By Dave Hood
There are several types of personal essays in creative nonfiction. The most popular is the personal narrative essay or memoir essay. It focuses on a personal experience that is a turning point, a change in direction, an event that has significant meaning, and also shares a universal truth with readers. You can read the personal essay in magazines, literary journals, and the newspaper. For examples of excellent personal narratives, you can read Brevity, a popular online journal that publishes short personal narrative essays of 750 words or less.
In this article, I’ll cover the following aspects of the personal narrative essay:
- Definition of the personal essay or memoir essay
- Techniques that you can deploy
- Structure of the personal narrative essay
- Resources for writing a personal narrative
What is the Personal Narrative Essay?
It is based on memory of an event or experience or moment in time that had significant meaning to you. Your task is tell a true story about a turning point in your life. This true story could be about an illness, disease, death, journey, quest, pilgrimage, first encounter, and so forth. In other words, the event or experience actually happened to you. To unearth the details of this story, you must mine your memory. Your goal is to look back into your memory, to an earlier time in your life, and unearth true stories that had significant meaning to you. That is why the personal narrative is also called a memoir essay–which implies that you are writing a true story about a slice of your life. It is based on a brief span of time–not your entire life.
To find examples of good personal essays, read the book, ‘The Art of the Personal Essay’, edited by Phillip Lopate. It includes a variety of personal essays written by many of the best writers.
Finding Material to Write Personal Narrative
“Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” wrote Michel De Montaigne. In other words, you have life experiences that everyone else has also experienced, experiences or moments in time that reveal the state of the human condition, life experiences that have universal meaning.
Where do you find material to write a personal narrative or memoir essay? In “Tell IT Slant”, Brenda Miller explains how to find material. She writes about:
- Memory. Mining your memory for turning points in your life. Turning points, such as a job loss, illness, disease, death, first encounters.
- Family life. Reflecting on family-What family events had significant meaning? What do you remember about family life?
- Spiritual journey. Write about your spiritual journey.
- Place. Write about home. What is home? Travel experiences. The natural world, such as hiking, biking, camping, exploring the wilderness.
- Popular culture. Write about film, music, fiction, poetry, photography, art—and how it has impacted you. What memories do you have?
- The global village. Write about the world in which you live, such as the environment.
Writer Eileen Pollack, in ” Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that you write about:
- Journey, quest, pilgrimage
- Mysteries and investigations
- Rituals, games, performances, events
She also suggests that you select a topic and then pose a question. For instance, your topic might be about job loss, and your question might be ” How I survived 12 months of unemployment?”
For other ways to unearth material for writing personal narratives, I recommend that you read “How to Write Your Life Storey” by Lois Daniel. In the text, she suggests ways to dig up memories about a myriad of topics–from toys to technology , to milestones to accomplishments, things that have significantly affected you.
Creative Writing Techniques
There are several fiction techniques and poetic devices that you can use to tell your story:
Whe you write a personal narrative essay, you put to use many of the following fiction techniques:
- Setting/scene. It is the time and place and context of your story. Use it to provide a backdrop to your story.
- Character and characterization. View yourself as the central character in the story. Use the fictional techniques, such as dialogue, description of behavior to show the reader who you are.
- Dialogue-words spoken by characters, including yourself.
- Point of View-Write in the first person “I”.
- Voice and tone-Use a friendly, informal voice, as though you are having a conversation with a friend.
- Style-Use language the reader will understand, avoiding jargon, clichés, hackneyed expressions. Also, use sentence variety, including simple, compound, complex sentences, sentence fragments, and periodic and loose sentences. Use items in a series and appositives.
- Writing in scenes. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, vivid description.
- Components of a story (inciting incident, obstacles, climax/turning point, resolution)
- Showing and telling. You tell your reader by summarizing and condensing the passage of time. You show your reader by using vivid descriptions, and by writing in scenes–which includes setting, dialogue, action, vivid descriptions.
When a writer uses poetic devices to convey information, his or her writing becomes entertaining to read. The best writers use them to create memorable prose and story. Use the following:
- Sensory imagery-language that stirs the senses–sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
You are to show and tell the reader what happened by providing concrete and specific details and vivid descriptions. These details and descriptions should be based on significant elements in the story, such as the climax. You can also use metaphor , simile, and sensory imagery to create word pictures in the mind of the reader.
Your story needs an angle or way to tell the story. This angle lets you know what to include. You can create an angle in many ways, such as using a quotation or posing a question such as what if.
