Writing Your Story

In partnership with
Instructor Joyce Maynard,
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Course No. 20000
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Join an acclaimed memoirist for 26 collaborative lessons on how to write personal true stories that your readers will never forget.
  • numbers Discover one acclaimed memoirist's strategies for writing personal stories.
  • numbers Sharpen your personal writing skills.

Course Overview

Each and every one of us has a story to tell. An inspiring story, a funny story, a tragic story. A story unlike any other story in the world. But sometimes, we just need a little help figuring out what to say—and the right way to say it.

Perhaps you quit your high-paying job to pursue your dream of owning and operating an antique store. Maybe a close family friend passed away and, in their memory, you fulfilled their dream of hiking up Mount Fuji. It could even be a story as simple as watching your struggling high school student bring home an “A” grade on an important test. But regardless of how compelling, how personal, your story might seem, it won’t resonate with readers unless you’re able to effectively translate it onto the page.

Every good story has foundational elements that anyone with a passion for storytelling can master. In the same way a budding cellist gets better with guidance and insights from a master of the craft, a writer looking to share their story with the world can reap unlimited rewards by spending time in the company of a seasoned author.

Joyce Maynard is just such an author. An expert in the art of personal writing, Maynard has written 17 books, including a controversial memoir about her relationship with the reclusive author J. D. Salinger that became a bestseller. In addition to writing, Maynard also hosts popular workshops for aspiring memoirists—an experience that’s captured and brought into the comfort of your living room with Writing Your Story.

In the 26 lessons of this writing workshop, best-selling author and writing instructor Joyce Maynard teaches you how to translate your life stories into pieces of memoir writing with the power to captivate readers. You’ll explore the process of identifying a personal story and the right way to tell it. You’ll develop (or strengthen) your ability to work with language, structure, dialogue, and description. You’ll also get inspirational insights into cultivating your own writing practice, handling criticism and rejection, and other challenges of the writing life.

“My job here is to give you permission to tell your story,” Maynard says with her characteristic (and contagious) passion for the craft. “To urge you to tell the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Build the Confidence You Need to Tell Your Truth

Sometimes, what can hold us back from sitting down to write a very personal story is fear. A fear of being judged by readers. A fear of confronting uncomfortable aspects of our past. Even the fear that there’s nothing really interesting about our lives.

But with its collegial studio setting and expert guidance, Writing Your Story helps you build the confidence you need to tell your truth through words. It’s a learning experience that reveals just how empowering it can be to take charge of feelings or events that fascinate (or even scare) you. Above all, it’s a safe, non-judgmental space to think about—and write about—your life.

And these lessons offer plenty for you to think about when it comes to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to capture an event or a theme or a person that simply must be shared with the world. In Writing Your Story, you’ll learn how to:

  • Make the difficult choice of what to take out of a personal story that feels too long;
  • Determine whether your personal story is better suited as an essay or a memoir;
  • Build out the dramatic, reader-friendly arc of sentences, paragraphs, and entire stories;
  • Diagram sentences to discover the components of what makes them unforgettable;
  • Foster a sense of community and collaboration with other writers out there; and much more.

Hone Your Stories with Helpful Tips and Tricks

Most writers build their practice and their work on a series of strategies and tools that they carry with them every time they sit down at their writing desk. Maynard’s lessons offer you tips and tricks that have worked for her throughout her storied career as a memoirist, journalist, and writing instructor.

