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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 20 of 21

'Letting It Fly' - Workshopping Joyce's Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

20. 'Letting It Fly' - Workshopping Joyce's Personal Essay

Lesson Info

'Letting It Fly' - Workshopping Joyce's Personal Essay

I'm going to read an essay, and I'm going to talk you through it. We've got my whiteboard with some of my notes, and these were probably the notes that I would have written round about 1996. First paragraph, point of entry, curtain goes up, the world before the world changed. That's what you need to establish. Seven years ago, I'm sorry, seven years after I separated from my children's father. My children's father, I don't say, my ex-husband. That just feels like a kind of cold clinical term, and I want to speak of him as he related to the people about whom I do not feel cold and clinical in the least, my children. Seven years after I separated from my children's father, it was still hard going back to our old house. Simple point of entry. I knew that house so well. How well did I know it? I'm going to give you examples, like what. I could find my way around in the dark. I knew where the wild trillium came up in the woods out in back of the garage and where the lady slippers grew. I kn...

ew every knot in the floorboards. And I'm actually going to cross off some of these things as they come up. Lady slippers, floorboards, I knew it. After my marriage ended, I moved to a small city 30 miles from that house. And my children continued to spend every other weekend with their father. Sundays were designated my time to pick them up. When you hear the word designated, does anything come to mind? Court, court, designated. Choose every, think about every word. Sundays were designated my time to pick them up. Our children found some kind of rhythm, transporting their brown paper bags, yep, brown paper bags, back and forth. The brown paper grocery bags filled with clothes from one house to the other and back again. You know, I said earlier, write as if every word cost five dollars, and I could have just said carried back and forth, but I said from one house to the other and back again. Why might I have done that? I wanted, language can do so many things, and one wonderful thing it can do is it can actually replicate motion. I wanted you to feel what it was like in a small way for a child of divorce, going back and forth and back and forth. But I'd rather have driven 100 miles in any other direction than make that particular trip. And when you read that sentence, which is the end of paragraph two, what do you know is about to happen? I'm going to make that particular trip. The stakes are, she loves that house, she doesn't want to go there, she's going to have to go there. That is my idea of a cliffhanger. I don't move in the world of James Patterson and Lee Child, my cliffhangers happen in the kitchen and the bedroom and places like that. Paragraph number three, usually when I'd get to our old house, my former husband would be there. I'm not naming him. And it's not because I'm protecting him, I could have made up a name for him. Think about why I'm not naming him. Standing in the doorway, but one Sunday late last winter. First I'm giving you the general, usually this would happen, but this time is different. And I'm going to tell you one story. But one Sunday late last winter he and our older son had gone off with friends. I don't even mention my daughter, too confusing. He and our older son had gone off with friends, so I was only picking up our younger boy, Willy. And for the first time in ages, I stepped into my old kitchen. My kitchen, somebody said it. And you were right, my kitchen. And I think I mentioned driving, yep. Paragraph number four. A bitter taste rose in my throat like what happens when you think you're going to throw up, but you don't. I could have simply said, I felt nauseous. Can't draw a picture of nauseous. Can't see that. And you actually can't draw a picture of the bitter taste, but you can taste the bitter taste. I wanted to take it apart and say what it was like. And it's not just like you're going to throw up, it's like that when you're almost going to throw up, and then you sort of don't again. You know what that tastes like. I stepped into the hallway and glanced at the bed. Yep, the bed. At the bed where all three of our children, where all three of our babies were born. I went back into the kitchen, ran my hand over the wood of the kitchen counter where I must have prepared 1,000 meals, yep. And looked out the window into an eerie and beautiful streak of light from a full moon slashing across new fallen snow, yep. Snow and moon. And how about that verb, slashing. When do we think of slashing? Does that word come up a lot in like romance novels? Probably, well yes, slashing her bodice off maybe, but it is a violent word actually. I remembered another full moon night when my husband and I had skated on black ice under another, on the pond down the road. And another full moon night when we'd fought so bitterly, I paced the rooms of his house, of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children and then another, unable to find sleep. There comes the skating under the full moon, and then there comes the fights, the wondering around the house. And this sentence is meant, listen to this sentence. I paced the rooms of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children then another unable to find sleep. I am trying to replicate the restlessness of a mother of a woman who cannot sleep. It's kind of uncharacteristic for me to write a sentence as long as that, and it's deliberate. And incidentally, this is a good example of how, and I was talking about this with John and his story about going to Poland. Only part of the story takes place that night in the kitchen and the next morning going back. That is the container for memories that occurred many other times, same as the waiting room at the hospital was the container for memories of other times with Jim. I am in that house and I'm thinking about other times in that house. I'm under that full moon, and I'm thinking about other full moons. Paragraph number five. This wasn't even close to the first time I felt that bitter taste. I had it the day seven years ago, yep, here comes another memory embedded in the container of that night. That I drove a U-haul filled with my belongings down this driveway. Here comes the U-haul, moved. The day I sat in a courtroom hearing a guardian ad litem evaluate my performance as a mother. Do I need to say to you I was infuriated? I was offended, I was enraged. No, but I want to give you a picture of what anger looks like. And here was my picture. I could have risen from the chair and put my fist through a wall that day. The surprise was discovered that years later the wild rage I felt in the early stages of divorce seemed to have flared up again. Suddenly, and I need to show a picture of wild rage. What does wild rage look like? I had to give you a picture. Suddenly I felt the urge to paint graffiti on the