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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 2 of 25

But….My Life Isn’t That Exciting


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 2 of 25

But….My Life Isn’t That Exciting


Lesson Info

But….My Life Isn’t That Exciting

But, my life isn't that exciting. But, you should hear about my grandparents. (audience laughs) You know, I have taught probably, I bet I've taught a thousand people, I've worked with a thousand people on their memoirs. I have never yet had somebody walk into my living room, I teach in my home often, and not been able to find the story. And actually, that's a lot of what we're going to be doing today, is finding your story and talking about where your story is. And I want at the point to read you the bio I asked, as some of you in the audience know I asked you, to submit. Just a little bit, so I could get to know you. And here's something that Larry wrote. Where are you Larry? Oh, there you are. Right in the front. Okay. "My parents circumnavigated the world in opposite directions and landed 30 miles apart in Western Washington. My mom was born in Siberia. In 1913 her father, my grandfather, escaped from the Imperial Army of Czar Nicolas II." Yikes! "And made his way across Europe to t...

he Atlantic coast, caught a ship to New York, got a job, saved enough to send for his wife and two children to come and join him in America. My father was born in the Ukraine at the Russian Revolution of 1918." This is like Forest Gump. They were everywhere where the action was happening. "He and his family took the Trans-Siberian Railway to the end of the line in Manchuria, made their way to Shanghai, then across to Yokohama, Japan where they boarded a ship to Seattle. My mother's family moved in 1929," that was a big year, "from the east coast of the United States out to Tacoma, Washington. Within two years a cupid named Al introduced them." Where was Larry when they were riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad? He wasn't born. Or Czar Nicholas, or going to Tacoma, or even the cupid named Al. The cupid named Al, we were getting close to you. I suspect that very soon after you came along. And even our birth we can't write about as a personal witness, because with rare exceptions, there are a few people who claim to remember their birth, we weren't there to talk about it. So, as exciting as this story is, Larry, and I know you're a good sport, because you're willing to let me talk about this, you can't write this memoir. Or at least, you can't write this as a memoir. You could conceivably write this as a novel. I, myself, I don't tackle worlds, countries, cultures, historical periods that I didn't personally inhabit, and obviously, that's a failing of mine, or at least a lack of experience on my part, because there are wonderful writers of historical fiction who do it really well. I don't believe that I could make characters talk the way characters talked in an era that I wasn't. I care a lot about voice, a lot about dialogue. I don't know how people talked when they were riding on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. And there's nothing that I like less than somebody making unbelievable dialogue, or describing rooms that don't feel like they've ever been in them. I have been living in California for the last 21 years, and it was only after being in California about 12 years that I felt I could even set a novel in California. I didn't know California well enough. I'm sadly gonna say that this, I don't think this is where your memoir lies, but I think you need to come up here and find out where it might be. Are you willing to do that? I would pass. You're gonna pass! Oh, okay, all right. Now you've really got me curious. (audience laughs) You know, and that's okay, I don't want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. And maybe one of the things to say about writing memoirs, it's not for everybody. You don't have to do it. It's not a requirement of life that we write about our life. And there are some people who would rather have five root canals in successive days, or give birth to quintuplets than write a memoir. I happen to love it. I happen to love diving in. I guess what prompted me to want to find it is that in your bio you talked about the discovery with your grandson of how much you really wanted to tell stories. Silence. So, maybe what you wanna be is a fiction writer. Is that perhaps the truth? Possibly. Possible. You like to write. I'm not gonna make you say why you don't want to write memoir, but do you feel an impulse to tell your parents' story because it's more interesting than yours? True. True. True. Well, to me, there's nothing more fascinating than the story well-told of so-called normal life. I actually don't think there is such a thing as normal life. I think we only think somebody's life is normal if we don't know it very well. Can I just ask you, I'm not going to bring you up. Can I ask you what you do for work, or what you have done for work? Sales. Sales, and what did you sale? Floor covering. Floor covering, okay. How many years married? Fifty-eight. Fifty-eight. (audience gasps) I could say I need to go no further because I am fascinated in how anybody manages to make a lasting pick. I won't assume that everything's great. In fact, I will assume that you, in 58 years, you've had some struggles. Some. Some. You've had a very stable life. Floor covering, what is more solid than the ground under our feet? (audience laughs) Is there a thing that you, what would you consider the biggest challenge that you've faced in your life? You can always take the fifth, if I ask you anything that you don't like. I take the fifth. Okay, all right. Actually, I won't pursue this further, but I'll say, and I do absolutely believe that there's no, Larry has no obligation whatsoever to write about his life. There was a man who had never intended to be a writer, and he worked in the financial world, married, daughter, problems, but like everybody's problems, you know, teenage daughter. One day he got a call. His daughter had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. And, of course, his life was never the same. The first time Larry showed up at a memoir class of mine it was not long after that event. There was only one thing he could do, which was to tell the story. And that could fall into the category of catharsis writing, feeling writing, but he really wanted to tell, and his earlier writing was like that, but he wanted to share the story in a way that other people might be assisted by. And we had several people yesterday who came up and talked about very painful, you know, potentially embarrassing subjects. It takes an awful lot to embarrass me. (laughs) I could have a giant hole in the back of my dress probably and I would just say, oh, I guess I have a hole in the back of my dress, and have somebody bring me a towel. I don't know. (audience laughs) I happen to be of the frame of mind that the best thing to do if there's a difficult subject in your life that makes you uncomfortable, is to look at it really hard until it's a little less uncomfortable. And we'll be looking at some of those stories today, but I am not gonna ask you to be one. You can just sit and listen and quietly consider whether you might want to. Because I know you want to write. You made that very plain. Your grandson put his foot on your head. And maybe, you know, memoir takes many forms. I mean nobody should write something that they just don't want to write. None of us is in school anymore. We don't have to deliver a paper Tuesday afternoon. If you love your grandson, and I am sure you do, and you hang out with your grandson, one kind of a memoir would be a memoir of being a grandfather. It's still gotta be a story. It's still gotta have an arc. It's still got to have a theme. It can't be just lots of cute things. What's your grandson's name? Charlie. Charlie! That's the name of my son. Happens to be one of my favorite names. Travels with Charlie has already been taken as a title. (audience laughs) But you could explore your relationship with your grandson, but ultimately what I am going to want is, what I learned. And that's what separates the arc from the string of beads. That you land in a place that's different from where you were at the beginning. Which is true of a trip, true of a journey.

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.


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 :)