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Writing Your Story

Lesson 26 of 26

What Happens When We Tell Our Truth?


Writing Your Story

Lesson 26 of 26

What Happens When We Tell Our Truth?


Lesson Info

What Happens When We Tell Our Truth?

So we started out this class talking about what happens when we keep a secret. And when we keep a secret, it doesn't feel very good, right? And maybe we shut down our feeling all together. Or maybe we have anger, or bitterness as I did about keeping the secret of my son Charlie's birth. Or we're just not living an authentic life. We're just not letting ourselves be known. We have our one life on this planet, and nobody knows who we really are. I have sat multiple times in this circle on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and a woman has said begun a sentence "I've never told anybody this in my life." And then she told about her illegal abortion in 1967, that her own husband doesn't know about. Child she gave up for adoption, many things. And maybe the fact that she's in Guatemala made it easier, but basically you're writing can be your Guatemala too. It's the place that you go to tell the truth that nobody's ever heard. We've covered a lot of ground here, about nuts and bolts, to...

ols of craft, but in the end, the hardest part of writing is not the craft. The hardest part is that leap of faith. Trusting yourself. Believing in yourself, your own value, and trusting in the compassion of a reader to understand and not hate you for it. And there are some people who hate me. (laughing) You can go on Amazon and read some pretty nasty reviews, particularly of "At Home in the World". But you know, you can't please all the people all the time. And I'd rather please some of the people a whole lot and some others not at all, that's good enough for me. I didn't do this overnight. I didn't, I didn't get born being a truth teller. Just the opposite, I grew up in an alcoholic family, and never mentioned the word drunk or drinking, couldn't ever say it. It was such a secret, it wasn't even my secret. It was my father's secret and I lived in terror of it being found out. And I thought as a result that I was the only person in my whole town, in my whole state, in the whole United States of America whose father got drunk. I didn't know it was happening up and down my road. And slowly as I began to tell the truth, a couple of things started happening. And the first was that I felt less shame, and I felt more freedom, and the second one was that I felt less alone, and the people who read what I wrote also felt less alone. And suddenly we were connected, and I was no longer this girl living in a house with a fence all around it. I was part of the human race, you know. Of other flawed people who also have sad stories and hard stories and struggles. And we could talk about it, instead of all going off to our dark little corner. But even as I gradually, and I have readers to thank, readers here, readers there, to thank, for slowly unpacking my secrets. I did write about my alcoholic family, I wrote about having struggled with eating disorders, I wrote about my difficult relationship with my sister, my divorce, the deaths of my parents, my complicated relationship with my mother, complicated relationship with my father. There was one story that I did not tell. And you know when you leave out one piece, none of the rest of it makes sense. And I continued to write and publish my work for 25 years I was in my forties, before I felt I could tell that story. Some of you know it, but for those of you who don't, when I was 18 years old, I published an article that changed my life, big picture of me on the cover of New York Times Magazine section, in my blue jeans, you know, looking like this, you know, hippy-ish college girl, 1972. Got thousands of letters, literally thousands of letters, and all the kinds of offers that my mother had dreamed of for me, you know, to come and meet with publishers and go on TV and be on the radio and fly out to Hollywood, and audition for The Exorcist. I all of those things happened. Model clothes and Mademoiselle Magazine. And in among those letters was one very different letter. It was a letter that said, "I bet you're sitting in your college dormitory right now, small town girl from New Hampshire, this is a big deal. Surrounded by bags of mail, yes. With invitations to meet with editors and publishers and go on TV and go to Hollywood" and even said "model clothes in Mademoiselle Magazine, and I'm writing you a letter to tell you, to urge you to be careful. You will be exploited." Ironic words. "I know a thing or two about the dangers of early publication and early success. I think you're a good writer and I urge you to be careful." And I wasn't even halfway down the page when I felt that the person who was writing this letter knew me better than anybody ever did. In fact, nobody knew me very well, because I was a secret keeper. And by the time I got to the bottom of that one page type written letter, that person whose name I didn't even know yet cause I hadn't gotten to the bottom of the page had become the most important person in my world. And when I saw the signature, it was that of J.D. Salinger who even in the spring of was already famously reclusive. But it wasn't the fact that I was getting this letter from J.D. Salinger that mattered. Truthfully a letter from John Lennon would've had more weight as a celebrity letter. It was that I felt this person knew and understood me. And that nobody else ever had. And very swiftly I abandoned every other part of my life. I barely paid any attention anymore to these offers to meet with publishers. I did in fact sign a publishing deal, but I didn't pursue all the stuff that I'd always thought was so important to me. I lived for the hour of the day when my letter came from Salinger. And when school got out that June, the first thing I did was to go and visit this man, this 53 year old man. I was an 18 year old virgin, very innocent girl. Anyways, who I regarded as my spiritual guide, my teacher, and my friend. That's really how I saw it. I wore a little a-line alphabet print dress, it was made from curtain fabric, with two little pockets, I think I weighed 90 pounds. Little Mary Jane shoes, my mother had sewed