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.

If you’re interested in becoming a CreativeLive affiliate, as well, you can!

You can also take $15 off your first class. Get it now!

Who are these “Spiritual Gangsters” on the prowl?

The “Spiritual Gangster” athleisure brand caught my attention, as it was created to do.

I first saw the Spiritual Gangster apparel as a walking advertisement worn by the women, most of them white, at the yoga studios I frequent. Apparently, Deepak Chopra also proclaims himself a Spiritual Gangster, along with celebrities such as Gwen Stefani and Katherine Schwarzenegger. There really seemed to be a great spectrum of folks who were a self-proclaimed part of this spiritual gang.

Yet, spiritual people, it would seem, do not need to announce it.

And gangsters, it would seem, would not be interested in yoga.

What was I missing? Further, what does it mean to be a wearer of the SG swag, to proclaim the so-called gospel of gangster threads?

Spiritual Gangster Holdings, Inc. is a private company, founded by yoga enthusiasts. The company purports to be a “a gang of spiritual people who want to make a difference.” They consider themselves spiritual in their dedication to the practice of yoga, and their behavior of banding together to support philanthropic causes, such as Feed the Hungry, from which a portion of their athleisure proceeds are donated, is where the gangster piece derives. 

So, as I distill it, the brand is about being a gang united by yoga and philanthropy. In effect, they are seeking to flip the script on “gangster” and what an intimidating band of people hellbent on a cause can do--for good.

“Spiritual Gangster,” as monikers go, is an oxymoron. To be spiritual can be manifested - or not - in a myriad of ways, most of them peaceful (though I’m sure plenty of jihadists consider themselves deeply spiritual). To be a gangster, in my view, though, commands some measure of perilous arrogance, whether one simply hails from a a rough and tumble territory, or truly makes her business preying upon the lives of those deemed enemies.

As a yogi, I like a good pair of yoga pants that keep my organs from spilling out of place when I’m in downfacing dog. I’m not particular about brands with yoga; I sweat all over them anyway. But the Spiritual Gangster brand continues to give me pause, long after I found out that they sell a $98 sports bra. Because I’m not sure if I’m bold enough in either of my practices -- yoga or do-gooding; spirituality or philanthropy; inwardness and togetherness -- to make the kind of statement that this athleisure wearers everywhere are making.


Perhaps it’s hubris that I lack, or perhaps it’s humility that I want to attain, but I feel both admiration and envy at the yoga gangsters who aren’t afraid to say who they are, of what they strive to be a part.

I think upon the times when Jesus told witnesses to his miracles not to tell anyone what they had seen. But, almost in the same breath, Jesus tells his apostles to be unapologetic about who they are and if any dismiss them, to shake the dust off their feet as they make their swift exit.

Even Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is, at its core, a denial of core identity. Peter denies that he is friends with Jesus. That he was part of his spiritual gang, as it were. 

At the beginning of many a yoga class, the teacher will tell students to set their intention. For the class, for their day, for their lives. I usually say to myself that I hope I’ll not give up and try to complete the whole class.

The next time I’m on the mat, though, I think I’ll modify my intention, perhaps to be both more spiritual and more gangster. Even if no one can tell.

Review: Love Where You Live by Shauna Pilgreen

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When the Revel Reads program offered this book among its options, I leapt at the chance to read it, largely because I liked the subtitle of the book. “How to Live Sent in the Place You Call Home.” I thought it sounded very charming and it appealed to me as a woman who believes we are all sent with a purpose to different places, whether it be a little visit to a nursing home or a long-term stay in a state where we’ve never lived before. We as a family have entered a season of putting down roots and I was interested in what this book could offer someone like me.

When I received the book and began reading the Introduction, I found the author’s perspective to be refreshing and circumspect. I had become acquainted somewhat with the urban missionary movement in the contemporary American Christian church and some of it really bristled me. Some of it sounds incredibly naive, and other examples have sounded downright entitled. Some call it “new monasticism” and others refer to it as upside-down kingdom living. I wanted to know where this book fit on the spectrum of stories/guides to being missional in one’s own community.

After reading the Introduction, the two chief questions I had in reading the rest of the book were:
Question #1: The author is white but does she recognize her privilege in moving into a community?
Question #2:- As a transplant to a community where she and her husband are trying to church plant, do they work with organizations already on the ground to learn more about their community?

I was sorry the answer to Question #1 was…not really? I am frustrated when I read about one more white woman in the church who doesn’t realize the amazing backpack of privilege she carries. The author talks about the three places she and her family moved to in and around San Francisco. It appears she blithely moved into each home without having concern as to whether or not she would be well-received. In fact, the author speaks about not receiving anything—no welcome or acknowledgment. This actually both struck me as naive and privilege-blind. I’ve lived in the city for 10+ years and I never expect to be acknowledged. It’s part of survival in a densely populated area. You just cannot expend your energy to each and every person passing into your lane. She does not mention worrying about any looks askance or overwhelmingly suspicious surveillance of her family moving in — something plenty of people of color have to worry about each day of their lives as they move through the world. The author talks about adopting their daughter from India during their early years in San Francisco. I’m sure becoming a multi-ethnic family overnight came with its lovely points and challenges, and I would have wanted to hear more about that. Instead, here is a passage from the book that bemused me:

”In my city, I’ve got a lifetime of people to love. The immigrants. The refugees. The under-resourced. The minorities…and I joyfully say, ‘You are welcome here.’”

I could barely read the rest of the book after this passage. It sounded at turns Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and also incredibly pompous. Really? As a transplant to a city, you still feel entitled to tell others that they’re welcome in a city? There’s nothing wrong with being a welcoming person, but maybe those folks already know they belong. Maybe they don’t need a white woman to validate their being there. Being blind to one’s own privilege is a huge turn-off and I just never found the level of awareness I had hoped to find in this book.

The answer to Question #2 was maybe. As church planters, it appeared that this family and the other planting staff did reach out to others in the trenches who were doing their best to start churches. But I didn’t see much in the way of allying with organizations already on the ground who could provide resources and an invaluable intel into the community. The author prescribes whittling away the shoe leather in walking the blocks that surround her home and meeting the people and praying for the places in which her ministerial circle comprises. I think this is great, but it’s also one of the criticisms of new monasticism: that oftentimes these idealistic ministers seem to get burned out by doing it all from scratch, when they could have sought existing, embedded resources to help them find their path.

There were many redeeming parts about the book, including the early chapters on doubt and discomfort. I loved this: “A fear of missing out is not from God.” The author and her husband offer excellent, tactical strategies for planning a purpose-driven move. The book is also filled with a tremendous diversity of perspectives from luminaries such as C. S. Lewis, Marc Batterson, Maria Goff, and Pete Scazzero whose words enriched the pages.

Overall, there were far too many surefooted explanations for how ministry should be done in a place outside of one’s own comfort zone. The blindness to privilege was a major detractor for me as a reader. However, I think this book would still be a helpful companion for those who are discerning a move for ministry because of the cards the author is willing to show in sharing her spiritual walk through discomfort and toward the unknown.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.