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 $5 off your first class using the code JOINUS.

On my experience as an LGBTQ ally at SAU

“Love keeps no record of wrong.” Since my departure from Southern Adventist University in 2016, I have pondered the words of Paul to the Corinthians as I worked through my feelings of sadness, hurt, and confusion, knowing that the kind of love Jesus offers us is liberating, and that liberation comes through reconciliation.

However, I have also pondered the Golden Rule. To treat others as I would want to be treated. I have resolved to tell my story, even though it records wrongs, as I would not wish for others to have had the same experiences I had as an employee of SAU.

I should first establish that I voluntarily left Southern after five years of full-time employment as a professor. I was not “invited to resign” nor did I depart on the grounds explained by other euphemisms. I left to take a job at another school because I was tired of fighting the same battles at Southern, tired of constantly feeling frustrated and that my job would be placed in jeopardy because of the marginalized students for whom I cared and advocated.

I would also like to establish that I did not grow up in the Adventist church. I was raised Catholic, attended primarily Catholic Schools and converted to Seventh-day Adventism when I was 23 years-old after attending an Adventist Church and feeling convicted at GYC in 2003 that a biblical faith was what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. I received my master’s degree from Harvard University and taught at a community college prior to joining the faculty of Southern in 2011.

For five years, I worked hard and taught students who were bright and generally hardworking and mission-minded. I adored so many of my colleagues and was inspired by their interesting research and their total dedication to student success. I was promoted to associate professor after submitting my portfolio for review. However, because I did not have a terminal degree, I would need to pursue one in order to be able to be eligible for promotion or apply for sabbatical. As fewer and fewer of my colleagues were being released of coursework to pursue terminal degrees, I began to consider different prospects for myself and my family. 

More importantly, though, I was finding the culture at SAU toward LGBTQ students deeply troubling on campus. I would estimate having at least one student per semester in one of my classes who self-identified as LGBTQ. These students were active in Campus Ministries and community service, were excellent students earning high marks.

And they often sat in my office weeping.

They were consistently harassed in the dorms, they said. They were maligned on social media. They did not feel safe engaging in campus-wide or in class dialogues or even in seeking counseling on campus for fear of being reported to their deans or their parents (were their concerns unfounded? I would like to believe so).

I could list a great many upsetting incidents to which I was privy as a faculty member on Southern’s campus, but these would not be productive and may only make me seem embittered. I did find the leadership of Former President of SAU Gordon Bietz to have a loving posture toward LGBTQ students. He welcomed them into his office and did not discourage them from meeting as group as he understood the need to be in solidarity with one another, although he made it clear to the LGBTQ group SHIELD that they would not be eligible for funding through the Student Association budget. (My time with current president David Smith did not overlap more than a couple of months.) I did not, however, find the leadership of some others on SAU’s Administration to be as loving toward LGBTQ students. I and another of my colleagues were warned not to invite the SHIELD students to gather for worship in our homes because of the message that might signal to the community.

Wrap your mind around that message for a moment. Replace LGBTQ with "struggling with disordered eating" or "homesick" or “sexually promiscuous” or “substance abusing” students and you will see the hypocrisy of the messaging around those to whom Southern’s faculty were encouraged to minister. It’s inconvenient when the tendencies, behaviors, or even the sexuality of people in a community do not align with one’s branding. I’m sure Jesus felt this profoundly true to his leading of the Twelve Apostles. But he loved and led and invested in and died for them anyway. 

One incident that highlights this hypocrisy most prominently was when I was departing Southern. As I was preparing to depart from my position (I had already cleaned out my office), a current student reached out to me and told me a story of an LGBTQ student who had just arrived on campus as a new student during the Smart Start summer session. This student had been so harassed by students he’d never met in the dining hall, blocked from moving through the cafeteria line and called “fag” tauntingly to his face, he was in a state of shock. He did not know a soul on campus and was already being harassed. I decided to make the faculty body aware of the terms of this incident, because, from my view, there didn’t seem to be any reason to hold it under my hat. If it was true, the community had a responsibility to respond. It if were falsely reported, the community needed to take stock of what the response should be if it ever did occur.

