How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 21 of 21

The Privacy Question

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 21 of 21

The Privacy Question

 

Lesson Info

The Privacy Question

The question that comes up at some point for every memoir writer I've ever known, will my family still invite me to Thanksgiving? (laughs) Or some form of that question. Will Comandante still invite me over to his apartment? Will my children be angry at me? And I can talk, and I probably will, about where I come down on this topic. I was highly criticized, as I mentioned earlier in this day of ours that we've spent, for writing about Salinger. Did I have a right to tell that one? Was it a problem that I no doubt offended Salinger? I think not. I think I rest easy on that one when a 53-year old man sends letters to a teenage girl inviting her to drop out of college and come move in with him I think she gets to say that that happened. But over the course of my many years of writing memoir, I've written about many other characters. My parents, anybody who reads At Home in the World, which incidentally is, I would say, the starring character of that book, other than me, of course, is not S...

alinger, it's my mother. And if you've read that book, you know that I tell some pretty tough stories about my mother. I describe my mother having sewn the dress that I wore to meet Salinger. She made it out of alphabet print curtain fabric, a very short A-line dress with ABCs all on it, an extremely short little mini dress. My mother sewed me the dress to wear to go see that 53 year old man, and that's a tough story. It became a tougher story when I was myself, the mother of an 18-year old girl and I knew I would never deliver her to a man under those circumstances. I would deliver her to no man. I've written about my father being very drunk, very crazy, very hurtful. My ex-husband, I'm not married to him anymore but I was once and he's the father of our children. So what are the rules for me? I will tell you that it has been my experience, and I go back to how I grew up not talking about what was going on, that there has been almost nothing I have written that the people who are part of my story didn't already know. What I am doing is not revealing to them some shocking truth, but shining a light on a truth that they already are very familiar with. I often use the example of when an a child is afraid of monsters under the bed, the most useful thing that I know to do is to look under the bed, and take out the flashlight and see what's there, and that has been my approach as a writer. But I'm not saying that's it's easy. I tend to always give the advice to writers, write as if you were an orphan. But it's easy for me to say, I am an orphan. Some of your parents, so I'd like to hear from you at this point and I hope you won't be shy. My goodness, this whole day has been about not being shy. What comes up for you when you think about telling your story? What are you most afraid of? What's the worst thing that could happen? Yeah, John? In my story, my wife was very concerned that we not disclose the name of Casey's birth mother. Her birth mother's name was Yadviga, and so we just changed the name to Katerina. That's so easy, and there is, for anybody that doesn't know this, there are no memoir police out there. You get to do that. So yeah, that's an easy fix. There are harder ones, but changing a name costs you nothing, and I've done it plenty of times. I've also made composite characters when it wasn't, I have three children I adore, but there was no need to talk about all of them. Did you have a follow up question to that John? No. Just change the name. By all means, change the name, give a letter, absolutely. That won't solve everything. Yeah, Carolyn. I have a problem that, I think sex is really important and I think it's really hard to write looking at my mother and it's an undiscussed topic, and it's, I feel, a reason for her misery is lack of affection, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I want to write about sex, I think it's really important. Talking about her sexual experience or yours? Mine. Mine, in a way that doesn't, well that's it. That doesn't what? I don't know how she'll react. What is the thing you're afraid it will do? Will she discover you've had sex? (audience laughs) What's the worst thing that could happen? First of all, she always has the option to not read it. If there's something she doesn't wanna look at, she can always say, you know, I don't really want to imagine my daughter having sex, so I just won't read that. But what is the worst thing that could happen? I guess it's already happened. That's what I tend to believe in that one. Do you want your mother to know who you really are? Yes, while we're both alive. Yes, yes, while you're both alive, and that's what I feel, I think more than anything I do not want to go to my grave unknown by the people who matter most to me in the world. Other questions, other things that have come up for you. Yeah. How do you know that you're ready to write a story so that there's no more stink on the page? Aha, that revenge thing, yes. How do you know? Well, you can look at your language, start to write and see what comes out in your language. In general, I hold to the belief that there are no villains in my stories, and I try to locate compassion for every character I write about, and to imagine their story. It's not my job to tell it, and incidentally, that's an important thing for you to know. It's not your job to say, oh but my mother felt that such and such. Let her write a memoir, let her tell her story, it's not your job to try and explain things for her. Well to my mother, my mother acted really crazy, but she had a terrible childhood. You can say she had a terrible childhood if that's part of your story, but it's not your job to protect her. But it might be a good exercise for you to sit with that person about whom you feel anger, rage, bitterness, maybe very justifiable, and try to locate some goodness. And I guess that's what I did in this piece, I felt it was really important, if I was going to look at anger over a divorce, that I spend some time looking at a moment of sweetness, even if it's very