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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 15 of 25

Be Lady Godiva

 

How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 15 of 25

Be Lady Godiva

 

Lesson Info

Be Lady Godiva

Be Lady Godiva. That's you, you're Lady Godiva. I so admire you. Thank you. Okay, Allison has been working on a book. What's the title of that book? Bearded Lady: A Memoir of Revelation. Bearded Lady A Memoir of Revelation. A Memoir of Revelation. You've got to learn, when your books come out, to say the title slowly and let it sink in. Bearded Lady: A Memoir of Revelation. What's the book about? The book is about having a syndrome called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, which in addition to other things creates excess facial hair. Excess facial hair. I do wanna say it's not a tragedy. Right. So when you said about tragedy, not a tragedy. But not a tragedy, thank you. And I never would think that you view it that way. And there are some other things that come along with that as well? Absolutely. Another part of that story is there are things that can be done about this, and you were diagnosed as a, first of all, you had symptoms as a child. Yes, 'am. You ...

had a lot of body hair, right? Um hmm, I did. What did your parents do about it? Nothing. Nothing. Right away we know, this is no longer a story about Congenital Hyperplasia. This is a family story, as so many of our stories are. It's about parents whose daughter was, can you imagine being a 12 year old girl who is growing hair on her face and a lot of parts of her body? You're a strong, powerful person who can now stand in front of this group, but at age 12 was that, no? Not at all. Not so good. No. Not so good at age 12. Which incidentally there are a lot of other 12 year old girls who have this. Absolutely. And they could really use the book that Allison is writing. And lucky for them, she's writing it, she's working hard, and she's a good writer. I'm gonna read you a page of this book. Don't expect to understand my family. You'd have better luck comprehending the history of the Middle East, or a Rubik's Cube. The answers there may not be formal or finite, but they at least exist. When it comes to my family, there are few answers. We live in north San Diego County. She's writing from the voice of the child incidentally here. A casually affluent, but very smart, very precocious child. Child with a very good vocabulary, which is okay. A casually affluent burn zone decorated by waves of red tile roofs. Here people think they can beat the inevitable by waving magic wands. Money, image, charm. Sometimes it works, sometimes they wind up with their homes reduced to ashes. My parents have charm. They use it as a strategy. A way to beat back the flames. A grin can flash into something darker, or remain in the sunshine, you never know. My mother is Joan, but I occasionally call her Nails. She has talons the shade of blood, and hair the color of rust. This is a brave woman. She is prone to crying fits and laughs at lengthy explanations. These ride on one premise, once she had dreams, then she had kids. Wow. She regrets moving here from the east coast. She claims my father forced her into it so he could pursue his perversions. "He wants to do threesomes," my mother says speaking in italics. "Wife swapping. I tell him he can play a nice game "of hide and go fuck yourself." (audience laughs) My father is Steve, but I often think of him as the Rooster. His comb-over flaps in the wind. In the outside world he is cordial and at home he can be every bit aggressive as a barnyard animal. His eyes are black as midnight. When he yells, they turn almost violet. Violet and violent. Somehow these two came together to form me and my brothers. I am 12. She's done the aerial view and she's narrowing down, narrowing down. I and my brothers. I am 12. Middle is 11. Jonathon a year old. He is the accident, or if you'd rather be more tactful, the surprise. When he pisses me off, I call him the birth control poster child. (audience laughs) It doesn't seem to phase him. Middle and I go to public school, but in this country's best district. In school the teacher asks, "What does your father do?" My classmates answer, doctor, plumber, pro-football player. Then it is my turn. He drinks beer, I say, and watches Hill Street Blues. Later my mother explains, "Your father is an engineer." When I ask what that means, she shrugs. It's not as if she doesn't know, it's more like she doesn't care. I imagine him at a desk doing something called paperwork, just as he does in his den for hours with the door shut. Locked. Engineers must take home a lot of work. It must be important. Just as our homework is important to us. I know why work is important. It makes you money. Money means a lot to Nails and Rooster. It's how we have our house, and our house is serious business. I'm not gonna read more but don't you want to read more? Actually I'll read the last paragraph at this beginning. I write in a journal. It's nothing more than a spiral notebook, a series of blank lined pages. I use a ball-point pen pressing so hard that the imprint of my words can be found on the paper that lies beneath. She does not say, I'm feeling so intense about this. But when a person is pressing so hard, we know why. She's explaining nothing, she's interpreting nothing. She is simply describing what's going on so well that we don't need explanations. Writing makes me feel safer than locking my door. It makes me feel more free than when Rooster is on a business trip. It makes me want to write more. I chronical the events of the day. The credit card bill that arrived, my parents fought, along with my goals. I want to meet Lucille Ball, be a cheerleader, have a boyfriend. That seems to be a theme today. (audience chuckles) I want to play first base on my softball team. I wanna go rollerskating on Saturday. Most of all, I want to be pretty. And that's the beginning of this book. Is there anybody in this room who wouldn't read the next page? In some ways, you could say well what do we have to talk about here Allison? 