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4.1: Exploring the Past to Understand the Present

  • Page ID
    134147
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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Read for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating.
    • Read in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes.
    Language Lens Icon

    Personal writing is unique in that it tells your story. Because it is a form of storytelling, there may be a tendency to discount personal writing as less academic or less valuable a skill than more formal writing. Although it may allow for greater freedom in style and content, personal writing is valuable in its own right because it enables you to make sense of the world as you—not others—experience it.

    Two genres of this type of writing are personal narratives and memoirs. A genre is a category of writing that features compositions with distinct characteristics, styles, content, and formats. These two genres belong to the larger family of creative nonfiction, a term that applies to the kind of nonfiction writing that shares many traits with fiction writing. The main difference is that the plots, settings, and characters come from real life rather than an author’s imagination. (For more about the characteristics of literary nonfiction, see Print or Textual Analysis: What You Read.) Works of creative nonfiction include American writers Sebastian Junger’s (b. 1962) The Perfect Storm (1997), Jon Krakauer’s (b. 1954) Into Thin Air (1997), and Terry Tempest Williams’s (b. 1955) Refuge (1991). Shorter pieces appear regularly in popular literary magazines, especially in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic, as well as in periodicals such as Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and The Wall Street Journal.

    Writers of narrative nonfiction commonly borrow stylistic and formal techniques from the fast-paced visual narratives of film and television as well as from the innovative language of poetry, fiction, and drama. These influences encourage a multifaceted, multidimensional prose style to keep pace with the multifaceted and multidimensional real world. In addition to memoirs and personal narratives, biographies, autobiographies, and literary journalism are considered creative nonfiction.

    Differences between Memoir and Personal Narrative

    Both a memoir and a personal narrative are accounts of personal experiences written in a narrative style, but there are some differences. A memoir is an account of certain incidents in a person’s life, often from a specific period of time. The narrator is a character in the story and reflects on past events to draw a conclusion based on those events. Memoirs focus on how the author remembers a part of their own life. On the other hand, personal narratives typically center on one major event through which the narrator reveals thoughts, feelings, and possibly related experiences. Like other works in the narrative genre, personal narratives and memoirs develop setting, plot, characterization, and dialogue.

    The word memoir comes from the French mémoire, meaning “memory.” Personal writing relies on memory but is not necessarily an account of every detail of the event the author is writing about. If this were the case, it could make for dry and tedious reading, contrary to what most authors seek—audience engagement. The more important aim is to create a composition that is emotionally authentic and conveys the core sentiment of an event, time period, or lesson and its impact on you, the writer. In the next section, you will meet an author who does just that. He reflects on deeply personal events from his own life as they relate to broader cultural and social issues. The subject of your personal narrative or memoir should not be just you, though you will tell a story from your life. The overall message of the story should be about something bigger—a universal understanding, a lesson learned, a common human experience. The more readers can relate to your story through the details you include, the more it will mean to them.

    The Cultural Aspect

    Cultural Lens Icon

    Personal writing provides a unique opportunity to explore cultural contexts. Culture—shared values, customs, arts, and traits of a social group—is at the heart of personal narratives and memoirs and should be part of their central focus. Including historical information, anecdotes, and vivid details in your writing, as well as using a specific and relevant English variety, helps you depict the cultures that are part of your life and enhances readers’ understanding. Thus, readers are likely to experience deeper empathy and emotional responses in connection to the larger issues presented. You also provide opportunities for culture to be shared as a common human experience.


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