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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 12 of 21

My Favorite Writing Tool

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

12. My Favorite Writing Tool

Lesson Info

My Favorite Writing Tool

I think it's time to talk about my favorite writing tool. I actually already started using it. I can never stay away from the whiteboard, and it's the whiteboard. It is a way for me to be. You know, one of the hardest things about being a writer is that darned blank page. A painter has paints, a musician has the sheet music or even if the musician is improvising, he or she has an instrument. All I have are letters of the alphabet. It's not a very satisfying tool and I want to move and I also think it's just healthier and gets your blood going more if you're moving around. So I like to get up from my desk and start writing things down and the minute I do, I don't have a blank page anymore. I might have a blank screen but I've got a full board and I do not write an outline. 'Cause I think, you know we all did this at school when we were writing reports. You know, roman numeral one, A, B, C, D. Roman numeral two, and if you write an essay this is, that comes off of this, it's going to sou...

nd like and I could do, at this point an imitation of our president imitating a president but I won't do that. It will be very stiff and artificial and it will have no life to it. But what I do is scribble down all kinds of random ideas. I don't worry about having them in any kind of order. I, what I think about, the image that always come to me, my father was a painter and I spent hours just watching my father paint and he had, he didn't have like a conventional palette like you see in pictures of painters with the hole in the middle but he just had a board with a whole bunch of dollops of paint and he had a palette knife and he'd pick up the palette knife and he'd, and he'd pick up now a little blue and now a little yellow, and that's kind of my image in reverse for the whiteboard. I take this and I think I'm gonna take this now and I'm gonna use this. And I really wanna recommend to all of you that you get away from your desk sometimes and start writing on the whiteboard. I also say this because you don't wanna start writing right away. There's a lot of preparation before you write and one of the things that you can do is begin to lay out the stuff that you want to include. If I were John I would spend a lot of time with that story. I would be scribbling down things like, she twisted her blanket around her finger and there was a little piece of thread that she used to like to twirl under her ear or whatever sort of, I mean I'm making that up obviously. That's not Casey, but just the things that you remember that will make that person who was lost come back alive again. And another person who was lost, was who John used to be and I wanna see John then. And John and Erica then and as painful as it is, the dreams that they had for who they were gonna get to be as parents and as a family. Okay, the other thing I love to do with a whiteboard is to explore what I call the A and B story and sometimes it's an A, B, C, D, E, F story. The big story, or the story in the front. Might seem to be, well I'll go back again to that story about my husband's surgery. The surgery, go to hospital, say goodbye to him as he goes off to surgery, sit in waiting rooms, see people. All the way through call to see how it's going. This is one track, one track only. For you John, one track is and it's probably your least important track was the track about the trip to Poland. Back here the B story is you're trying to get the baby, you're seeing her picture for the first time, her at age seven, a picture of her before trouble seemed to be there. A picture of trouble, I'm sure you have many and actually we need to have the jump. As you experienced it which was a phone call, which was a policeman, which was whatever it was. All of that is another whole column. And then there probably another column here which is about the questions. What happened, anyway and these are, we're tracking them all in chronologically, simultaneously.

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.