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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 3 of 21

What Do You Want to Write About?

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

3. What Do You Want to Write About?

Lesson Info

What Do You Want to Write About?

Before everybody came today, I asked you to send me a little biography of yourselves in which you told me, you told now us, all of us, all of the people out there who are listening, what you want to write about. And I'm gonna read a list of what some of you said. I'm not gonna identify you by names, so nobody needs to be embarrassed. Actually, we'll all be equally embarrassed. You know, I sometimes think that when I'm teaching personal essay really, or when I'm teaching memoirs, you just say, everybody come naked. Let's get it over with right off, at the bat because that's, this is our Lady Godiva moment. Okay, here we go, list of some of the things that you said you wanted to write about, my experiences post-partum. We'll be talking more about that actually. My time as a Peace Corps volunteer, my time as a war correspondent in 1969 in Vietnam, Steve Jobs, my late mom being lost and homeless, my work as a hospital chaplain, raised in a military family, the first of my Filipino family b...

orn in the U.S., many of these we'll be going back to today, the relationship with my first husband unraveling, growing up in the Owens Valley in the 60's, that's a huge topic. Many of these, notice how big these topics are. My experience working with children for the past 15 years, my hectic life in a blended family, the loss of both parents young, are these interesting stories? Yes, they sure are. There's gonna have to be some work done before we figure out how to tell them. The indescribable joy of shared grandkids, that could be the poetic reverie, if you only talk about how cute the kids are, but I know you're not gonna do that, not when I'm finished with you anyway. A story about recklessness and fear, discovering who I am without a man, a plan, a decent job or money, and having a blast. This person incidentally understands rhythm and rhythm is so important in writing. We won't be talking a whole lot about that today, that'll probably be a later class but I just wanted to honor that sentence right there cause I feel it, that woman could be a rapper if she'd do a little work. My experiences as a first generation Pakistani-American, my life as a woman who grew up in the 50's, whoa boy, that's a big topic. Came of age when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and discovered that the world hadn't caught up, oh just that. Having a husband who comes from a different country, Japan, and some of the ways our language and cultural differences have affected our relationship, the experiences I've had dealing with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, the mentally ill, addicts and criminals, both white collar who were never caught and the poor who were sentenced to prison, ranging from funny to tragic to angry to serene. My lower middle-class Midwest upbringing, big topics here, huh? A divorce, dealing with difficult family relationships, there's a euphemism if I ever heard one, difficult family relationships. Euphemisms are sometimes necessary at polite dinner parties but euphemisms are not encouraged in this room. Themes of race, class, religion, duty verses individuality, tradition verses assimilation, striving verses contentment, acceptance verses fatalism, issues with money, men and meaningful but often challenging travel. Okay, how many of those do you remember? They're so big, that it's hard to hold onto them. It's hard to get your brain around my hectic life in a blended family, growing up in the Midwest, woman of the 1950's and that is a starting point and I salute you for narrowing in to the extent that you have but now, that's just where your work begins. And now you have to take those themes, those obsessions, those aspects of who you are that you recognize to have shaped you and made you who you are sitting in this room or sitting wherever you are listening right now, at home today and find out the particular stories that support them and that help me understand them. So we're gonna talk a little bit about the elements of the essay. And here is a question that I almost always ask when I'm teaching one of my workshops, my workshops that are in my home, a group of much, smaller group and everybody's come with an essay and we've all read all their essays and then I say to the group, we've just read somebody's 2500 word essay and I say to the group, what is this essay about? It is the simplest and most basic question and do you know, very often, nobody can answer it. And sometimes, very often, the writer can't answer it or the writer will take 10 sentences trying to answer it and then, that becomes in itself, an essay of trying to say what it's about. It might seem to be the most obvious thing to do as a writer but it's actually one of the things that very few writers do. Before you begin to write, decide what your piece is about. And I don't mean, my life. I don't mean, my divorce. I don't mean, my growing up in the Midwest. But a particular journey. Not just a state of being but an experience of change. Okay, what is my piece about? Once you know what the journey is, you've identified that, we have to know the starting point before the journey began, the context of the journey. If you're going to talk about what it was like for you after your house burned down, first we need to know what that house looked like, what that house meant to you. So point of entry, the moment when the curtain goes up, I call it the curtain goes up moment is life before the change took place. We have a character and in memoir, you don't have to think who the main character is. The main character is you. Back we go again to that problem some of you may be suffering from, oh I don't wanna be self-involved. I'm not that interesting, I'm not that important. Get over it. I am interested in you, I have yet to meet a person that I couldn't spend three hours with hearing their story and probably once I had, I would only want to spend more hours. The more you show of me, the more I want to know. Every person who's willing to honestly explore their experience, is going to have a story to tell. So you are your subject but there is a question of what part of you we're going to look at today. Not everything, not me over the last 40, 50, 60 years, could be 20. But me as I went on this particular journey, what did I want? And that's the stakes basically. And the stakes had better be significant enough that we're gonna care. I may be revealing a bit of a non cat-loving prejudice here when I say that if the stakes are just, I really wanted a cat, I don't know that that's gonna carry me, as a reader, through six pages of your writing, am I gonna get a cat or not? Am I going to get that job, maybe. Am I going to survive this medical crisis, yes. Will my marriage endure, yes. Is my child going to get off drugs, now I've got some real stakes. So what is at stake, what do you want and what's in the way? What is getting in the way of what you want? The conflict, the problem. It's everything we don't want in our lives but it's everything that we need in our personal essays. Identify the conflict, the obstacle, think about the movies you watch, the shows, programs you watch on television, so a landing place, a resolution, which may be in the form of simply discovering something, learning something.

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.