I mentioned earlier my mother. My mother, my mother started teaching me writing when I was, before I could write, when I was three. I was her student, and she couldn't get a teaching job. She had a PhD from Radcliffe, she couldn't get a teaching job. She tutored Latin for a dollar an hour, and I got her. My mother, and so I couldn't write, but I gave dictation. She wrote it all down, typed it up, mailed it off to Humpty Dumpty Magazine, and later other places, and then I did it myself. My mother used to say write as if every word costs a nickel. Well this was the 1950s and 60s, so I will now say write as if every word cost five dollars. And I actually, I had this idea that I should have a pile of money here, and then start like removing it or getting it when we do this exercise. But just imagine the pile of money. I'm going to read you a student's sentence, student paragraph, here we go. On a brisk fall morning in 1979, and incidentally this is a completely different lesson, but I can'...
t resist saying, brisk fall morning in 1979. 1979 means a completely different thing for me than it does for, what's your name again?
Eduardo. Eduardo, right. Then Eduardo, who was probably born in about 1979. So, were you born in 1979? Close, okay. Oh you weren't even born in 79, oh God. (laughter) Oh forget it, okay. Alright, so 1979 is not a very good way of establishing time. There are a few years that are kind of significant, you know, maybe November 1963, September 2001, but mostly dates don't tell it, so tell how old you are, okay. On a brisk fall morning in 1979, I struggled to catch up with my older sister as she dashed through the crosswalk to the bus stop before the Don't Walk box flashed red. My mustard colored Trapper Keeper folders slipped from my hands as I scurried behind her, left at the Spanish billboard for Alberto VO and straight through the parking lot of Furr's Supermarket. My new middle school was downtown, a 40 minute ride from our home in the Albuquerque South Valley. Only Miriam knew the way to the bus, having attended the new school for a year while her three siblings, including me, were still at a nearby elementary. I stood beside Miriam as she took a step forward to separate herself from me. The silver bus rattled and the doors cranked open. She stomped up the black rubber steps ahead of me and plopped down at the window seat near the back. She acted like she didn't know me so I sat up front near the driver. What's this paragraph about? What is this writer trying to convey? What's that, getting to school? More than that, there's a relationship going on between her and Miriam. What do we know about these two sisters? Miriam doesn't want this, our narrator, with her. Older sister trying to lose the younger sister. That's, and younger sister desperately trying to keep up, right. Do we need, if she had written what this story was about, I want to write about how my sister never wanted me in her life. I want to write about how I admired my sister so much and I was always trying to be with her, but she was always trying to lose me. If she had written that, then she could go back and say, does this Spanish billboard for Alberto VO and the parking lot of Furr's Supermarket, does that inform this journey at all? No it does not. Do we really need to know about the black rubber steps? Some of these incidentally are nice details, but in the service of what? That was 170 words. It was the first day of sixth grade, and I was going to be attending middle school with my older sister Miriam. Only Miriam knew the way to the bus. That is important. She can't lose Miriam. And you barely notice that before because it was buried in all that other stuff. As she dashed through the crosswalk, the Don't Walk box flashed red. With my Trapper Keeper, I couldn't lose that one because I remember Trapper Keepers. With my Trapper Keeper folder slipping from my hands, I struggled to catch up. As the doors of the bus opened, my sister stomped up the steps ahead of me and plopped down at the window seat near the back. She acted like she didn't know me, so I sat up front near the driver. We just went from 171 words to 99. Saved $355! (laughter) I made money this morning, wow. Doesn't it feel good? You know so many people when they're writing are always checking the word count because they want to make sure they have a whole lot of words. You know and there's this nano rhymo thing or something in November when you're supposed to write a certain number of words every day, and you're checking back, have I done it yet? Have I done it yet? Oh, I'll put in a whole lot of words now, and then I'll do it. You may put in a lot of words, but are they going to be good words? Are you going to be telling your story well? Economy, write fewer words. Here comes another one, oh, this is a long one. So I'm going to just sit down for this one. (laughter) But this is actually, this was a very good story, or it became one. I wasn't raped that afternoon. Suzanne had brought help. The first person to reach me was a boy in my class who had a black belt in karate. He drop kicked my attacker in the head. Then a swarm of other boys descended to chase him off. Someone gave me his t-shirt to put over my broken bikini top. I sat on the ground sobbing. My teeth chattered so hard I thought I might break my retainer. I love that detail. Someone said, 'you can stop crying, you're safe. He can't hurt you anymore.' A teacher arrived and took me to the public bathroom to clean up. There was a burn around my neck where my gold necklace had been. Also, a great detail. You can feel when something's good, can't you? Trust your gut. I wondered if my mom would be made at me. That's another good one. That I'd lost it. I couldn't wash off all the dirt tattooed into my knees and palms. I kept telling my teacher I didn't care. I just wanted to get back to my friends. At some point in the bathroom, I threw my bikini with its dark blood stains in the trash. After what seemed like hours, we made it back to the restaurant where my group was waiting. When I walked in, one hundred high schoolers stopped talking. No one would look at me but everyone was watching. I took the longest walk of my life across that terrace. My heartbeat banged in my ears with each step. I fought to keep my limbs moving forward. I felt like I was wading through chest high jello. I'm not a big fan of metaphor, unless it's really right. And I'm also wondering at a moment like this, if you're trying to replicate the mind of a 15 year old girl, is she coming up with the metaphor of the jello at that moment? I searched the crowd for my best friend Kevin and steered towards his table. I sat down quietly next to him, my arms tight against my sides, my hands under my legs on the wooden bench. Kevin turned to me and said gently, but matter of factly, 'Everyone wants to know if you are okay. Are you okay?' I shook my head yes. Kevin turned back to the group at the table and continued the story I had interrupted. The whole restaurant began talking again. I silently thanked him and kept my head down until it was time to board the buses again. 361 words. The first person to reach me was a boy in my class who had a black belt in karate. He drop kicked my attacker in the head. Someone gave me his t-shirt to put over my broken bikini top. My teeth chattered so hard I thought I might break my retainer. That's the great detail, so why give three others? There was a burn around my neck where my gold necklace had been. I wondered if my mom would be mad at me that I'd lost it. In the bathroom, I threw my bikini with its dark blood stains in the trash. Everything else after that pales by comparison to throwing out the bikini. When you have won your case, get out of the court room. We went from 361 words to 95, 266 words, savings $1,330, come one down. (laughter) Did anybody miss anything from the first one? I mean if you did, tell me. But, but often it's removing all the other stuff, removing all the clutter that allows us to feel the story. And incidentally the story began, I mentioned she's a good writer, she begins with, you know I've said a couple of times already, if we're going to have a loss, if we're going to have, you know, a trauma, a shock. Show us the world before the loss. The story begins with her buying the bikini. It's her first bikini ever, and she's really excited to be wearing this bikini. And a man rips the bikini off of her on a class field trip. So the throwing away the bikini is set up by the buying of the bikini.
<span style="background-color: transparent;color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">Joyce Maynard first came to national attention with the publication of her </span><span style="background-color: transparent;color: rgb(0, 0, 0);"><i>New York Times</i></span><span style="background-color: transparent;color: rgb(0, 0, 0);"> cover story, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life”, in 1972, when she was a freshman at Yale.</span>
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!
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.