'Cause you're off to the races. You're doing a really great job. Actually, what I want to talk about is the great job you're doing. I want to show how good it is when somebody is doing the work. You do so many things well, but one of them is dialog. I wanted to look at this dialog. Do you wanna read this dialog, or shall I? I can read it. Oh why don't you read it? Okay, you might have to do it every day Nails says. No, no, no, no. Start from the beginning. It's three o'clock. It's three o'clock in the afternoon. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. WrestleMania is in Madison Square Garden. My mother opens a cabinet and retrieves a disposable razor. Honor your words with it. Retrieves a disposable razor. Okay twelve year old girl, mother goes, Take your time with this. You're gonna be reading this at events. I want you to own these words. Okay, continue. Then takes a can of shaving cream from the tub. I focus on the can's red and white stripes until they seem to pulse in waves. "You might have to do it every day," Nails says, "or every other day. "You'll figure it out. "It takes time, but you will." Is she going to shave my back, my legs, my arms? "We'll start with the face," she says. Pause. We'll start with the face. Okay. Of course, you can cover up everything else. It makes sense. "First I'll do it," she says. "Then you go on your own. "It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it." Then her mouth crumples. She sits on the toilet and lights a cigarette. It hangs from her crimson lips and smoke rises to frame her face. Eventually she puts it out in the cup. "Sometimes I just realize how much I hate your father," she says. I put my hand on her shoulder. Mom, I say, don't cry. She stands up, rips a piece of toilet paper from its roll and blows her nose. The sound is coarse, a call to action. "Okay," she says. She turns a mint-colored tap and water cascades into the sink. Steam rises and spreads. "Here," she says. She hands me a towel, it's warm and wet. I press it to my face. "Perfect," she says, "the water softens it." I think of Rock, Paper, Scissors. If the water can defeat the hair, what can the hair defeat? Nails pops the plastic cover from a disposable razor. She runs it under the steaming waterfall, then snaps off the tap. "All right," she says. She starts with my sideburns, they're bushy and generous. They run the length of my face from ears to jawbone. I've noticed them, but I always thought they were normal, like eyebrows or the hair that springs from my father's knuckles. I have hair there too. "It's okay," she says. "You're not an ape." Or a freak? "Where did you get that word?" You said it. At lunch. "No baby," she says, "You're not a freak." I watch in the mirror. I think about the men who get professional shaves in barber shops, the careful motions of the blade. My mother is similarly gentle. Her motions are usually sharp with purpose, but this is a special occasion. In a way, I feel lucky. I just wanted a moment of silence after that. That's just about a perfect scene. Thank you. There are so many interesting things that go on in this scene. One is, who is the strong person in this scene? It's Allison. She's comforting her mother, as her mother is shaving her sideburns, shaving her face. Do we need to be told anything about what kind of a person her mother is? Or how she feels? Any interpretive language necessary? She is a film-maker here. She has made a scene that requires no explanation. It may be that when this really happened, and I believe it totally, I believe this scene totally. Maybe your mother said some other things too, if so, you were smart enough to go the core. To rip away to the absolute essential because less is usually more in writing. If you were writing a screen-play, this is exactly what it would be. I want to know Allison... your parents are alive? Yes. I wanna read one more before we talk about that. I'm sorry. You wanna read this one too? Sure. Adam and I married a year ago. Let's catch everybody up to date. Who's Adam? Adam is my husband. His last name is Sandler, but is not The Adam Sandler. (audience laughs) Yes, I married Adam Sandler. He and I actually married ten years ago, but this was written a little while ago. I have never met Adam, but Adam didn't need you to be like all the other girls. No, never has. And tell us about Adam. Adam is a trip. Now that's the first time I'm not impressed with your language. I know, it's terrible language. How did you meet him? I met him at a temp job after I came back from living overseas, and I couldn't stand him. He was a little schmuck. He's a cute little schmuck, I've seen his picture. He's adorable, he looks like Jesus. I mean, he's adorable. He's probably watching right now. He's just an incredible, loyal, supportive person but he's also a very real person. Like he can be an asshole, and that's like-- He wasn't looking for the cheerleader girl. He was looking for a real person. Yeah, if Adam was here, what would Adam say what attracted him to you? That I'm crazy. Yeah. That's his first line is that I'm crazy. That I do crazy things, that I say crazy things, and that he loves it. And you are not. We had somebody earlier speaking about being a good girl. Actually many of us have had to be the good girl. That's been a bit of a theme. The good Southern girl, the good Japanese girl, the good New England girl, me. You learned pretty early you were not going to be the good girl. I'm the bad Jewish girl. Yeah. Yeah. (women chuckle) And how's it going for you? I think it's going