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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 16 of 21

The Opening and Landing Place

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 16 of 21

The Opening and Landing Place

 

Lesson Info

The Opening and Landing Place

Liza, I want you to come up to the stage here. For those of you who watched my first class, I talked to Liza about a totally different story last time. That's right. Something that didn't seem connected and maybe there is a connection. Liza was the one who wrote that she wanted to write about postpartum depression and rather than me talk about it, I'd like you to say what happened. So it was actually postpartum anxiety and perinatal, so it was during my pregnancy as well. What happened? I couldn't get through the day. What did that look like? I would always feel, for about a year, like I was gonna pass out all the time. Here I go again being sort of needling. I would always, can't film a scene of I would always. Chose one moment, one time, and I'm saying this obviously not just to Liza, but to all of you. Even if something did happen many times. I'm sure Bambi danced many times, but I want Bambi to describe one dance as I wanted Edna to describe one dance. Tell us about...

one time when you knew I am not okay? I was at Trader Joe's. By the way, feel the difference. There's a scene. I was pregnant and I had my-- With your first or your second. With my second, so I had my two year old son with me and I was sure I was just gonna faint. Can you take it apart, even what was going on with your heart, your breathing. So my heart was beating too fast, I had shortness of breath. Shortness of breath can't see, but I want you to actually, you don't have to apologize. I was lightheaded. And you've got a child with you also, so part of the picture is you're worried about being able to take care of him. And that's what made it worse because I could just picture me fainting and my two year old being alone. Alone in the cart. Right. Full of groceries probably. Right. And all the shoppers around. And I remember checking out and just wanting to tell the checkout lady so badly, I need help. I need help. Whoa. And instead I didn't and I pulled over. And I actually, I'm gonna go this slow, I want to feel what it's like. That is part of your job, a big part of your job as a writer of memoir, not to describe what you were like, but to allow me to be you. To know what it's like, which may involve watching those groceries come down that little belt and to see that person, but through the eyes of somebody who knows she may drop to the floor at any moment. I want you to be in you and see that world. It was what I said to John, see that world through the eyes of the person who is having the experience that you do. So I loaded the car and put my son in the car and drove about a block and then I had to pull over and call my husband and say, just so you know I'm gonna pass out and this is my cross streets. And I would do this. I would do this sometimes. Did this happen more than once? Yeah. Did you have any history of this kind of anxiety before? Yes, so I had a history of panic and anxiety starting in the year 2000. The year 2000 we have no pictures. Age is the way to define. I just graduated from college. Or it could be like, if it's like, I know your mother is not dead, but the year my mother died, the year I got married. Those are all meaningful ways of telling time in your work more than the year. The year I had just graduated from college and I had my first job in New York City and I remember my first panic attack. Do you wanna hear about it? Yeah. Okay, so I was having lunch by myself and drinking a Diet Coke and I took a sip and I had this surge rush through my body and I did not know what was going on 'cause I had never had one before but I know this is not the right description, but I feels like you're dying. Your heart is racing. See how I put fear into her heart. She's already preempting my criticism. It's okay. Again, you just feel faint and dizzy and lightheaded and your breathing is really off and when you don't know what's going on it's terrifying. You know, at this point in the day I'm able to refer back to lots of other people's stories and other experiences that we've had. I talked earlier about the internal, the story that's happening on the outside and all the things that are going on in the inside. On the outside, I was at that hospital and on the inside I was thinking about when I met Jim and when he asked me to marry him and when we got the diagnosis and as we were getting treatment. When you were having the panic attack and sitting in the car, lots of other times of your life are part of the story. And that's why this whiteboard is so helpful too because you tell not only the story of what went on with that attack, but the way that opened you up to other moments that seem significant. Anything from your childhood that it went back to. So I had a lot of sudden losses like death, untimely deaths of, not necessarily people incredibly close to me, but classmates, friends, and people, my sister's friend. So it was about 10 teenage deaths that were here one day, gone the next. And so it put this sense of mortality and I just became-- At just the moment you were pregnant. You were starting a new life and you also had a very recently born child. You were in the life period. When people reach a certain age that I am in, they know they're gonna see more and more people that they love die as the years pass, but you were in the going up time and yet even in the going up time you are being able to anticipate the possibility of loss. Right and my biggest fear was either me dying or my children or my husband or somebody. I couldn't live anymore because I was just so scared of dying. Isn't it interesting that we just heard from a woman who is living after the loss of a child. Living