Skip to main content

Writing Your Story

Lesson 19 of 26

Developing Your Container


Writing Your Story

Lesson 19 of 26

Developing Your Container


Lesson Info

Developing Your Container

Tell me the big idea of your story. Um, I wanted to write about my childhood. My childhood, pretty big. You told me to be big, right? Okay, and then how that's impacted me as a mom and as an adult. Okay. Was this a happy childhood? I mean there were happy parts but I wouldn't say it was a happy childhood. Having heard a little bit about your childhood, you don't have to be a good girl here. Tell me some of the things that were difficult in your childhood. So I grew up as the youngest of three daughters and an alcoholic household in Westchester County, New York. Which is a very affluent suburb so, I had a dad who was sort of you know, drinking a lot and there was a lot of yelling but I had a mom who was really trying to preserve the image of our family and make it seem like everything was okay. So, I'm going to, because of time constraints, I'm going to tell you I happen to know a story of Liza's that I think, will make a good container for this big story of troubled mar...

riage, privileged family looking good on the outside, but really troubled, parents fighting, daughters trying to make it okay, alcoholic parent, daughter trying to care-take the parents. Tell us about the last Christmas that your parents were married. So, I remember I was about eight and all I wanted that Christmas was a cabbage patch kid. But what I wanted even more than the cabbage patch kid was for my mom to get a mint coat. And the reason for that is because my mom had desperately wanted a mint coat. And that seems like such a first-world problem but. Don't ever apologize for your experience. This is your life. You don't have to say I know people are starving in Syria. It's okay. For her, the mint coat represented much more than something fashionable, it was acceptance 'cause all her friends had a fur coat and it was love for my dad that he would get her a fur coat and it was acceptance and And Liza told me a story we did talk before, about, this particular Christmas when her mother wanted the mint coat and she had been, she was working, helping out at a cocktail party where she was checking the coats and all the other mothers had mint coats. And her mother had this wool coat. And on a little bit of cross-examination I got the scene of driving home from the party where Liza's mother let her father know that she was the only one who didn't have a mint coat. So, we've got a build up some tension to Christmas. And this, I love it that there are two simultaneous. Remember we talked about, who's are character? What does she want? She wants a cabbage patch so there's the cabbage patch story, but the interesting thing is, that wasn't even the most important thing. She wanted her mother to be happy. And anybody who grew up in an alcoholic family knows about that story. You just want to make it okay. So, we get to Christmas morning and of course we're gonna have some beats before that we won't talk about but not a lot of them. We can get to this one pretty bam bam bam. It's Christmas morning and you're under the tree And also, I mean the night before Christmas, so, Christmas Eve, when most people are listening for sleigh bells. I remember the screaming and the I just, that this story also allows me to talk about how unhappy the nights were. And then the next And you were worried about Santa then, maybe? Like, what if Santa comes while this is going on? Right. So Christmas morning. I remember it and we, I, was watching the presents dwindle under the tree. And I was eyeing them to see if any of them could have fit a mint coat. And I got my cabbage patch kid, which was really exciting, but I. The word is hypervigilant, but we'll never use it in our writing. So I just noticed that nothing under the tree is gonna fit a mint coat. My moms not gonna get it. And, I just remember how much that effected me, because I just wanted her to be happy. Yes, and then what happened? So, then my dad was like "Oh I forgot something in the kitchen." And he wanders off into the kitchen with his Johhnie Walker. He came back with a big gold box and my mom's face just lit up and she knew what it was and we all knew what it was. And it was like this brief glimmer of hope and so she opened it and it was a fur coat. And she stood up to try it on and he, this is where I would slow down time, but he like, he took it back from her. And he said that's not yours yet. So he was like just, first he teased her by not having it under the tree and then he, teased her. And you won't need to tell the readers they're very smart. Right. They'll get that. And again just for time I'm going to, so, your mother had to earn this coat. And what were some of the things she did? So, well, so, as a six year-old or seven or however old I was. I was definitely under nine, so I was probably between six and eight. I know that she, what I was thinking was maybe, he found out that when she runs the vacuum to make the lines that he wants to see when he comes in the door, maybe he knows it's unplugged. Because she would just do that to please him (audience member laughs) Or, maybe she found his booze in the