To tell your story, you use three modes of expression:
- Scenes– For the important events, such as the climax, you write in scenes. A scene includes the setting, action, dialogue, vivid description.
- Summary– Use summary to compress time and to summarize what happened. You tell the reader certain things that are not significant, such as background information.
- Personal Reflection– You include your thoughts, feelings, opinions, personal perspective about the event that resulted in a turning point.
Structure of the Personal Narrative Essay
How should you structure your personal narrative essay. Adair Lara, who has written countless personal essays and taught creative writing, and who is the author of the bestselling text, “Naked, Drunk, and Writing”, suggests that the structure of a personal narrative essay or memoir essay include the following:
- Problem– Your goal is to describe a problem in vivid details. What is the significant event that lead to a problem?
- Struggle-This problem creates conflict, which can be external (the outside world) and internal ( within your mind or psyche) obstacles or setbacks.
- Epiphany– Your problem and struggle results in an epiphany or flood of new understanding. The epiphany transforms your story from merely an anecdote to a personal narrative that has significant meaning to you, and shared meaning with others.
- Resolution– What you have done differently since you had the epiphany.
In Creative Nonfiction, Eileen Pollack writes that “creative nonfiction is creative precisely because it encourages its practitioners to choose—-or invent—the form that seems best suited to exploring the material they wish to explore.” And so, for her, creative nonfiction, whether a meditative essay or personal narrative has no predefined form. It all depends on what you are writing. That is what makes the writing creative.
According to Pollack , you need to select the best form or structure for telling your story. She writes: “The first-person narrative is by far the most common; the writer describes a life-changing event that happened to him or her as that story unfolds in time.”
This could mean that you tell the story without a predefined structure. And so your essay is crafted organically, without structure. Or you could use a chronological structure like a short story or novel, presenting events in a casual order, as they unfold with the passage of time. For Pollack, there is no predefined structure for writing a personal narrative or memoir essay.
Point of View and Personal Perspective
Writing the personal narrative is about being subjective and sharing a personal point of view about a significant event, personal experience, or moment in time. And so, readers expect you to share:
- Your thoughts
- Your feelings
- Your opinions
- Personal Reflections
Revising Your Personal Narrative
The most important part of writing a personal narrative is revision. Rarely does a writer get the story correct the first time. And so, you will need to revise your personal narrative to make it the best you can.
The Revision Process includes three steps:
- First Draft-Get your story down on paper. Don`t worry about logic or structure. Your goal is to write down the details.
- Second draft-Revise for point of view, tone, imagery, simile, metaphor, showing and telling. Revise for language and sentence style. Revise grammar and punctuation.
- Third and final write-Polish it. No typos. No spelling mistakes. Make it perfect to publish.
For addition resources to assist you in learning to write the personal narrative essay, read the following:
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Miller and Paola
- The Truth of the Matter by Dinty Moore
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, Style by Eileen Pollack
- How to Write Your Own Stories by Lois Daniel
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- On Writing by William Zinsser
- Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara
- Brevity, an online journal of personal narrative essays. Click www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/ to see these well-written, creative expressions of the personal narrative essay.
- The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate
In summary, a personal narrative or memoir essay is a true story about a turning point in your life, a life-altering event that resulted in an epiphany, and that has universal meaning for others. To tell this story, you put to use the literary techniques of fiction and the devices of poetry. To structure your story,include the components of a story–the main event or problem, setbacks and obstacles, climax, epiphany, resolution. If y0u prefer, create your own structure. As well, use the first- person point of view (‘I’), a conversational voice, and personal reflection.
In the next post, I’ll explain how to write a lyrical essay.
There’s nothing more engaging than a personal story told with insight, humor or candor. That explains the acclaim of bestselling anthologies like The Bitch in the House, edited by Cathi Hanauer, provocative first-person forums like The New York Times “Modern Love” and Newsweek’s “My Turn” columns, and NPR’s popular “This American Life.” Unfortunately, not all intimate narratives are as compelling for the audience as they are for the author. Here’s how to turn your private experiences into wise, eloquent prose.
1. read top essayists. Don’t start in a vacuum, mimic poetry or copy novelistic techniques. Study the specific format you want to emulate. For an overview, check out Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Linger over 50 lovelorn stories in Modern Love, edited by Daniel Jones. Memorize Daphne Merkin.
