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Writing Your Story

Lesson 2 of 26

Name Your Obsessions


Writing Your Story

Lesson 2 of 26

Name Your Obsessions


Lesson Info

Name Your Obsessions

I have a great belief in the act of actually taking out pencil and paper, I'm a sort of old fashioned girl, pencil and paper, you could do it on your laptop. And naming your obsessions. And you might say, these are my obsessions, for God's sake, the last thing I need to do is write them down, I know them all too well, they get me into trouble all the time. I'm gonna urge you to actually get past that and write them down. Look at them, and not just one time, but keep an ongoing list, after all these years of writing, I still add to my obsessions list. Because when I don't know what I'm going to write about, and that still happens to me sometimes, that list is going to steer me right. It's going to inform what I should be doing. So let's take a look at some obsessions. What is an obsession? Baseball. Doesn't happen to be one of mine, but actually, I can get into a good Red Sox game now and then. Dogs, yes. There's no such thing, incidentally, as a bad obsession, or a wrong obsession. Som...

e obsessions can get you in trouble, in the world, for sure, I'm not recommending every obsession be acted on, but this is the moment in your life, when even all the things that have created trouble everywhere else are rich material for you to explore. Cowboy Boots, this is an obsession of mine, I'll tell you. I'm not wearing them today, just because I wanted to show off other shoes that I'm obsessed with. But, they're not always big things, you notice. My mother's death, that is a big thing. My mother died almost 30 years ago, and I still go back and back and back to that experience, and to the loss of her, and of course there's no way to talk about the loss of a person without talking about who the person was that you lost. So she's a recurrent theme in my writing, as those of you who are familiar with my oeuvre might know. And in fact, she's going to be in this room with us today, I'll just mention, my mother was my first and best teacher of writing. And 30 years after her death, she's still, she's not even perched on my shoulder, she's embedded in my brain, and part of my mission today is to embed some of her wisdom in yours, so you're gonna hear some of her thoughts. She was a wife and mother of the 50's, a brilliant, passionate, talented, driven woman, highly educated, who, like so many women of the wives and mothers of the 50's didn't really get a chance to have a career. So guess who was her career? Some of us have that story, I think, with our mothers. And she taught me well, and I honor her every single time I talk about writing. So, my mother's death, big one. Food, huge! And when we talk about an obsession, we connect ourselves with it. A person could write about the importance of organic food, the best way to cook fish, but I want you to connect your own personal experience with the big subject that obsesses you. Ice skating, that's me. And incidentally, I'm not a very good skater. I just love to skate. Actually, there's somebody in this room I've skated with, and we may hear from her today. But what you need to do, when you identify an obsession, is go a little deeper and say, why are you obsessed with that? I'm never gonna make it to the Olympics. What is it that ice skating represents to me? What does food represent to me? Maybe my mother, maybe certainly comfort, Maybe an escape, what does ice skating represent to me? Well, I think I know, it has to do with, it's the closest way that I know to taking flight. Putting on a pair of ice skates, and I have very little interest in skating rinks, my ice skating obsession has to do with getting on a river, there's a Joni Mitchell song about this, and just taking off. So, understand, and actually, if anybody saw the movie of To Die For, my novel, you'll know what the last scene in To Die For shows a character skating on a pond, frozen pond, with the body of Nicole Kidman in the ice. If you actually, I'm not proposing that you do this, but if you sat down and read everything I've ever written, you would know some of my obsessions. They pop up in odd places, like, well, here's one actually I haven't written about yet, but it's on my list. A major car accident from 1970. When I was 16 years old, four boys at my school had too much beer, and crashed into another car with three people from another school and they all died. And everybody in my small town in New Hampshire knows about that accident, and it stays with me, and I think about it maybe not once a week but certainly once a month, at least. I carry that with me and I keep it on my obsession list. And some day I know, I'm going to write that story. Social justice, here's an example of a big global topic. Very far away from ice skating, or cowboy boots. And it's a perfectly valid, obviously significant, important obsession. The piece to connect to, that makes the story yours, 'cause you're never gonna get an editorial in the New York Times writing about all the things that you think should be changed in the world, is your personal platform. Where you connect with your passion for social justice. And maybe it is something that's happened in your own life. Dolly Parton. (audience laughing) Do I need to say anything? I will, I will say something, because I am obsessed with Dolly Parton. And I have been obsessed with Dolly Parton since I first heard her in, I think 1971. I followed her passionately. I