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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 7 of 21

When You Have Too Many Stories

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

7. When You Have Too Many Stories

Lesson Info

When You Have Too Many Stories

Stories exploring big change. What do you do when you just have too many darn stories? They're exploding all over you. And I'm going to read one example. "A woman, a man, her seven bicycles, his 10 motorcycles, "sex and drugs and flaming conversations, clean sheets, "no food and a relationship that can never work. "The deepest relating she has even known, "harshly deconstructed. "Not romantic love, but taut, spare intimacy, "scraped clean of any fur or feathers. "Persist, resist, create, risk, cry. "Then get up and take a bike ride. "Never thought I'd be alone at 50 plus, "savoring solitude, hating and raging "against constraints, mostly of my own making." This is the rap artist, incidentally. You can hear it again. "Every man I ever loved is a version of my grandfather. "In a robe and house slippers I look like him. "This story is about recklessness and fear, "discovering who I am without a man, "a plan, a decent job or money, "and having a blast because here I am, "who I always knew ...

myself to be." Carolyn, as you know, that's you. Carolyn has no problem with not having enough story. She has too much. Anybody see any containers in here? Anybody notice something within all of this that is concrete? It's not very concrete, deepest relating, romantic love, spare intimacy, having a blast, recklessness, fear. Those are abstractions, can't draw a picture of them. How about "Every man I ever loved "is a version of my grandfather. "In a robe and house slippers I look like him." Suddenly we've got a story. And it's maybe the story of your grandfather, Carolyn. Does that resonate for you? I mean the most important thing is that it works for you. It does actually. And it did when I took a seminar with you at your house. I came out of it thinking it wasn't who I thought it was about. And incidentally, there's another one, I'll go back for a second so we can see it. It's "Get up and take a bike ride." That is a very small container, but I could see the curtain going up is everything that happens that leads her to hop on her bike. But really, the one I want to see Carolyn write is, I think, the story of your grandfather. What if there is no resolution? And that's the way our lives usually are. Because our lives are not like the TV programs that finish up so neatly at the end of half an hour or 60 minutes. They're ongoing. Obviously the ultimate resolution of our lives happens at the moment that we will never be able to record, even me, the moment of my death. But there are resolutions along the way. Okay, here's a really interesting story that Kati wrote in her bio. "My essay is about a love affair that just won't quit. "It stretches out over 35 years and three continents, "mixing four nationalities, a French/Russian man "and a Hungarian/American woman, "with a 10 year age difference. "We've been apart much longer than we've been together, "but now, after 15 years of silence, "we are still soulmates and are going to reunite "in Southern France for two weeks to celebrate "our milestone birthdays together in September." Kati, where are you? Would you come on up here, please? Do we wanna know this story? Sit yourself right down here, okay. I think we need to have a talk. Is the reunion still on? Yes, yes. So obviously, first let's just get right out of the way, Kati cannot write the story of what happens when she gets to, we need to give our characters a name, always, clearly. And if you don't feel like saying this man's real name, that's okay, but in your writing, you need to give your character some name. Give him a name. Christian. Christian, okay. He's a Frenchman? Yes. Oh my god, okay. So we cannot, the story is not gonna be about what happens between Kati and Christian when they get together. Does that mean we don't have a story? Absolutely not. We've got a story, but the story is about what? What do you wanna know? Everything. Well first of all, okay, so we've got Kati and she's our star of the story, but we've also got a crucial character, Christian. I find it so helpful to write this stuff out. You know, it just doesn't, it's not very physically satisfying to do this all day. And I wanna sort of move around and I have a lot of energy and I wanna, this feels much healthier actually. So I like to stand up at a whiteboard. Ideally, if you're getting yourself a whiteboard, I'd bet one like three times the size of this. This should be my whiteboard, and that is my whiteboard at home. Okay. So how old were they? I'm gonna just list, you know, part of what you have to be is your own interviewer. What's the information that we need? They're going to be celebrating a landmark birthday, which probably means one with a zero. Are you prepared to say what birthday that will be? I'm turning 70. You're turning 70!? Yes. Gosh, it's not that I think 70's so old, but I would not have guessed you were there. Okay, seven-oh. Good for you for just naming it. How old were you when you met? 35. 