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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 16 of 25

How I Wrote My Memoir


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 16 of 25

How I Wrote My Memoir


Lesson Info

How I Wrote My Memoir

We've been talking about how all of you can shape and structure and then once you have shaped and structured, write better your stories and I'm now going to talk you through the process that I went through of writing mine. My most recent one, I talked a little bit about At Home in the World earlier but I'm going to turn my focus now to the Best of Us and I'll give you a little backstory, background of this story. I met my husband, Jim, seven, not quite seven years ago. I was 57, he was 59. We had both been on our own, knocking around the world as divorced people, single parents for a lot of years and long enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We were married about a year and a half after that and a year after that Jim was diagnosed with one of the worst forms of cancer you can get, pancreatic cancer. We didn't take it as a death sentence. We fought very hard but 19 months later in our home, in our bed, Jim died and I wrote a book about that story. It is not the story of the ...

cancer. It's not a cancer memoir and you know, I've been asking everybody else to say what is this, what is your story about because I think it is so important to be able to articulate, eventually to the world, but first to yourself what am I writing about and to keep yourself on track. Make sure that you stay with that theme and really what I was writing about was my discovery of how to love really well. How to be a partner. How to be a part of a couple. I certainly knew how to love my children. I had, I didn't have to struggle to figure that one out but I don't think I ever understood what marriage meant until, not just until Jim and I got together, really sadly until I was threatened with the loss of him. So when we talk about a conflict and a problem, what I wanted always, during all those years, was a partner, a relationship but my conflict, after I found my really good partner, was that I didn't know how to, how to be part of a team. I had, by necessity, trained myself to be fiercely independent and my vision of who I was, even after Jim and I married, was that I would carry on with my life as before with the notable exception of the fact that now there was this really smart, really funny, really handsome man who would pick me up in his Porsche Boxster at the airport from whatever trip I just most recently taken and I'd have a wonderful time with him until he drove me off to the airport for my next big adventure. I would carry on life as usual. I made a little space for him in the closet, a very small space. First, he actually just got a box and eventually I gave him part, but by no means, have of the closet. When we got that diagnosis is when I named, you know we've been sort of identifying the big turning points in our lives and that diagnosis was the moment that I began to realize what it meant to care, not only as much but even more for what would happen to my partner as myself. That was a new experience for me. I could not even say the word wife or husband easily. It was, they did not trip off my tongue. You know I'm a person who thinks about language. The word, there's one whole essay that I wrote about the moment that I was first able to say I'm his wife. It's an essay that I actually talked about in one of my other creative live classes and I'll probably link to that one on the page for this one as well. And that essay seems to be about the day that Jim got the surgery we hoped would eradicate the tumor from his body and our lives forever but really that is an essay about the moment I acknowledged that I was married and what that meant to me. Okay. So where do you begin and I'll first just describe to you where I was in the telling of this story. For the 19 months that separated the day of Jim's diagnosis, November of 2014, from the night of his death, I did not write. If there are some of you out there who are my Facebook friends, you know that I would go on Facebook and that really was my contact with the world besides the world of doctors and the medical community. I would write posts that were in effect my little essays but I published, I think, one piece in all those months. I was really not going to my desk. I went one time and I saw there was mold on my coffee cup. The world had stopped the day we got the diagnosis and I didn't even go back to my office where I wrote for many months after that. And maybe it'll shock some of you when I tell you when I did, the circumstances in which I did begin to write. The night that Jim died and I knew, I had known for days that he was very close to death. I was in the bed beside him, not fully sleeping ever but sort of getting up every couple of hours and putting my ear to his chest and it was about one in the morning and I woke from my half sleep, put my ear to his chest. Sometimes I had to listen very hard to know whether his heart was beating but this time I knew his heart had stopped and he had died. And the first thing I did was just lie there and be there and take this in. I knew I would never been in that place with the man I loved again so and I encourage all of you to, whatever form it takes, fully take in the experience. It's why I made Allison just stop over the word reach for the razor. Let's just fully take in what that looks like. 12 year old girl, mother, bathtub. The mother is reaching for the razor to shave her daughter's face. Honor that moment, don't rush through it. So I honor that moment for myself. I wasn't thinking about writing, I was just thinking about living and then I went downstairs. It was the middle of the night. There was no point in calling his children or my children or our friends or anybody. I really wanted to just be alone in that house for a few hours. I made a pot of coffee and then I did the thing that I have been doing longer than I have been doing just about anything else in my life, I opened my laptop and I began to write and what I wrote that night was a couple of pages, did become the first pages of the Best of Us. But it was preceded, I did not start, that book did not begin that night. That book began months before when I, when we were still living through the experience. There was no time to write about it because it hadn't landed yet. I certainly hoped, for most of those months, that the story would have a different ending. I knew the beginning of the story. I desperately wanted it to have a different ending and I really could not write until I knew. It was not simply whether he lived or died, until I had worked through, not simply what was happening, I could record what was happening but what it meant. And some of what it meant, I recognized pretty quickly and some took me a long time to get to but by that night, I was pretty clear on what the story was. It was a love story about my discovery of what it meant to be part of a couple.

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 :)