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How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 13 of 25

What is My Story About?


How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Lesson 13 of 25

What is My Story About?


Lesson Info

What is My Story About?

More stories, and everyone brings its own unique challenges. I'm going to now ask Samantha to come up. Samantha, Samantha and Otto. Whoo! Oops. (Joyce laughs) Just have a seat here. Okay. Samantha. I met Samantha at a, I think it was at my book event in Sacramento. Right. And I loved it. You were the first person that I had heard from actually who had listened to the audiobook of the Best of Us, and I'm very proud of my audiobooks, so it meant a lot to me. You should be. And actually, the big reason why I wanted to start recording my books for audiobooks is I started listening to some recorded books for the blind. Maybe they've gotten better over the years, but the audiobook of At Home in the World was so terrible that I said, I have to record it myself. And I listened to that one, too. Oh, good, oh, good. (Samantha laughs) So, Samantha has no shortage of stories. I'm going to ask you to give me a little bit of a whirlwind trip through the last 40 years or so of your li...

fe. 50. 50, okay. Oh, my gosh. (Samantha laughs) Born in Saskatchewan, north of North Dakota. Lived there for 25 years. Born as a kid who couldn't see very well. Played the geeky kid role for a long time. Louder. Played the geeky kid role for a long time. Okay, and now, I want you to slow down a little, because not all of these things are equal. Okay. A kid who couldn't see very well. You say it very matter of factly, but what did that, what did that look like? (Samantha sighs) I had no night vision at all, so I couldn't see stars. Couldn't, okay. Couldn't see stars. Which do we, which do we prefer: kid who couldn't see very well, or couldn't see stars? Couldn't see stars. And you may have, you've probably noticed by now that my writing stuff on the whiteboard is not like in any particular order. I just scribble down stuff that interests me, that I wanna kind of file away somewhere and have in my back pocket. Continue. Was anybody very worried about your not having night vision? No. No. No, the bigger concern was, why is this kid sitting so close to the TV, and so at four, I got glasses. But no big deal. And then, going from the bright, brilliant Saskatchewan sunlight into the dimly-lit Catholic church, nothing. It took me 20 minutes to adapt, and then 20 minutes to adapt afterwards. But again, yeah, well, whatever. Uh-huh. And then at the age of 12, I was sent to a specialist, and after a day of rigorous testing, I was, they didn't tell me anything. They took my mom into a little room and told her, your kid's gonna go blind, and that's it. Now, wait a second. They didn't tell her anything; they told her mom. In memoir, you've got to give me the story as it comes to you. So, so, how did the story come to you, at age 12? Let's just all sort of sit with that for a moment and picture a 12-year-old finding out that she's gonna go blind. But I always knew. You always knew. I always knew. I remember being a six-year-old, and you know how little kids play games, and I was, I had my eyes closed, and I was pretending to find my way around the house. And I got scolded for it, and I said, well, I need to practice for when I go blind. And of course, that was nonsense, and we just carried on. But I always knew. Was there any congenital problem, Samantha? No, nothing, nothing. No. It's hereditary, but nobody for five generations has it. So there was no reason to suspect. But I just knew. And so when we left the doctor's office and got in the car on that January day in Saskatchewan with the wind and the snow, I said, so, when am I going blind, and my. You, really, age 12? Yeah. (Samantha laughs) Totally. My mom was a little speechless. She was a very young mom, not equipped to deal with it. Nobody told her blind wasn't black. They just told her, I surmised that she was probably a lot more frightened than I was. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. So, yeah. And how soon did that happen? Well, I was legally blind at 19. And I want to take you beyond the facts of your story to the emotional journey. You're watching, and I don't ever wanna put words in your mouth about an experience that I have not had. But I want, I want you to help me know what it's like to have had it. The world is slowly disappearing? Yeah, it's closing in. So it's like, extreme tunnel vision. So it went from looking through a great big straw to getting to looking through a smaller and smaller straw. Great, okay. Great big straw to smaller. Now, did this have implications for your work at school, your performance? Sure. Yeah. Yeah, because I wasn't legally blind; I was just a kid who couldn't see very well. So you didn't get any help? None, none. I had always known I needed to go on an academic