35. That, you can actually sort of feel that. 35, okay. So we're talking about a story that has taken place over 35 years, half your life. Okay. And how did you meet? He was a chef in the restaurant where I was a waitress. Okay. In Paris. Ah, Paris. Waitress, Paris. Now there are some things, you know, we have to look at. Right now I'm going to be asking Kati some questions, and you can too. But ultimately, it's your job to ask yourself the questions. What do we need to know? Do we need to know where she grew up? Probably not. Do we need to know how many brothers and sisters she had? Probably not. We probably, since this is about a love affair, or a love affair that, you know, didn't happen, almost happened, happened once, ended, we probably need to know a little bit of context of her in love with other people. What was your love situation at 35? I'd left my husband after nine years. Okay, I think that does belong. This is when the curtain goes up. She has, and you're not from France, so you fled to Paris. Yeah, okay. So left marriage, these are all the contexts. Left marriage after nine years. You were a waitress in Paris, did you speak French? Yes. Yes, you did, okay. Why was that? Because I grew up in Montreal. Okay. Do we need to know she grew up in Montreal? Probably not. Although he will, I know, as a person who's hung out in Paris a little bit, that many Parisians don't have a very high regard for people who speak I don't have the Canadian accent. Aha, okay. Because if you did, the relationship would Forget about it. You never would've gotten to this point. Okay. And he was the chef. So this is set against a background of food. What might be nice to hear about? Some food perhaps. He's a chef. Is he a good chef or a terrible chef? Good chef, but the restaurant was a Tex-Mex restaurant. Oh my gosh! All right, are we disappointed that it's a Tex-Mex restaurant? Absolutely not. It's so much better. Tex-Mex. Now, I hope you would've said that anyway in your essay. Oh yes. Yes, okay, good. So it's a Tex-Mex restaurant. Do we want to know what he looks like? Yes, naturally, okay. And is handsome gonna do it? No. And maybe he's not handsome, which, actually, that could be interesting too. What did he look like at age 35? He was 25. He was 10 years younger than me. 10 year age difference and I just, yeah. Okay, he's 25. Okay, what did he look like at 25? Gorgeous. Sandy blonde hair. Gorgeous, does gorgeous do it for you? No, sorry, I know. His hands, he's a chef. What kind of hands and fingers does he have? Oh, very beautiful hands. Strong fingers. Unfortunately, the people who don't have microphones on, you might have to, like, I don't know if you can, like, speak loud if it works out. But I think, well she heard you anyway, for sure, but the people at home. What stood out, when you think about Christian at 25, what stands out most for you? His mysteriousness. Can we see mysteriousness? No. No. Have to work harder. He was quiet, whereas all the other men in the restaurant, Americans, were very loud. Quiet I also can't draw. This is a tough one. And it's gonna take you a while, but I want to cure you of adjectives as much as possible. And I encourage you to go back, you know, on the Creative Live website at some point, and reread, for instance, that Jonathan Lethem essay and lots of other good essays, and see how few adjectives there are likely to be. So how might we convey quiet without saying he was quiet? Or mysterious without saying mysterious? How about like what? Give me an example of something mysterious. Did he tell you lots of details of his life? Did you know if he had a girlfriend, for instance? No, he never spoke about himself. So you did not know. Didn't know much. Was it one of those things where you didn't notice him for a while and then, gradually, you came to like him? I'm guessing this is not the case. He was, because he was, not sullen, but he wasn't very communicative at first, because I didn't know the difference between a cheese enchilada and a beef enchilada. Do we like that part? Yes, yes. Okay. And you were the American. Didn't know enchilada difference. Okay, continue, I didn't mean to interrupt, sorry. Okay, so I asked another waitress, you know, what's with Christian? Why is he so surly all the time? And she says, "He'll get sweeter when you get smarter." Okay! Do we like that line? Yes. And you know, never underestimate the power of dialogue to convey. Okay, "He'll get sweeter when you get smarter." I'll just, he'll get sweeter. And he did. Okay. So what was the, there are several sort of big moments here. The ultimate big moment we haven't had yet. But you did get together. What were the circumstances of your getting from the quiet guy to, did you have a love affair? Yes. Okay, and what made it happen, back, 35 years ago? Neither of us had a place where we could get together. Yes? 'Cause he was living on the other couch. But you're jumping ahead. By the time people are thinking about a place to get together, they already know they wanna get together. How had it been established that you were going to get together. What was the moment? Daily, we became connected in our going to get the baguettes for the restaurant, setting up the patio. We just started talking more. And we both liked puns and we started, like, punning with each other. Puns! Puns! Puns in French, you can do French puns? Whoa. Here's an important lesson for all of you. We started always getting the baguettes together, we set up the patio together. In the English language it's known as the imperfect tense, the ongoing past tense. Not dramatic. How about one time you went to get one group of baguettes. One time you set up the patio. Now you've got a scene. So tell me about one time that you two went somewhere. There had to be a time that was the first kiss, for instance. No, in the restaurant, we were not yet a couple, and I didn't want anybody to know that something was happening between us. Okay, so how did you know something was even happening? Another waitress told me that he was planning on leaving to go back to Bretagne, where he's from. Yes. And I thought, oh god, no. Problem, we just saw a problem. Very bad for her life at age 35, very good for her story. Problem number one. Number one. It's not the ultimate problem. Back to