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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 11 of 21

The Importance of Language

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

11. The Importance of Language

Lesson Info

The Importance of Language

This is an essay written by, and I think, John Brooks, I'm just gonna ask you to come on up here now. I mentioned John earlier as a student of mine, longtime student of mine, and you don't mind my saying this, I think, John, that John came to me never having expected to be a writer, correct? No, never. You were is business, I think, in finance. I was in finance and banking. And what happened that changed that, in a sentence? 10 years ago, my 17-year-old daughter, Casey, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, disappeared. So, John decided to do the thing that I recommend, which was to make something of his grief, and he wrote a book. What's the name of that book? It's called The Girl Behind The Door. And actually, you can now get that book on Amazon. You worked very hard, you were not a natural writer. I remember your first work. You worked really hard, and you're still gonna have... Thank you for that. And I have to warn you, you're still gonna have to work hard. I'm no...

t done with you yet. So, John wrote that story I am sure helped many parents. I bet you've gotten a lot of letters. I think you also worked on the project to get nets under the Golden Gate Bridge. Am I right that you were a part of that? Yes, and we won. And you won. So, John was not done. I said that you don't just tell the story once and it's over. There are lots of layers to the story, and John is back here to talk about, I don't know if it's an essay or a book, but for the purposed of today it's an essay. It's an essay, and that's what I think it should be, an essay about going to... Casey was adopted, and John and his wife, Erika, went back to the orphanage in Poland from which she was adopted and these are... These are the first two paragraphs of the essay that John sent to me. It was an... And I'm going to tell you now, John, I'm gonna give you a hard time. Good. It was a glorious Sunday morning when my wife and I left the rental coun... Always name an important character. Later you do, but I want to know right away, and if you just say Erika and I we'll figure out that's your wife. It was a glorious Sunday morning when my wife and I left the rental counter at Warsaw Chopin International Airport, making our way onto a crowded provincial roadway heading north. Much of the scene looked familiar-- people selling everything from cherries to kielbasa, Marlboros, vodka, motor oil, even sex, and I do like that list. That's a set of pictures. Whether that's the most important thing to see first is another issue, but you're giving us a lot of pictures there. Polish drivers were just as impatient and aggressive as they'd always been. Thankfully, that... There's an adverb, I'm not too thrilled about that. That eventually... There's another one. Gave way to inviting lakes, yellow rapeseed fields, and the neat farms and hamlets that had so impressed us years earlier. Paragraph two. Our last trip to Poland was 27 years later when Erika, herself of Polish descent, and I adopted a 14-month-old girl. I think the fact that Erika is of Polish descent might be worth its own sentence. I think that might be important because she actually does speak Polish, I believe. Yeah, she does. And I adopted a 14-month-old girl, our daughter Casey, from an orphanage in the Lake District town of Mragowo. Mragowo. Mragowo. If we're speaking just a minute for the power word, the power phrase in this sentence. Is Mragowo the power word in that sentence, really? No, it's adopted our daughter, Casey. Traveled to a little village in Mragowo and adopted our 14-year-old daughter, Casey. Feel the difference? But actually, none of this is going to stay written as it is now, but if you were, okay. We'd been shown just one photo of her, a beautiful blonde baby in the arms of an attractive young aide in a white lab coat, and within months, we were off to Poland to bring her home with us. That was in 1991. Okay. Few phrases from these paragraphs. A glorious Sunday morning, my wife, a crowded provincial roadway, people selling everything, impatient and aggressive, inviting lakes, neat farms and hamlets, a 14-month-old girl, beautiful blonde baby, an attractive young aide, off to Poland, 1991. How long did you and Erika struggle to have a child? Maybe first you tried to conceive a child, and then to adopt? Well, my wife, at the time that we first got married, was, she was older than I was. So, was kind of at the sunset of her fertility, so we moved into the adoption phase within about six months. Okay, and so did it go relatively swiftly? It went unbelievably swiftly, and that's because Erika spoke Polish. Okay, so one of the things that I anticipated is not true, that this adoption was not preceded by years of another kind of heartache. Still, the moment that you first lay eyes on a baby that you have been waiting for and you have been working for and filling out mountains of paperwork