Here are just three of the exciting, helpful perspectives she offers throughout this course:

  • Write like an Orphan. While you should never write a personal story out of revenge, you should always be honest and courageous about what you’re writing. Ultimately, Maynard notes, it’s not your job to worry about what your family will think about what you’ve written. Whenever you sit down to write about yourself, do so with utter freedom—as if none of your family members were alive. If you do have to make changes for reasons of propriety, make them later, while revising and editing. Not at the writing stage.
  • Create a Container. Maynard spends several lessons on the idea of a “container,” or the smaller story that still affords you the freedom to explore big ideas. For example, the big idea you want to write about is how much you miss your late mother. To make that big idea more unique and personal, you can fit it inside a smaller story—in this instance, the story of eating your mother’s last jar of homemade chutney. Fitting your story into the perfect container is also a great way to lend drama and tension to your tale.
  • Write like Every Word Costs Five Dollars. Strong writers are economic writers, meaning they don’t put down as many words as possible—they put down the right words. Sometimes, when you’re having trouble whittling down your work or you want to make sure you’re telling your story as well as you possibly can, think of every word costing you five dollars. Then see how much money you save by taking out weak verbs, stale adjectives, and other unnecessary information. A memorable personal story is always razor-sharp.

Start Writing the Story Only You Can Write

For over 20 years, Maynard has hosted workshops for aspiring writers of memoir, as well as guest lectured in writing at colleges and MFA programs across the United States. Clearly at home in a workshop setting, she’s equal parts coach and fan. She doesn’t hold back from picking apart her students’ work in an effort to make it better, but she also recognizes that these are personal stories no one except you, the writer, can tell.

It doesn’t matter if you’re setting out to write a 300-page book or a 1,000-word essay—you need to have the courage to tell your story and to think of yourself as a writer. Writing Your Story will show you how to do both.

As Maynard says, “You will help yourself, you will heal yourself, and you will stand here and say, ‘Here I am, make of this what you will!’ Somebody will be listening. Somebody will be helped.”

When it’s time to tell your story, this is the perfect way to get started.