brief. And I could come up with many more of course, but one was enough to be a place holder for that. And I think you can test it out with a reader. Am I stacking the deck? I've had many students come to my memoir workshop, and they're trying to make me hate their ex-husband, and it always backfires. I say, oh I can kinda see why they got a divorce. (audience laughs) And it doesn't mean that I don't feel sympathy, but I just see, oh they're still in the middle of rage, and I say that as a person who has been there, for sure. Yeah? Speaking of memoir police, sometimes when I tell stories, and I've seen this with other people, some detail of a story is deleted, and some new details emerges, and I think over time the story becomes smoother, but it probably drifts away from the reality without changing the arc of the story, what's your opinion about that? Well, such a good question Siamak. There's a case that, now there are actually several, but one that many people tend to know happened years ago when a writer named James Frey published a book, it became an Oprah book, it was a huge best seller, called Many Little Pills-- [Audience Members] A Thousand-- A Thousand Little Pills, in which he claimed to have been incarcerated for drug addiction, he cooked up a drug addiction, turns out he was in jail for a night. That is profoundly dishonest. Changing the name of a character, making somebody have a red dress when really you're not sure, maybe it was blue, that is actually a gift to the readers to give a clear picture. There are details that we provide because they make a better story, and it's okay, in my book, if we have very clear understanding of our emotional truth at that moment. We might not know exactly what piece of music was playing, but we know it was something heavy metal. And so will say Guns N' Roses was on at that moment, when really it might have been I don't know what. AC/DC AC/DC, thank you, I was a little rusty on my heavy metal at that moment. That, I have no problem with that. I have huge problem with inauthentic writing, and making stuff up that just plain didn't happen. But keeping to your emotional truth, and I think that every good reader, every experienced reader of memoir understands implicitly that we weren't going through our lives with a notebook in hand, taking notes. In At Home in the World, I recreate dialogue with Salinger, well you know I didn't have a tape recorder in my pocket. That said, I was extremely careful, I spent a huge amount of time trying to get the voice, the way his voice was, and I actually have a lot of trust for myself that I was very close in that one, and it was searingly memorable in my head. But the exact words, you know as you're reading that scene, this is memoir, this is not the truth, this is my truth. You know, a few years ago, I mentioned earlier, my sister and I had a complicated relationship, and this was in the day when women's magazines still existed in greater number than they used to, and I suggested to an editor at a magazine that no longer exists, More Magazine, that she give an assignment jointly to me and my sister, my sister is also a writer in Canada. We had to have a whole country separating us at certain points in our lives, and she's been a Canadian for many years, or lived in Canada for many years. But that we jointly take on the assignment of writing about being the sister to the other one. So I wrote about being Rona's sister, Rona wrote about being my sister, and the one set of ground rules, which were very easy to follow, was that we should not consult with each other in any way about our stories. My sister is a wonderful writer, she was raised and trained in the same bootcamp that I was, but it wasn't difficult to adhere to those rules, because frankly my sister and I don't talk all that much. We don't have a code of silence, we just don't call each other up a lot. So independent of each other, we each wrote a story about being the sister to the other. We each, without consulting each other told the story of our mother's death through completely different lenses. In fact, the story of our mother's death had created a bitter rift between us that had lasted a few years, but when I read how it looked to her, and when she read how it looked to me, we found our way back to each other. And in fact, she flew to my house, and we had a photo shoot for the magazine together. It was the first time we'd seen each other in a long time, and that is one of the gifts of memoir, telling the story so well that, you're not trying to win a case in court, you're not trying to make points and have everybody love you. But better by far, have your reader understand you, even understand your failures and your flaws. You don't think, nobody who heard that essay of mine that I just read is going to think, oh that's an admirable thing that Joyce did throwing the screw gun, it's a crazy thing, it's a stupid thing, it's a dumb thing. If my children had known, they didn't know about that one, but they knew about other ones, it was a hurtful thing to them, and it probably cost my ex-husband a day of work, and that's the least of it. But it's a human thing, and I'm ready to let you see me as a human being, as a flawed human being. We were talking about, and we don't have to stop talking about this business about the dangers for you personally in telling a tough story, and I will, I can't make your choice for you about what you do feel willing to explore or not. Certainly a hard truth about your children, a living child, is a much more difficult story to tell than one of a dead parent, or anybody who's died, but I will say that whatever decision you make ultimately about whether you, first of all, it's lucky when you get to publish the piece, you could just write it and you won't succeed in publishing it, but whatever your decision is, tell the story the way you want to tell it, and then figure out what you need to do with it, which might be put it in a drawer for five years, take some things out later, wait and see what happens, talk to the person about it, I've done that on a number of occasions, but only when I'm prepared to hear them say it's not okay. Sometimes I don't ask permission. I did not ask J.D. Salinger permission, because