tract, so I signed up for all the sciences and all the maths I could. Uh-huh. And grade 11 chemistry with a class that was out of control with a teacher who should have retired long before, and he was putting the formulas on the board, and you couldn't hear what was going on, so. So you couldn't see or hear, basically. No, so I gave up and dropped it. Uh-huh. Same thing happened with trig. But you don't strike me as a person who gives things up. Well, no. (Samantha sighs) No. (Joyce laughs) No. But some of the fights are not worth fighting, and sometimes, I just didn't have the tools. I didn't know what to do. I just didn't know what to do. So you were in a pretty rural area? No, it was a city of 200,000 people. It was a university town. Were there, were you learning braille? No, nope. I grew up in an era when children did not need to learn braille, 'cause computers were gonna save the world. Okay. So at the age of 49, I went back and learned braille. Whoa, okay. So, but computers were not enough to save your world. It got me through, but at that stage, computers, I graduated from high school in '86, so computers were not a thing then. No, no. Only for the real nerds did they take computer classes. So did you listen to tapes? What did you do? No, I faked it! You faked it, faked it. So in school, I could still see print, but it just took a long time. Yep. And then in university, I used Half Eyes reading glasses and a thing called a CCTV, so it was a great big screen with a telescope that went down on a platform, and you slid the platform back and forth, and you could make the letters as big as you wanted, and you got seasick after three hours, and you start over. Now, the way you describe this, you're very matter of fact about it, but this is, I mean, this is, I don't want to project tragedy on you when you don't feel it, but this is a devastating loss, no, for a young girl? No, 'cause I never had it. 'Cause you never had it. I never expected to have it. Never expected to have it. It was, the hardest things were not driving. I was an exchange student in Brazil for a year. I came back. Oh. That's a whole other story. Yeah. But I came back after two and a half, I worked at McDonald's in high school, went to Brazil, came back, and needed a part-time job. Well, my entrance into being a server in a restaurant lasted a whole day. I was pretty much a failure at that. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, the difficulty of finding a part-time job, I could do. That was a challenge. Yeah. So the worst, the worst of the days related to my eyesight were the frustrations of being a teenager and young adult. Uh-huh. Give me one. Give me a story, a moment of frustration. And sometimes, you know, sometimes we think too hard, and it's a good idea to just see what comes immediately to your mind, the first image that comes to your mind. Well, I guess the day of trying to be a server. So I got a job at this little German cafe. I worked one. They didn't know you had any sight issues? No, 'cause I wasn't blind. Right. I wasn't legitimately blind, so what was I supposed to say? Oh, by the way, my eyes suck. Okay, well, nice. (Samantha laughs) And they had an old-fashioned cash register that had these little pages you would flip, and then you had to push buttons according to whatever, I don't know. And then the order was projected into the kitchen. Oh, I couldn't do the cash register at all, so I couldn't even put an order in. Uh-huh. So after my first seven-hour shift, and it came to a climax when they asked me to clean the glass display case with all the cakes in it, and yeah, streaks, sure. That's not good enough yet? Okay. So the next, I went home, I cried, I went to school the next day, took my uniform with me, dropped it off, and that was it. Wow, okay. There's a picture. Took the uniform to school, dropped it off. Cleaning the glass display case, can't see the streaks. Streaks, okay. And incidentally, I had, I have the distinct impression that the memoir that you wanna write is not a memoir about being blind or going blind. It is not. I don't think so. That is just, any more than, you know, every gay person must write a book about being gay. Every black person must write a book about being black. That is one thing about who we are, and it's not all of who we are. And that's not a memoir I would choose to read. Okay, right. (audience laughs) You've been there. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, okay, all right. There are lots of blind people who write memoirs. So, now give me a whirlwind tour through some of the other things that happened in the years that followed. There came a moment when, does it just sort of like, all of a sudden go dark? Yeah, but that was probably about 10 years ago. Okay. And it's not dark. It's still light. It's light. There's light and dark. It's light and dark, okay. Do there, is there anything that goes on like, wanting to see some things before you won't be able to see them anymore? My parents wanted that for me. I didn't care. Really? So what did they want you to see? It was really important to my dad that I get to the Vancouver Aquarium to see the sea otters. Bam, bam, bam, flashing red light. (Samantha laughs) Essay. This doesn't happen to be essay day, but if it were, that is a perfect example of a short personal essay. Just PS, go to the other class. But that is, and the reason is, it's a very small story, a day, dad takes Samantha to see sea otters. Actually, first husband did 10 years later. Oh, it was first husband, okay. First husband takes Samantha to see the sea otters. Doesn't particularly, Samantha didn't feel this burning need to see the sea otters, but they felt she should see them, and it's the, that is the small story, the lens through which we experience and we explore a woman on the verge of losing her sight. That is a great personal essay, and I have essay envy that I can't write it myself. (audience laughs) So you have to do it. Yeah, okay. So, tell us about the other things that you, that you wanna write about. I had a 13-year marriage that fell apart. I got married in university when I was still growing up. Did it just fall apart all by itself? What happened? I mean, you just kind of drifted away? I think there was a rather significant thing that happened. Like a child? Yeah. Well, yes, a child happened. Oh, then the other part. Well, no, but it had drifted away before that part. Falling in love with another man, perhaps? At guide dog school? (audience laughs) Yes, I'm helping you with your own life here, Samantha. (Samantha laughs) Okay. Their dogs. They were brought together by their dogs. (Samantha laughs) Yeah. Yeah. What's his name? Steve. Steve? Yeah. So, this is a pretty great story. Two people who became blind not late in life, but they weren't born blind, go to, was this your first guide dog that you were getting? Second. Second guide dog. So you had lived through the death of a guide dog. No, I still had him at home as a pet. Oh, as a pet. He wasn't. So, he was retired. He had cataracts. He had cataracts, okay. He needed a guide dog. (audience laughs) Okay, so. So you go off, and you know, what I'm doing, you know how, I mean, like, we all know Yosemite is beautiful, but Ansel Adams somehow managed to capture it particularly well. He knew where to put the frame around El Capitan and a few other places. That's what we're doing when we're looking at your story. We have all the details, but we're trying to figure out where to begin, where to shine the light, what is the particular thread that we're gonna follow. Woman goes off to guide dog school, meets a man. Yeah, and it was very similar to Leslie's story, where I, there was chemistry and something turned on in me again, and there was a light that shone that hadn't been shining for a long time. And that's an interesting thing for a blind person to say, incidentally. A light was shining, yeah. Right, it just falls out of my mouth. (Samantha laughs) So. So, but that was two weeks, and it was great, but I went back to, I lived at the North Pole at the time. She lived at the North Pole. Were you married to Santa? No. (audience laughs) I couldn't resist. But I lived in the Yukon, so I went back to the Yukon, and nothing was the same again. Yeah. I'm going to, at this point, I'm going to, your story's not over, but I'm going to click to a slide that you can't see. Oh, here's your themes. I'm gonna click quickly through your themes. Losing eyesight, falling in love with second husband, leaving the Yukon Territory with daughter, being a stepmother, we haven't gotten to that part yet, disenchantment with the law. We haven't gotten, we didn't even get to the fact yet that you became a lawyer and then you decided you didn't wanna be a lawyer. Discovery of yoga, guide dog, what it means to be blind. A few of the themes. (Samantha laughs) Obviously, she can't tackle them all. Let's look at language, and I wanted to look at your language, because it needs some work. And I'm going to read out loud here, Samantha, what everybody else in the room and at home can see on the screen. And this is your description of meeting Steve, I think, okay? For the following two weeks, Steve and I bonded with our four-footed friends and with each other. We spent our evenings, a preview, I'm gonna give you a heads up. I'm gonna give you a hard time in about 30 seconds. I expected it. We spent our evenings in the student lounge talking late into the night. I found someone who understood and admired me. I found someone who pushed himself just as hard as I pushed myself. The drive that he had as a motivated 12-year-old pursuing a landscaping career, the drive that he had as a motivated 12-year-old pursuing a landscaping career continued through his, and that's a very awkward phrase, but that's a different issue. Continued through his entire life, even after he lost his sight in his early 30s and had to recreate himself. We were