Review: CreativeLive class - "How to Write a Full-Length Memoir" with Joyce Maynard

I received a free class from CreativeLive in exchange for an honest review. I have taken other self-paced online classes and even have taught a lit-based online course. I enjoy the format of being able to watch and rewatch lessons and to piecemeal my learning where and when it is relevant.

I chose Joyce Maynard’s How to Write a Full-Length Memoir for a number of reasons. I had read her At Home in the World about her love affair with J.D. Salinger and early career and first marriage. I thought it was an excellent memoir, honest and elegant and unapologetic. I have also written a couple of memoir drafts and struggled to make the chapters cohesive. I’m so tremendously glad I chose this class. It was truly more than I expected. The class itself is actually exhaustive learning—I had to take a few days to go through the lessons as they are full of vulnerable stories and practical methods that I’d never used before.

The initial high-level advice about memoir writing Maynard offers isn’t very revolutionary. You can find much of the same advice in Susan Shapiro’s book The Byline Bible on personal essays. I agree with much of the advice, such as not writing to burn someone and not writing about every detail that happens to a person in a season. I just didn’t find it groundbreaking.

The setup works for the digital student but the “audience” setup for the class seemed a little clinical. I wasn’t sure if this was an episode of “The Doctors” with a studio audience watching Dr. Joyce do surgery on their sentences. But once she put the students in the chair next to her, it felt much more intimate. I LOVED the session - Lesson #14 “When you aren’t used to being centre of attention” - with sports journalist Tom Callahan. As a writer, Callahan was working with fascinating material. As a student of memoir, though, Callahan benefited from Maynard helping him find his central theme and throughway for shaping his book.

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Other wonderful high points for me:

  • Very generous analysis of one critical scene in At Home in the World - super gripping and a good scaffolding of how the scene works

  • Lovely and generous live critiques of her students’ work - first sentences shown on a projected screen. Maynard does a great job procuring from the students why the information is important, what the material means, how they can stretch themselves as writers.

  • Helping the students to identify a theme that runs throughout their stories is very actionable and is certainly something I took away from this class as I could see how one susses it out from an ordinary paragraph full of sequential events and other information.

  • The way Maynard shows how she categorized themes for her memoir The Best of Us was an excellent tactical show-and-tell.

The pricepoint for the class, roughly $150, seems more than fair given the material, the rare and intimate looks Maynard offers on her own writing and the coaching she does for several writers in various stages of memoir writing. The course contains 25 live lessons — that’s just over $5/lesson with a master teacher. The added benefit of being able to rewatch the videos makes CreativeLive such an excellent venue and I am considering purchasing Maynard’s Personal Essay course next.

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Review: The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

I haven’t read author Emily P. Freeman’s other books, nor listened to the podcast by the same name for which this book is titled. I have been a longtime subscriber to her monthly e-mail newsletter, though, and I always appreciate the ways she shares her world so generously. I received a copy of her latest book, The Next Right Thing (TNRT) through her publisher, Revell, in exchange for my honest review.

I’m leading purposefully with the most superficial aspect of TNRT because aesthetic matters to me, particularly in the Christian publishing realm where it seems if you’re a female author, your book cover MUST have some picture of a delicate flower with a watercolor script. I adore Freeman’s choice of a monochromatic, sans-serif design for the cover. It’s a refreshing departure from the others in this category lining the shelves, and sets the stage for what is a refreshing read in general.

I am not usually drawn to books about making decisions because I thought, before reading TNRT, that I had no trouble making them. I’m not usually risk-averse and overthinking my next moves is rarely a hindrance to my day. But from the outset of TNRT, I learned that this does not a sound decision maker make. In fact, on page 14, Freeman puts me on blast: “Maybe you have an aversion to making decisions so you either delegate them, avoid them, or make them too quickly just to get them settled.” Bing bing bing. I’ve been hot potato handling my choices my whole life. I hate deliberations, so I just pull a straw and stick with it and hope I can drink out of it for as long as I need. It’s what has worked. Or I thought it had. TNRT showed me a better way. Better ways, to be sure, because what TNRT does best is come alongside the reader to examine the different facets of his/her life and see what areas need the most support and discernment and so much grace.

My favorite chapters were 8, “Know What You Want More” and 10 “Quit Something” because the ideas were the most applicable for me and I thought the writing was strongest. TNRT unpacks ideas in a way that is easy to visualize and understand, often with Freeman confessing her own shortcomings and stumbling blocks to disarm the reader from thinking this is a perfectionist’s formula. There are prayers and practices that bookend each chapter and they are thoughtfully written and I’m sure will be revisited as the ideas trade relevance in years to come.

decisions

Now that I think about it, going back to the cover again, the black and white is also unisex, and I think the messaging here is, too. Freeman does a good job of incorporating voices from women and men throughout the book. I’m not sure whether a diversity of voices is represented in terms of culture and race, but Freeman is aware when her own privilege needs to be acknowledged and I find the spirit in which she writes quite equitable. Her advice presumes that a person making big or small decisions already has some measure of agency in his/her life. Being a good steward of one’s privilege — time, resources, connections, talents — is foundational to the message of TNRT. It has definitely impressed upon me that making good decisions is a sort of act of worship in itself.