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Writing Your Story

Lesson 18 of 26

Two Containers From Scratch


Writing Your Story

Lesson 18 of 26

Two Containers From Scratch


Lesson Info

Two Containers From Scratch

I want to begin by inviting one at a time, some friends, writers from the audience to come on up. I don't know your story yet, I just have the 500 words that you wrote to go on, but I wanna start out with you, Irene. Okay. So sit down, have a seat. And I'm not gonna put words in your mouth. Tell me what your big idea is, that you've been wanting to write about for years, I think, according to what you told me. Well I've actually written about the challenging mother that I had. The immigrant Greek mother and-- But you haven't written the way you're going to, forever on after now. Well no, I want to write deeper, more authentically. Okay, so the big idea for Irene is I had a difficult mother. Yes. How long did your mother live in your, how old were you when your mother died I should say? You know, she died in 1987. So more or less, how old were you? I don't even remember. You were in your fifties, probably. Yeah, something like that. So you had 50 years of you...

r mother. Yes. Can we write about 50 years of our mother? No, too much. That's childhood, adolescence, leaving home, or not leaving home. Becoming a mother ourselves and bringing our children back to our mother. Many many different segments of your life with your mother. Yes. It's too much. So we're looking for a container. Yes. So without thinking too hard, and Irene has had no preparation for this, what is the first picture that comes to mind for you, of you and your mother? Well it's a scene that's repeated over and over again in my mind of a beating in the Bronx and-- A beating in the Bronx. A beating in the street. And Irene said it's a scene that's repeated over and over in your, you mean because there were many beatings or there was one in particular? There was one in particular-- One in particular. And there were many. Okay, but which do we want to hear about? The ongoing phenomenon of beatings or one in particular? One. Okay then this is the one. So set up the story the scene for us. This is called the curtain goes up moment. What do we need to know before the beating? We won't be able to understand your life if we just started with her beating you. We're talking about a Greek immigrant mother, who at the age of 16 began to increase her vigilance and began to follow me around and stalk me. When you were 16? When I was 16. And I'm walking home from the library with my Puerto Rican boyfriend. And not Greek. And so I see in the background this form which is, my mother's coming at me just like a lion or an animal after her prey, that's me. And I just grabbed this poor guy's hand and ran. Let me, instead of describing, giving us the metaphor, just tell us what she looked like. Oh she-- Was she a big woman Oh no no no. Small woman? Petite, if she walked into this room you'd just adore her, she'd look like an innocent, sweet-- You're interpreting. This is what a pain in the neck I'll be. Right. Okay. (stuttering and crosstalk) So that I could pick her up and out of a line up, what would she have looked like? She'd had gray hair, her drooping eyes, kind of depressed looking. Bent over? Bent over, dra-- She wasn't that old. When you were 16, she was probably just in her 40s, right? Yeah, but she still looked older than her 40 years or whatever it was at that time. And I'm so sorry I'm not good with math. It's okay, this isn't a math class, so you're in luck. Yeah okay, so you're, and any time you have a character in your story, I want them to have a name. What's your Puerto Rican boyfriend's name? Alberto. Alberto, okay, and incidentally if you don't wanna give the real name, that's no problem whatsoever. Just give him some name. So you and Alberto are walking home, you knew your mother for 16 years already, so you knew that she wasn't gonna like this idea, right? No, that's correct. Okay, but you weren't expecting to see her that day? No, no, I thought I was outsmarting my mother but that wasn't the truth and so I grabbed his hand and I said, "Run, she's there. "My mother's following us, run!" And you ran? And we ran. Yes, and she caught you? This tiny little woman, kinda bent over, is able to outrun a 16 year old and her strong young-- Well at some point, he took off. Oh, so he was not true blue Alberto? No, no, and I waited at the door because I didn't have the key to the apartment. Oh my gosh, okay. So you knew that your mother was coming, there was no where to go. That's right. And what's going on with you, as you're standing at the door? Oh, I'm terrified, it's-- Terrified? Do we like terrified? No. No, okay. What does that look like? What are you thinking is gonna happen? Here it comes, here comes the beating. Okay, see and this might be a moment, somebody asked me about flashbacks. When you're telling a story, even if it's a contained story within a very limited period of time, one of