when I was to the father of my three children. Divorced 12 years later and over those years I've written about it again and again and again. From so many different places and I find myself in a different perspective yet again. Anybody who read my early writing about the divorce, and I'll mention this as a sort of warning, I was way too angry and bitter in the early days and it's a danger or writing before you have sort of landed emotionally through an experience. And it took me many years before I was able to write, to look at the divorce no longer as the black and the white, the good person the bad person and recognize that it was a mutual failure with large consequences not only for us but for our children. But this particular piece which was actually written in that early day, although I ...

don't think it exemplifies that sort of bitterness that I tried to keep off the page and wasn't always successful in I think. This piece was written about early on, the first few years after the end of my marriage from my ex-husband. And I'm first gonna give you just the raw material. So the big theme is, the death of my marriage. And the smaller story ... through which I will explore my big theme is throwing my ex-husband's screw gun. And you all know by this point in the class that we don't just talk about a moment. We talk about a journey. Change, I used to but now I. So I wanted to explore something that I learned, something that changed for me in my experience of how I viewed my divorce and my anger towards my ex-husband. And it plays out against the following story, which I will now tell you. The raw material. So just about every divorced parent knows that part of what goes along with being a divorced parent is that the children go back and forth. And in my case, during the years of my marriage we lived on a very beautiful little farm on 50 acres of land at the end of a dead end road in New Hampshire. And when my husband and I parted, I was the one who left and he was the one who stayed on the farm. I loved that farm so much, but it was not a place that I felt I could manage on my own with three children and I felt it would be very isolated for them and for me to try to manage this place on my own. So I moved to the big city, 30 miles away, Keene, New Hampshire population 25,000. And he stayed on the farm where he still is. And every Friday he picked them up and brought them to the farm and every Sunday I went back and brought them back to Keene. And I ... for over the course of a number of years I had never been allowed into that house. My ex-husband was always there and there was enormous amount of anger between us and bitterness and house. You know we were talking in Matthew's story about how important home is. And it's obviously not just real estate, it's what it signifies to us. And home signified a whole lot to me. On this one particular night I went to pick up my children and it was a rare moment when my ex-husband was not present, he'd gone off with our other two children, he was gonna drop them off later at my house. So only my youngest son Willy was there and I got to come into the house for the first time. And I walked in and Willy was very excited that I was in the house and he was running around, he was kinda nervous but he was riding around and he was showing me different stuff that I hadn't seen in years. I will not say it was a very emotional experience for me, do I need to tell you that? I don't think I do. My children were physically born in that house on the bed, in that house. I was married at that house. That house had a whole lot of powerful significance for me. And now I'm standing in that house and Willy's running around and I see on the kitchen counter, my ex-husband's screw gun. He earned a living at this point hanging drywall. And a screw gun, a pretty evocative title, and while Willy was upstairs gathering his stuff in his brown paper bag, brown paper bag, all the years of that back and forth, my children never actually got it together to put their stuff in suitcases. They carried things in brown paper bags. While Willy was upstairs putting his stuff in the brown paper bag I picked up that screw gun, I walked outside, it was winter and I flung the screw gun into the snow. Willy came down, I said, "Do you have all your stuff?" We went out to the car. We drove home. I don't need to tell you how I felt. And that is the beauty of the participatory nature of writing the personal essay. That I lay out enough that you can do the rest of the work and it's actually much more satisfying if I don't tell you everything. I will just tell you that the next morning I drove back. I drove back to my old house, not knowing whether my ex-husband was going to be there but knowing what I had to do. And got to the house, he wasn't there, I looked in the snow, found the screw gun and left it on the step of the house and drove home. And a few months later I wrote a piece about it that's what I do. That is what I do, and the piece was published in the New York Times and I'll say that in the nearly 30 years since then, 25 years since then he has never mentioned it. It just ... it just happened. I'm going to talk you through the writing of that piece but the writing of that piece begins with the whiteboard. I am not going to lay out first this happened, this happened, this happened. I'm just gonna scribble