Bretagne. Okay. So I put a note in his jacket pocket, unbeknownst to him, that said "If you leave Paris without spending "a night with me, I will be very sad." Whoa, can you just say that in French please for us? For all of our French viewers out there? (speaks French) So then you had to find a place to do it. Right. Next problem. Problem two. Where? Okay. I should add, I was living with my Sorbonne professor at the time. That was a romance? Yeah. So we couldn't do it there. Okay, problem number three. What was his name? Eric Bataille, which is battle, and I should've known from the name. Yeah, okay. I mean, you know this is a fabulous story. Okay. And you haven't written it. You know, there are certain moments when I have story envy, because there aren't too many stories that I haven't written at this point. I'm sort of, I have to let a little bit more life come in. But this story has been waiting for you all this time. Oh yes, 35 years. You are in the right place sister. So how did you overcome these problems? Good friends of mine were leaving for London and had their place in Montmarte for me to take care of. For those who have not spent time in Montmarte, it could be said to be an extremely romantic part of Paris. Okay, so you spent the night and it was probably kinda boring. No! Okay, so why didn't you just live happily ever after? There had to be another problem. We were together about a year-and-a-half. You had to say goodbye to Eric. Yes, goodbye to Eric. And we ran a restaurant in the mountains, in the Alps, for a while. Together, Alps, restaurant. Sounding good so far. What happened? It ran us into the ground. Financially? Energetically? No, we were taking care of it for the owners, but we lived in a house with the waiter and the dishwasher and the chef and all of us together, and it was hard. Okay, so, ran us into the ground. Can we picture that? No. But shared a house with the waitress, the chef. Set the scene and we're with you. Dishwasher. Yeah. Okay. I'm writing too much stress, but that is not what you're gonna say. So that had a negative effect on your Right. Which is not, negative effect is not gonna be the language either. So you parted. Yeah, I left him there and went to Paris. But we got back together for great makeup sex. And then I decided I'm going to Japan. Split. Ah, Japan! Yeah. The makeup sex, incidentally, we might possibly lose. That could sound important and maybe it was, but we want to see the big arc of this relationship. So the big news, really, is you split up and you left to another, not to go home, that's not Kati's style, to go to another whole culture, Japan. Do you speak Japanese, by the way? I do now, yeah. Okay, split to Japan. Now, do we wanna know how Eric felt about this? This is her story. We will know whatever she knew about that. We will see Eric at the breakup. But your story is told through your eyes. It is not your job to tell Eric's story. Not Eric, sorry, Christian. How could I confuse Christian and Eric. (speaks French) So you went to Japan. And did you still, did you just forget all about Christian? No, we stayed in touch, we wrote. Wrote letters. Something tells me there may have been another woman who came in at some point over the years. He had several. Yes, I was guessing. I know that Christian type. Okay. So how did you feel when you'd hear that he was with somebody else? It didn't surprise me. It was sort of a pattern. His father left him when he was five and every summer he'd see his father with a different woman. And do we need to hear that? We're not doing the psychoanalysis of Eric and why he, I mean Christian. Christian, yeah. We just need to know that he's off there having his life, and probably, you were having your life too, I'm guessing. True. Any samurai warriors come into the picture? No. No, no. No. So you were quite alone? I was, especially in Japan. That wasn't the place, easily, to find romance or relationships. Okay. So, alone. All right, and how did you get from Japan to here in the studio today? We're speaking of, this is an interesting essay because it takes place over decades, but she's only gonna have about 1700 words to work with. Japan to Hungary, teaching in Hungary. Yes? For two years, and Hungary to Hawaii, switching jobs to become an art teacher. And do you remember how Jonathan Lethem gave one sentence of having seizures, diagnosed with a brain tumor, unsuccessful surgeries, plural, in half a sentence. So we can basically say, you know, I moved to Hungary when I was 40. When I was 42, I moved to the Big Island. When I was 47, I moved to? Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara. In fact, we just say, and then, you can even just jump. Jonathan Lethem, in the second to last paragraph, jumped over 40 years. You do not have to tell the story of every day of your life, every week of your life, every year of your life, or even, possibly, every decade of your life. What's important is when you reconnected. Santa Barbara, 15 years ago. Okay, but still 15 years ago. What happened? Five days together, ending on Valentine's Day. Okay, whoa whoa whoa. Good storytelling does not begin with five days together. What's missing? How did that happen? You just told what happened and how it ended, but not what got it started. He sent out a kind of a group Christmas card by email. Yes, to a lot of people? Yeah. His clients, 'cause he then was running a horse trekking company in Provence. Of course he was, a horse trekking company. Okay. Group Christmas card. So you had to take the initiative. Yeah. I was annoyed that it was a group card. And you were, at this point, in your 50s. Right, 50s. Group card. And what did you do about the group card? I said, why am I part of a group? And he said, okay, I'll come to see you in Santa Barbara? Eventually, yeah. Yeah, yeah, okay. Eventually is another part of speech that I'm not wild about, which is an adverb. Eventually. Can you draw a picture of eventually? Absolutely not. So I want to, and I want, is there a picture that you'd like, if you could order up the movie of this event, what would you want it to include? Absolutely, the moment that they see each other. She is now 55. They haven't seen each other for probably? 