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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 14 of 21

What's Wrong With Being Shameless?

 

How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 14 of 21

What's Wrong With Being Shameless?

 

Lesson Info

What's Wrong With Being Shameless?

You may not know it, but you are sitting in the company of the Queen of Oversharing. That is a title that has been given to me. And, I wear it proudly. I want to say. And, my aspiration for all of you, is that you become kings and queens of oversharing, as well. I won't say oversharing, I'll just say sharing. Meaningful sharing. But, I'll give you a little bit of a backstory of how I got my title. I wasn't born to it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was raised in a family of people who were spectacularly articulate, and we talked at our dinner table about music, and art, and politics, and religion, and even sex. But, there was one subject we never mentioned in our family, and that was the thing that shaped our lives more than anything else. That my father was an alcoholic. Every night, my father got drunk, and every morning, we pretended it didn't happen. And, I took from that the lesson that, in fact, sharing...speaking the truth about my life... Everything that my mother had taught me...

, as a writer, about being authentic, and concrete, and all the lessons that I have been imparting with you, did not apply to one aspect of my personal experience. And, that created a lot of shame in me. And, it stayed with me for a very long time. And in fact, in my early work, I don't even name my first book, looking back, as a memoir, because in the 160 pages of the book, that I published when I was 19 years old, ostensibly about my growing up, you will not find mention of the fact that I grew up in an alcoholic family. Or, that at the time I was writing that book, I was suffering from pretty severe eating disorders. There was one other story that I did not mention in At Home in the World, and I was living it at the time. When I was 18- I'll backtrack a little bit- and say that when I was 18, and a freshman at Yale, already a writer, I'd already published a number of pieces, and I'd sent a piece of mine in to The New York Times. They gave me the assignment to write the only piece that I was qualified to write at the time. It's exactly what I tell you. Write about what you know best. Your life. And certainly, as an 18 year old, I had only that story to tell. And, I published this story that had the ironic name- I didn't get the irony at the time- An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life. And, it instantly, the floodgates opened. And, for a girl from a small town in New Hampshire, a very inexperienced, and unworldly girl, I'd never had a boyfriend, really... Well, in case he's watching, I guess I had one. I want to be honest here. But, I was a very young 18 year old. And I suddenly, I got all these offers to go meet with editors and publishers, and go on T.V. And model clothes in Mademoiselle magazine. And, in among all those pretty intoxicating offers, everything that my mother ever wanted for me, in the way of career opportunity, came a letter, very different from all the others, expressing admiration and appreciation for my writing and affection and understanding of me. And, by the time I got to the bottom of the letter, I already felt I had found my soul-mate. The one person on the planet who understood me, as nobody did. And, the signature was that of J.D. Salinger. Even in 1972, Salinger was famously reclusive. But, I embarked on a correspondence with him in the spring of 1972. This is now a known story, in some quarters, but for a long time it wasn't, and I'll get to that. And, the rest of the world disappeared for me. My classes at Yale, my friends, my family. The very good job that I'd been offered at The New York Times. And, when summer came, I went to meet him. The fact the he was 35 years older than I was immaterial. I didn't see him as anything other than a teacher, and mentor, and friend. But, who he saw me as was something quite different from that. And, within a few months, I had given up my job at The New York Times, cut off my communication with almost everybody in my life, given up my full scholarship at Yale, and moved in with Salinger. And, for the next 11 months, the months that I was writing my first book, I lived with him. And, about three weeks before that book was published- I saw no connection at the time, but I certainly do now- Jerry Salinger put two $50 bills- we were on a trip to Florida with his children, who were just a little younger than I- and he put two $50 bills in my hands, and told me to go home, clear my things out, and disappear from his life. He said many pretty withering things about how he now viewed me, and the kind of person he saw me to be. If any man said these things to me now, I would think less of the man, but I was an 18 year old girl, who revered him, and believed he was wisest, and most spiritually enlightened person on the planet. I left an utterly destroyed person. I won't say utterly, because here I am today. I was not utterly destroyed. But, I disappeared from the world. I did not go back to college. I did not go to New York City, which had always been my dream- to go to New York, and be a writer. And, I lived by myself for a number of years in New Hampshire. And, eventually continued to write. I eventually married an age appropriate man. Had three children. Never spoke of what happened when I was 18 years old. Even to the man I married. And, even to very good friends. I was asked probably every week of my life about Salinger for 25 years. And, I always said what is still said in some quarters about him, you know, he doesn't want to be spoken of. He wants his privacy. I don't discuss this. I felt it was my obligation to protect the great man. And, I've carried a lot of shame about my failure to be who he