the dress for me. My mother was pretty impressed. There are some difficult stories that I have to tell. Doesn't mean I don't love my mother but my mother sewed that alphabet dress for me that day for my visit that day. And within a matter of weeks, the relationship was transformed into something very different from what I had imagined it to be. I had withdrawn from Yale University, given up my full scholarship, given up my job at the New York Times that had been offered to me, cut off my relationships with most of the people in my life. Pretty much my family and moved in with Jerry Salinger, believing that I would spend my life with him. And I spent that year writing the book that I was obligated to write, that was "Looking Back", that never mentioned who I was living with or what was really going on in my life. Because I was protecting him. And almost exactly a year from when he wrote me this beautiful letter, it was really truly like getting a letter from Holden Caulfield. Telling you, telling me I was the most perfect girl in the world. Just about exactly a year later, and three weeks before the publication of my book "Looking Back", I made no connection at the time with the timing here, but it was significant. It was just before the publication of that book that was gonna bring a lot of attention my way and his way. On a trip to Florida, with Jerry and his children, I'm sitting on the beach in Daytona, he put two 50 dollar bills in my hand, and told me to get out of his life. Go back to the house in New Hampshire where I had been living with him and where I believed that I would be forever. I never really did the math, 35 year difference. To go back to that house, clear my things out. And then he told me a lot of pretty harsh things about how he viewed me as a person and as a writer. And if any man today said to me the things that he said to me that day on the beach in Daytona I would think considerably less of the man. But you know an 18 year old girl thinks less of herself when the man that she reveres more than anything, tells her she's not worthy. So I left that day, I didn't go back to college. I stand before you a college dropout, one year of college. I did not go and live in New York and have my glittering career. I didn't go on my big book tour that was planned for me. I couldn't resist one thing Vogue Magazine wanted me to have my photograph taken by Richard Avedon, and I couldn't resist that one. So I went to New York about two weeks after Salinger has sent me away, and this was the picture that was taken of me. It's a picture of a heart broken girl, basically. I hated the picture at the time, cause it didn't make me look pretty. I thought I was gonna look pretty and I didn't so I never even collected on the print that I was supposed to get, my Avedon print. Anyway, I went and moved to a little farm in New Hampshire, bought with the proceeds of the sale of that first book and lived by myself for three years. Kept writing and never told that story. And I never stopped writing, I eventually married an age appropriate man, had three babies, had the divorce. My mother died, my father died, many things happened. Published novels, published books, published essays, talked about alcoholic family, talked about many things, and never told that story. Because I still subscribe to the belief that some people to this day subscribe to about me. That he was a great man, and it was my responsibility to keep silent about this man who wanted so much not to be spoken of. Not a week went by that I wasn't asked about him, because it was known that I had dropped out of Yale, it became a kind of public thing, to move in with Salinger. But I always said I do not speak of him. And then something happened, something changed. I used to, but now I. An event took place that changed me. My daughter, my oldest child, turned 18. And for the first time I looked at my experience at that age, not with an eye towards my responsibility to the great man, but to what the girl might've deserved. I couldn't see it for myself, I couldn't believe that I deserved something better. But when I thought about Audrey, hearing words like that, I didn't feel an impulse for revenge, because revenge never works as a writer. And everybody's got their story. I just felt I get to tell mine. And that's when I wrote "At Home in the World". Which some people call the book about Salinger. Its not the book about Salinger. It's actually the book about me. And Salinger chose to become a part of my life, and he actually changed my life in a pretty major way. To this day I can't go a day without somebody mentioning Salinger to me. It's an odd thing for all these years. And I was pretty naive, I believed that when I wrote this book, which covers a lot more than the time with Salinger but certainly I won't underestimate the importance of that story in this book, it brought me up to age 44 and to my journey as a person who was finally willing to speak up. The very thing I'm talking to you about. I actually believed that once people read this book everything would be fine, they'd, you know, get it. I didn't need them to, you know, ban "Catcher in the Rye", hate Salinger. I just knew I had my story to tell and I told it and I worked really hard to tell it really well. I used all those tools we've been talking about all day. But when this book was published, you could barely find a publication or a critic in the United States of America, who did not, not simply condemn the book, but condemn me very personally. The Washington Post called it the worst book ever published. Maureen Dowd wrote an editorial in the New York Times calling me a predator. I was called a big mouth, and an exploiter, and a kiss and tell artist. The critic for the Time Magazine said well the one good thing about Joyce Maynard's book "At Home in the World" is that now that she's told the only story of any value that she has to tell, we'll never have to hear from Joyce Maynard again. And I think I've published ten books since then. None of which have mentioned Salinger, because that's not the only story I have to tell. And it's one of the great things about telling the story that you're not telling. Unburdening yourself of your shameful secret. That once you have, you get to tell all the other stories. The dam