10 years. You're looking very good, but you didn't look like the 35-year-old that he had first met, and he didn't either probably. No. So I want to see him and I wanna see him through your eyes. And that would seem to be the, like, happily ever after. Except that one didn't last either. No, he was living in a yurt in Provence. Okay, yurt, Provence. I didn't quite picture myself moving to a yurt. So it wasn't that he wasn't, that you didn't still love him, it was the circumstances, the logistics, the realities of life. Yeah. All the sort of stuff that seems important when you're 55, and maybe when you're it doesn't anymore so much? Don't know? So he went back to the yurt. You carried on. Right, and then moved here, eventually. Again, sorry, eventually. You got here, and we probably don't need to know a whole lot of what brought you here. But here you are. You never married? No, no. No, all these years never married. So what brings you to getting together in September in France? A horse video that I saw on Facebook. A horse video. How did you come to be watching? Do you always watch horse videos? Don't we all? No, actually, I don't, but this friend of mine posted this beautiful video of a Frenchman on four white horses, riding across the sand, talking about the relationship of horses and people, and how horses don't lie to you. And it was just like Christian talking, it seemed. And I was so taken by it and so moved that, it was a seven minute video, I sent it to him. I saw his name on Facebook. He's got a very complicated Russian last name, so there's only one of those. And I just sent it without anything. Not, this reminded me of you, 'cause obviously it reminded me of him. Just sent it. You respected the intelligence of the reader to know that he didn't need anything more than the horse video, and all would be clear to him. Right. And what did he do? He sent back, I said, did it appear? 'Cause it said Facebook has, Christian has accepted, blah blah blah. And then I said, did you get it? And he said yes and there was an emoticon of a tearful face. And we started reconnecting. We started reconnecting. Sorry, sorry. He sent a picture of me 35 years ago that I don't even remember being taken, and he says, I keep this in my bedroom. And you know, sometimes less is more. That's all I need to hear. And we might even cut to, we're going to, next month I turn 70. And he turns 60. And we're celebrating in the middle of it. Your birthdays are in the same month? He's August 30th, I'm September 30th, we're meeting on the 15th. Wow. I swear to you, I didn't know how great this was going to be. But you know, the truth is, all of you have that great story. You just have to identify it. It may not be quite as romantic as this one. But you all have that great story. Now I'm going to do just a little repair work on my whiteboard now that I know some things. And this is a great lesson for all of you, a very unexpected, happy gift. If a crucial beat of this story is the moment that Kati sees the horse video, and we also know that, earlier, he ran a horse something-or-other, Horse trekking business. What do we know is a theme with this man? Horses! Absolutely. If horses play a crucial role down here, I'm gonna guess there was some horse stuff early on. And I don't just mean horsing around. Did you ever ride horses together? Nope. No? Did you know about his feeling about horses? Nope. No. So there was no horse, early horse chapter for you. No. On our way to Bretagne once, on bicycle, we stopped by some horses and I have a picture of him patting a horse. Okay, that's all I need. I just need a little beat of Christian and horse. I love saying Christian. So different from Eric. Okay. So we're just going to see him patting a horse. We're just gonna know that he, the horse is just a little foreshadowing of something to come. And the other thing I want to know early on is that your birthdays are example a month apart, a month and 10 years apart. So that there is enormous symbolism to the fact that you're meeting halfway. And the resolution of this story is not what happens in the South of France, but that something is going to happen. Is there anybody who isn't going to be reading this story? And I actually, do this right and that is a perfect modern love column. Thank you so much Kati. Thank you. You know, we, sometimes I just have to stop for a minute. I don't often stop, but I just have to take in the beauty of a good story. Just what it means to hear a wonderful story. And what it does, what it will do for you to tell that story really well, and what it will do for all of us to read it, you know, we live in times when there's so much anger and bitterness and hostility and ugliness out in the world, and inauthenticity and lies. For me, the moment when I write my own story is me putting a stake in the ground and saying, here is a small truth. And nobody can say it didn't happen, because I lived it. And the only thing that, my only obstacle should be how well I can tell it. 00:27:42.400 -

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.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

How to Write a Personal Essay - Essays and Articles

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


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.