great. Incidentally, eventually you did get yourself to a doctor. I did. And what happened? I got myself to a doctor. I got stabilized, I eventually lost a lot of weight, and I had a child. And you had a child. You were told one of the side-effects of this condition was infertility, right? Yes. And you have a son who is? I have a son, Boz is almost three years old. And that was completely unplanned, so it wasn't like we tried. I wanna say, it is not that I believe the most glorious ending for every story is that the woman meets the man and has a baby. It doesn't have to be that, that's your story. But in this case, I happen to love it! That you were recognized as beautiful. Yes. That's really what it's about, right? Absolutely. What is beauty? And I always want to go to the core of what is it about? It's not about the Superbowl. It's not about the Kentucky Derby. It's not about segregation or incarceration. These are all things that happen that are big, important subjects, but what is the story about for you? It is certainly about the concept of beauty, but what it's also about is when every single one of us walks into a room, what differentiates us and what makes us think we're freaks? Because every person I've even known, enough to know what goes on in their mind, thinks that they're a freak. And that's the biggest thing for me. Yeah. Yeah, for sure. That's huge. I think your book is gonna be so successful because everybody does feel that. Not just successful in the world of people who have Congenital Hyperplasia, but we all have something. I said it earlier today. Will the person who doesn't have some big thing that they're ashamed of, that they feel self-conscience about, please leave the room. And nobody left the room. You're busted here. Read this. This is the end of the draft of the book that you are currently working on, right? Yes. Adam and I married a year ago. Rooster showed up in a suit that looked decently pressed, and a tie that was pretty new. His nod to the occasion. He sipped his sangria and put on the charm, chatting about his Toyota Supra and frequent-flyer miles. At the end of the night, he stepped over to where we stood on the dance floor, grinned at Adam and told him, "Take a hike." Then the father of the bride danced with his daughter. It was the picture-perfect moment. Then the glass shattered. He stepped back and got that confidential look. "I'm pulling for you guys," he said, "But sometimes people change." "What?" Adam said, (audience chuckles) when I told him later, as we sat in our living room changing our social-networking statuses to Married and counting our loot. I have to just honor that. It is so real. (women laugh) It was for us. That's just him, I said. What do you want? "For him to not act like an asshole at our wedding." I opened the envelope marked Allison and Adam, From Dad (Allison's) and Father-in-Law (Adam's). It was written in my father's precise, lean-backward, all-caps handwriting. The dark black ink as formal and finite as anything I'll ever know. There was a card and inside a check made out to the both of us, in the amount of 18 hundred. A multiple of chai, the number 18, a message for luck. Look at this, I tell Adam. Look at this and ignore the rest. In my head, I hold a picture. A family, there's a mother and a father, siblings, friends, pets. A husband whose love buoys me when I cannot float on my own. For just this moment, look at this. Just for now look at this and ignore the rest. (audience applauses) I am so proud of you. I first worked with her about 12 years ago now. Yeah, it's before we got married definitely. You know one of the things that happened over the years? You got beautiful. Thank you. It really changed. Yeah, I really mean that. Thank you. That's what happened. And once we know a person, they do get beautiful. That's one of the things that will happen to you when you ironically, when you show your supposedly-ugliest sides. I believe that. I started to ask before, but then I wanted you to read that one more piece. Right. You have two living parents. I do. This is like some people's nightmare. How could she possibly publish a book? And it will be published, I have no doubt whatsoever. What's your answer about that? Well it's funny. My mother has read this, or she's read part of it. She called me up crying, and she said, "I'm extremely proud of you." But what was interesting was that she kinda wanted her tears to do something and I'm not sure what. I just said, Thank you. My father has not read it. He wants to read it and the rest of my family has protected me from having him read it. He would have a lot to say about it. What would be the worst thing that could happen? There is no worst thing. There is no worst thing. You already know who they are. I know who they are. Your childhood has happened. It's happened and they're not evil. They're just people. And I get that. Don't you all get that when you hear that? You know, once I had dreams, now I have children. Yeah, I mean they're funny. They're from the Bronx. My mother's a heavy smoker, my father's like this nebbish. These nice Jewish kids who got married and should have never done it. If they watch this right now, they'd be like, "Ah, Jesus. There she goes again." (audience laughs) I'm the tall tale teller. They would have their own way of expressing it. But this is my story. They can write their book. Hello, come on down Rooster and Nails. I'll work with you too. (audience laughs) Oh, my mother would love it. Are you kidding? And the thing is, you'd get a kick out of my mom. This could be big. Bring all the members of one whole family. I used to have a rule at my workshops that no two family members can both be in the workshop together. Sometimes a woman will say, "Oh I think my daughter and I would like to take the workshop together." But I'd say, No. Bad idea. 