walls, smash dishes, and I'll tell you actually what I said in the original version of this piece. Pee on the floor. The New York Times took it out. But actually pee on the floor was the most accurate thing that I felt like doing, and it was a very primal thing. And it was a staking the territory thing. I didn't do it. I didn't paint graffiti either, but I wanted to give a picture of rage. And rage, just the word rage, is not, you're not going to be able to see. Although if you'd walked in the room at that moment, all you would have seen was a 42-year-old woman looking out a window not saying a word. And there is an example of how only part of the story is going to be seen physically. If you'd looked at me, you would have seen nothing. It was everything that was happening inside. And part of your job as a memoir writer is to go to what's happening inside without just saying I felt horrible. I felt angry. But to take apart and show those feelings in terms of what you want to do, what you see, your physical, when we were talking with Liza, it was actually how she breathed. Paragraph seven, now comes the hard part of this story. And I wanted to set you up for that. I wanted to slow you down so you wouldn't miss it. In the same way, that for instance, when Matthew's grandmother is going to tell him some very big news that he hasn't known for 16 years of his life, we need to almost take a breath before we hear it. In the same way that John, who in his present version of his piece, the woman at the orphanage just says, oh her mother, Casey's mother, appeared to suffer from some kind of disability or mental illness. We need to put some arrows around it, so the reader will know here comes something big, slow down, pay attention, this is important. Now comes the hard part of this story. On the kitchen counter lay my ex-husband's screw gun. Would I ever write my ex-husband's screw gun lay on the kitchen counter? Absolutely not because what is the power word? Screw gun, end of sentence. I picked it up and palmed it as if it were a .45. And here incidentally is something that I would change from how I wrote when I first wrote this piece. I would not say as if it were a . because when I saw palmed it, you think gun. And I now know you didn't need, as if it were a .45. I put it down again, picked it up, I'm doing that same thing again. Picked it up, put it down, picked it up, put it down. I want you to feel all of my struggle. And tucked it under my jacket and walked out the door. Then like a person in a dream, I saw myself, this is tricky because I can't really describe myself throwing the gun. You can't do that. Anytime in a memoir that I read when somebody says tears were streaming down my face, I don't fully believe it because you don't see what's on your face. If you say, I tasted tears, I'll believe that. I'm not actually wild about mentioning crying at all in your piece because that's too easy to show that you're upset. But I'm digressing there. I can't show you me throwing the gun because I didn't actually see me throwing the gun, I was me throwing the gun. So I say a little bit differently, then like a person in a dream, I saw myself raising my arm. And I want to at this moment of me doing the baddest thing, I want to summon an image of sweetness. I saw myself raising my arm the way my two sons have taught me when we're playing catch, and I let that screw gun fly. When I wrote that sentence, I did not say to myself, only one syllable words, but I did want it to feel like gun fire. I let that screw gun fly. I watched it land in a clump of snow covered bushes. This is an example of something that is definitely not the camera screwed to the wall at the mini mart, I am slowing the action way down to milliseconds. The screw gun even just being thrown and landing are two different sentences. And sometimes whole decades will be half a sentence. I walked back into the house and called to my son, time to go home. Next paragraph. By the time I got back to my own house, I felt sick with shame and embarrassment at what I'd done. And that is an example of a sentence I would no longer put into this piece. I do not need to tell you I felt sick with shame and embarrassment. I might just say I felt sick. Monday morning I tried to work, but all I could think about was this man I used to be married to looking for his screw gun and realizing that it had disappeared the same night I had come to his house when he wasn't there. And I don't think I need that either. I think I could save all those dollars. I saw his face twisted in a mask of justifiable rage. And I couldn't see his face, so all I can do is give you what I imagined. But that was what I was imagining. So that's part of my experience. Just after noon, I put on my jacket and headed out to my car. And I don't need to tell you where I was going. You know, and you also know that I hate that drive. I'd rather go 100 miles in another direction on that particular drive. And as it drove, it came to me, and here I am allowing myself something that I don't do very often in a personal essay, which is actually a thought. A thought, I give myself a thought, an interpretation, an observation, not simply an account of what happens. Both physically and emotionally. It occurred to me that the worst thing about divorce is not what the other person does to you or how he behaves, but the strange and terrible behavior divorce produces in your own self. After an ugly divorce, someone who used to love you reshapes his view of you into that of a hateful and monstrous person. That Sunday night I turned into her. Second to last paragraph. As I turned the final bend in the road, aha, would he be there? Oh, I'm crossing off some other things. Guardian ad litem, custody battle, definitely marriage. Never got around to that fireplace, okay. As I turned the final bend in the road leading to my old house, I saw with relief. Do I need with relief? No, you're so good now. (laughter) You're almost Joyce Maynard graduates. I saw that my ex-husband's car wasn't there. So I walked over to the clump of bushes where I'd thrown the gun. At first I couldn't spot it. Last paragraph. I don't want it to be too easy. I want this to feel like a real struggle and a search, which it was. Then I saw the handle, just barely sticking out of the snow. I dry the gun off on my shirt and carried it, I want this to all be laborious. I could have just said and then I returned the gun. But I want you to feel the struggle. I dried the gun off on my shirt, and carried it onto the porch where I set it on a table. I didn't put it back where I'd found it because to do so, I'd have to enter the house. And it wasn't my house anymore. That piece is I think 1200 words. 1200 words, and it's basically the story of a marriage, the end of a marriage, the aftermath of the end of the marriage, and the loss of a home in all its forms. And it's, you know when I talk about recurring themes, another recurring theme for me is that farm. I've talked about that farm a whole lot. Anybody who's read a lot of my work knows all about that farm.

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.