actually got to meet her a couple of times, and I pay homage to her all the time. And I could write a report on the career of Dolly Parton, I know many facts about where she grew up, in Sevierville Tennessee, and the little cabin, and I could tell you about the coat of many colors. Incidentally, a fabulous story, among other things, apart from being a great singer, and a great dresser, in my opinion, Dolly Parton is just a plain old great storyteller. But I need to go deeper and ask myself, why am I obsessed with Dolly Parton? What on earth is my connection to Dolly Parton? And I even know, some of it, it has to do with being a small town girl. Wanting to get to the big city, having this burning ambition to see the bright lights, and put on blue high heels. So, I'm gonna ask you, who's got an obsession you wanna share? Who's got something that you just can't, that keeps on coming back to you, and you don't quite know what to do about it, but you can't seem to get out of your head. Don't be shy here! Yes! Hula. I love it! I really wanna ask you to get up and show us. (laughing) I've been dancing for many years, and when you talked about flying, from ice skating, I get that feeling with hula. It made me think of that, so I had to mention. So, when Edna writes about hula, and incidentally, that's a fabulous thing for you to write about, it will not be the topic of hula, it will be hula for you, hula in your life, and maybe not hula over all the decades, not that many decades I can tell, with you, that you've been involved with hula, but you'll identify a hula story. Excellent, who's got another one? Karaoke. Karaoke! Great! Now, later I'm gonna ask you, to know what the questions are, but I'll start you off. What's your karaoke song, your go to karaoke song? It's...oh no, I can't think, oh sorry, oh gosh, Pat Benatar. Pat Benatar, which one? Now I feel pressure. That's okay, that's okay, but Pat Benatar says a lot. But I'm a terrible singer, so that's the thing. But you'll still do it? So I'm obsessed with karaoke, but... You'll still do it. I'll still do it. Do we wanna hear that story? Candice, bad singer, standing up, singing a Pat Benatar song, not quietly, I bet. No. (laughing) And then begin to ask yourself, what are the things that you want to discover in Candice's story, when she writes it? Because those are the questions you need to ultimately be asking yourself as you're writing. What do I need to tell the reader, so that the reader will understand what it is like to be me, loving hula, being up there, dancing the hula. I can't dance the hula, but I wanna know what it feels like to dance the hula. Who's got another one? Yes, Wendy. Travel. I think I'm obsessed with it because it's such a great escape from everything. It's an escape, okay. Wendy has just said it's an escape. What do you wanna know, when she says that? From what? From what? And actually, this is once of the baseline truths about setting out to write a piece, to write an essay, a story, a book, memoir. If we're gonna talk about losing something, getting away to somewhere, we want to know first, what are you getting away from? What was the thing that you had before you lost it? John, you wanna say anything? What brings you here today? I happen to know some of the people in this audience, in case you hadn't noticed, and John is one. I was hesitant to bring it up, because at the risk of dropping a dirty bomb on the space, it's my daughter's suicide. Your daughter's suicide. Let's start it right out, nobody is in this room, to write about rainbows, yeah. And how long ago did that happen, John? Little over 10 years ago. I actually knew that, but I wanted everybody else to know. Little over 10 years ago, she was a senior at Redwood High School, college bound, one weekend we got into a big fight, parents fight with their teenagers, and next morning she left a note on her desk, took our car to the Golden Gate Bridge, jumped, disappeared, they never found her. Thank you, I wanna say, first of all. And I want to reassure you, and everybody else in this room, that there is no such thing as a dirty bomb to drop in this room. We're here to look at those hard things, and I thank you for that. And John has in fact been working on this story, of course it's an obsession. Does anybody have to wonder whether a day ever goes by, or probably an hour, that John doesn't think about this story? And in fact, some people have just been writers all their lives, and they're just looking for what they're gonna write about, that was not your case at all, you weren't a writer. You probably never would have written anything more than a memo in your job, as I think you were in finance, right? Well, exactly, I was a business guy, so I wrote memos, I wrote reports, I wrote analyses, I never wrote a book before. Yeah, and John showed up at one of my classes at my house in Mill Valley years ago, not too long after Casey's death, because he wanted to tell the story. And he has now told the story, and what did it do for you, to tell that story, John? Well, I wanted to make a difference. And I think that when a parent loses a child, in a particularly violent and tragic way, they wanna do something to make a difference, to keep their child's memory alive, to change something, to hopefully save another family from going through what you went through. And you've gone through tragedy too. And nobody gets out of here alive, and before we do, we have some pretty big losses along the way, usually. Thank you.

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.