Personal Narrative

Writing Assignment number one asks you to write a personal narrative by following the structural formula that shapes this genre.

You may want to write a story about your childhood and early teenage years, answering questions about who you are today. To write such a narrative, you invent a controlling idea that drives the entire story. For example, a"controlling idea" can be a coming of age story. The narrator undergoes some change in perspective, a transformation of consciousness. "This happen to me when I was young, and now I am older and no longer naive or no longer blinded by my biases or no longer the same person. I see the world differently." Alice Walker's story fits the bill here.

Another controlling idea (that we will discuss in Orwell's story) starts with a "divided narrator": the narrative portrays how Orwell comes to terms with internal conflict. This kind of division is sometimes referred to as the tension between our "public" self and our "private" self. Remember George Orwell's distaste for British Imperialism and his secret sympathy for the Burmese? It is the resolution of such tension that makes for a good story.

A writer may also face a series of difficult decisions because of the dramatic tensions between his or her own desires and the sense of obligation to his or her family.

Things to consider:

Subject: the strongest narratives may result from writing about something ordinary--you can write about the common, but make it uncommon.

Time: do not try to write about a great expanse of time. Frame the narrative into a small period of time.

Belief: Do not be afraid to create information where gaps exist in memory.

Details: readers like to be informed about things they have not experienced:

Use action; language; emotion; facts; and figurative language.

Guidelines to consider:

1. Construct a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. This is a straight chronology. Or use other formulas, such as starting at the end and working backwards in time. The epic formula for instance begins in the middle, goes into the past and then forward to the end.

2. Narrative writing includes description; concrete details bring the story to life, examples: narratives by George Orwell, David James Duncan, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, Alice Walker, Mark Twain, and Frederick Douglass. These narratives are among my favorites.

3. Point of View: Dialogue allows the reader to "see" other characters: show instead of tell.

4. Discussion (contemplation) about life and situation helps to explain what you are thinking. The final act of reading is about the reliability of the narrator. Here we enter the realm of "critical thinking where you--as a writer--consider the implications of what happens to you. Notice that Orwell, for example, in the act of killing the elephant, stops the narrative sequence and begins to contemplate the meaning of what happens.

5. Remember that stories offer some useful information, a value claim (mostly implicit in personal narratives) about human experience. Ask yourself: So what?

Here are some great questions to help you get started on the writing assignment.