Skip to main content

money & life

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 18 of 21

Picking the Story You Should Tell

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

18. Picking the Story You Should Tell

Lesson Info

Picking the Story You Should Tell

I wanna invite you to come on up, Terry. And have a seat. Tell us a little about yourself. I am a former newspaper editor. I did journalism for 30 years and today's story has to do with something that happened in the middle of Guatemala's civil war in 1985. I had the opportunity to take off and go to Guatemala. A country I know and love. (laughing) You know very well and I was gonna do a story about people I had lived with years before as a volunteer in an Indian village, who just happened to be situated in the most devastated area of Guatemala, in the highlands, where massacres took place. For those who don't know, and there are many Americans who do not, there was a civil war that lasted in Guatemala for... 36 years. 36 years. Tens of thousands of people were killed. Hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. So, mostly Indian people. It's a country that has more Indian people, percentage-wise, than just about any. 60%, I think, is Mayan Indian heritage, very opp...

ressed. At any rate, so I went back thinking that I would do a simple story of people I knew but quite by coincidence, (laughing) I ran into a couple of crazy journalists, one from England and one from Spain, who wanted to go searching for guerrillas because, according to the army, the guerrillas had been crushed in these terrible programs that had gone on several years before. So, we rented a Subaru Wagon and started touring the country, looking for guerrillas and because I was a former seminary, and I knew how to talk to priests, and it turns out, yes, priests were very involved in the revolutionary movement. Some of them gave their lives. Many gave their lives, many. Because of my knowledge of that, eventually as we toured the country, we got closer and closer to where activity was going on, and wouldn't you know, on the lake that all Aldous Huxley called the most beautiful lake in the world, Lake Atitlan, surrounded by volcanoes, where one day our host would come and live, and lives still. And where I give writing workshops every year. That's exactly right. There on the volcanoes, the highlands of the volcanoes in the mountains above where she lives, I found myself running with a group of guerrillas up through a minefield for a day in a half until finally, we got to their camp, and there, in the opening of the camp, were Robin Hood's men. That's what it looked like, people in green, and a beautiful woman, dressed in green, came up to me and told me to take my clothes off, and as it turned out, all she wanted to do was dry them, but just for a second, I thought it was my lucky day. (audience laughing) So, it wasn't lost on Commandante Poncho, who was her lover, that I couldn't keep... We always need to give our characters names, and hers was? Anna. Anna. Capitana Anna and Commandante Poncho. Thereupon, lots of things happened that made me never, ever forget these two people and a week later, when I ran down the volcano, and then had to escape the country because the army had found out what I was up to, I left behind a wonderment about these people, because the Guatemalan Revolution eventually came to an end in 1996. So, you only knew them for one week in the 80s. One week. One week and you were a very young man, then. I was half the age I am, now. So, four years ago, I was idly, I had nothing better better to do at work but I thought, I'll Google Commadante Poncho. Boom, his name shows up. How about Capitana Anna? Boom, her name shows up. They're implicated in one of the terrible massacres. I learned more and finally, I find, no. They're no longer implicated but I learned who they really are. And the massacres were mostly of the, I mean, the guerrillas were not performing the massacres. Some did. Some did. It was a 97% by the army, 3% by the guerrillas . At any rate, so I decided that I would see if I could go back and visit him, and I wanted to find out what happened to both of them. A quest. A quest. You have your character, you have your situation. There's something your character wants, to learn the truth. So, how do you find a guerrilla commandante? (sniffing) Well, you go to Facebook, right? (laughing) (audience laughing) So, I Facebooked his name. They were older, too, by this time. Or he was. I Facebooked his name and I said, do you remember me and I got a two word reply. Terry Ricardo, I remember you. And then, we had a few words, and I said, I think I'll come to visit you, and he said, I think I'd like that. How old is he, now? He's 10 years younger than me, so. He's in his... Early 60s. I went, expecting to find... The virile, imposing, tall character that I had left on the mountain and who I had danced against for the affections of Anna. This really happened but there's so many stories. I shouldn't bring that up. There was a dancing competition? See, I was an alcoholic and had given up booze some years before, and when I arrived, and we were the first to get up to his camp, alive, he said, I've got a bottle of rum that Castro gave me, and I just wanted an excuse to break it open. Let's have a drink. (laughing) This is your recent trip back? No, no, this is the first one. This is back in the 80s, okay, yeah. And he says, come on, Terry, and I said, oh, I don't drink. And he looks at me, and I'm looking around at all these men with their goalials and M16s, and they're all looking at me like, you don't drink? You're a man and you don't drink? And then I thought, well. It's not about me being afraid of the guns, it's when am I ever gonna have the chance to drink Castro's rum with a guerrilla commandante