'Cause no matter how much you love your mom, you have some issues with your mom. No matter how much you love your daughter, you have some issues. Absolutely. But suddenly I thought, get them all in a room, all writing their memoirs. It'd be a riot. It'd be a funny scene. Allison, thank you. Thank you for sharing this and what a brave woman. Thank you. She's done it. What's your problem? Okay, go back to your seat. (audience applauses) I don't wanna put you in the hot seat Larry, but earlier in the day... (audience laughs) Earlier in the day, I asked you to talk about what you might want to write about other than your fascinating relatives who were all dead before you were born. Has anything been coming to mind for you over the course of this day? Yes, the prosecution has made me think about this. (audience roars) I have come up with my first memory. My very first memory. Yes, can you share it? Of my immigrant father introducing me to some of his immigrant buddies, but not as my name. This was not Larry, but this was my Kodesh he said. Which is the prayer-- Oh, I know. That is recited at the death of a Jewish person. That's how I was introduced. You were his kodesh. How old were you? Five. You remember that? Oh yeah, vividly. Does he need to tell us how he felt being introduced not by his name? I don't think so. You know, Larry's bio, I didn't read all of it. I read out loud the part about Siberia, Cuba and Alan and all of the travels of the grandparents. But he began by saying what it was that inspired him to come here and to wanna write. You wanna tell us what that was? For about 15 years I suffered with a migraine-assisted or associated vertigo. Which I'd go into orbit for maybe 60 hours at a time. I was visiting my grandson's home. What's his name? We always want-- My grandson Charlie. Charlie, that's right, I know that. I was in a hotel, he came to visit me. He hopped up on the bed and he said, "Grandpa do you have a headache?" I said, Yes I do Charlie. He said, "Would you like me to put my foot on your head "to make you feel better?" I said, That'd be great. He hopped up on the bed, he's five at this point. He took his little shoe off and his sock, that particular right foot has a freckle on it. I happen to know that. You already knew that? Oh yeah. He put his foot on my head and goes, "Now do you feel better?" I said, Yeah I do. Then he ran off, that was the end of it. I said, I need to memorize this, memorialize this in story. So I wrote him a bedtime story entitled, Dr. Charlie and His Magic Foot. I read it to him, he loved it. So I wrote maybe three or four more. I said, This is really cool. I think I'd like to learn how to do this. That's what brings me here to learn to write. I see two paths you can take. Neither one involves writing the memoir of your grandfather. One would be to write more Dr. Charlie stories for Charlie and possibly for other children. That would be great. But actually, I'd like, You told that story perfectly about the migraines and the foot and the shoe. You took your time, the sock, the freckle. The fact that you already knew that freckle. We did not need to know, I mean there are grandfathers who would not know anything about the freckle on their grandchild's foot, because they don't spend enough time with their grandchild to know that. So we already know that you're a very involved grandfather without you saying, I'm a very involved grandfather. All that is a perfect scene to support what? I think the story that I hope you write is a story about being a grandfather. But it's not this mushy, sentimental thing. Oh it's so great being a grandparent. You know, you get to do all the fun stuff and not be the blah, blah, blah, blah. All the things we know people say about being a grandparent. What is the particular reason why being a grandparent is important to you? Well the grandfather I started writing about was very close to me. I had a love affair with that man, not in the physical sense. Right. But a deep affection with that grandfather. And an equally deep affection with this grandson, who is on the autism spectrum. And there's a generation missing in that story. What about your parents? What about 'em? (audience laughs) Is this some big, horrible secret? Something tells me they're dead, so we can talk about this. Yeah we can talk about this. Okay. Was your dad the kind of father that you wanted to be? No. No, and how 'bout your mother? Was she the kind of mother that you wanted your children to have? No. No. This is a man who within one minute of sitting down next to him when he wouldn't talk, took the Fifth Amendment before. He very generously and openly and freely described a childhood of two parents who in very different ways failed him. Not terrible people, not evil people but parents who did too much or too little. That shaped his desire to be a different kind of parent, and ultimately to be the grandparent that you are now. The story of Charlie becomes something more when it is told in the context of a man who is remaking the family story. You are not going to introduce him as your kodesh. No. (laughs) He's Charlie, yeah. I hope you do both you know. One of the best reasons to write is because you really like to write. Nobody should do something that just feels horrible, unless maybe you'll feel good at the end. But you discovered something you love to do, you don't need to sell any floor covering anymore. You've sold enough of that. You're moving on, you're doing something new. Great, good for you! And you wanted to learn how to do it better, and you came to exactly the right place. You were really smart about that. Keep on writing the Dr. Charlie stories, but also write about Larry, who is actually Dr. Larry in a way to Charlie. Your being the grandfather that you got to have, who probably saved you in some way. No doubt.