for, and what we hear, the first thing we hear about her is beautiful blonde baby. I can't see her, and she could be anyone. If there were a whole lot of blonde babies in this room, I could not begin to pick her out. I want the first moment, and I know this from people who have adopted children at orphanages, that the first moment you lay eyes on that child is a moment you will never forget. And you know everything about what that child did, and beautiful blonde baby doesn't say it. Do we incidentally care what the aide looks like? What the woman who is holding her looks like? Not particularly, except that... She wouldn't matter at all except that when they go back, they're gonna meet that same woman. So, in fact, it is relevant, but if she then becomes a real character, attractive young aide, that could be almost any young woman. Off to Poland. You know, I might go off to the supermarket, and I might even go off to Hawaii, but when I make a trip across the country to Poland to adopt, to bring home a 14 year, 14-month-old child who is going to be my daughter, that is not off to Poland. That is a journey, that is a journey, and it needs to be described as a journey. And 1991 is one of those years, one of those numbers that means nothing. 1977, because Johnathan Letham's piece was really about something that was very time sensitive, made sense. What's more relevant is how old you were at the time, what was going on in your lives. That's how to tell time in memoir, usually, not necessarily the year. People selling everything, I have no picture of that. My wife, a crowded provincial roadway, inviting lakes. That could be a travel brochure for Poland. I want you to describe this, but it's not... Sometimes people misunderstand the whole idea of the importance of description in writing and they think that it is just about putting in a lot of details. For instance, you did. I'll actually go back. You tell us about the make of the car. Maybe you don't here, but I think later we hear the make of the car. The make of the car is actually not important. That's not the kind of specific detail. The kind of specific detail I want is the things that color your experience as it relates to what you're going through right now, and that will be the eyes... Poland as seen through the eyes of a man and his wife, but it's really you, this is your story, not Erika's, who is going to bring home his daughter. And this does not... Nothing in what you've written here yet conveys your emotional reality, and interestingly, the way to do it is not to say we were so excited, we were so eager, we were so nervous. All adjectives that describe, but do not allow me to inhabit you. I want to see what you holding her hand on the plane. I want you to say it's one day from now we'll be holding her. I want, I want you to be... What do you notice? You probably noticed babies at that point, you probably noticed children. I want to see the scene through the eyes of the man who is having this experience. And actually, I list these phrases. I'm not... I'm going to give you a tougher list. I'm going to continue. I'm not gonna read your whole essay, John, but more of these phrases. The effects of separation and attachment, we were always very open, taken advantage of sexually, a tidy cozy room, my hoped for wholeness, our efforts to comfort her, self-destructive behaviors. What you lived through was extraordinarily painful. What you saw was filled with feeling. Self-destructive behaviors is a nice, clinical term for something that was not nice at all. `What did her self-destructive behaviors look like? She had... She had violent meltdowns, crying jags. Still can't see it. Violent meltdown is still a catchphrase. She would lock herself in her room. Lock herself in her room and just primal scream. Primal scream is still a catchphrase. I'm going to... This is the annoying thing that I do. What did it sound like? Had you ever heard a scream like that? It was a moan. It was more like she was moaning. Okay, it is very specific, and sometimes that's what you need to do. You sit at your desk and you just, you go to the place you didn't ever want to go to again. Sometimes I actually physically act out. I stand, it might look a little odd, but I sort of act it out because I want to be brought back to that place. So, you and Erika, and I want, because this is not Casey's story, this is your story of being the father of Casey. You and Erika are on the other side of the door. Yeah. Doing what? Trying to get in. Trying to get in. Trying to get in, and just fighting with her to open the door, to let us in, to let us comfort her. And maybe we need to hear your words at that point. And suddenly, we've got a scene and a picture, not destructive behaviors. My hoped-for wholeness. Huge phrase. What... You don't hope for wholeness until you have lost your wholeness. What does that look like? Well, the purpose of the trip, which was something that we'd always wanted to do. We'd always wanted to go back to the orphanage and just try to learn as much as we could even when Casey was live. Okay. Interesting. You just said something that I was guessing was the case. Originally, this