the things that happens within your container is you remember other moments, so as you're standing at the door, anticipating your mother's return, you have a golden opportunity to flash back to what she's done in the past, okay. Yes, so I expect the worst. And what would be a beating that you would remember at that point? Well she's coming at me with her fists or her hands or pinching me, whatever, and-- Not whatever, whatever can't draw a picture of. Okay, yeah, and here comes-- Somebody said I'd be a great prosecuting attorney. (Irene cackles) Okay, so what would be one beating that you'd be remembering on that doorstep? Rather than an ongoing phenomenon. Her screaming in Greek Oh screaming in Greek Yeah. And we might want to hear, even though we don't know Greek, we want to hear what she would say. What would she have said? (shouting foreign language) Okay, we'll have (repeating foreign language) there and it doesn't matter that-- I will kill you! I will kill you. Do you perk up when you hear that as opposed to screaming at me? Now we've got asis gatoto, I will kill you. (laughing) I know, my Greek is a little rusty. You did it great! Okay, so then she does appear. Was this a walk-up apartment? No, no, I'm at the stoop waiting for her-- You're at the stoop, okay. And I see somebody I recognize from the side, a counselor from the community center and this is the first time there is a witness to a beating. Most of the time they were private, in the tenement. Okay. And this was the angel that-- So the beating was gonna, you knew that she wouldn't even wait until you got in the apartment. Nope, no. Okay and the counselor, did you have a, what was your history with this person? Oh, I'd see her at the community center and I liked her. You know, and it was always-- We need a name for her. Doesn't have to be her real name. It was Gabriella. Gabriella, okay, you said Gabriella. Was the community center a place where you hung out? Oh, this is where I met all the Puerto Rican boyfriends. (audience laughing) Okay, perfect, because I wanna say, when you have a character in your story who's going to play a significant role, and perhaps Gabriella will, she's the first time that there's ever been a witness. Ideally, we have met this character before. We don't just suddenly mention that there's a gun on the table when I need to fire a gun. You have already heard the gun exists. Likewise with Gabriella, we should at least have heard about the community center. You met Alberto at the community center. It was the place you went to hang out where all the cool Puerto Rican boys were. Yes. Okay, so now Gabriella is connected to something that's rooted in your story, as opposed to this deus ex machina that comes down out of the sky, you know, just when you need her. Okay, so you're waiting on the stoop, Gabriella comes by, what do you do next? She says what's going on, or something and I'm, cause I'm crying, I'm anticipating the beating and my mother shows up there and she starts immediately, ignoring the counselor, and start whacking me and screaming at me in Greek. Starts whacking me, can we see starts whacking me? I want to see the first punch. What, does she set down her pocketbook? I want you to really, I mentioned earlier that sometimes I act out a scene and especially if it's something from a long time ago. I'm thinking about, okay, what did my mother do? And I become her, she sets down her pocketbook, she unbuttons her coat, or she does this, or whatever and I go through a little bit of it. She raises her arm and she says "That's not a copper" and then she, where did she punch you? Well, I think I got it first in the face. And where's Gabriella? Gabriella is, she's looking shocked at this whole thing. I think she was afraid too at this moment. Like what the hell is going on? So you, do you see Gabriella? Are you aware of Gabriella at that moment? Actually not. No, probably not. I'm at this moment, I am defending myself. Yeah, yeah, and I think that this is like you know, that character in your story we were talking about earlier who probably at the moment that she had just been almost raped, she's probably not thinking about, it feels like I'm walking through Jello. So likewise, you're not thinking about Gabriella, okay. So you were covering your face Right, right. And in fact I think I fall to the floor, to the ground, and she's kicking me. She ignores the counselor, nobody exists at this moment. She's just saying (speaking foreign language) No more boys, no boys. No more boys, okay. And I'm just trying to fend her off. It's, she's got a coat on so that I'm not, I'm just seeing the black coat and her arm. Black coat and her arm. That's, and I like that because that feels, that's not interpretive. That's not I was terrified, it was horrible. It is, you are letting me be you and see what it's like through your eyes. Okay and then eventually she just finished up and? She just grabs me up by the arm and we go into the house and that was kind of a relief that that was over so to speak. So I run