pretty bleary-eyed in the mornings but energized by the prospects the day would bring. At the conclusion of the training, we went our separate ways back to our separate families, but nothing would ever be the same again. She managed to cover meeting a man, falling in love, being at guide dog school, and going back to her family after she's fallen in love with another man in one paragraph, and the fact that she would never be the same again. Let's look at some of the language here. And this is, I'm doing this to you out of love, Samantha. Okay. This is tough love. Yep. Because it's a fabulous story, two people meeting at guide dog school. It's not love at first sight; it's something else. (audience laughs) Love at first dogs, you know, but bonded with our four-footed friends and with each other, and I wanna say, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Four-footed friends. Four-footed friends, actually, four-footed friends, three words for something that actually you could say in one word, dogs. (audience laughs) Talking late into the night, someone who understood and admired me, had to recreate himself, pretty bleary-eyed, energized by the prospects the day would bring, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. These are big, general, vague, somewhat cliched phrases for an experience that was none of those things. (Samantha sighs) Your experience was fabulous. You fell wildly in love at guide dog school. Even your dogs kind of fell in love with each other, I know. Totally. Yeah, I know that from the rest of your piece. They couldn't wait to get off the plane to find each other. And let's see how you described that. In the meantime, I did see and talk to Steve. We continued a long-distance relationship for five years. Five years is a sentence of a woman carrying on a relationship with a man while she's married to another man, and it gets a sentence. He bought a house on Bowen Island, British Columbia, and we would meet there every six to eight weeks. We would meet there. We met. I think some interesting things probably happened at the house on Bowen Island. It was tricky to get away from work and to find childcare, but we did it. You are carrying on a wild, passionate affair, a man and a woman, a dog and a dog. (audience laughs) Running away from a husband and a child. Yeah, but he was gone long before. This is not the language that you need, Samantha. Okay. (Samantha sighs) It's not about oh, my husband. Your husband may have been gone, but this is dead language about a very alive, vital experience in your life. (Samantha sighs) We would both fly into Vancouver airport and meet somewhere between the domestic and international terminals. As soon as our dogs got a scent of each other, there was no holding them back. I want just that. (audience laughs) I want, if you did your whole thing, you know, I'm standing on the plane, and I'm holding, was it Otto at this point? Gilbert. Gilbert, it was Gilbert. And who was his dog? Caruso. Caruso. (audience laughs) So I want to just see you, it's an interesting, I actually, I have worked with a couple of blind writers before, and you cannot, you haven't done it, but you can't use the blind excuse about imagery, because you, you have plenty of memory of images and capacity to summon image. You're just being lazy here and not yet doing it. And partly, I think she's doing that because she's trying to cover too much ground. This is what we do when we feel, oh my God, I have so much to say. So say less. Just write about one thing. One, not we would meet every six to eight weeks, but one time, just one meeting. Maybe the first meeting, perhaps. Oh, boy. (Samantha laughs) Yes, right. There's no oh, boy in this. After the first, they disembarked their respective airplanes. Does this, with great enthusiasm. And I bet you and, you and Steve also disembarked your respective airplanes with great enthusiasm, and then went off to bed together, you know? (audience laughs) My God, disembarked your respective airplanes? And we slept. (Samantha laughs) Great enthusiasm? This is not the language of a love affair. (Samantha sighs) Okay. Okay, okay. (audience laughs) And the story deserves that. You've got a great story. I've heard a lot of stories. I've never heard a story like this one. (Samantha laughs) The dogs weren't the only ones who bubbled over with excitement at the airport. When it came time to depart at the airport, the dogs reluctantly went their separate ways. Shepherds in particular don't adapt very well when their herd is separated. I actually love that sentence. The herd was separated, and your herd was you and Steve and Gilbert and Caruso. Caruso. That was your herd, and actually, that could be, that could be a story, just my herd. Every one of these could be a sentence. There were always tears at the airport. Is anybody getting choked up at the prospect of these two people leaving, parting? No, because she hasn't given us the pictures that allow us. It