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26 lectures
 |  Average 12 minutes each
  • 1
    What Happens When We Keep Secrets?
    Many of us have a story about ourselves that we want to tell, but some of us are scared to tell the messy, complicated truths about a human life. In this introductory lesson, discover why it's the moments of discord and conflict-moments we often try to keep secret-that make for the most memorable personal memoirs. x
  • 2
    Name Your Obsessions
    What if you have no idea what to write about? One strategy for getting started that you'll learn about here is making a list of all your obsessions in life. Once you've done that, it's time to go a little deeper, and ask: Why are you obsessed with the things on your list? x
  • 3
    Stick to Your Story
    When sitting down to write the story of our life, we have a tendency to talk about other people (say, our fascinating grandmother) or to simply run through a resume of big events. In this lesson, learn the importance of sticking to your story-not someone else's-and taking your reader on an adventure. x
  • 4
    Identify Your Journey
    Here, Maynard teaches you how to move your personal story along by identifying the journey it will take. You used to be A, and now you are B. It's a simple formula, but when you plug in variables from your life, it indicates motion and change. It can also become the skeleton of the story you have to tell. x
  • 5
    Take Your Story Apart
    You've identified what you want to write about. Now what? It's time to take your story apart. Consider the importance of the point of view from which you plan to write. Are you looking back on earlier events? Are you writing as if you were living an event in the moment? x
  • 6
    The Landing Place
    Using powerful examples from essays by authors and columnists, discover why it's so important to determine where your reader lands at the beginning of your journey. What makes a unique point of entry for a personal essay? Is it always smart to begin at the very beginning? x
  • 7
    The Honesty Question
    Writing a good personal story is, first and foremost, about having courage. Here, learn why it's not your job to take care of all the other characters in your life and why every good memoirist writes as if they were an orphan-an idea that's at the core of exceptional memoir writing. x
  • 8
    What's the Worst That Can Happen?
    In this inspirational lesson, Maynard helps you come to terms with the anxieties that can plague a writer setting out to tell a personal story. Even if what you end up writing stays in a drawer forever, you'll have told the truth-and you'll be a different person for it. x
  • 9
    Descriptive versus Interpretive Language
    Turn now to some important tools that can help create drama, tension, color, and surprise in your writing. Here, the focus is on descriptive versus interpretive language. Discover why it's more important to use language that allows readers to make their own assessments of the pictures you paint with words. x
  • 10
    Diagramming the Sentence
    Diagramming your sentences isn't just about old fuddy-duddy grammar. It's about identifying whether or not you're accomplishing what you're trying to do in your writing. Maynard diagrams some student sentences to highlight how they do (and do not) tell a story in the most powerful, dramatic way possible. x
  • 11
    The Importance of Economy
    So many of us, when writing, want to check the word count to make sure we have the most words down possible. But good personal writing isn't about how many words you use-it's about using the right words. In this lesson, learn the benefits of writing as if every word you use costs you five dollars. x
  • 12
    Dialogue and Rhythm
    How do you create rhythm in your writing? What goes into powerful dialogue? Learn the answers to these questions in this lesson that tackles how to write dialogue that sounds like real life (but better) and how to employ-and improve-the rhythm of your writing by varying the length of your sentences. x
  • 13
    Six Common Mistakes Writers Make
    In this lesson, Maynard runs you through six common (and easily fixable) mistakes writers make. Among these red flags you'll learn to keep an eye out for: the glaring overuse of the verb to be" and an overdependence on adverbs and exclamation points to do all your work for you." x
  • 14
    The Paragraph
    Forget what you might have learned in school about topic sentences and five-paragraph essays. Here, come to see the paragraph as a real tool of your writing that can do so much more than you imagined. Learn how to write powerful paragraphs, when to start a new paragraph, and some good signs your paragraphs are moving your story forward. x
  • 15
    Building the Arc
    According to Maynard, every sentence is its own little story-which means there's drama in every single sentence you write. In this lesson, learn how to build around the powerful parts of an idea or scene or moment or even a word, so that the arc of your sentence guides the reader to a powerful ending. x
  • 16
    The Test of a Good Memoir
    At the end of the day, the most important part of a good memoir is that it's written in the voice of a narrator (you) the reader likes and trusts. That's the focus here, along with Maynard's answers to audience questions about overusing the word I," using repetition to emphasize something, and more." x
  • 17
    The Container
    You have a big story to tell and, once you start writing, it spills out all over the place. So what do you need? A container to put that story in. Come to see why short personal essays-which explore a big idea in a small, particular scene-make the perfect form for building your chops in hopes of writing a longer book. x
  • 18
    Two Containers from Scratch
    Which containers are right for which stories? In this second lesson on the importance of containers for your writing, Maynard invites some of the writers from her audience to help them craft the right containers for their personal stories-and the big idea that encapsulates them. x
  • 19
    Developing Your Container
    Here, continue exploring the concept of containers that allow you to explore global ideas. Central to this lesson is developing the container for a big story about a privileged family that looks good on the outside, but in reality is troubled by alcoholism and fighting parents. x
  • 20
    Dissecting a Good Container Essay
    Join Maynard as she dissects a container essay she wrote in 2016 for the Modern Love" column in The New York Times. In the piece, "What Luck Means Now," she uses a single day in Boston to explore the big global idea of her marriage and the possibility of losing her husband." x
  • 21
    The Writing Life
    What are the habits of a productive writing life? Discover some sources of inspiration from Maynard's own experiences. And while simple habits (like grinding coffee) aren't the magic bullet that will suddenly make your writing lyrical and successful, they can help you better navigate uncharted creative territory. x
  • 22
    Creating a Writing Practice
    Cultivating a daily writing practice is important, whether you end up writing 1,000 words or just 50. Here, learn ways to create the kind of practice that suits you-whether it's working to music to create a mood, getting enough exercise, practicing journal writing, or blocking out the internet. x
  • 23
    What Gets in Your Way?
    Writing about myself is narcissistic." "My family wasn't dysfunctional." "Everything's already been said before." "Nothing big ever happened to me." "I have no time." In this lesson, Maynard dispels these and other common thoughts that can get in your way when you sit down to write your personal story." x
  • 24
    The Not-Writing Process
    You've spent a lot of time in this course exploring the writing process-now, Maynard discusses the not-writing process. Why is it so important to take time to think before we write? What are the benefits of opening yourself up to feedback? Is there such a thing as writing way too soon? x
  • 25
    Criticism and Rejection
    Two of the biggest fears of any writer are criticism and rejection. Many times, they can freeze us, stop us from working, and make us feel like there's no point in pursuing our work. This lesson teaches you strategies to absorb and handle a part of writing (and publishing) that's common to everyone. x
  • 26
    What Happens When We Tell Our Truth?
    While you've covered a lot of ground in the preceding lessons, conclude this course with a spirited exploration of the hardest part of writing. It's not the craft-it's the leap of faith that requires you to believe in yourself, in your own value, and in the compassion of your readers. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 26 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the 7-page course companion booklet
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 26 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 7-page printed course companion booklet
  • Downloadable PDF of the course companion booklet
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 7-page printed course companion booklet
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Joyce Maynard