was a trip that you pictured taking with Casey, and I'm actually gonna say that that might be your point of entry. We always, Erika always, Erika and I always wanted to bring Casey to Poland. That's the beginning. You took Casey from Poland, you wanted to bring Casey back to Poland. You went to Poland without Casey. And I'm not saying these things to you. I know you know this to be cruel, but to get to the heart of it, that's the real beginning. You wanted to bring Casey to Poland. There was somebody missing on that trip, and I think that's... I don't need to hear very much about what the airport is like or its name or how people sell products along the road. That's the stuff that a lot of writing classes are gonna tell you, give concrete details. They're missing something, which is not random concrete details, it's concrete details in the service of making it possible for us to understand your emotional truth. So, you get to the orphanage. There's another thing that happens in a good piece of writing, which is that it's not all linear. It's we don't... We don't just experience what we see in the world, we... And in fact, there's a person in this room who doesn't see anything, and that's Samantha, who we're gonna be talking to a little bit later in another episode, actually, in another class. We have a whole internal life of what we remember, what we saw at other moments, and all of those things are going on simultaneously while we're having our present-day experience. You pretty much give a documentary account of what happened as you got off the plane. You went down the road, you went to the orphanage, and you do that with reportorial skill, but there's a whole world of other experiences that you don't touch in this. And probably, even as you're writing about it, there's a part of you that's resisting it, which is who that man was. How many years ago was it now, 20.... 27. 27 years ago. Who you were at 27. I used to, but now I. Do we wanna know who John and Erika were 27 years ago? Do we wanna see that hopeful pair? I'm gonna call you young then. You were young compared to who we all are now. I want to see... You know, when I referred earlier to an essay that I took apart in a different Creative Live class that I said all took place at the hospital the day of my husband Jim's surgery, but in fact, over the course of the 16 hours at the hospital, I remember back to meeting Jim, our first date. I refer back to his proposal of marriage with a diamond ring stuck under, rather obviously, under an oyster on his balcony in Oakland. I refer back to our wedding, I refer back to the diagnosis. That was only the container. What you have written so far, and you're not done, you're going to do something else, is a report on a trip to Poland. I don't want a report on a trip to Poland. The trip to Poland is the least important part of your story. The most important part of your story is what happens in your emotional life while you go to Poland. Does that make sense to you? When I go to Poland then or recently? Then. Recently. When you went to Poland recently, we hear about when you went to Poland then. There is an emotional story going on under the current story, and so far, you're mostly just giving us the story then. Now, several interesting things did happen. I would say it was not a particularly revelatory trip in general, and so, in away, it was... It's anti-climactic. We get a very detailed account of a visit to an orphanage in which nothing much happens, but there are a couple of things that are significant, and why don't you tell us what they were. Well, the things that were significant were first going back to the attractive young aide. Well, it turned out that the woman we met at the orphanage was the attractive young aide 27 years later. And that is significant, but what do we then make of that? What do we know of that? Where do we go from there? Does she... Does she then... Is she then able to deliver anything to you? Yes, yes and no. You are two, two heartbroken people who are looking for some kind of answers, and what do you get from her? Well, she remembered Casey. Of course, she was holding her in the very first picture we saw of her, but she did share something about Casey's birth mother that we didn't know before. Exactly. And that was that her mother... We thought her mother was a simple country girl. You make up a little story in your head. Oh, she was a simple country girl, she lived at home, she probably wasn't married. And what did you find out? That she had some kind of a disability. We didn't know whether it was mental or physical. There are a lot of barriers, there are a lot of information barriers in adoption. Those records are just sealed. But you did learn that she had a mental illness. We thought it was probably a mental illness. It could've been a physical illness, but just talking together with the director, we agreed that it was probably some kind of a mental or emotional illness. She couldn't live on her own. So, actually, you got what could have been... You were looking... You know, I talked earlier about the stakes. What were the stakes for John and Erika when they