is a very poignant picture. When I stepped off the plane in Whitehorse, I always felt like I was entering another reality. I went back to being a responsible, independent, single professional working mom. I was an individual. I was the whole. Long distance relationship. It was tricky. It was expensive. With great enthusiasm. Bubbled over with excitement. The responsible, independent, single professional mom. Can we draw a picture of any of those phrases? No, we cannot, and that's what I want you to do. Bring, and it actually, it is, it is, it is one area where a person who is blind is at no disability, because you can summon images on the page, just as much as a sighted person can. You can describe, and perhaps there will be a unique element to your descriptions, because I suspect they will be all-sense descriptions, and I'm guessing, I mean, certainly dogs function an enormous amount on scent and on, and on feel. I want to hear what it is like for two not-sighted people to meet each other in the airport, and it's odd, I always talk about sensory information. You're not describing what all the people look like at the airport, or, you know, what's, what's up on the monitors, but that airport is filled with what for you? Oh, it's very noisy. It's noisy. Oh, yeah. The sounds. You pick up the sounds, and you probably feel what the floor is like. Yep, and especially 'cause he would come in on the international; I'd come in in the domestic. So we'd meet halfway between. So usually, there were plenty of people not speaking English. Not speaking English. So you're hearing, she is tuned in. Just noise. To the sound. The landing place. I'm gonna give one more example, and then I'll put you out of your pain here. (Samantha laughs) (audience laughs) This year, this was the ending of this particular essay. This year marks 15 years since Steve and I met and 10 years since we were married. The dogs from 15 years ago have crossed the bridge. Why do we say crossed the bridge and not just died? This is, I suspect, I'm going to guess, if I had a guide dog, this guide dog is one of the most important beings in your universe. I think it's harder to lose a guide dog than a regular dog. Yeah, of course, of course. That's what I mean. Yeah. Yeah. So, actually, I would love to see you write about the loss of a dog. That would be a whole chapter. Yes. Yeah. A whole chapter. In fact, you could write probably multiple chapters, because you can't lose the dog until you first give a profile of the dog. I wanna know, for instance, how is Otto different from Gilbert? I'm sure they're very different dogs. They might look alike, but to you. No, Otto hears about it all the time. Gilbert was the best. (audience laughs) Aww. So, you know, actually, I'm not even gonna continue. There's no need for me to read the rest. I think I've made my point there. Uh-huh. You're a smart woman. I want you to slow down. I want you to break your, not to be in such a rush, and that, and not necessarily to tell every story. You might actually just tell about the dogs. That would be a story. The first dog, you know, my life in dogs. The first dog, the death of that dog or the cataracts of that dog, the choosing. I know, I have no idea of how you select the second dog, how you decide which dog is the dog you're gonna spend every waking hour with. It's a pretty big decision. Many people don't last as long with their husbands as they do with their dogs, I'm sure. That's because there's a matchmaker. Really? Somebody picks the dog for you. Interesting, okay. There's a matchmaker. If only there were that for human beings. We'd probably all have. Oh, but we resist. Yes. (both laughing) I'm going to move on, but thank you for being, for being willing, Samantha, to share this manuscript with me. I so want you to tell this story with the language it deserves, and, you know, I, I mean, I will, I have said it many times, and I'll say it many more: it is not, it is not something you get right away. Nobody thinks they can pick up a violin and, all of the sudden, start, you know, playing with an orchestra. But because words are something we use all our lives, we think, okay, now I'll write a book. And you have a huge amount of skill to bring to it. But you've gotta bring your language up to your story, to the strength and passion and tenacity with which you've lived your life. The language has to serve it, and right now, the language is not where your story's at. Okay. (audience laughs) Otto looks pretty bored. (audience laughs) I'm gonna move onto a completely different kind of story. Okay. Guess what? Your memoir doesn't have to be about a tragedy. It is, not that, incidentally, there's not one second of my experience with Samantha that led me to think that she has ever, if she's experienced a tragedy, it's definitely not losing her sight. But most of us tend to focus on the traumas in our lives as the stuff of our work.

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 :)