toilet tank where he used to hide it or. So this is a container that allows for us to explore a lot of aspects of this family's behavior. I'm going to kind of jump to the front, forgive me. Yeah, of course. She got the coat. She eventually got the coat. Did the marriage survive? No, the marriage ended shortly after. But you said something when you first introduced this idea that I wanted to remind everybody of. Her childhood informs the way she raises her children. And you told me a story about, if we had more time I would ask you to tell this yourself, that Liza said, I said, "What's your relationship with your father now?" And she said, "Well, I mostly talk to him once a year, when he..." He calls to see what the kids want for Christmas. (audience member booing) And it occurs to me that that's a container action. This father and Christmas. This man, who doesn't know how to show love except with things. The giving of things. The taking away of things. (mumbles in agreement) And something tells me that Christmas is very different in your family. But there actually is a potential, even with this story and this man who's behavior is, you know, pretty obviously emotionally abusive, that we can actually locate a certain poignancy. He doesn't know what to do. There he is now, an old man, probably 75, 80. Ane he, he's trying, the one time he communicates with his daughter and basically the only language he can speak to his grandchildren is, "what do you want for Christmas?" Thank you. (Audience clapping) I hate to, you know, I don't want to oversimplify, because all of these stories deserve more. Candace! Come on up here. This is called, this is like the "speed dating" of container stories. (audience laughing) Candace, what's your big, you have many big stories but you have one obvious big story. Okay, yes, so I lost my leg when I was 21. I got caught in a conveyor belt in a paper mill. And it was a summer job that I was working at Wollongong University and it was an unguarded machine and it caused me to have my left leg amputated below the knee. And if there's any doubt this has not ruined this woman's life, well just say, she ran 10K in Golden Gate Park yesterday. (Candace laughs) And I've seen her on the stand at Battleport. But okay, so, big idea "I lost my leg". And I, knowing something of Candace. Who's had a pretty impressive, almost 20 years since then. This was not the tragedy to end them all. You've carried on and in many ways its made you who you are today. The big obvious story would be this story of how Candace lost her leg. I actually, and I'm sure at some point, you know, you'll write it and you've told it, but that's not the story that I want you to tell. Because that's the big obvious story. So, I wanted you to tell me, tell everybody, the little story that you told me the other day. It was when I realized that I could get these prosthetic legs that were made in England by the same person that made Paul McCartney's ex-wife's legs and this was a big ray of hope because my legs after I had lost my real leg were a shelf what you picked off of at a five feet. So not a reasonable replacement for the leg. And this is a 21 year-old beautiful young 21 year-old. And that was very hard for, harder on my mother and father than it was on me and I could see that. File that away, "Harder on my mother and father than it was on me." Yeah, and so once I had learned to walk and recognize that what your leg looks like doesn't matter. It does matter but it's never gonna be your real leg so I was mentally prepared to get this new leg that was going to be a reasonable facsimile and mold it off my other leg and the workers compensation board who I was actually working for within in a year going out and speaking to high school students about not getting hurt at work the other side of it, the compensation side, who was responsible for getting me back on my foot again (laughs) feet, they said no. That they weren't going to pay for these legs 'cause they were excessive, it was not necessary. So I appealed it and on the day of the appeal I had asked my father if he would come with me and I knew this was gonna be a huge feet for him because I remember the first day that we went to a prosthetist and they showed me a leg and said that I would stick a wrench in the back and crank it to put my heel up and down and that I would have holes poked in it. If I wanted to go on the water it would drain and my father had walked outside and threw up. Like, I'm his only girl, and my mom too but they were being strong for each other at different points in time, anyhow, I said to dad, "Will you come with me?" And he said, "Okay" and I could tell this was a hard thing for him and I said, "Dad we're going to go and feed first here you know, we gotta get all my other legs and show them what they look like", these beat up legs that I was just learning to walk on. Your training wheels really. And he said, "Where's your leg bag?" And I said "No no we're not going with a leg bag, you know, just grab 'em." So he had a couple of my fake legs and I had a couple of my fake legs. So get this picture, she chooses not to put the legs in a bag, her dad is carrying these legs. Walking down the street. Yeah he's got a couple. Yep, and then we got into