2. Write about your obsessions. Pick a subject that you find enthralling, that you have expertise on, or that’s breaking news. No student I know has penned a good piece on the Iraq war—because the students haven’t fought in Iraq. Conversely, pupils have aced essays on being addicted to buying make-up at an all-night drugstore, getting tested for HIV and firing a nanny after reading that nanny’s X-rated blog. Don’t worry if the subject’s small compared to world events. You’ll bring a theatrical freshness to what fascinates you.
3. Focus on drama, conflict and tension. Don’t write an appreciation of your spouse, parents or children. Love letters and light slices of life rarely engender profundity. Instead, think in extremes: the night that changed your life, the lover who shattered your heart, the most humiliating thing that ever happened to you. Tackle unresolved emotional issues. You’ll get a meaty subject and maybe a cathartic release.
4. Identify with cultural stereotypes. You know your background, who you are, what you look like. But your photo, résumé or bio may not accompany your pages. So describe yourself. My student Sabi Ali began her New York Times piece: “Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, I came to the United States at age 6, settling with my family in upstate New York, growing up Muslim in suburban America …” Share specific religious, ethnic, cultural and class conflicts.
5. Be timely. In a 900-word essay, there’s no time to build up to brilliance. Your beginning should grab readers by the throat. Start with an upcoming holiday, hot book, movie, TV show or cultural phenomenon on a similar topic. To chronicle your hospitalization with a gall bladder attack, instead of starting, “Sixteen years ago, when I felt sick,” try, “On a recent ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Dr. McDreamy took out a gall bladder. Unfortunately my doctor wasn’t as adorable …”
6. Forget easy opinions. We know terrorism is bad, public schools need money, breakups hurt. Just because something happened is never enough reason to write it. Find idiosyncratic angles, play devil’s advocate, twist clichés. When my student Rainbow Kirby explored her 30-year-old boyfriend’s living at home, she smartly began with the film Failure to Launch, which had just opened, and sold the flip side—the perks of dating a man residing with his folks—to Newsday.
7. Show and tell. In fiction and poetry we “show, don’t tell.” Essays are like mini-memoirs, so be didactic, sum up, flash forward, cut to the chase.
8. End with emotional insight. Personal essays must get personal. But even if you bravely revisit your worst struggles, playing victim and reciting a litany of injustices inflicted upon you is boring and cliché. Question, challenge, reveal and trash yourself more than others. One colleague wrote about her ex-husband of 20 years, an abusive alcoholic, listing all his evils. When she admitted she knew he was a problem drinker after a year, I suggested refocusing on why she’d stayed for 19 more. Turned out her father was a drinker and her mother helped him give up the sauce—at age 60. So that was her model for marriage. Now that piece was a standout.
1. Describe your story in a succinct, engaging line—a Hollywood movie pitch—like this:
During my difficult divorce, I decided it was OK to let my two daughters see me cry.
At 37, I moved back in with my parents, becoming the rebellious teenager I never was.
Ever since my car accident, I’ve done more immoral, illegal things.
Studying in Africa made this white girl appreciate her big behind.
2. Find an exciting, revealing start to grab attention. Don’t save the good stuff for later. There won’t be a later if you don’t nail the lead. Start in the middle, with the drama. Here are gripping,
idiosyncratic first lines:
• My name is Arpard Herschel Fazakas—or at least it was until last year, when, at age 51, I changed it.
• I loved a guy who’d been dismissed from Harvard over accusations of raping another student.
• I last saw my brother at a Dairy Queen in Tennessee right before he left for prison.
3. Describe Your Cultural Background in a few sentences packed with colorful personal details. For example, I’m a 46-year-old dark-haired, nice, Jewish, Manhattan journalist who never lost my Michigan accent. Here are more ways to slip in who you are—encouraging readers to know and like you:
As a first-generation Chinese-American woman who wears a size 36D bra, I can testify to the power of the American fast-food diet.
“I was a 40-year-old Greek-American girl who was a bridesmaid seven times, watching two sisters take the plunge, so I was relieved it was finally my turn.”
My older brother Mike and I are “Irish twins,” born 10 months apart in a blue-collar, Catholic suburb near Boston.
4. Underline newspaper and magazine news on your theme. Here’s how to transition from a topical reference to you, making your story more universal:
Brangelina may have the most popular baby in the world, but I had my taste of celebrity when I took my son to the Philippines.
When I arrived in the performing arts Mecca of Manhattan, there was no Simon Cowell to send me back to Illinois, even though this 22-year-old actress was neither talented nor beautiful.
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