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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 10 of 25

Respect the Reader's Intelligence


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 10 of 25

Respect the Reader's Intelligence


Lesson Info

Respect the Reader's Intelligence

I'm gonna move on now to another. When I was five, my mother and I moved in with my Japanese immigrant grandparents when my father served in the Korean War. My grandparents clung to their old country ways while my American born mother was determined to assimilate. I tried very hard to be very good, but the rules kept changing. And that, you wanna hand the microphone over to, is it Shizua, am I saying right, Shizua. Shizua, good to see you. Tell us a little bit more about, obviously, you weren't around for some of the events that you're describing but you are the daughter and granddaughter of people who were. Tell us about that and how that shaped you. I think it fundamentally shaped my life. I was born a few months after the last American concentration camps closed. And on top of that, my father's side of the family was from Hiroshima and we all know, yeah, I mean, they had left there at the turn of the century but they still had family there that did survive. But the irony that the ...

war was ended and their incarceration ended because a bomb was dropped on their home city was also part of the background. And my mother's family had been leasing 140 acre ranch on the central coast, right on the water north of Pismo Beach. Wow! Amazing view. My mother played this. Did you know this place? Yeah, I did get to see it. But my mother played the self-pity violin her entire life. Interpretation. Interpretation police are coming here. Okay. (audience groaning) You don't get to say that in your memoir, like what. My mother couldn't stop talking about the place where she was born. What happened at that place? And how much she missed it. They lost. This is, I'm, this is what I do, I give those in the hot seat a hard time often, so you're gonna get it. You jumped ahead and told your mother's reaction to a story before I heard the story. What was she, what was the problem? All I know is there was this beautiful ranch. What happened? After Pearl Harbor, they were forced to leave and they were incarcerated. Well, first they had to move five miles inland and then they were warned to move to the western half of the state and then they were, they were sent to a concentration camp. And this would have been your parents who were on that ranch? It would have been my mother and her family. And my father's family was sent to another concentration camp. They didn't know each other, they never would have met if it hadn't been for the war. It's so interesting that, I'm always interested in language and language is very important to me and the words that are more traditionally used are internment camps and I'm interested that a Japanese American woman speaking of the camp where here family was sent speaks of it as a concentration camp, and no doubt you're not inclined to use a euphemism about this, are you. Right. Okay. So, they lost the ranch, they never got to live there again? Right. Right. That feels like a big theme for them, but you, what was the theme for you? The theme for me was that my, I got moved every year and a half to three years for my whole childhood until I was because my father's response to being incarcerated was to stay in the U.S. military as an intelligence officer for 22 years to vindicate his loyalty. He worked for the government that had incarcerated him? Yes. I don't understand that yet. Why was that, why would he, why, what was the idea there? To prove his family's loyalty. Ah. His father had been arrested by the FBI three times and my father stayed in the military to prove that they were loyal. Continued to serve the government that had hurt his family so profoundly and humiliated and robbed his family, yeah, okay. As a matter of fact, and I didn't learn this until many years later, but his ultimate vindication was that he became, 20 years after he was incarcerated, he was achieved the military security of the eight western states. Wow! I didn't hear that until 20 years after that. And we're still on your parents' story, and that does feel like a huge journey and arch and redemption for your father, that your father has his land, his home taken away, he is shamed and humiliated, something that in Japanese culture is cause for suicide, I think. And he, his response to that is not, as some of us might, to hate the government. Maybe he did somewhere in there, but to want to earn honor back, to win honor, correct? That is a fabulous journey to tell for him, and I, something tells me he's not alive to tell it. So, where are you in that story? Trying to get his attention. Trying to take care of my mother. Trying to make sense of all these environments I keep getting dropped into. Moving. The farm labor camp. Farm labor camp. Where my grandmother at 53 was putting here life together by picking strawberries on her knees. I earned my first dollar picking strawberries on my knees alongside her. Wow, okay, I've just heard a picture. I've just seen a picture and playing the pity violin is not a real picture, it's metaphoric language. But down, but grandmother on her knees at age picking strawberries and your first job, how old were you picking strawberries? Five or six. And so was, you went to school but also picked strawberries or did you not go to school? I went to school and picked strawberries in the summer. And I'm guessing that there was a fair amount of racism going on at this point, directed towards Japanese American children? I didn't run across that until I was living in segregated Baltimore. Huh. And I wrote a story about that, walking home from school, looking at shadows of the dandelion leaves on the sidewalk and these two boys suddenly go, look there's a Jap plane (mimicking gunfire) and I got so scared I peed my pants. Oh, oh. And then my parents said, well, you have to remember, maybe they lost somebody. Wow. Talk about, they were graduates of a compassion class of mine, my goodness. Yeah. So, what's your theme? What's your big theme here? Moving, trying to fit in, not knowing where you fit in, I'm still looking, I'm not finding it yet. I'm still, I'm in the searching mode here. Trying to understand the rules, what was gonna keep me out of trouble. Keep you out of trouble. And they. Because trouble meant you got taken away. Yeah. In some way. Something awful, even if it was my parents' anger. So, how did you go about trying to stay out of trouble, Shizua? You were a very good girl. Yes. Yeah. Good in school? Good student? Very obedient? How did that work for you? It worked fine until I got suicidal in high school. Ah, hah, okay. Well, that doesn't just come out of nowhere. Tell us the story of suicidal in high school. It had something to do with the first time I went away from home and I went, I spent the summer between junior year and senior year of high school at UC-Berkeley taking college classes. And there was