About Your Professor

Joyce Maynard
A native of New Hampshire, Joyce Maynard began publishing her stories in magazines when she was thirteen years old.  She first came to national attention with the publication of her New York Times cover story, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life”, in 1972, when she was a freshman at Yale. Since then, she has been a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose “Domestic...
Learn More About This Professor


Writing Your Story is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 10.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging. With confidence and personality, Professor Dorsey Armstrong tackles the idea of "writing about anything." She engages writers at any level with encouragement and scholarly content.
Date published: 2020-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learning to Play Guitar, Chord, Scales and Solos This is a comprehensive study about learning to play the guitar, plus the history and background of all the people who started on the guitar and how it came to be a popular instrument.
Date published: 2020-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Helps me make progress Joyce Maynard's class is excellent! Beside being interesting in itself, it helps me understand how to make my writing have more impact, and be more satisfying.
Date published: 2020-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and informative This is my first Great Courses class about writing, and the first writing class I've taken in 30 years or so. I've been thinking about writing a memoir for several years, but have felt overwhelmed by the task and without the skills to organize and begin the book I wish to write. This course has been an affordable and enjoyable way to get some guidance and direction. Joyce Maynard is a skillful writer and a skillful teacher of writing. She also has a warm personality and makes the topic accessible to the non-writing specialist.
Date published: 2020-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very practical, excellent speaker If you would like practical advice on writing your own story, you will love this course. The speaker makes her points clearly, gives many examples, has a good sense of humor, and is fun to listen to. Some of the lectures are brief, 6 to 10 minutes, but cover the topic well. My money and time were very well spent!
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and Thoughtful Wanting to review my understanding of philosophy, I ordered this extensive survey since it was on sale. What a bargain! Professor is so well informed, has organized the course into very digestible servings and uses illustrations to make very plain what could be almost incomprehensible abstractions. Very glad I added this course to my library!
Date published: 2020-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fresh Approach Joyce Maynard's interactive workshop format provided a dynamic and interesting presentation, while covering both the mechanics and craft of writing in general and memoir specifically. The visual aids kept the workshop moving and on topic. The lectures progressed rapidly, covering mainstream topics from both the writer's published examples and those of the participants, and former students. Many examples were highlighted to highten reader impact, identify and prioritize key elements, and to meet standards expected by agents and editors. The fluid format with studio participation provided interest and additional points-of-view. The instructor interjected technique, summary, and tips appropriate to the level of the audience without diverging from each speaker's topic. The lecturer was well versed and prepared, able to answer all questions. She showed how to strengthen the theme of attendees stories by using her container method. I enjoyed the course and was able to identify all the methods I have studied in books on writing in her material.
Date published: 2020-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation Exactly what i was looking for! Succinct and to the point, great examples and explanations of hows and whys easily grasped for a writing kick off!
Date published: 2020-06-07
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