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Writing Your Story

Lesson 9 of 26

Descriptive Versus Interpretive Language


Writing Your Story

Lesson 9 of 26

Descriptive Versus Interpretive Language


Lesson Info

Descriptive Versus Interpretive Language

So, we've been talking about what to say and now I want to talk about how to say it well. Doing it well is the best protection you've got. From all the naysayers that you should pay no attention to whatsoever. So this is going to be our nuts and bolts segment. The tools... I'm going to talk about the tools for creating drama, tension, color, surprise, in your writing. We're going to exile a whole lot of words from your vocabulary. But don't worry, there are a lot more of where they came from. Better ones. We're going to talk about taking out extraneous details, so that the ones that are left have more power and serve your story telling better. We're going to begin with a discussion of descriptive versus interpretive language. And I... I went through a bunch of student writings and I pulled out some examples of interpretative language. "I was overwhelmed. She was intense, feeling on the edge. He gets emotional. Live in the present. Indecisive and wrought out. He exuded confidence, a ter...

rible person, brilliant colors, emotionally unavailable, it was unnerving. It had its own realities. A surreal experience." By giving me those adjectives, you have denied me the opportunity to make my own assessment of the picture. You told me what you see in the picture, instead of giving me the picture. You know, I sometimes about what happens in a therapist's office. And in a therapist's office, we tell our stories. We do not go into the therapists office and say I experienced a trauma that had the effect of creating a lot of paranoid sensations. We go in and we tell what happens in our day or our week or our childhood. We give stories and ultimately, it is from those stories that the therapist, or ideally ourselves, figures out what it means. But the writer of these phrases jump right into the bottom line, what it means? Without letting us see how to get there. "A surreal experience", I have no... If I ask everyone in this room to describe a surreal experience, we would get 30 different descriptions and they might be erratically different. So, I want to urge you not to do that. And now I'm going to talk about dead language. And actually, there's no way that I know to convey dead language and the heavy, boring effect of it then to dump a whole lot of it on you and just feel the weight of this. So, this is going to go on for maybe a minute and a half, just, you know, fasten your seat belts for not a whole lot. (audience laughs) Close your eyes as I read this. Here it goes. These are all from student works, not shaming anyone. These people went on to write great stuff. "Self-imposed exile. Desperate moments. Creating a fantasy relationship, coexisting with the more mundane truth of my life. It was unnerving, when I needed her most. Belonging to my roots, lucky beyond belief. My internal conflict. Attractive enough, but nothing exceptional. My own personal nightmare, avoiding the truth. A nice life full of nice things. Mental clarity. The good, the bad, and the ugly, the loss of her mother. Your own personal nightmare. A collective gasp, a sort of purgatory for what seemed like forever. This list does, I know. Her features coalesce a sorted online dating story. Her post-divorce, post-50 chapter in her life, his extended love making, to bring some happiness to her life. It did not end well. Even more compassionate and tender. Didn't miss a beat. Full of adventure and intrigue. Utterly embarrassed, inappropriate solicitations from older men, merely coexisting. One of the most vivid and pressing memory I have of my childhood, experiencing themselves in all their real physicality. Her curiosity and genuine open-hearted charm. Dare-devil antics to deliver in detail what we had seen accurately just through descriptions. The magnitude of this place has passed, we're bringing it on home. The safe container of my early youth. The bandwagon of popularity, so much loss of time, of relationships, of aloneness and confusion, a little thing called puberty. The religious type, a daughter from a broken family. His deceit, the confusion of our life." Now I'm going to ask you, what of those hundred or so phrases, can you remember and say it back to me. (audience member mumbles answer) (laughter) That's not fair. Last one. I think you get the point. That these are not memorable phrases. Maybe, you can come up with one or two or them. But, basically, this is dead language. I actually believe that there's a physiological thing about our brain that it does not hold on to language like this in the way that it does language that is concrete and specific. There. I usually title that list when I read one of them to a group of students that always comes from their work and they can always remember their own one. That one will be seared indelibly in their mind. I always title this, can you draw a picture of this phrase or can you make a movie of it? And you should be able to and it has nothing to do with your drawing ability, obviously. It is... Is there a picture that your brain can form? And when there's not, your writing is not grounded. Your writing is floating around in the vague and imprecise and I can't hold on to it. So, banish it! I want to do a little exercise with some of that dead language. Utterly embarrassed, dead language, who's got an imagine for me of a moment they were utterly embarrassed? We're talking about embarrassing things here today. Go for it! This is a moment that stands out for me is... I had... I was... I guess experimenting with shoplifting and... (laughter) Love how you put it. And... How did that experiment go, Edna? (laughter) Not very well. It didn't last long. And I had this empty purse to fill and had this bright idea to fill it. And, I thought, oh okay what do I need? Oh, I guess I'll get some panties and... I picked up some really bright cute ones and I got busted and I just had this vision of this sales lady, you know, yelling at me to open up my purse. Yeah. And she pulls it out and she's shaking it in front of my face and scolding of everyone. It's particularly sad because they were cute panties. If they just been ugly... Perfect! Okay, are we going to forget the panty story? No! Panties pulled out of a purse that were shoplifted? I think not. Utterly embarrassing. Excellent! Yes! You know, I speak a lot about, and you're going to hear more about it in this segment, it being economical with your language. But sometimes, it's worth using the extra words to tell a really great story and the specific story. Absolutely yes. And incidentally, you did another thing, quite apart from giving us a picture, you did something brave. You told us an unheroic aspect of your behavior. And as a matter of fact, in this book, this is my most recent book, "The Best of Us", I describe a moment that I shoplifted. My husband was dying of cancer and we hung out a whole lot at the CVS, sometimes for hours, waiting for Opiod prescriptions to be filled. You have to work really hard sometimes to get those prescription filled. And I was supposed to buy a hairbrush and I had it in my hand and by the time, we had to wait an hour and a half to get the Fentanyl. I decided that I wasn't going to pay for that damn hairbrush. (audience laughter) My editor actually said, "Really? You really want to tell that story about shoplifting a brush?" Yes! Because I want you to trust me. And I trust you now. I trust you, Edna. Yes? You want to say something else? Can I also say that I was a kid. (audience laughter) But I... Yeah, okay... But I was 62 when I did mine, so I beat you. Okay, utterly embarrassed. Yes. My dating woes. Well, this is a no-brainer, who's got one of those? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, Candace. (audience mumbling) So, this could go with utterly embarrassed and dating woes. So I was on a second or third date with somebody who I had over for a drink at my house and I didn't have his number in my phone as his name. And my friend had messaged me and said "You know, how's this date going?" And I responded a very unfavorable response about how the date was going and I sent it to him when he was in my house, in the other room. And as soon as I hit send, I could just feel my cheeks turn red. Yes. You know it's a wonderfully specific story. It's a scene, it's got character, it's got pictures. How's that relationship going, Candace? Don't think I need to know. Dare-devil antics. Nobody had any dare-devil antics? Okay. Their own personal nightmare. Own personal nightmare. And if you don't want to volunteer one, the important thing is to think in your head of a picture of one.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Everyone’s got a story to tell. Some are funny. Some are inspiring. Others are tragic. But no matter how compelling your story might seem, it won’t resonate with readers unless you’re able to effectively translate your concept onto the page.