Class Description

Bundle this class with How To Write a Personal Essay and save!

You don’t have to be a famous celebrity to have a story worth sharing. And you don’t need to have a long life full of significant events and intriguing encounters. To write a compelling memoir, you just need to highlight your most unique, interesting or transformative experiences—the moments in your life that really matter.

Master memoirist and bestselling author Joyce Maynard is the ideal person to show you how to take your life story and transform it into a fascinating book that gets published and finds an audience.

You’ll begin by identifying the major themes of your life and which one you want to explore. Then you’ll figure out who your characters are and their motivations, what the conflict of the story is, and how it will ultimately be resolved. Maynard will use both her own books and the work of students in the live audience to illustrate the writing process, giving you both the tools and the inspiration you need to translate your life into a fascinating memoir.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Figure out where and how to begin and not feel overwhelmed.
  • Identify the difference between “What happened?” and “What did it mean?”
  • Eliminate the parts of your story that don’t belong and focus on the big emotional moments that changed you.
  • Write about the small events that support the overarching story.
  • Maintain your point of view and not lose sight of your real story.
  • Stop worrying about hurting or alienating someone in your life or yourself.
  • End your memoir—when your own life isn’t over yet.

Reviews

Michelle Foulia
 

I've been working on my memoir for over a year and was close to the end of the first draft. This amazing class is filled with so much wisdom and excellent teaching. I have watched all the videos back to back, made plenty of notes and loved every moment. I am really grateful I bought this class before moving any further with my memoir as sadly I definitely need to start from scratch. As frustrating as that is, I am relieved it happened now and I can use all this knowledge in the rewrite. I also can't wait to read Joyce Maynard's books. Brilliant!

Doris Freeston
 

Excellent course! Joyce Maynard provides valuable insights and practical instruction in the art of memoir writing, while telling her own stories, with grace, humility and humour. Thank you, Joyce.

Chevaun Nel
 

Joyce is amazing, I got so much out of this class, thank you so much :)