opens, you're a free person. You can then look at all the rest of your life. I don't think about this story every day or even every week or even every month. It's up on the shelf now, you can read it. I don't have to revisit it. I did today, for you, but I can move on. And I have and I've told many other stories that actually mean a lot more to me now than that one that happened 45 years ago. So why do we write? Not to make a bunch of money, not to get famous, not to win awards, not to get on the bestseller list. Every now and then that happens and it's a kick if it does. The first part is we do it for ourselves. You know, people said on my most recent book tour, I just went all over the country, with "The Best of us", and wherever I went people would say it must be so therapeutic to have written that book. And of course it was, it felt really good. I told you I started to write that book the night that Jim died. It was the only thing I could do. But you shouldn't have to pay 20 bucks for my catharsis, so it was more than that too. I also knew wherever I went, that the stories that I told about my life were going to help other people. And that's the big news. You will help yourself, you will heal yourself, but you will in the process of doing that and sharing that and going out into the world naked as Lady Godiva, with shame gone. And stand and say here I am, make of this what you will. Somebody will be listening, somebody will be helped. So its time to tell your story. And that's about all I have to say. (laughter and applause from audience) But I'll answer questions, I'd love to answer questions. So go for it, what have we not covered today? I can't imagine, I didn't bake a pie, I didn't get around to that. Well first of all, just love from the book "At Home". Thank you for being willing to tell your story, and therefore helping so many of us. Let's see, we do have a little bit of time for questions. So we've got one, yep, Benny in the studio. Thank you. We haven't talked yet today, remind me your name? Natasha. Natasha, we did talk. Yes, yes, yes, hi. Hi, and thank you so much, it's been so wonderful to be here with you today. I wanted to talk about the last thing you talked about, which was like the purpose of your writing, so in "The Best of Us" there was a point where you said that you thought that the cancer had made you a better person and had make Jim a better person and that through this writing you wish that people could learn the lessons of cancer without having to get cancer. And then you just spoke of writing the other book for your daughter in a way. And for other people's daughters. And for other people's daughters as well. So I'm just curious when in the writing process that happens, like when does that purpose get established, is it the story that comes out first and then you happen to realize the purpose, or do you start with the purpose? Such a good question. I never set out to teach a lesson. I don't think that works very well. I'm not a believer, I mean if people want to write self help books that's great. But I don't try to suggest or prescribe what anybody should do with her life. I'm its a full time job taking care of my own. What my personal belief is, I'll tell my story and let the chips fall where they may. Make of it what you will, I won't tell you what I think you should learn from it. So I didn't sit down and say I'm gonna write a book about discovering what it is to be part of a couple as I'm losing my partner in the hope that people will treasure their own partner more, be more patient, feel more gratitude for what they have. I just decided to tell the story. So no, I don't set out with this big grand mission. I always begin with story, but I actually believe that every story well told does have meaning. We got some questions online. Okay, and then we'll come back to... Why don't you guys grab a mic over there. So this question had come in when we were talking about when you were talking about setting up your writing space, and so the question is from Imani, to write, to remember your story, do you every surround yourself with other photographs or letters from the time, or things like that that are prompts? Absolutely, and that's what I was talking about when I spoke of music and smells and food. When I was writing "At Home in the World", I played a lot of Glen Miller, that was the music that we listened to. I bought old VCR tapes of the Lawrence Welk Show because we used to watch that too and old Hitchcock movies because he screened them in his living room. And those were not essential elements of what the relationship was, they were triggers. But photographs for sure, music for sure, places, stretches of roads, just that. Thank you. Diane? Not a question, but I just feel like with everything that's happening in the world right now, I don't wanna get too political, with me too I feel like this is so important that you're talking about this and I'm really finding the word shameless I think that's a good thing, to be without shame, so I just want to say thank you. I think this is so important that we're talking about this now and who better to talk about it with, you know, with the experience that you've had. I have found the last year and a few months I count every day very challenging and I have asked myself where is my place in this? What can I do? And the only thing that I know is to continue to hold my ground for honest language honest storytelling, truth. That's, its eroded in so many ways. Now if each of us did that, if each of us held up our end, imagine. You had a question, remind me your name. My name is Victoria. Victoria Victoria Hi, when your story has to do with, let's say something like a whistle blower story, where you're actually in the story, you're experiencing it, and a lot of it is being a woman in this male dominated for example, I've had the, my issue is I might, its the industry that's gonna be, I'm like speaking about the industry, and speaking about institutions. I'm speaking about public figures. And it feels so explosive that I wrote it as fiction. Is that a cop out? Well, I recognize that the risks are real for you. And I, you know, I'm not dependent on a corporate job, I don't, as I said, it's the good and the bad news that I don't collect a pay check, I don't work