Celebrated journalist, novelist and memoirist Joyce Maynard will give you the tools you need to transform your brilliant idea into an absorbing memoir that readers won’t be able to put down.

Maynard will begin by walking you through the process of identifying your story and how best to tell it. She’ll then help you develop your story through language, story structure, dramatic tension, dialogue, description and editing. Finally, she’ll address the challenges of the writing life, such as how to create a productive practice, design a comfortable writing space, deal with rejection and find an audience.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Understand the difference between telling what happened and exploring your journey.
  • Figure out what to include in your story and what to cut out.
  • Decide on a point of view, a point of entry and a structure.
  • Get over your fears of revealing embarrassing truths about yourself.
  • Stop worrying about being judged.
  • Deal with loneliness and find your tribe.
  • Develop the arc of a sentence, a paragraph and a story.
  • Listen to the sound and rhythm of your sentences.


Annie Y

Joyce Maynard will meet her writing students exactly where many of us find ourselves stranded: at that point in the road where our creative impulse and need for expression begins to lose breath but our sense of story and good writing habits may falter. Her teaching is a glorious, energetic, engaged alchemy of encouragement, permission for wild creativity, and feet-on-the-ground, pencil-to-paper, lessons for organizing and writing your own story. I left this incredible day empowered to tell mine, and totally unafraid to let go of what does not fit into the narrative. She gives concrete examples of good writing, shows you exactly why it's good, as well as hilarious bits of not-so-good writing. Yes, this is a memoir class, but the lessons are simply excellent rules for good writing. The syllabus is ambitious, but Ms. Maynard's practical magic is her gift to render all of this utterly do-able. I loved every minute, left inspired by the entire experience, and profoundly grateful for her wisdom and humor. Thank you!

Diane Shipley

This was a wonderful class, the best I’ve taken, even though I wasn’t there in person! Joyce is an inspiring teacher who makes you feel like your stories matter and guides you toward identifying which narratives to tell and how best to tell them — very few writing classes delve into the mechanics in this way and I really appreciated it. I also appreciated some of her more unusual advice — like that it’s important to think about what you want to write, sometimes for a long time, before you start. By going through students’ stories and providing lots of examples of the principles she teaches, you can see how to adapt the lessons to your own work, and I’ve already started doing so. I also found Joyce very compassionate about issues around privacy and shame and everything that comes up when people share personal stories, and very generous in sharing her own experiences so it’s clear she knows what she’s talking about. I recommend this class wholeheartedly.


Thank you so much for your brilliant course, Joyce Maynard. I am blown away by how much I've learned from you, and how warmly and joyfully you've imparted your wisdom, your skills as a writer and your own beautiful humanity. I am so grateful for this experience. You are not only a gifted storyteller, but a truly gifted teacher, and a delightful, inspiring human being. I hope to learn from you in person in Lake Atitlan at some point in the future.