the building and there was an elevator, so I'm going for my big appeal to show this is what you think I should have to live with for the rest of my life and I'm 21. And we got into the elevator and he was very nervous. I mean, what if they said no what if? And I don't need to tell you a lot of things to be nervous about. Was your father a sophisticated guy? Used to going up against big corporate types? No, my dads a trucker, very smart man but no, not an office situation. But I'm his world so that's all that really mattered in that elevator. And we were on our way up and I could just tell you so nervous. I was trying to be really positive you know. I was like "Dad it's going to be okay" you know and so I'm probably trying to tell myself that too. She's care taking her dad at that moment. And when the elevator stopped it wasn't on the floor we needed and there was a man standing there the doors just kind of went like this. There's me and my dad in the middle with these legs. (audience laughing) The guy looks in and I just looked at him and I said there's not enough, not very much legroom left in here. (loud laughter) You might want to wait for the next elevator. And the elevator doors shut and I remember my father, all he could do was look and then he pinched me 'cause I think if he thought I if he said one thing he might just he was so proud. And I don't know, to me You got the leg. I did not that day but I fought and I ended up getting it but it was a real to me that whole thing was about how the container was the hope that. And I'm gonna tell you what your life was about. Okay, you tell me, tell me. (everyone laughs) I love it. I'm interpreting. No, no, no, no. I don't think this is about Candace getting her leg. I think this is about a father who's daughter is his world and every loving parent knows that your child's pain is worst than any pain that could happen to you. A father witnessing his daughter's pain and feeling powerless. And absolute animal desire to protect. That's what I think. I think your father is at the core of this story. You were going to be okay, but even in the elevator you were worried about whether your father was going to be okay. I'm so torn about the leg room line, because its a fabulous line, but its kind of a one-liner. And it almost distracts from the depth of the story. I think this is, and you know there are different as you said you know your mother loves you too and you know you have two Oh gosh, yeah. Great parents but this particular story is Candace's mother an important figure in this story? She doesn't really exist in this story. For the purpose of this story. I hope she's not watching It's fine. I love you mom. (laughs) And I do this with my children. You know, I'll just take one you know, at a time. This happens to be your father's glory moment. Right. He, I know from another conversation that Candace and I had that she described. Tell about when you were in the hospital and the nurse spoke of the wailing. Oh yeah. This is the day of right after? Well this was, I'm a motivational speaker and so I was giving speech a few years after I had been injured and. No I'm talking about The scream? Yes. That was the story told to me. Yeah, okay. Yeah, okay so Sorry. That's okay. I was speaking at a high school and the teacher came up to me after my speech and told me she remembered being at the hospital that day the day that I was admitted. And a lot of people, 'cause I'm from a small town feel the need to still, after 20 years, tell me where they were the day I got hurt and what they were doing and it's all lovely. And she started to tell me and I'm so used to that, that I was just was listening to her and she said that she would never forget the scream that she heard. And I said to her that I didn't remember being in the hospital. I'd passed out in the ambulance and she stopped and she said, "It's not your scream I'll never forget, it was your father's when he showed up." 'Cause my mom was an hour and a half away so he was the first to arrive. And, you know, to think of your parent in pain like that Yeah. Is, I can't imagine what it would be like for them to think of me. So, I do know, I've heard a lot about Candace's mother (laughs) she loves you too and she sounds great but this is a story about a father and a daughter. And a father's love for his daughter. And a father's sense of powerlessness. That he's used to being your big protector and he did not know what to do. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. (audience clapping) I, you know, I I have to apologize to the people who's stories I blasted through so much faster than I would love to blast through. But I also know you're getting it. You're really smart. You're getting it. And that is a process that I want all of you to do with yourself. To begin with that that big global idea and then locate the small story that might allow you to explore it. And in the small story, for instance, Candace's story, will have a flashback to, or will have contained within that the story of the teacher coming up to you and speaking of the scream and it turns out it wasn't your scream. Because that's what it's about. That his pain was greater even than yours.

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.