for anybody, I can't get fired. Things can happen to me and they did after the publication of "At Home in the World". My career suffered extremely, in extreme ways. But I can't speak to what you might be facing. But I will say that there is a power to the truth. To telling, I think about a book like a civil action. You know, one of the most powerful sort of, you know, environmental crimes, you know, stories that was told as truth. It was a true story, it would not have had the same power as a novel. And that's, I'm sorry to say that, because I know that it would be a lot easier, probably, to tell your story as a work of fiction, but there's a power for us as readers to know that something really happened. Thank you so much. Thank you, there were similar questions to that online so thank you for that one. Another question that came in from, we talked to this, but I know its a big theme, so the question is how do you get over creative anxiety when it comes to writing? What are just some more, maybe it's our you know, final things that people can go out there and do? Well I always say this is a loaded question. What's the worst that can happen? I ask myself that regularly and ask yourself that. What's the worst that can happen? And some of the stuff is pretty bad. You could get fired, you know, there could be hit men going after you. I don't know who you work for. These are real possibilities in the lives of some people. People who, you know, who come from countries where they can be made political prisoners and you know, go under house arrest for telling their story. There are people on our planet for whom this is the case. Creative anxiety I guess I want to say that the stakes are are very high here. What's our life about anyway? Why are we on this planet? What are we here to do? Just have a comfortable time? I'm not a, I don't seek out pain and trouble, but pain and trouble will be there. They will be there if we do the hard things and I'd rather have an interesting life than an easy one. And that's good, because I haven't had an easy one. (laughing) So similar to your question about whether you're writing it as a memoir or fiction, a question had come in about writing as, using a pseudonym, and the question is from Lotus who says "I'm curious about honesty using a pseudonym. Is it truly honest and not owning up to the story if I go ahead and do that versus using my own name." I think that's great. I think that's fine. It wasn't an option for me with "At Home in the World". It was known, you know, what had happened, and I couldn't have, I'm going to write a novel about an 18 year old girl who gets involved with a famous reclusive writer of the 20th century who lives on the mountain in New Hampshire. It wouldn't have worked but absolutely. If that allows you to tell the story in the freest and best way, I don't have any issue with that, that's not being less honest. That's just being, you know, protecting yourself in a way that it doesn't take anything away from the reader's experience. Yeah. How do you find the end of your story? I always see the big picture and I have trouble knowing when to end, and maybe its the end of your story, or how do you know when you're done? Yes, well, you know, there's one story that I'm definitely, one life experience that I'm not gonna be able to document is my death, but I expect to tell many more stories over the course of my ongoing life, and I'm not going to wait for life to end or even necessarily for a particular issue to get resolved to write. I don't just write memoir incidentally, and I think its really important for me anyway, that I go back and forth between the two. I have to get some living in before it'll be time for another memoir I think. And in the meantime I'll be writing fiction, but there's the difference between the end of your life and the end of a particular arc, a particular journey that you've taken, a resolution of one thing. Pei Ru is very young and there are many experiences yet ahead in her life, but she actually has, I think, come to a place where you recognize this is your home, am I right? The United States of America is your home. You will go back to visit Taiwan, but you were sent away. That's not your home anymore, am I right? (murmuring) I'm sure it is, and I shouldn't. It's very presumptuous a thing to tell you, you know, what your life is, but however wrong I might have gotten it, you have a landing place for the story of you and your father. This story of you and your father. And there will be other chapters, and there will be a chapter when your father dies, and there will, there are chapters involving your mother and I don't know if you have siblings, and many more things are going to happen that you can't even imagine. I say this as somebody decades older than you. But that doesn't mean you have to wait for all those answers to be writing. Because some things you do know. Some things you do know now. I've got one question that is you've been interviewed a lot, is there any question that you prepare for that was never asked? Well first of all, I don't ever prepare for a question, I really don't. I'd rather than if I've prepared for a question I'm gonna give you a canned prepared answer, and I'd rather have a real dialogue with you. So, I guess ill just say I feel as if I have an ongoing conversation with readers that doesn't end, and I'm always looking for the next question, I love the next question. Yeah I'm always looking for the next question. Well I do have one more question for you, and that is from Nancy who say "When is your next workshop? This has been so inspiring, what I do want to know is how can everyone follow you, how can they stay in touch with you, how can they find out what you're doing? Oh, thank you Nancy. So I have a website called Joyce Maynard, and whenever I'm giving a workshop its posted on that website, and if you register your name you'll get notifications. Right now I have nothing scheduled because I'm hoping to get to work on a book and just do that for a while, but every winter on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala I teach 17 women and sometimes at my home in California I have workshops and I'll always announce them. So think you, yeah, I love to teach.

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.