to the room but it's significant that two weeks later when I go to the community center, Gabriella calls me over and say we want to help you with this problem with your mother. And here is a name of a social worker in Manhattan. Go see her. And did you do that? I didn't realize I was drowning and that was my lifesaver at that-- That was the beginning. It was actually the life boat, the paper. She was the lifesaver. So we need to have seen Gabriella seeing this. Now I want to ask you, I mentioned earlier that I think it's important to locate compassion for every character. We don't accept or condone your mother's behavior. But everybody's got a story and in the unlikely event that your mother ever showed up for a memoir workshop of mine, I'd find hers. What's one of the things we notice about this mother? She's afraid of what boys can do to a girl. Was she ever a 16 year old girl? Yes, she was. Hard to believe, Irene, but she was. What happened to her when she was 16? Well she came from an island in Greece, called Mytilini and she had to raise her siblings because she was the eldest, while her parents went out to the olive groves to pick the olives to go to market. And so far that's not her and boys. What would her, what do you think made her, and I'm not, I don't mean to cut you off. Only because we have limited time, but I wanna, I mean it's a great story, but what would make her so fearful about a boy in your life? Did anything happen in her life that would make her feel that way? What was her relationship with your father, where was your father? Oh my God, that was a matched, an arranged marriage. They never met until they went to New York and that was. So did things work out so well for her with a boy? No, no, no. And what were her hopes for you? Well of course that I would meet a nice Greek man that I would marry. And that I was going out with these Puerto Rican boys, the worst fear is that I would get pregnant and scandalize the name. Her name, our whole family name. Okay and you're saying that the reason she didn't want you to get pregnant was just that you'd scandalize the family. Was there also fear for you? Love, concern, protection, in her misguided way? I would like to think so, Joyce. Yeah and I don't wanna, maybe she just didn't have any single good thing going on. What I'm trying to locate in Irene's story and obviously we're not going to finish it today, is not simply the report on what happened, but the context of it. And probably to understand it, and it's a long story. But the beginning is to tell one story and the story of this beating. And it's significant because that was the beginning of the end for you. You got help. You didn't know there was help. You got help. And did you then get out, did you move out? What did you, what changed? Oh, I used to see the woman, the social worker after school, for two years. And she never told me what to do but with her help somehow, I did manage to leave when I was 18. But it was a long, long, painful journey to get there. And a long painful journey does not work in a container, so probably not the landing place for your life, but the landing place for this story is simply that you got an appointment. You went into Manhattan and somebody said, I wanna help you, this is not okay. That's right. And if our landing place is, there is help, then where should our point of entry be? There is no help, there is nothing I can possibly do and the landing place is a little glimmer of help of across the water, in Manhattan, the office. And I want to see you walk into that office. We don't, and do we need to hear all the things the counselor says? You know, abuse is not all right, you're a valuable person, no. Just Irene walking in the door. That's a container, that's a container. Tell that story and then when you're done with that one, you tell another one. Thank you. Thank you. (audience clapping) Say it one more time. (speaking foreign language) I will kill you. All right. If some Greek mother tries messing with me, I'm gonna say that, okay. Pei Rue, will you come up here? Yeah. Great. You say your name because I wanna make sure I say it right. That's right. It is Pei Rue, okay, Pei Rue, tell us your big story. The big, overarching, big idea that you want to explore in your writing. Sitting in my room in Taiwan-- Well you're going, you're too good. You're too good, you're already going to the container. I wanna first, just the big idea. Before today, before you knew about containers. How my father asked, well how my father sharing that he needed my mom more than I needed her made me leave the country. Oh okay, tell us more, I don't, I need to understand that better. Who was your father, who was your mother? Why did he need her more than you needed her? Usually children get the first place in line. What was going on? So after college-- Where do you come from, first of all? Taiwan. Taiwan, okay. I moved from the east coast back to Taiwan. And because my father-- So wait a minute, you grew up in Taiwan, but then you came to the east