something about being on my own and also being with very smart, educated girls that had gone to private schools, so a glimpse into a different world and. Was it, your family is very poor? Well, by the time, by that time my father was a Lieutenant Colonel. But I, on a certain level, I identified with my grandparents who were pretty poor. And they were still, they were still farm laborers? Right. Yeah. I always had the sense that I didn't understand it then, but my grandparents knew who they were and they owned themselves and my parents were assimilated and they wanted me to be assimilated. I want, I want to put you on a diet of interpretive language, meaning not to consume it and not to perpetrate it. I want you, it's a very common, you're not alone in this, just about everybody does it. But, not assimilated. Can I draw a picture of that phrase? No, I cannot. I want you to give me scenes and stories and to the, and do them so well that I will be the one who says they're not, as I'm reading it, oh, they're not assimilated, oh, she doesn't know where she fits in. I don't want you to tell me. I don't want you to deprive me. I'm not speaking here just to Shizua but to every, every writer of memoir. I want the pleasure of figuring a few things out for myself. And if I were to name one lesson that publishing my work for all these years has taught me, it is the lesson of respect for the reader's intelligence to figure it out and that, in fact, it's a much more satisfying experience if you don't tell me. So, I want, I want the stories, but I want the stories to mean something, not to be random stories. So, where, what changed for you over time? In fact, let's not leave the suicidal. So, suddenly you just, you broke. You're good girl thing didn't work anymore at Berkeley. Right, I all of a sudden couldn't focus in school. It was hard for me to remember. Like what, I want pictures of each of that, can't see, couldn't focus. What did that look like? Was there a moment? I forgot that we had an assignment to read John Donne's No Man Is an Island. I totally forgot that we were supposed to read it and the next day there was a pop essay in the class and I had to fake it because I hadn't read it so I didn't know what it was about. I just, suddenly the picture comes to me of some, like juvenile delinquent listening to this and hearing that that's your really bad thing that you did. (laughing) You didn't read John Donne and you didn't do well on the pop quiz. (laughing) And you're doing absolutely nothing to dispel the Japanese stereotype that you've gotta be perfect. (laughing) You're right. I'm sorry. Right, so then I write this essay about. That was your big failure? Every Man Is an Island, nobody can connect with anybody. I get an A plus on it. It gets put on the bulletin board outside the classroom. This girl comes up to me that I don't know, she says, oh, my God, I read that essay, it was amazing, and I went. (everyone laughing) When did the suicidal thing happen? In between the? This was, this was, that semester. And I'm going, you know, I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore. I just cannot. You can't be that perfect person. Yeah, I can't, like, have to scrape my sweaty palms on my skirt before I shake. And have you ever busted out, Shizua? Somebody's hand. Have you ever just decided, no more of this, I'm just gonna let 'er rip? Not until, no, not until after that. I mean. But you have? Well, yeah, now, yeah. (laughing) Yeah, and what does that, what does let 'er rip look like for you? I pretty much have done whatever I wanted to for the last 20 years. You know, and I've, I learned after being fired a bunch of times that I get to fire my clients. I don't have to care about what they think. And that, when I get a crazy notion in my head, I'm actually not insane and it's actually what I need to do. Now I'm gonna ask you, and this is something that is so important, I'm hearing lots of pieces of your life. Right. But I'm not yet seeing the theme. And it is, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to say, of course, I know my life. I know what I need to write about. I know what my life has been about. But in a surprising number of times, when I ask a writer, what do you wanna write about or what have you just written about, they can't say and, and if it takes five sentences, they haven't figured it out yet. So, tell me in one sentence what your book is about. The memoir you want to write. What I'm thinking is that the part that I need to start with is the first part that goes up to the suicide and maybe a little bit before that and that is. Now, just say the sentence. Killing the child my parents raised me to be to make the space to be myself. Okay, and that is still big general abstract language but I'm with you, I'm with you. And incidentally, a memoir can do exactly what Shizua is suggesting, which was identify, put a frame around one piece. That's not everything you have to say, but you're wise to, because spent the last 20 years doing everything I wanna do doesn't feel to me like the stuff of memoir, well, first did this then I did this, I fired some clients, I lost my job but, and I don't want to do a disservice to your story, which, obviously, if we had more time we could explore much better, but I think you're right. I think it is good little girl storied. Anybody have an idea of what point of view you want, you feel this story lends itself to? I wanna say the child point of view. I wanna say first person, present tense, 1950 or whenever it was, that, and I want to see, I, did your mother ever take you to show you that ranch? Yes. Yes, that's what I was guessing, that who you are is, and this is one very discernible piece of our memoirs, even when we weren't present for something, when there's a story that we heard again and again and again, that shapes us, that our parents, our parent's obsessions shape us. I always knew that I was born right after the Rosenbergs were executed and that my mother, that a huge piece of my mother's life was feeling, as a Jewish woman, the way your parents probably felt as Japanese. And, and my story would not be, and then the Rosenbergs were executed. My story would be being in the car hearing my mother talk about the Rosenbergs. And in the same way, your story might begin with, I'm just guessing here, but that ranch feels like a very compelling thing, that piece of land, that what was lost and what you spent your life trying to get back and you were trying to lay at your parent's feet some kind of goodness that they deserved and didn't have and you're, and it was a huge burden for you. Does that sound? I think, for me it was more that my parents were grieving their loss but I was raised that there was no home. There was no home. That everything was always gonna change and I didn't like it, but by, at a certain point I got to realize that was how my life was gonna be. Yeah, but I think where it begins is you, you inheriting the pain of your parents. And having to, to be the daughter of those heartbroken people.

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 :)