on top of a volcano? (audience laughing) Let's fill her up. It was the last drink I ever had and it went down me like alpine climbers swing from peak to peak, yodeling. From rib to rib. The finest drink I ever had. Well, anyhow, eventually I left and I came back to talk to him. But you also had designs on Anna. Yeah, you're right. I couldn't keep my eyes off her. She was beautiful and she had power. She spoke in a way that I'd never heard a woman speak before. She spoke in tones of a bell, a silver bell at mass. I used to be a alter boy and when I'd ring that bell, to be honest, that's what her voice sounded like. Clear and pure, coming out through the night. So, between her imposing, physical beauty her commanding intelligence, the courage she displayed, simply in her bearing, everything about her, I was transfixed and Poncho was pissed. He called for a dance. I bet you were taller than he was. Well, he seemed taller to me. (laughing) He's surrounded by people with guns. So, at any rate, the next day he calls for some dance of the bottle and he says, this is a traditional dance and we put the empty rum bottle down, and he says, two people will dance around, and then they will leap up against each other, and whoever is remaining at the end of the dance gets the bottle. And the bottle represents a woman because what does a guerrilla want more in life but a woman in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other? I thought, that made a lot of sense. (laughing) Until, in the midst of the dance, as he's slamming into me, I realized, it's no joke. It's no dance, it's real and I'd better figure out how to lose or I'm gonna lose, and they ain't gonna be happy. So, I found a way to lose honorably and it took all the tension out, and I never looked at her again, but I never forgot her. Well, when I was communicating with him, I found that Anna had been assassinated some years later. So, I wanted to find out what happened to Anna and what happened to him. So, my son, my 17 year old son was... Name? His name was Casey. Casey was about ready to launch himself to college in another state and though we had a wonderful relationship, he had shown signs of wanting to be detached from me, and to create his own life. I get it but it's kinda sad, right? He wanted to do the 200-mile John Muir Trail but there's too much snow, so then he says, I wanna go to Nicaragua. You went to Guatemala. I want to go to Nicaragua and his mother said, over my dead body, and then, we talked about it, and she said, well, no. Listen, Terry. You take him and you show him the ropes. If you think he can take off, then he can go to Nicaragua from Guatemala because she knew that I wanted to go back and visit. That was my excuse to go back, so Casey comes along. We spend a few days before we actually meet Poncho and all he wants to do is leave, and go to Nicaragua. I cannot convince him that the world is at his, that this third world magnificence is right in front of him. You're overlooking it. He wants to make his own, I get it. So finally comes the day that we go to meet Poncho and Poncho lives in a compound in Guatemala City. How do you finally get him to go after he wasn't gonna do this? Once we were in Guatemala? Well, he didn't wanna even get to Guatemala. How did you get him to go? Because that was the only way his mother was gonna let him go to Nicaragua. So he agreed with that. So, finally we go to... To the place where Poncho lives, which is in a compound, an armed compound, and that's in Guatemala City. You have to live with guards if you have any money at all. So, we go through all kinds of armed guard units and I'm telling Casey this story for the one hundred millionth time of me and Poncho, and Casey's just rolling his eyes. I mean, heck. He ought to be rolling his eyes. That story has been resonating for so long, you know. It's growing moss and now, suddenly, we're through the last armed guards, and we're walking up toward it. My heart is thumping so hard, I swear he could hear it and we go up to a door that looks like any door, in any neighborhood, in a nice, little neighborhood in the United States, and I go to knock on it, and I can't, and Casey says, go ahead, Dad. And then, finally, I knock on it and I hear this rustling, and then, slowly, the door creaks open, and there, standing in front of me, is the face of Poncho as I remembered it but he's this small man, broken and bent. He leans against the door. He has a cane. He can barely stand by himself. It seems like every one of his joints is disconnected. It seems like he can't even move without great pain and he looks at me, and something happened to him. Suddenly, he started straightening up and tears started going down his cheeks, and suddenly, tears are down my cheeks, and we just fell into each other's arms like old lovers. And our beards are running against each other and my son's over there, astonished. And Terry, he said, Terry. And then, we go in and we start talking, I guess, about things. At first, just catch up stuff, little things that you and I would talk about if we were old friends. Like well, you know. It's been a long time since we'd seen each other. What you been doing? Oh, you know, Poncho. I went on and became a newspaper editor, and I was this and that, and what'd you do, Poncho? He said, well, you know. I became a congressman and served a couple of terms. I said, yeah, I heard you served a couple of terms with Rios Montt, the guy who was just convicted of crimes against humanity. How in the hell could you fight against this guy your whole life and then come down, and join his party? And he looks at me and he says, oh, it's complicated, Terry. And the story goes on, and we just, we're not getting at the meat of it, yet. So, finally, we hear a knock on the door and his son comes in, his 27 year old son who