went? When they went back to Poland? Was it to see Poland? No, it was they were two people who did not understand what happened to your precious girl, right? You were looking for answers, and she couldn't tell you anymore, and you never even found her body, right? So, you are holding on to, you're looking for any scrap you can, and it makes total sense that you would go back to Poland. But we need to feel that energy, that engine, pushing you. You're not just off to Poland, you are two desperate, heartbroken people who first scoured the San Francisco Bay to find your daughter's body so you could bury her. You have probably talked to every one of her friends, you have looked through her diaries, you have done all the other things, and before you go to Poland, I wanna feel questing. Remember we talked earlier about a quest, your character needs a quest? Your quest was answers, and then you don't understand how your daughter could've done this. You were good parents, you were... You were a loving household, you were open and tried to help her and I'm sure got her a therapist and did all the right things, and still jumped off the bridge. You go back to Poland and this woman actually does say something that might be a clue and even a comfort. Maybe it was never about anything you and Erika did, she had a genetic situation. Probably, yeah. But you don't actually make use of that in this piece. You drop it in, John. We're not reading the whole piece, and then you go on to a lot of other stuff that's, you know, you drove around, you wondered if you should stop at some houses, but that's really the story. And that is coming full circle on the arc. I don't understand, what did we do wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe her story was written long before we even brought her home, and then it becomes it. Then it becomes a meaningful encounter. As it is, it's a very anti-climactic encounter. It's like here's a bunch of things that happened. You know, there's an image that I find helpful for writers sometimes. I speak of wanting to be a filmmaker and wanting to make a little movie in your heads. And the movie that I wannabe make, I wanna be like him, this cameraman, or him, this cameraman. I want my camera to zoom in and zoom out and pan and I wanna have a film editor later who sometimes cuts when they're isn't the good stuff. There's another kind of film, and it's exemplified in some of your essays before I get my hands on you, and that's the kind of film that comes out of the camera that's at the mini mart or the bank that's screwed to the wall and records randomly absolutely whatever is in its path. And at the end of the day, when they retrieve that film, there's somebody coming into the mini mart to buy a pack of cigarettes and walk out and somebody coming into the mini mart to buy a quart of milk and walks out and somebody comes in to buy the mini mart, to the mini mart, takes out a gun, blows away the cashier and leaves. And in the film footage, guess what? They're all equal value. That is lousy storytelling. That is mini mart photography, and what I want from you is to start being this cameraman who zooms in, zooms out, has an editor, has some lighting, has sound, actually, has all those things, sets the stage for the mood. And the characters, we need to know who these characters are when they walk in that office and not just that their daughter has died, but all... Not all that they have gone through, but the quest that the big stakes that exist for you of we are looking for answers. And as written, you sort of go home and say well, I don't know if anything could've been... We still don't know anything, basically. But in fact, you did get something, and it's hidden. Thank you so much, and this is not the end of your storytelling. You're gonna be telling this story for the rest of your life, actually, and I so want you to tell it the best you can because this is a story that... I mean, I believe all of our stories are helpful to someone. Your story is helpful to a lot of people, and thank you for working as hard as you do. Thanks. (clapping) This slide, the external journey and the internal journey. It's important to tell both. We're not done with language yet. Language is a big topic. We could have a whole class. We could have a whole semester on language, but we don't have that luxury right now. But I am gonna read another short piece that actually brings up a different kind of issue, and this is your... Where's Natasha? There you are, okay. While I was waiting for a colleague on a documentary production in Havana, it started raining. Powerful water dripping form the sky in true tropical fashion. The foggy mist rose from the hot ground creating veils around the ceiba trees in front of me. The earth smelled of rich, warm minerals. The wind was rhythmic alongside the echoing voices from the colonial building behind me. Are there some pictures here? Is there some evocative language? I think so. The wind was rhythmic, alongside the echo... Oh, yeah, this Caribbean variety of enveloping rain was familiar to me, having grown up in Venezuela, and as I felt myself merging with the storm, I