In sharing the alleged incident with the faculty via an online listserv, the response was overwhelmingly kind. Prayers and offers of support swelled via e-mail for the student and the faculty body was unilaterally sad to learn that a student had been mistreated. Then an elder male colleague (whom, I should disclose, I had never had a poor interaction with and who appeared to never know my name when I introduced myself to him, even after giving his daughter rides and working in the same building for five years) shot back. He said that reporting an allegation of this nature was patently wrong and that I was, “Unfit for higher education.” This was not the parting gift I had hoped for in leaving Southern. Nor was his complete lack of apology for excoriating me among my colleagues as “unfit.” Yet, I am grateful for the experience as it allowed me to experience what our LGBTQ students experience on Adventist campuses every day: being made to feel “unfit” by some administrators, faculty members, and peers who lack the compassion and wherewithal to love them well. In five years, I never heard a single LGBTQ student ask for any sexual promiscuity to be condoned. I never heard them asking for a change of biblical language or policy. I only ever heard them want to be loved: by their teachers, peers, and even by their parents. Sometimes they just wanted to meet as a body of students to discuss their lives on campus. Sometimes they were only asking for a forum.

There is signage in the Hulsey Wellness Center on Southern’s campus that greets all who enter. It says, “Fit for Eternity.” It has often struck me as clever, though egregiously inaccurate. We are all -- regardless of sexual orientation, diet, language or creed -- abysmally unfit for Eternity. It is only through the matchless love of Christ that we can be made whole, that we can be made well, that we can be deemed fit to share in the bounty of his riches. I cannot wait for the day when he would only speak the word to make us - you, me, and all my former students - fit to share in his glory.

I am wishing the current graduating class a happy graduation weekend and want to encourage them to continue to go forth as lightbearers, and to never be afraid to love others well. 

A year of college now costs as much as a Tesla, and other thoughts

I just want to visit some thoughtfulness upon the latest news of a Connecticut college exceeding the $70K mark on tuition, leading the pricetag pack for the nation. I want to be thoughtful and not just indignant, paralyzed by the sticker shock. Because sticker shock about the cost of higher education is nothing new. Neither is the slackjaw expression of parents, sizing up that great economic pipeline into which we are setting our little children, fearful of how high that tuition will inevitably climb when it's our turn to cut a check. Or cash out on our bitcoins. And what then? [Girton College, Cambridge, England] (LOC)

I really believe in the function of college, particularly as adolescence is lasting longer and longer and university is something of a petri dish in which to grow some thoughtful, civic-minded adults. I had the great fortune to attend a small college in a wee little hamlet, with hills and grassy knolls. I don't use fortune lightly--tuition was $26,000 in the year nineteen hundred and ninety eight. I received scholarships and worked as an RA for 3 years to defray costs of room and board. Good, good, Kendra, so when are we going to move past the part about your privilege?

That's exactly the point. I come from some absurd privilege, which I define as having attended private school and having two supportive parents who had earned degrees and had professional careers for years. Also, I took tennis lessons in high school and sometimes wore a tennis skirt which is obnoxious; all the volunteering in the world cannot course correct for that kind of privileged bologna.

But those same dynamics would not have been enough to buoy me through that same college experience and dump me out on the other side of four years, diploma-fied and debt-free, if I were a student matriculating in this current calendar year. $70,000 would simply represent too much of a burden for my family financially. And I am pretty real about what represented a burden for my family, and that many, many families around the world would love to call that a burden. There's simply no way, with the endowment that most colleges draw from, that aid could cover enough of the portion to make it worthwhile for me to bite the bullet on $70,000/year and incur any attendant debt to make up the shortfall.

I can't even say that it would be worth it. Because what enlightenment upon a grassy knoll could possibly be worth shouldering that kind of financial burden? What kind of career guarantee, what kind of network assurance is worthy of that kind of economic yoke? I know that medical and law school students ask themselves and their families these kinds of questions all the time. And the answer has to be, it will be worth it. It will all be worth it.

I'm just not sure it is anymore. Not state schools, not private schools, not Ivy League or Ivy League-caliber schools. I'm not sure that the rest of the world doesn't have it all a little bit or a lot bit right. There are other means by which an educated adult can be built. Perhaps through conscripted service as in Israel. Perhaps in taking a gap year to figure out what on earth a person actually enjoys enough to study and pursue on a full-time basis, as is popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Or how about first-rate government-subsidized university education as in Scandinavian countries. Those all sound worthy of our earnest consideration.

Kendra is not the greatest economist or thinker but education is supposed to be the great equalizer. For many it has never been an equalizing force, much less accessible. But it seems to me that every strata of education in this country is privileging the privileged more and more, and if we aren't already paying for it, we are about to. What are your thoughts?