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Lesson 25 from: How to Write a Full-Length Memoir

Joyce Maynard

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Lesson Info

25. Questions

Lesson Info


What's the process that you go through to keep from crying on the page, in this case? Oh, to keep from, well, hmmm. Why don't I cry on the page? I do sometimes, you know, I love it when a reader says that she read my book and she cried so much, and I want to make you cry. I actually think I will do a better job at making you cry if I don't cry too much myself. It's actually a rule in theater. Actors are not supposed to cry on the stage usually, even if some terrible thing happens in the play, because that denies the audience the opportunity to do it. So, how do I do that? I think I turn to the discipline, the tools of the craft. I am being a professional, I am marching along. It happens that at this particular occasion, I am applying my 50 years of experience to a very painful story, but I have 50 years of experience. And I would like to believe that, you know, if a physician saw his child, you know, horribly injured and needing some kind of procedure and nobody else was around, he o...

r she would step in and become a doctor, and that's what I do. I become the doctor at that moment. And if you are very moved, let yourself be very moved, and go through all that feeling and feel the feeling, and then go and write after. I often listen to music. I created a whole playlist for this book. You can actually find it on Spotify if you go on Spotify and type in "The Best of Us playlist" and it is songs that will, they leave me in a puddle on the floor, they're every heartbreak song I could think of, and they actually do have an arc, the whole playlist has an arc, it last about an hour and a half, all different kinds of songs that sort of chronicle the arc of a relationship, this one. I play a lot of music to get me in an emotional state, but that's not music I play while I'm writing. First, I get in the state, then I go write. Kind of an odd thing, it's just my thing. Terry! Joyce, how long did it take you to write this? I get the impression that it happened pretty quick. It did, it did, and I don't want anybody to feel, to be held to that standard for themselves. I've been doing this a long time. I probably wrote the first draft of this book, I got to New Hampshire two weeks after Jim died, and with just those first few pages that I'd written before, the night that he died, and I worked all summer, all day, in that little boathouse, and by the end of the summer, I had the first draft of this book. But I continue to go back over it and refine it all through the year, stand up sometimes and read my work out loud. I so believe in reading your work out loud. You can see, I'm a ham, but I also, and I was very tough on Alison, and I want you to have that kind of, I want you create a performance in my head. Real, not fake, not like acting stuff, but I want there to be, I want there to be, sounds that will move you, rhythms in the sentences. I want you to be on the alert for dead language, we've talked about that, I've given a few people, you know, a talking-to about their language. I continued to work on that book for probably another six months, but yeah, I guess relatively, that's short. At what point did you bring in outside eyes, an editor, another reader? Well, I have to say, I'm in a lucky position at this point in my life, so I had an editor, and she read it after I had that first draft, and I think it's very important to have a reader, and for those of you who do not already have an existing editor, an existing agent, it's important that your work be read and shared, but choose carefully to whom you show it. It can be worse to show it to the wrong person than not at all, and that goes both ways. Somebody who will absolutely crush you and be devastating, are you sure you want to entrust that person with that kind of control over your work? Or, equally so, somebody who will praise you when they shouldn't be praising? And I've had this happen so many times. People have come to workshops of mine, and they've paid money, good money to these people who advertise in poets' and writers' or other magazines that they're going to be an editor, a writing coach, and of course, it's always easier to say, "Great job!" It is no fun sitting there with you, Shizue, or Samantha, and say, "I don't think that, "your language is dead." I don't want to say that, but I'm gonna be honest because I have a high expectation for what you can do. I don't mean to single out you two, it's just the most recent times that I've said that, and I say it a lot, to a lot of people. So, don't, if you show it to your friends, I don't know, I'm not, when I give a, when I host a writing workshop, I'm not particularly democratic. I'm not one of those people who goes around the circle and has everybody weigh in, "Oh, I really like that character." "Oh, I thought that adjective was so great." I think that can be very misleading. Choose carefully. Choose somebody that you don't know, who isn't your pal. And, actually, one of the great things that can happen at a writing workshop is locating a writing partner, somebody to share work with, to read work back and forth with. It is too lonely, it's lonely enough doing the writing, but once you've done the writing, there's gotta be somebody to share it with. Sometimes I just wanna call somebody up on the phone and read it out loud so I'm not alone in the room anymore, yeah. Yeah! Hi. Janet. I do both fiction and nonfiction. Is it possible to do both simultaneously? Oh, absolutely! I mean, I write both fiction and nonfiction. I don't do it simultaneously, but I don't think there are any rules except what works for you. And what works for you, maybe, that you escape periodically, so yeah, more power to you! And sometimes you put something away for a while. I think putting a piece of work away for a while is a great thing. Stephen King puts a book away for, I think, six months, maybe a year, and then takes it out again. And it always does, it's like something happened in that drawer, the words were (laughter) moving around in there, I don't know, but it's different when it comes out, and you get a lot of clarity, so absolutely. That sounds like a, that sounds like a great idea. We'll see. (laughs) Yeah! (laughs) Good. Thank you. Susie Ah-das-ta wanted to know what your impression is of adding photos of characters and also of, I think, for herself, she's obviously had a transformation because it seems like a weight-loss-type story, so would you include a photo of that? No! Too easy, Susie. You have to do it with words. We are in the writing game, not the photography game, and when you've done all your very hard work, then the cover of your book might have that photograph. But really, your job is to, is to create images without photographs, that's the job. Many people who come to workshops of mine want to include photographs in their memoir, and I say, "Meh, that's the lazy way." Let the characters, I remember, I remember reading, this is obviously years and years ago, when Gone with the Wind was made as a movie, so I was not alive then, but there were people who loved that book so much, they did not want a movie made. They did not want to see what Rhett Butler would look like on the screen, because they had their picture of Rhett Butler, and Clark Gable's pretty darn good, but it was gonna mess with their picture. And actually, I'll say in a more recent reference, Labor Day, my book, I like it better as a book for sure than the movie, and many people said, "That's not how I pictured those characters." Let the characters come alive on the page. Yeah, good question though, Susie! Tracy also asked how many themes would be too many to include as a thread throughout a memoir. I think 142 is probably, (laughter) 141, okay. No, there's no one answer, of course, to how many themes. But you notice these are large and small. There's really one theme, I didn't even make the column, that's the real one, gosh, I'm just now realizing this, which is love. That's the real column. Where I was with love to begin with, at the beginning of this, long divorced, lots of relationships, wandering around the world, looking for my partner, not knowing what I was looking for, really, having a lot of bad relationships, then no relationships, and then making a good relationship, but still not feeling able to really, totally trust that relationship, and still holding on to my precious independence. Those are the beats of the love story, and then realizing, "Oh my god, I am married. "I am his wife, I am part of something "that is bigger than just me," and that's the love column, so anyway, in answer to your question, one big theme, probably, one big one, and then a few smaller ones, you do need to have a dominant one, and if you'll, in movies, often, you see this. There's one big story, but there's a backstory that's unfolding simultaneously. Just, a big round of applause, please, for Joyce, Joyce Maynard. (applause)

Ratings and Reviews

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.

Tammy Adams

I've watched this course twice now and have gotten something new from it both times. Joyce is not boring in her delivery and shares a practical breakdown of how to write a memoir. She's a great teacher in the art.

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