noticed a deep sense of being at home in the world. Hm, that could be a title for a book. And of being at home in myself. I grew up in the busy city of Caracas with adventurous parents... You know I'm gonna not be satisfied with adventurous parents. I'm gonna say like what? Who led us children on frequent remote expeditions into the wilderness. They would take us to the plains to camp on the shores of rivers in which they would have us splash away the piranhas. Splash away the piranhas, I so love that. Before we went swimming, they took us... And incidentally, when you've got something really good like splashing away the piranhas, throw away the stuff that isn't. Don't dilute the good stuff with the less good stuff. Before we went swimming. Yeah, everybody who goes swimming first has to splash away their piranhas. They took us to rich tropical jungles and the imposing Tepuy mountains. I'm probably mispronouncing it. Okay, they took us sailing through the black of the night only to be surrounded by pods of dolphins lit up by fluorescent plankton. Yes, these experiences, which for me were imbued with reverence, not only offered a lasting sense of well-being, but also established an alternating rhythm in my childhood between busy modern life and restorative contact with nature-- a rhythm that I was to maintain for the rest of my life. I have continued with that rhythm into my adulthood and in motherhood. Boy, adulthood and motherhood all scooped up in one sentence. With regular journeys into nature that peeks into my modern world. The morning moon that sets in the daylight. Morning moon that sets in the daylight, I love that. The attentive hawk on the light post on my way to pick up my daughter. The neighbors' bouganvillea that brighten up my day. Okay. Accessing the sense of awe, a daily practice of connecting with everyday nature, the balm of well-being, restorative contact with nature. Close your eyes. Can anybody remember any of those phrases? Dolphins covered with fluorescent plankton, that you can remember. These others are I call it blah blah blah blah blah blah. Accessing the sense of something or other. Those are the big, abstract phrases, Natasha, that do not bring pictures to our mind. On the other hand, the good news, the foggy mist rose from the hot ground creating veils around the ceiba trees, yes. Smell, you actually get smell in there. The earth smelled of warm minerals. My parents took us sailing, fluorescent plankton, great. Black of the night, pods of dolphins, morning moon, attentive hawk on the light post. All great, but there's a problem. In the service of what? You've got the language, where's the story? Remember when I was talking about those lyrical essays that sort of, you know, the poetry and the scene. In the service of what? I wasn't just talking about you, incidentally, Natasha. Language for its own sake is not enough, and that's true even if you're... Even if you're a poet. Poets also have to be storytellers. We all have to be storytellers. I don't yet know what the story is, and all of that, you know, splashing off the piranhas is only the beginning to what happened in Venezuela. I'm sure that there were things that took place on those trips, and the nature sets the scene. I wish you can give John a few classes on some of the detail, but also not random detail. It is detail that supports your emotional life. In a piece, I'm gonna refer back again to the piece. In fact, I'll probably put a link to it on this, the page for this class as well, the modern love column that I wrote about Jim's surgery. I describe a family that was in the waiting room with me all that day of the surgery, all those hours, almost all those hours. It was a father and some adult children who were about the ages of my children, and I'm watching them. There were many other things I could've described at the hospital. I could've described the nurse's station, I could've described the hallways, I could've described other people who came and went. Those would not have accomplished my goal, which was to see the world through the eyes of who I was going through what I was going through at that moment. And what I was going they at that moment was waiting for my husband to get through a very difficult surgery, and they were waiting for their, for the wife and mother in that family, to get through her surgery. And so, we were linked, and we were linked... It was on odd kind of bond because we didn't speak all day long, I just saw them. They saw me, I saw them, we, you know, the hours passed, food came in for them, they laughed, they talked about the Red Sox, and then at some point late in the day, somebody came in and put their arms on their hands on the shoulder of the father, and suddenly, everybody dropped their food and fell to the ground. The mother had died, and that... Those were the details that I chose not randomly. I was not being that camera on the mini mart wall. That was what I saw through the eyes of the woman who was going through the particular experience I was. So, you've given me all the stuff around without telling me what's your story.

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.