looks like him, and he sits down, and he introduces. He doesn't say anything. Casey's sitting and listening to all of this. Casey isn't saying a word. And suddenly. Poncho turns to his son and he says, you know, Terry. He and I really like music. We like American music, don't we? Yeah. He says, we really like Chuck Berry. (Joyce laughing) I said, you like Chuck Berry? We love Chuck Berry. I said, well. Poncho, I knew Chuck Berry. You knew Chuck Berry? (Joyce laughing) I said, yeah. My mother and I formed a PR agency, and he was our first client. Oh, no. Well, Chuck Berry had just died a few months before and I'd written a thing on Facebook about it, and so I had his son translate it for him, and Poncho is absolutely like a young, adolescent girl at an all-boys concert, you know. It's like, he can't believe it. He's so captivated and I'm thinking, this is the heroic leader of troops against the most repressive army on the planet and he loves Chuck Berry like a little, you know, it was like, out of this world. I have to interrupt, just a little, although I so don't want to because you really don't need me for storytelling assistance. (audience laughing) I think you're a ringer, here. Because I want to have a little time to do some work with you. I wanna get to you know who. My son. Your son and his daughter, I believe. Well, sort of. So then, the most extraordinary storytelling that occurs. I had planned to tape it but it got exploded. Poncho's a former student of mine. Of course, he's attended many of my workshops. (audience laughing) And I couldn't turn it on. It happened so much. It was so explosive. There was so much fire. So much emotion and I'm still sorting through it. That finally you're all exhausted at the end but one thing happened. I had a recording of her boys, of Anna's boys that I had made in the mountains with crickets in the background. Singing or with crickets in the background? Talking in that beautiful, silver tongue and she started out saying, here in the mountains of Guatemala, we are all equal, and our fight is to bring equality to all people, and it got no farther than that, and everybody's sobbing. And Poncho turns to me and said, this is the first time he's heard his mother's voice. Finally, when it was all over and we couldn't talk anymore, my son and I, who hasn't said one word for at least six or seven hours. We stumble out into the dark, close the door, and my son grabs me by the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and I can still see the yellow glow of the streetlights in his eyes, and he said, what the fuck just happened in there, Dad? (audience laughing) Sorry. It was like a movie. Dad. He said you were brave. My chest puffs out. (audience laughing) And I see something in his eyes I hadn't seen since he was just a little boy. The respect and heroic love that little boys have for their fathers. And all I could think was, lives there a father who doesn't want to be validated in the eyes of his son? And that had just happened. So, I then, a day later, let Casey go to Nicaragua. It's kind of like leaping off my shoulders and jumping into a little took-took car, and last I saw him, as he went away. And then I had one more meeting with Poncho. A few days later. He came to my hotel and he brought a big bottle of tequila, and he said, alright, Terry. We're gonna start drinking. I said, no Poncho, goddamn you. 30 years ago, I said I wasn't gonna drink. The last drink I ever had was that and I'm not having a drink. Yes you are, no I'm not, yes you are. I swear to God, I thought we were gonna get into a fist fight, screaming and yelling over whether I was gonna have a drink, and I didn't, finally he gives in. He gets drunk and then, the climax to all of this. He starts crying and sobbing, and begging me to take care of his son. My life has been a ruination, he says. I have destroyed my life. My son needs someone to help guide him. Would you take him under your hands and arms like you did with your son? Promise me, Terry. Promise me. (laughing) Yeah, I know what drunks are like. They get a little excited but it also brings out a bit of that raw truth. I left. And now. Since then, I have been in contact with Anna's daughter by a former guerrilla, and what I had found is that there is some question about how Anna died. They're very strange circumstances. Her daughter had never heard of these stories. I'm gonna interrupt you. Yes, go right ahead. Because we're going into the territory of another story and you have one that's so good, and we have limited time. You're right, I'm sorry. No, no, don't apologize. My gosh, I don't think anybody's been bored for one millisecond. And this is the happy problem of a good memoir writer that you've got a lot of stories but know when to put the frame around one. Although, do tell us. She was murdered, I mean, she died violently. Yes, she was murdered and I'm going back to take her daughter around the lake to find where her cremated remains were secretively buried. And that was the story that I thought we were going to work on, today, but this one calls out, and actually, you don't need a lot of help. And so, I'm not gonna give you very much of it but I'm gonna note a couple of things in this almost perfect story, that will be helpful for several other people. What's this story about? At the end of the day. There's Guatemala, there's the war, but that's not Terry's story. That's the Guatemalan story, that's the guerrilla story. What is Terry's story about? The relationship with his son. Set against the backdrop of this and played out through his return to Guatemala with his son. And once you locate what it's about, it transforms the way you tell it. What are some things we know about Terry? He was a reporter. He was probably, you know, kind of tough and hard bitten, and not easily, not a softie, I'm guessing. And then, he fell for this woman. The way he described her needs little improvement. She did come alive as a character in all the ways that I want you to convey in your writing. Another part of Terry is that he's an alcoholic. A recovering alcoholic. He has done an extraordinary thing. He has stayed sober for how many years? With the exception of that one night. July 21st, 1981. 