wanted me to be, and insisted that I be, and who I had failed to be. And, I really carried that with me into my 40's. If you are reading my work, then you saw my newspaper columns, you saw many articles and books I did eventually write, about growing up in an alcoholic family. I had a divorce. I wrote...I could write about many topics in my life. Many experiences, honestly. But, there was one I never touched; until my daughter, Audrey, turned the age that I was when my whole life changed. Eighteen. And, for the first time, I looked at that experience through the eyes of the girl, and thought about what she deserved, not what the man demanded. And, who was protecting her, as I had so long felt an obligation to protect him. And, I gave myself permission to tell my story. The story that everybody had said I must never tell. That Salinger had said, and he was the only one who mattered. I must never tell. And, I wrote the book that became At Home in the World. It was not my impulse, or my objective, to wreak revenge. I didn't feel that, and that never works in a piece of writing. Revenge has a kind of stink to it on the page. Don't try it at home, or anywhere else. But, I did feel a need and a compulsion to tell the true story. It was... There's no way to make sense of the rest of your story when there is a crucial piece missing. I published...that book was published in the fall of 1998, and if any of you were reading book reviews in the fall of 1998, you may know there has... I cannot remember a book that was more universally condemned than At Home in the World. The Washington Post called it the worst book ever published. Maureen Dowd, in The New York Times, spoke of me as a predator. I was the predator. Interesting times. And, it didn't quite cost me my career, but I will say my career was never the same. And, I will say that to this day. And, if you Google my name, or if you bring my name up, even though I have now published 17 books, only one of which makes any mention of Salinger, the fact about me that will come to the surface more than any other is: She's the one who slept with Salinger. That my identity, in the eyes of many, was my relationship- brief relationship- to a very important man. Well, that's how I got to be the queen of oversharing. And, of course, we all know what happened. Just about a year ago, the #MeToo movement, when a lot of stories came out from a lot of women who had, like me, felt the need to protect, and the fear of the repercussions of speaking about powerful men, important men, older men, men who controlled their careers, men who controlled them. And, I am happy to say that times have changed, and I do believe that if I had published that book this fall, the story would be very different. Less happy to tell you that in many other ways, for me personally and I think for many other women, much remains to be changed. And, as recently as last fall when I published a memoir that absolutely nothing to do with Salinger... It was my book, The Best of Us, about my husband, Jim, and my first and only experience of a truly healthy marriage, and being a part of a couple... that a critic for The Atlantic Magazine called me 'The Queen of Oversharing'. So, there was one other adjective that was applied very widely to me at the time, and the word was 'shameless'. The implication being, of course, that's a very bad thing to be. I am as proud of being shameless as I am of being the queen of oversharing. So, we are going to talk about shame here. We are going to talk about secret keeping and the fear of telling the real story, whether it's a forbidden story, or just any story that you have. I know that this room and beyond this room, the people at home who are listening to this class, are thinking about all sorts of stories that you have not told. And, why exactly haven't you told them? What are you afraid of? What's wrong with being shameless? And, I'll tell you one of the best defenses. And, I have to say, I have to be honest, this wasn't enough to keep me out of trouble in the fall of 1998, when I published At Home in the World, which incidentally, was no kind of a best seller. Critics proudly said, you know, I didn't... I wouldn't even read this book. They already formed their opinions of it. But, one of the best things you can do, is tell the story so well, tell it so well, that it's pretty hard to argue with. And, in fact, for all that was said about that book, nobody said it was badly written, and nobody said I made it up. Because it was pretty darn concrete. I didn't ever in the pages of that book, offer judgment or interpretation of the behavior of Salinger. Incidentally, I want to say one other thing about that. The book is often described by people who haven't read it as 'Oh, you wrote the book about Salinger.' It's actually a book about me. He chose to be part of my life. He wrote me a letter. I didn't write a letter to him. Many girls did, and some got letters back, and letters similar to the ones I eventually received. But, he wrote to me. He chose to be a part of my life. And, when you're thinking about all the people that you want to protect in your life, or that you feel obliged to protect in your life, ask yourself: Did they protect you? What exactly do you owe them? And, we're going to talk about that more at the end, and we'll probably talk about that in the class about a book length memoir, as well. But, I will say that I, when I finally published that book, the consequences were great for me, but I have never regretted doing it, and I'm proud of the book. And, at the end of the day, it's probably that more than the sales figures, or the reviews in the New York Times that matter. I'm glad that story lives. And, it is the biggest reason why I teach writing. Because I so want to empower other writers, who also have stories, forbidden or not, to tell, but that you haven't been telling. To tell them, and tell them well.

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.