A personal narrative essay is about a personal experience, so it is usually written in the first person. To maximize its impact, the essay should: Be written to have an emotional impact on the reader. Include a lot of references to sensory perceptions and emotions. Relate to something important and impactful to the writer, outside of an isolated experience. Use the essays assigned in this class as a model for what I'm looking for.
The personal essay is often a free-wheeling device of self-expression. If you ever want to experiment with prose and with loosened structure, this is where you can do it.
An anecdote is an incident that’s usually amusing, odd, sad, or tragic. Typically, an anecdote illustrates a point. Other anecdotes that are biographical or autobiographical often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude, or philosophy.
Narratives, on the other hand, have an “official' literary definition: A hero or heroine struggles to overcome obstacles to reach an important goal. (Of course, that “hero' might be someone trying to find themselves in the wake of a bad break up. Or the “heroine' might be a new mother fighting against postpartum depression.) You get the idea.
So why should you care? To be most successful as a Personal Essayist, you should be focusing on crafting a great narrative, and not just sharing an anecdote (this one thing that happened to me this one time). Personal Essays are often called “narrative' essays because they use a story-like style–you are the narrator. However, if you're new to the genre, you might be experiencing confusion between whether narrative essays are the same as stories, or if they just contain mini-stories from real life. In general, they only contain small pieces of stories (anecdotes). These are used in the introductions because they grab the reader’s attention with a compelling description of an interesting moment or experience.
- Narratives involve the reader in the struggle. As the hero overcomes this and that setback, the listener identifies with similar problems–or at least the frustrations and disappointment such problems cause. Empathy sets in. Readers can begin to identify with the hero in the narrative, trying to solve the problem and reach the goal.
- Narratives forge a deeper involvement and engage emotions on many levels. The details necessary to set the scene and structure the narrative involve multiple senses: The physical scene. The appearance of people, things, or places. Fear. Beauty. Starkness. Hearing–conversations, disturbances, arguments, laughter. Withdrawal. Shyness. Mockery.
- Narratives bring closure on a significant goal. Readers actually feel a sense of closure and satisfaction after the narrative “ends' in much the same way they feel at the end of a movie. Whether the movie or narrative ends “happily ever after' or butts up against some harsh reality, still there is closure–a truth to be processed and internalized.
- Narratives are memorable because they have structure. Although good writers know how to tell even an anecdote well, a narrative stays in the psyche because it has a definite arch that is always the same: Beginning, middle, end. Not so with an anecdote. Anecdotes can simply be a slice of life. Here's a great resource that might help as you focus on your structure.
So - as you're writing, pay special attention to the ways in which you can flesh out a narrative in your personal essay, and not rely simply on an anecdotal retelling.
Here's an example that might help clarify this point:
I met a beautiful woman at a party the other day. I shouldn’t have been at the party because it was at the house of someone who doesn’t like me. But the woman was beautiful.
That’s an anecdote. Here’s how you turn it into a narrative:
I met a beautiful woman at a party the other day. I fell in love at first sight — and she with me. But when I learned her name, she turned out to be from the family of my sworn enemies. Nonetheless, we married in secret. Meeting a group of my enemies in the market the next day, I got into a fight with one of them and killed him. Now I’m banished from the city, and my wife is being pressured to marry someone else. (To read the end, see here). 😉
If you're still struggling on how to start, try reading some of these pieces of creative nonfiction!
Be aware that your peers will be reading your work, so avoid topics that might be overly offensive, or too personal for your personal comfort. The final manuscript should be developed and revised, and should be clean and polished drafts with no grammatical errors. Your essay should demonstrate some of the elements of writing we explore in the first four units.
All assignments need to be emailed to me by the deadline - firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some links that might be helpful!