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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 5 of 21

Stories of Change

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

5. Stories of Change

Lesson Info

Stories of Change

We're gonna talk about change. We know what the change was for Jonathan Lethem. I don't need to explain it to you. Let's look at some of the, I'm gonna go back to some of the bios that you sent into me and some of you did really do a great job of identifying moments in your life, lives, when a change took place and those are the ones, certainly, that lend themselves to your essays. Here's a sampling, running a youth soccer league as a total klutz, there's a contradiction, a klutz runs a youth soccer league, and becoming sports obsessed. What just happened? Changed, she was a klutz, she ran a youth soccer league, she became, and she even found an obsession, and she knew that that was rich territory for writing. After the end of my 30 year marriage, I sold my home by the sea and moved to the Delta in the middle of nowhere. We're gonna be talking to that woman later. How my relationship with my boyfriend fell apart after a sexual assault. This is interesting, this is two stories actually,...

there's a story of a sexual assault and that's a pretty big story but, and sadly, there are probably many women in this room who have that story and it's all different. It's not the story of a sexual assault, it's her story and part of the implications of hers, were what it did to the relationship with a man, that the ongoing relationship she had with the man who was not her assailant. My life in Alabama, wanting to fit, trying to fit, not fitting and how it cost me my home, my heritage, most of my friends and many of my family when I moved away. Here's another story of moving incidentally, one woman went from the Bay Area to the Delta, this one went from Alabama to the Bay Area, she might as well have just gone off to the moon. After my mom died badly, it occurred to me, died badly, interesting language, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to become friendly with death before it came for me. I love that phrase, before it came for me. 10 years after her death, I moved to a Zen Buddhist monastery, ordained as a Zen priest, and trained as a hospice chaplain. Do you wanna know that story? I think so. Is there change in that story, motion, growth? Yes, absolutely. After forty years in New York City, I left my job, moved to Chicago, and started a small scarf company. (laughs) it's so wacky! Oh yeah, it's been my ambition all my life to start a small scarf company. One Sunday night, I cut off all my dyed hair leaving me with a silver pixie cut. Look around the room and you can probably find her. Just as my husband and I were beginning to enjoy our free lifestyle, that's the curtain going up, that's life before life-changed, okay, free lifestyle coming on, we had to petition the court for custody of two of our grandchildren. The adjustment at age 67, has catapulted me into a range of emotions, and of course in your writing, I'm never gonna let you get away with just range of emotions 'cause I want pictures, that I struggle with to name, let alone manage. Does she have a story? Age 67, suddenly she's parenting teenagers, I think so, yes. Okay, we've just seen some pretty good stories. These stories all begin to suggest an element, they're very different stories, that's going to assist you greatly in the writing of your personal essay, and I call it the container. It is a small frame, a small lens, through which you can tell a big story, and it's usually something very concrete like I sold my house, I can see that, that's a picture, that's a scene, it is, it doesn't happen over the course of 30 years, it is a little moment that will be a window into a much bigger story. For some of you who may have watched my first class on Creative Live, I read and talked about an essay that I had written about going with my husband, Jim, my second husband, to the hospital and being at the hospital, whole essay took place over a 16 hour period at the hospital while I was waiting for him to have and then emerge from a surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his pancreas. It was not an essay about the surgery. It was not an essay even about cancer, although ultimately the cancer killed him, it was really an essay about marriage, and I used my period at the hospital, and my recognition of the fact that I was able that day to speak a word I had never spoken without discomfort before, wife. When I went to the recovery room and I identified myself as Jim's wife, I used that as the container through which I explored the big idea which was not the big idea of my husband's death, although that was an important one and I've written plenty about that one too, but the idea of my own resistance to being married and my own discomfort with giving up my independence at the age of 59.

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.