coast to college, okay. For schooling, from 13 on, but after college I moved back to Taiwan because my father has been in a, about six year trial with the government by then. Six year trial, what's he on trial for? They said it was insider trading, but it was really political and he was innocent. So I went home-- What were the stakes for him? What was going to happen if he was found guilty? Incarceration. For a long time? A long time. A long time, so six years your family lived, is that why you came to this country originally, because your father was-- No. No, but- But that's why I went back. Okay, you went back, so the moment that the curtain goes up, you were a girl who has grown up in Taiwan but left, came to the glittering US of A, for college. Did you intend to go back when you came? No, well, not when I was 13. But when I was in college I didn't intend to go back. You did not intend. But so you basically went back for one reason. Your father was in trouble, right? Yeah. Okay, so Pei Rue has made a life in the United States. She's learned english, she's made friends, she's a young woman living in, Boston, I think? Western Mass. Western Mass. Okay, and then you, and then word comes, that your father, somebody who's accused of insider trading, was somebody who was doing very well initially, right? He was a successful financial guy. Suddenly has been arrested and is on trial, and could be sent to prison for the rest of his life, perhaps? We don't know. Don't know. So you go back to Taiwan, there's the curtain going up. How old were you at this point? I was probably 23. 23 and usually a 23 year old wants to have her life, but now you're stopping your life to deal with your parents, right? Am I getting it pretty, okay. Yes. So you go back, and what happens? I got ill, I developed an autoimmune condition while I was out there. Sounds like something that stress could bring on perhaps? Perhaps. Yes, so you were very ill, And I-- What were some of your symptoms? I had blood clots. Blood clots? So that's scary, you could die? Sure. You could've died. okay, so her father is in danger, she goes back to her homeland and now she's in danger too. And I was in my room and my father came in and I remember-- You're very sick at this point? Yeah, I don't remember much of an exchange, except him saying to me "I really need your mom." I really need your mom. And why did he feel the need to tell you this? Were you suggesting that he didn't need your mom? I think he was overwhelmed, 'cause she was now splitting her time taking care of him and his case and my illness. Okay, so there's a beat missing in this story. Does anybody recognize what it is? Mom, and we need to see mom, Pei Rue comes to help and then Pei Rue becomes another problem. So now first, your mom is, you see your mom in trouble with your father, right? And you've come to help your mother, and now you're sick too. We need to see Pei Rue's mother going to the hospital with you, sitting by your bedside. What did she do? Yeah, she went with me to all my appointments. She had an excel sheet of all my blood tests. Excel sheet, there's a picture. Excel sheet of all Pei Rue's blood tests. And Pei Rue is a 23 year old woman, you don't wanna be having life, you don't expect to be having life threatening medical problems at age 23. And your father comes into the room and basically says, did he want you to leave, what did he want? He didn't, I don't remember much more than him saying I need your mom. I need your mom, so the implications were-- To me was, you should find other ways or place to go. So you went to help and instead, and you're worried about your father. That's why you went in the first place. And now your father is basically saying go away. What did you do? I moved back to the States. You moved back to the States. So there's a lot of, there's Taiwan to the States. And that was an easy, joyful trip, right? You want a good education, you were expanding your world. There's becoming, I don't know if you became an American citizen, but you became American in many ways. You benefited from all the things of that education. Then being brought back to this world. Your parents had never come to the States? You came on your own? They came to visit. Came to visit. But they were still living in Taiwan. You go back and when you go back, it's not easy to go back, right? No, so she made a big sacrifice to go back. She gave up a world that she had built. But that wouldn't be the word we'd use, sacrifice. It wouldn't, okay. No, I'm just wondering. Well no, I'm still summarizing it here. No, no, no, good for you, good student. Yes, yes, yes, no sacrifice. I'm just curious. You gave up, yeah, yeah, okay. So you have now gone back. Does this story begin with Pei Rue moving to the States at the age of 13? No. Does it begin with being at college in Western Massachusetts? No. It probably begins with, this is me, telling you about your life, which is pretty presumptuous since I just met you this morning. I think it begins with coming back to Taiwan. With