1981, so. We're talking almost 40 years. Almost 40 years sober with one exception, which was a very conscious choice and didn't send you on the road to ruin. So, we've got one man who was basically beat out by the greater hero in the year 1985. You folded to Commandante, and Commandante got Anna, and Commandante won the dancing test. The dancing test is crucial and I expect the title of this piece will have something to do with the dance. Dance for the bottle, or something. So, Commandante won. Who was Commandante 40 years later? A broken man. What are the sort of, the physical attributes, the physical manifestations in his life of being broken? He worked for the man who was, for anybody who follows Guatemalan history, whose name is, more than any other name, is that of the greatest, the arch-villain of the people that the guerillas were fighting. So, Commandante sold out. Who won the dance in 2018? Terry did. And who gets the son? Terry gets the son. What is the son's name? Francisco. Francisco, Francisco. It's the story of the stakes. There's Terry and Commandante, and their battle over Anna, and Terry seems to lose, and Commandante loses, ultimately. Loses Anna and then loses who he used to be, loses his self respect. There's another set of stakes. Which is Casey. Casey. He's overlooking my story. He wants to make his own. I loved that line. You had your big, young man adventure, and of course, he needs to have his. Not just bear witness to his father's and you're a wise enough father to understand that at the same time that you got him there. Basically, you lured him there. I asked you that. Like, how did you get him to Guatemala? Because really, it was the prelude for his own big adventure that he either will or will not have. You've set the bar pretty high. And ultimately, the landing place is what? Yes, he gets Francisco. The first time around, he's offered the bottle, he drinks. The second time, he does not drink. He has triumphed. He triumphed over his addiction. He triumphed as a father. He managed to do two things. He managed to hold his son close and let his son go, and he was acknowledged, and you used a word that I know you're not gonna use when you write this, validated. He was acknowledged and honored by his former adversary, friendly adversary, Commandante and the most important person, Casey, by his son. I'm only gonna... Offer a couple of suggestions for this story. Please. Like really, so little. If we hear and this, you can apply, it follows for all your stories in different forms. If we're gonna hear, down here, that Commandante worked for Rios Montt, we'd better hear, up here, the name Rios Montt. It is too late to explain who Rios Montt is just at that moment. We want to have known that Rios Montt is the devil. And when Casey says... What was the line about respect? You were brave. My god, you were brave, Dad. We need to see, earlier, that this was in question. That Terry did not necessarily have the respect of his son. Good point. (laughing) So, son. Casey not impressed with Terry. (audience laughing) Which can be true for most of our children, most of our children about most of us. And so there are two journeys. There is the journey as a father and there is the journey as a, I'll call it, brother of Commandante. And it is not a piece about Anna. That's why I wanted to stop Anna. The story about Anna's ashes, absolutely, is a story to write and that's for another day. Part of the memoir. It's part of the memoir. And today, we're doing the essay. So, know where to put the frame around it. Fabulous story. One thing I need to say because this is going public is that I don't consider Poncho having lost, here. One thing that will come through in the memoir is that when I first started going to Guatemala, I had this thought about life being black and white. About there being the bright, dividing line between right and wrong, and I found, starting in my first ventures to Guatemala, and especially this, a long road to a realization that life ain't that simple. It's not a slogan and what Poncho went through. I would not want to go through and imagine that I would have turned out even as good as. There are things about life. How generous of you to say that, Terry. Even, you know, when you were talking about the conventional thinking of people like me. Is oh, the guerrillas were good, the government was bad but you point out, the guerrillas did some pretty terrible things, too. And that is another I used to but now I. I used to see the light of the world as black and white, good and bad. There are so many shades of gray. Thank you, that is a gorgeous summary, Terry. Gorgeous. (audience applauding) (speaking in Spanish) And I have to say, look how generous these memoir writers are. You know, he wants to be so careful that, you know, Poncho, who we don't, do know, I mean Commandante, who we do know is on the internet should not watch my class and think that we're badmouthing him. So, Commandante. I also want to say that Lake Atitlan is not a dangerous place, (laughing) anymore. In fact, I teach a writing workshop, there, every winter. I've been doing it for 18 years, now, thank you so much.

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.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

How to Write a Personal Essay - Essays and Articles

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


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.