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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 19 of 25

Point of Entry : Aerial View


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 19 of 25

Point of Entry : Aerial View


Lesson Info

Point of Entry : Aerial View

Point of entry, where to begin? Now, I mentioned when I read earlier, when I talked earlier about the point of entry for At Home in the World, that I wanted you to know the stakes, so you'd keep reading. So I began with my big aerial view, and I did a similar thing in The Best of Us. I sort of have two points of entry. And the first, first is a big overview. I didn't feel any need, in this book, to leave you in suspense about whether my husband lived or died. You know going into it. It's not a book about "is he going to make it?". So the book, and these were the words that I wrote that first night, middle of the night, "On the 4th of July weekend, three years ago, "at the age of 59, I married the first true partner "I had ever known. "We spoke our vows on a New Hampshire hillside "with friends and children gathered, "as fireworks exploded over us "and a band backed us up for a duet "on a John Prine song." Scenes, stories, sounds, music, characters. But I'm going very lightly over them ...

first. "That night we talked about the trips we'd take, "the olive trees we would plant, "the grandchildren we might share. "we would know, in our 60s, "the love we had yearned for in our youth. "Each of us had been divorced almost 25 years, "how lucky, everybody said, "that we had found each other when we did. "Not long after our one-year anniversary, "my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "19 months later, having shared a struggle "that consumed both our lives, "in equal though different measure, "I lay beside him in our bed when he took his last breath. "I had once supposed I was done with marriage." I used to, but now I. It is always there in some form in a good story, change. "I had once supposed I was done with marriage, "a few decades of disappointments and failures "had left me reluctant to try again. "Then I got married that second time to Jim, "but with the believe still that nothing "and no man, not even one I dearly loved, "could alter my course of fierce and resolute independence." It's not just I used to be single but then I got married, I used to be single, then I was married, but I was still acting like I was single, in certain ways, and then I figured out. There's a series of stages along the way. 'Cause this is not an essay, this is a memoir. "I came and went, always happy to see him "when he picked me up off a plane, "but happy to hop on the next one "that would take me away again. "I had my life, he had his, sometimes we'd share them. "That was my idea, though never my husband's. "Not until we learned of his illness "and we walked the path of that terrible struggle together. "Did I understand what it meant to be part of a couple? "To be a true partner and to have one? "I learned the full meaning of marriage, "only as mine was drawing to a close. "I discovered what love was "as mine departed the world. "This is our story." So that's the beginning, the big, broad beginning, and now I go back and I tell it slow. But now you know where you're headed and what kind of a story you're going to be hearing. And I like to think that makes you a little bit more ready to settle in and let me take it slow. The curtain goes up. And the curtain, when we're talking about two people in their 50s who meet each other, it does not go up with meeting each other. Actually, we need, and I've been talking about this all day, context. You need to know where I was and what was going on in my life before I met him. Because only then will I understand, will you understand, what it means for the two of us to get together. So, I actually began with my divorce, from my first husband, 25 years earlier. And I think the line that I give is, "Ever since the end of my marriage "to my children's father, I had wanted to fall in love." And then I start talking about some of the times that it didn't work so great. And I spend about 25 pages telling the story of an absolutely disastrous,, well, it wasn't that the date itself was so disastrous, but in some moment of madness, I went on a date with this man that I didn't even find myself drawn to at all, but I was trying to be this more casual, free-willing kind of person. This is the summer before I met Jim. And so, he asked me to go out with him again and I said, "Oh, I don't think I'll be able to, "I'm going to Italy next week." I was hired to teach at a writing workshop in the Amalfi Coast. And he said, "Well, why don't I come along?" And in some moment of madness I said, "OK." For about 10 minutes it felt like an interesting idea, that I was gonna have a free hotel room in a very romantic place in Italy, and somebody who might go there with me and I could put on a lot of dresses and high heels, and I invited this guy to come along. And I knew, about five minutes after he walked in the door, what a terrible idea that was. Does that story belong in this memoir? Yes, actually, it does. Because to understand the good, you've gotta understand all the... Shit that the person has been going through before. And so, I spend my time telling that, and I can do that because you know