down some stuff that I know I wanna put in this piece. One of the things I'm gonna say is the house. The stakes, I was clearly very upset, very angry and it was about being in that house. So if you're gonna lose something you first need to know what was lost. I want you to see that house. So I'm going to describe the lady slippers in the backyard. I'm gonna describe the floorboards which were very wide and very Does everybody know what lady slippers are? Lady slippers are the very rare ... Just for clarification. It's like an orchid that grows in New Hampshire. And you're not allowed to pick them, thank you Matthew that important, you know. Okay lady slippers, yes lady slippers thank you. The very wide floorboards, this house was built in the 1800's. I'm going to describe maybe the fireplace but most important in that house, of all the things in that house, the bed. And the fact that the children were born there. There was a kind of physical bond to that place. I was also married there. I also cooked there. I actually think there's one person in this class who's attended some of my, one of my pie lessons in my kitchen. So you know food is important to me. Food. Meals. Kitchen. I was there in that kitchen, as later was a screw gun. Okay. If you're going to be talking about the loss of a marriage, what do you need to know first? The marriage. What was lost. And not just, of course we need to know about the divorce and we need to know that there was a really bad custody battle. And that we went to court and that I was very ... That I was judged by a Guardian ad Litem. Assessed as a mother, one of the more painful things that can happen to you as a mother. Guardian ad Litem. That I moved out, that I left the house with a U-Haul truck. But if we're gonna talk about a divorce we need to know what you used to have. So the marriage and not just the bad stuff, we're gonna talk about fights in the night. The image came to me as I was writing this of nights when I couldn't sleep and I would go to one child's bed and then the other child's bed sort of wander around the house. Wandering around the house. But we're gonna also talk, we have to know that there was something good once. And the picture that came to me was ice skating. I used to skate with my husband. There was a pond there. And skating, I think about not just oh generic skating, but one particular night when it was a full moon and we skated under a full moon. I'm going to talk about, I don't even know if all these things are there, I actually very deliberately did not, haven't read this piece in probably six months. So some of these details may or may not come up but I'm just gonna try to recreate what I was doing when I was writing. This kind of stuff. What else do you need to know about these characters? Do you for instance need to know much about the children? Actually no. And in fact, although there are three children in this family I'm only, the other two were away and I'm not gonna even mention them in this story. I'm just going to keep it simple. Willy was the one who was there, I'm gonna talk about Willy. I'm gonna talk about the brown paper bags. I'm gonna talk about driving, how much I hated that drive. I'm gonna you know about snow, which is a huge factor for people who live in a place like that at the end of a dead end road. I'm gonna talk about the moon because it actually was a full moon that night. I could just blame it all on the moon but I won't. Anything else that you feel you need to know to understand these characters? How good was the marriage? How good was the marriage? Well I think if I tell you that we skated under a full moon you will know that there was once something romantic. That there was something that was lost. And I think the particulars are probably not so important. Is it important to know how the marriage ended or why the marriage ended? Probably not. Yes? I think what you did, you said you went to the city, you're a writer, he's hanging drywall, I thought that was very interesting. Aha, okay. So Carolyn's pointing out what I did. And there might be a story for another day of I'm being a writer he's hanging drywall, in fact not so important. And I can see why you would think that and I will say, it's funny how even as we are telling our truths we continue to be protective so I'll say, he always a substantial character, he was a painter really an artist. And now runs a yoga retreat, which I will totally recommend as a great yoga retreat on that farm in New Hampshire but that was years in the future at that point. Maybe I'll just start reading at this point. I wanna think if there's something else that we want to talk about. Yes? Why the screw gun? Why the screw gun? Well a screw gun Something else. A screw gun is the tool that he used. It was the tool of his trade. That was the tool that was there. Sometimes you know you just get lucky and you're grandmother's address is 69 my way. You know? We couldn't make this stuff up. So it just was a screw gun that was It wasn't in your kitchen? It was in his kitchen, it was his. And this is a question. Your kitchen. Your kitchen, my kitchen. My kitchen, his kitchen, in his kitchen. I'm gonna talk about in the drive back the fear that he might have been there. What was I gonna do if he was actually there? Would he be there.

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.