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Writing Your Story

Lesson 17 of 26

The Container


Writing Your Story

Lesson 17 of 26

The Container


Lesson Info

The Container

You know, I love everything that we get to talk about today, but this might be my favorite (audience laughs) segment. My favorites change a lot (laughs), but this is definitely one of my many favorites. So, many of you have a big story to tell, and many of you have been holding on to it a long time, and when that happens, you sort of, it spills out all over the place. So what do you need when you have something spilling out all over the place? A container. Something to put it in. Exactly, a container. And I wanna add that this particular concept is valuable whether we're talking about a 350-page memoir, or a 1700-word personal essay. But I'm gonna give you a strong recommendation that before you launch into writing your 350-word, page, memoir, you write some short personal essays. Work on that form first. A lot of people, and a lot of students of mine and people in this audience and probably at home, speak to me about having collections of essays, and they want to publish a colle...

ction of essays, and I always wanna say to them "Whoa, hold on a minute. "Before you talk about a collection of essays, "let's talk about, and before you talk about "linking up the essays in your collection of essays, "let's talk about one essay." So we're gonna begin there. We're going to look at how you might take your big life experience and contain it in a smaller story. And I wanna begin by explaining to you the concept of a container. You have a big idea. A big story. And you find a small story that illuminates it. A story that allows you to explore the big idea, but with a small, particular scene, and something that's manageable in perhaps limited space, which is why I wanna talk about a short personal essay first, and it's also a great way to build your chops for the longer book. So, what is a container? Here are some examples. "Big Ideas, Small Containers" The big idea: I miss my mother. The container, this is an essay that I published one time. As I've already mentioned to you, I've written about my mother and my mother's death in many, many different ways. This particular essay, after her death I had 30 jars of my mother's homemade chutney. They dwindled down to one. That's my idea of a high-drama, high-tension event. Only one chutney left. But I hope that I wrote it in such a way that it did feel like high-drama, and you don't even know what happened with that final jar of chutney, but it wasn't good. Okay. The idea: my five year old daughter died. This was my friend Ann Hood. The container: how do you begin to talk about the death of a five year old? By telling about "We both loved the Beatles. "After she died, I couldn't listen to them any more." And that's in Modern Love, you can find it online, by Ann Hood. The idea: just when I figured out what it meant to be part of a couple, my husband died. This is me again. Big, global idea. Big abstract concept. What it meant to be a part of a couple. The container: the summer we spent riding a motorcycle together on the back roads of New Hampshire. And that was a New York Times travel article that I published last summer. The idea: it's not easy, this is me, too, this was me many years ago. It's not easy finding a good man when you're single in your forties, many years ago. The container: I set out to have a date (audience laughs) with Steve Martin. And that was actually one of those NPR, little, all-things-considered essays. I kept on hoping that Steve Martin was gonna hear it, but he never did. Then I decided that I didn't want him anyway. Okay. (audience laughs)

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.