you're getting to something else. And after I've told that story, am I ready then to tell Jim? No, I'm not. Then I tell you about another thing that didn't work out so very well. And actually, then I tell you a really hard story. And I call this the stories that might not seem to belong, but they do. It's very hard for me to tell this story quickly, because it's a tough one. But, when I was 55 years old, which is to say, just a few years before I met Jim, I had loved being a mother, I had grieved over the departure of my children, I felt that I had more love to give and I'd always felt that there should be more children in my life. And at the age of 55, after my novel "Labor Day" was sold to the movies and I thought, for a brief period, that that meant I was rich, I decided to adopt two children, older children, the kind that are harder to adopt, or who have a harder time finding homes, two children from Ethiopia, sisters. And I brought them home from Ethiopia and I knew they had both had very, they were sisters, they'd had very, very hard lives. They had lost their mother to AIDS and their father had abandoned them, they had had more grief and trouble in their 6 and 13 years than many people do in their life. And I recognized, within the first two weeks of bringing home my daughters, and that's who they were, they were my daughters, that I had made a terrible mistake. That I was not the person that they needed and everything I thought I knew about being a parent, and I felt very confident about myself as a parent, did not apply in this case. However, I did also believe that I made an absolute commitment, and these were children who I must absolutely stand by, no matter what cost. And for 14 months I struggled very hard to be their parent, and I was their parent, and it was not only that it was a disastrous situation for me, which it was, but much more important, it was a disaster for them. I was not at all who they were looking for and wanting and needing. They needed a father, they needed a family. They needed a big, wide network of a support system. And I won't tell the longer story, and it's a story, many people might turn off their computer right this second, hearing this story, because it's a shocking story to many people. And if you google my name and adoption on the internet, you'll see lots of pretty harsh things said about me because I found them a family. I found my daughters, the daughters that I brought to this country, another family and I drove them to their new home and said goodbye. Does that story belong in this book? Actually, yes, it does. And the reason I am telling this deeply painful story, I used to think it was going to be the hardest story of my life, it's not. The reason I'm telling this story is to give you permission to tell your hard stories. My editor did not want me to tell that story, it was going to bring me nothing but trouble, oh boy, don't open that door again! But it was part of the journey that I was exploring about what it meant to love somebody and to be able to stay in through the hard times. And that was a time when I felt I had failed, I had failed at love. And who I was the night that I went on that date, and this is why it belonged, this is why this story still belongs there, who I was was somebody who had very recently said goodbye to her two Ethiopian daughters. And I told Jim that, that night, I told him that. I figured he'd better know that, he'd better know the truth. 'Cause I'm not just honest in my books, I try to make a policy of being that way, generally. So yes, the stories that do not belong, but they do. You probably have a few of them too. Know what was lost. Well, if I'm going to ultimately tell the story of a deeply loved, long-awaited life partner who gets cancer and dies, you'd better know who he was before then. So, let me know, let the reader know your characters, bring them to life on the page. And I have to tell you, it was a joy to do this part of it. To create a portrait of Jim. Which, incidentally, had to be a flawed portrait, because every character is, so this was not some sort of big tribute to Jim and all his wonderful qualities, I needed to make him a human, living, breathing character on the page. And as long as I was writing that book, he still was there, and it felt really nice that that was so. And not just the major characters, but minor characters. I could not, and I would not want, and you would not want, as a reader, to see every single doctor, every single nurse that we encountered. But I'd choose a few, I'd populate our universe. Your book needs to have characters moving through it. There's a woman in the book, I chose one, one of the characters was the cancer wives. You can't even read my writing, of course, but there was a woman I never met and actually, I still never have, but her husband was fighting pancreatic cancer in up-state New York while mine was in Lafayette, California, and we talked on the phone all the time. And Deborah comes alive, I hope, in this book. And I quote Deborah, what Deborah has to say to me on the phone and, occasionally, her letters. And one of the things that happens over the course of our friendship is her husband dies, before mine. So, give me a world, because we don't live just in a world of major characters.

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 :)