and dancing after the loss of a child. That doesn't mean, and I'm sure nobody in this room or watching this has any illusion that it means that she feels less grief, but she has figured out a way to survive a loss and you don't yet have that and I hope you never need that, but actually all of us will need that skill at some point. So tell us more of the story of how this progressed. What did you do about this? You mean postpartum? Could you go to the store? Did you stop going places? I stopped driving. You stopped driving. For a mother of a two year old, difficult to stop driving. My mother-in-law had to take him to daycare and back. Was there shame involved in that by any chance? Oh yeah. Yes, of course there was. You were a stay at mother who was too much of a stay at home mother. You were totally at home. I didn't tell people. My sister, she lives in Austin, and she put on the Austin momma's group asking for help because I was too embarrassed to put it on the San Carlos mother's group and so I had all these 512 phone calls coming in of mothers in Texas helping me through this. How did you feel about your sister putting it up? I was fine with it 'cause it was kind of anonymous for me anyway. And it also showed your sister really caring about you. Yeah. Yeah. Most people, not all people, but most people get past postpartum just the passage of time, but where are you now with this? So one more thing on shame. I remember walking into the whole life natural food store on the main street in our little town and I had been up all night. I couldn't sleep because I was so anxious. I was really scared I was gonna become one of those moms on Dateline that lose your mind and kills your kids or something. Whoa, whoa. And I never had any tendencies to hurt my kids, but my biggest fear in the world was that I would. And I wanna ask everybody as Liza says this is there anybody who's thinking less of Liza that she was thinking about that she had this awful picture of sort of herself being the, no of course not, the murderer of her children. In fact, just the opposite. I can relate to it. I remember taking my daughter, my first born child, to the top of the Empire State Building and I didn't wanna stand by the edge because I thought I was actually picturing the thing that would be the most terrible thing that I could imagine, which was throwing her over the edge. And I thought I must not be next to that edge. You know one of the lessons for me in becoming a truly honest writer is that I connected so much more with readers when I told the supposedly shocking things. So those mothers on Dateline absolutely belong there. And so I went into the food store 'cause I had stayed up all night researching and I heard fish oil can help. This is when I wouldn't go on medication. So I went in and I said I'm here to find something to help my postpartum mood and the woman pointed at my baby daughter at that point and said she should be improving your postpartum mood. And I'll never forget that. It made me feels so horrible about myself and I already felt that. You know, so far we have been talking about telling our stories fairly chronologically. I wanted Edna to begin with where she first saw the hula. But actually that may well be your point of entry. Going into the store and having that woman say that and then scrolling back and seeing your history with it. Where are you now with this? So, I mean, I think anxiety will always be kind of an undercurrent. I manage it really well now. I'm sure you are, sitting and talking about it. And I take medication and I go to therapy and I have a very supportive family, but it's never something that I'll just get over one day. And if you were choosing an image that would capture where you are with anxiety now what comes to mind? Is there a moment when you've had an experience that could be an anxiety experience and you got through it? Oh yeah, all the time. Give us one. Flying. I flew recently to a friend's funeral and those are my-- A funeral? Two biggest fears. Yeah, flying and death and you did them both. And I did them both. Yeah. And you all are experienced enough students of me that at this point when I suggest that Liza might end her essay with getting on a plane to a friend's funeral, what do we know needed to be there earlier in the piece? We already know that she will have mentioned that she had a lot of deaths earlier. We need to know she's been afraid of flying. Don't solve your problem until we know your problem exists. So one of the things I want you to back load in your story is fear of flying. Was there a time when you didn't take a trip that you wanted to take because you couldn't get on a plane? Then that belongs in that story. So when we see you at the end going on a plane, we will know what the stakes were. That planes were hard and friends dying young were hard and you accomplished both of them and you got through the other end. And obviously I'm over simplifying, but that sounds to me like a great essay. Thank you. Thank you. (audience applauding)

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.

Reviews

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.

Deb Boone
 

Joyce does a great job of helping you understand how to narrow your story down to key moments and to think about meaningful details to include (and which to leave out). She also shares examples from her own body of work and that of writers she admires, so you get a chance to see what a polished final essay can look like.

Margaret Lovell
 

I love how Joyce conducted this class. While I have an English degree, it's not in writing. At least, not in creative writing. That said I've always toyed with the idea of writing a personal essay, or two, which lead me to take this course. Joyce gave a lot of excellent advice on how to winnow down an idea to create a story. I love the idea of white board. I should have been doing that years ago.