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How to Write a Personal Essay

Lesson 8 of 21

Writing About Loss & Exploring Secrets

Joyce Maynard

How to Write a Personal Essay

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

8. Writing About Loss & Exploring Secrets

Lesson Info

Writing About Loss & Exploring Secrets

So we are going to talk next about aspects of a theme... That so many personal essays address in one way or another, which is grief and loss. The very thing that is hardest to live through is often the richest territory to write about. And, in my opinion, as a person who's had her share of grief and loss, I always feel that one of the most redemptive things I can do is write about it. You know, when I was... Some of you may know that I was raised in a kind of boot camp of writing. Believe me, as tough as I may be on the writing of some of you here today, when we look at some of your work, it's nothing compared to what my mother subjected me to at the age of about 7 and 10 and in our living room. She went over my work with a fierce red pen, that was our family sport, reading our work out loud, my sister and me, and being critiqued by our parents. It was an odd way to grow up, and I have to say, I did not replicate it with my children. But it certainly did give me a lot of tools that I ...

have lived by. My mother has been dead for almost 30 years now, but I hear her voice in my head, and I guess, part of why I teach is to put my voice in your head when you write. But one of the things that my mother often said to me, when something bad happened in my life, was, "At least you can write about it." In those days, what happened in my life was, I didn't make it on the cheerleading squad or somebody didn't invite me to their birthday party. The stakes have gone up a little, but at least you can write about it is a pretty good motto for me. And we're going to look at the experiences that you don't wanna think about, you wanna go away from, and actually, I'm gonna suggest that you dive right into that wave. And shine a light on it. And when you shine a light on the darkness, of course, it's a little less dark. I wanted to bring up right away what I call the catharsis question. You know, when I was on the tour, all around the United States last fall for my most recent memoir, The Best of Us, it is not a memoir about cancer and it's not even a memoir about death, but both of those things are a part of that story, it's about finding, at the age of 57, and marrying, at the age of 59, the first true partner of my life and losing him, three years later, to pancreatic cancer. And I like to think of it as a love story, really. And a book about marriage. But when I was going all around the country, there was one question that was asked of me more than any other, and it was, was it cathartic to write that book? There's a man in the audience who's smiling because he's written a book and we're going to be talking to you, John, a little bit later, about a very painful loss of a different sort. Yes, I would say it was cathartic to write that book, but my catharsis, you should not have to pay 20 bucks for my catharsis. If all it is is catharsis, it belongs in the pages of your journal. The kind of writing that we're talking about today is communicating with the reader, giving something to the reader. And, as I've said before, not necessarily advice or prescriptions for what you should do with your life, simply the gift of your experience to make of as they will. And catharsis is a complicated thing, you know, just sort of spilling your pain on the page never works very well. I don't even, it certainly doesn't work well for a reader, but I don't actually think it's the most, if we were talking for a minute about healing, I don't think it's the most healing thing for you as a writer. I was raised, as I mentioned before, by a very demanding editor, my mother was my editor, my first and still probably my toughest editor, and what I have done with my grief, as a writer, is to apply to the stories of my biggest losses the tools and the discipline that have served me well for over 50 years. And they give a structure to what might otherwise be just spilling over undifferentiated sorrow. Not too long ago, a friend shared with me that her daughter, who is a violinist, a professional violinist, had lost a partner pretty tragically, and had just gotten the news right before she was going to perform a concert, and she went on and she played that piece of music. I understood that completely. That what was she knew to do. And it was probably the one thing she could do at that moment, pick up her violin, and she actually, I gather, played really well. When something terrible happens in my life, I pick up my violin. It's just, the instrument looks a little different. What I say about writing about loss, apart from the fact that it's helpful for all the people who have had loss, to know they're not alone, is that you've already gone through the really terrible part, which is living through it. And if all that you do is live through the loss and then stay in that place of grief, you have not made something of it. And I'm a big believer in making something out of whatever you have. If I were a chef, I would look at the bottom of my vegetable bin and see what I could cook up. And as this particular human being, I take the stuff of my personal experience and I may not achieve this, but I aspire to make art. And I believe that every one of us, when we sit down to write, should hold that standard. I am going to make something of meaning out of something very hard. And, perhaps, locate some goodness out of it, take meaning from pain. The first thing you have to do, when you're writing about loss, is explore what was lost. And I talked about this a little bit in our previous segment. If you're gonna write about your house burning down, I wanna know what that house looked like. I wanna know what was in it. If your dog died in the fire, I want to know that dog. And certainly, if you're writing about the death of a loved one, I want to see that person before they died. You know, I've worked with, gosh, hundreds of writers, in the classes that I've taught over the years, and there is a classic thing that a person does who has gone through a deeply traumatic death, especially a parent writing about the death of a child. And I'm thinking often about the death of a child in a car accident. They write about the funeral. That is the thing that a person in the early stages of grief and loss does. And it is a classic trauma experience, to talk about going to the funeral home, the music that was playing, the flower arrangement, the mortician. It's a necessary step in the process. It is like when a child falls down and they come running to you, and they need to tell you every single thing of the details, it sort of calms them down to do that first, but it's not the story. You are not going to locate the story of the death of your son in a car accident at the funeral home, where the one person who is absent is your son. I've worked with a lot of women who have experienced breast cancer, and those women often begin by writing about the one moment that is least specific to them, which is the moment that they got their diagnosis. And that's the one moment that is almost the same in everybody's case. It does not tell the story. So, I wanna know the person who has been lost. I guess if I'm going to proceed with this, I'll say I wanna know the breast that was lost. I want to know there was that was there before it's gone, and feel the loss of it.

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.