In the small hours of the morning this past Monday, strange dreams kept me tossing and turning. I don’t know if it was because I had be rewatching the glittery vampire and hunky werewolf-packed Twilight movies over the weekend… or because I was about to do something I’d never done before—attend a live filming/broadcast of a class at CreativeLive.
CreativeLive offers classes on everything from photography and writing to managing your time and being more productive. Classes are filmed and broadcast live with an in-studio audience, giving them the feeling of an interactive TV show. You can watch the live broadcast online for free, or you can pay for on-demand access any time after the broadcast has ended. But! There’s a third option: You can also join the live, in-studio audience, which is what I did on Monday. More on that in a minute.
I’d first heard of CreativeLive a few years ago at World Domination Summit when every attendee received a $100 credit to use. Not realizing that my credit had an expiration date, I tucked it away in a place that was so safe I didn’t find it again until the credit had long expired. Oops. There’s also a lot of overlap between the WDS and CreativeLive communities—I recognize many WDS speakers like Vanessa Van Edwards, Lewis Howes, and of course, Chris Guillebeau, on the roster of CreativeLive instructors.
I recently signed up for my first on-demand course, Make Your Dream Trip a Reality, offered by Chris Guillebeau and Stephanie Zito. Thank you to Intentional Travelers for sharing the discount code and starting me on this journey! I’m still working through Chris and Stephanie’s class on travel-hacking (there’s A TON of content), and maybe at some point in the not-so-distant future I’ll be able to share the details of the dream trip I plan with everything I’ve learned in that course.
But for today, I wanted to share a bit about the experience of attending a live recording. (By the way, now that technology is all digital, it’s challenging to know the appropriate language to use—can you still call it a “filming” or “taping” if there’s no film or tape involved?)
After signing up for my travel-hacking course, I started getting emails from CreativeLive, and at the bottom of one, I noticed an enticing phrase: “Want to join us live and in-studio? Drop us a line.”
Even though I thought the studio was in Seattle, I couldn’t help but click the link, just to be sure. It turned out that there’s also a studio located in San Francisco, and they had some intriguing classes coming up over the next few weeks, including “How to Write a Personal Essay” with Joyce Maynard. I figured, hey, I could use a day of professional development and I don’t have anything scheduled on that day, so why not? I filled out the application form and received an email a few days later to let me know I’d been selected to participate.
Which is how I found myself tossing and turning in the wee hours of the morning on Monday. I was a little nervous about getting to Potrero Hill by 8am, and didn’t really know exactly what the day had in store.
The studio is located in a cavernous warehouse-like space that houses several startups. As someone who spent a few years working in San Francisco startups, I found it all very familiar—lots of big windows and tall ceilings with natural light streaming through, punctuated with funky décor like old timey bicycles and colorful throw pillows.
When I headed upstairs to the CreativeLive office, I was shown inside and led to the kitchen, where I was instructed to make myself at home and help myself to some breakfast. I munched on my avocado toast and berries while other students gradually showed up. At first I was in my little corner all by myself and was a little worried that I might not meet anyone else, but the woman who came and sat next to me was really friendly and we discovered we do similar work, and she gave me the scoop on Joyce’s annual retreat at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.
About half an hour before the shoot was scheduled to start, our producer came in to give us the scoop. We’d film from 9–10:30, take a break, film until noon, break for lunch, and shoot again in the afternoon with a brief break. The people who would be called onstage to talk with Joyce were “miked up” (a little production lingo I picked up on set), and since I wasn’t one of those people, I felt a little relieved knowing that I’d just be an audience member.
And then it was time to head to the actual studio. We grabbed our seats, got settled, and waited for class to begin. Joyce breezed into the room, welcomed us with a smile and gratitude for our presence, and spent the rest of the day coaxing people’s stories out of them. Sometimes her work involved looking at someone’s writing and helping them remove extraneous details. Sometimes she prodded people to abandon euphemisms and empty phrases and replace them with expressions that would paint a clear picture in the reader’s mind. And sometimes she would pick out key themes or devices she calls “containers” which allow you to focus on a small detail to tell a larger story.
At times, Joyce spoke at length on a topic like language or paragraph structure, and she occasionally read us examples of personal essays she loves, providing asides to indicate the author’s mastery of their craft.
Just as I suspected, I had a lot to learn from this class. The personal essay, especially through Joyce’s lens, needs to touch on something that’s deeply personal. Participants who were called on to speak in front of everyone shared stories of loved ones’ suicide, family members’ mental illness, abuse, and other emotionally heavy subjects. But Joyce’s advice is applicable to any kind of writing, even if it’s not deeply personal. Here are some of the nuggets I walked away with:
- Detail is important, but don’t just focus on any detail—think about the details that will help your reader go along on your emotional journey with you.
- When you’re trying to describe something, you need to keep asking yourself, “Is this creating a clear picture or helping my reader to really feel something?” There are so many words and phrases we use as shortcuts to meaning. These create no actual image in the reader’s mind, so we need to fight against the impulse to rely on these and really look for ways we can help the reader see, smell, hear, and feel the way we did in the moment we’re writing about.
- As you’re writing, identify your power phrases—the ones that convey the most important meaning—and strategically place these at the end of sentences and paragraphs. Don’t bury your power phrases!
- You’re the director, cameraman, and editor—NOT the camera on the wall in the mini mart that captures everything from the person buying their milk to the armed robbery with equal weight and disinterest. You have the ability to skillfully zoom in on meaningful details, slow down time on the scenes that matter, and speed up or cut out the scenes that don’t serve your story.
- Since you’re writing about something that already happened, you have the gift of knowing events that preceded and followed it. You know what you thought before and after, and how the events in that moment directly led to subsequent events. While you may be telling the story of a trip to the movies, which is really a “container” for losing your mother as a young child (to reference Jonathan Lethem’s essay Alone at the Movies), you can reflect on how you feel as an adult several decades later and how that one trip to the movies shaped you into the person you are now. Your story doesn’t necessarily need to be told in a linear and consecutive manner. You can weave in these other storylines.
- Your essay doesn’t have to be that long to pack a powerful punch. Many of the essays Joyce read were in the ballpark of 800 words.
- Not every piece will end with everything perfectly wrapped up and resolved. And that’s perfectly okay.
This was such an eye-opening experience for me and I’ll continue to reflect on it and try to use the lessons I learned from Joyce. I’m grateful for my classmates who bravely told stories that were painful and difficult to share. And I’ll eagerly look for another opportunity to attend a CreativeLive in-studio session in the future!