all the history that you had, Taiwan having been your home, you having left Taiwan, made a new home. That wasn't easy. Learned a new language, made friends, made a world. And now you have returned and you're in Taiwan at a completely different stage of life than when you last lived there. And you're back in your parent's home, in your old bedroom? Yes. Had it changed? No. No. Same bedroom. Her 13 year old bedroom. By this point, she's gone to college. What did you major in in college? Art for social change. Art for social change. So she's had this big life and now she's back in her childhood bedroom with, I don't know, Hello Kitty on the walls? But your childhood bedroom. Sure. Yes. And you're sick. And your mother, and suddenly you're mother's taking care of you again. You took care of yourself pretty well in Western Massachusetts. Suddenly now, you're the little girl again. And then your father comes into the room and says, I need your mother now. Basically, this is not your home anymore, right? That was certainly my interpretation. Yeah, and you, how soon after that did you go back? Not long. Maybe two months. Yeah. Now I want to know what happened to your father. Did he go to jail? Mhmm. He did. He's in jail right now. He's in jail right now. And do you get to see him? I can visit him when I'm back in Taiwan. Yeah, yeah. How often do you go back to Taiwan? Three times a year. Three times a year. This is a really complex story. Doesn't mean you can't do it. I mean, you could do it in a book and you could do it in a container. But if you were beginning in the container, if we were ultimately going to see Pei Rue's father in prison and Pei Rue, a girl who suffered the pain of her family enough to leave her world at age 23 to go back and help. Your father basically sentenced to prison for a long time and probably prison in Taiwan is not the most comfortable place to be? No. No. What was your life before? Did you live a privileged life in Taiwan? I'd say so. Yeah. You owned a big apartment, a house. Yeah, grew up in a house, which is rare in Taiwan. And when you go back now, you are going to see this father who basically sent you away. What would be an image of a scene of you visiting your father? I would be at the prison. Yes? What does that look like? Talking on the phone through the cracked and dirty glass. Yes. You can't hug him, touch him. No and the little red dot on the phone lights up and you know you can talk. Yes, yeah. And you probably have some, it's easy to be angry at a person who's, just getting to carry on with their life. But you now are angry at a person who's also had a great tragedy, so you have both feelings, right? Yeah and I have very mixed feeling of living in the States. Aha. Because your, because you feel you should be close to your father or help you mother? Because I feel like I should be helpful, but I also feel like I'm back here, but I didn't, I was kicked out of Taiwan. Whoa. So the feeling of being an immigrant and the identity of that. And I have a home to go back to, but doesn't also feel like it. And do you have a right to have your own life. You actually went back to help them, but they basically said, we don't want you. So now you get to have your life here, but it's a very difficult thing to do. I have to tell you, I'm gonna be very honest here. This is a tough one for me to do in 10 minutes. And it's still happening, which is my question. Still happening is okay. You don't have to wait until you're to write your story. There are some things that have closed out. My impulse is, because I always go to scene and picture that I want to see you visiting your father in prison at the end. And I want to see you in the beginning having the life before. And in the middle I want to see your father sending you away. I want three images of you and your father. And then I want to see you returning, as you do now, to the United States. To your life, but having a hard time. You don't have to resolve your guilt. You don't have to say, and now I've figured it out. I get to live my life. I'm sure you haven't, you're young. And some people haven't even resolved it when they're older, but I see you coming back to this country in a very different way from how you came back the first time. Came and then came back and then came the third time. And the container basically is, maybe the container is the trip to America and there are three trips to America. The first trip to America, age 13. You'd never been here. The trip back, the trips actually. The trip back to Taiwan to help. The trip back to America when you were told no. And the trip back to visit your father. And then you get on the plane and we don't even need to see you. And I think that's a container. Thank you. Give it a try. I'd like to read that one. Wouldn't you? Yes, yes. It's a terrible thing to say of a person who's lived through something so painful, like oh, great story. But I will say, oh great story. Yeah, great many stories. Thank you. 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.