I knew I was gonna do it, and I was not looking for permission, and I was not going to adhere to his instructions if he told me I was not allowed. But tell the story, give yourself the gift of having told the story. There are so few places in our lives where we get that kind of freedom, know it on the page. And if there's one thing you've learned today, it's there are so many things that are hard about being a good writer, don't add to your list. As you're trying to remember your language, and your pacing, and your rhythm, and your story arc, and your paragraphing, and your road trip, and your journey, and what is this about, and all those other things, also, what will my mother think when she finds out that I've had sex? Too hard, too hard. Other questions. Questions from out in the world of the internet. Online, yes, Elizabeth had asked, how do you find compassion and goodness when you're writing about a sociopath, or difficult characters that you find it hard to love? I will say that there's one character, and we are all familiar with him here in this room, about whom I find it just about impossible to locate compassion. But in general, a person who's a sociopath is a sick person, so I'm not going to hold that person to, I'm not gonna hate Matthew's mother for the things that she did, she was sick. We don't hate people for having cancer. We don't hate people for having diabetes. She had an illness, a sociopath has an illness, it's not a very attractive illness, or a pleasant illness to live around, but so, is it compassion that you find there? I guess it is an understanding at least. You don't hold a mentally ill person to the same standards that you will somebody else, which is why, in a way, the person that I find more complicated in Matthew's story is his father, the healthy one. Other questions? Earlier when you were reading Dianne's essay, and the question came in from Catherine who had asked, why not include the mother's reaction to what the father did? 'Cause when you were taking the editing process, you were cutting it down from the longer essay to the short, you removed the part where she was speaking about her mother's reaction, and why was that? Great question, thank you Catherine. It was too big, it was another whole story that her mother's dreams, what Dianne got around to telling us in the very last paragraph of her piece was that her mother's own dreams had been squelched, and that she was living through her daughter, and that is a story many of us know, I know something about that one myself. It's a story for another day, or, if she wants to have it be part of the skating story, and it certainly could be, the last paragraph is not the place to do it, we need to know right up front that her mother once dreamed of being a tap dancer, or a skater perhaps, that her mother, in some way, and we certainly do not need to have her mother explain to us, but if we simply give some of the story of her mother, we'll figure out that her mother's dreams were squelched. As for her mother's rage at her father, we're gonna know that already, we're gonna know that the mother was very proud of her and when she came home that morning, how her mother reacted, we're gonna trust that. There was another thing that she said in that story that I took out, which was a lot of kind of cumbersome language that she put in to make sure that we understood that the mother was not abandoning her in a dangerous location. Remember she said there were other neighbors who were there, and it was just, it was too awkward and cumbersome, and I wasn't really worried. I already knew her mother was going to, whatever was necessary to make sure her daughter was safe, I knew she was going to do it, and I was never going to buy that that father had a justifiable concern in being worried in the 23rd hour of the skate-a-thon that she might run into trouble at the rink. It is not your job to tell everybody else's story. Free yourself from that one. You tell your story, even John and Erica went together to Poland, they had two probably rather different experiences of going to Poland. Number one, she speaks Polish, she saw another whole layer of stuff that you didn't see because she was understanding the language, and she was part of that culture. And it would be interesting, and actually it would be an interesting exercise for some people to ask a person in your life to also tell that story. To hear Casey's story of the trip to Guatemala, my gosh, and it would be very interesting to hear Christian's story, Christian, about the 35 year relationship with Kati. But it's a big enough deal, I mean, I could go around this room, Liza's sister watching her sister in trouble from a distance of another whole state, far away, and what does she do? She wants to rescue her sister, she goes on the internet and tries to find, she actually does a kinda brilliant thing, find a whole bunch of mothers who will write in to her. That's her story, and that is a sister story, yours was a mother story, hers is a sister story. Many of the stories that we heard today could also be full length memoirs, or at least I'll say, the lives that you have laid out to us. Edna's story of her being the first in a family, a really sort of hero father, coming from the Philippines, and having siblings who are both very close to you, but also have a completely different cultural heritage than yours in many ways. They're not American born, it's a different story. That could be a full length memoir, and actually, now that you've said more about hula, you could probably write a whole memoir just about dancing hula. I thought that was your little story, but it turns out it's a big story. Could Bambi not write a full length story of the experience of watching her daughter's life fall apart as a result of something totally outside of her control, a brutal sexual attack? Yes, I'm sure she could. But I'm going to say that the same stories can be tackled again and again, and the fact that you write a personal essay does not mean you won't someday write a memoir, and next time 'round, when I'm back up here, I will be talking about when is the moment to write a memoir, and how you get started on that one.

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.