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2.7: The Personal Narrative Essay

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    Assignment TLDR;

    This first essay assignment is a chance for me, the instructor and your peers to get to know you. It is also an opportunity to practice MLA formatting & understand basic concepts of storytelling/literature.

    Simplified Directions:

    Write a minimum 750-word personal narrative about a moment, object, or setting that made you the person you are today. Basically, tell a brief story about yourself. Use the Creative Nonfiction readings as inspiration. What would you like your professor and classmates to know about you? What story about yourself would you tell to counteract the "single story" described by Adichie in "The Danger of the Single Story"?


    Below are the parts to help you scaffold this assignment:

    1. Personal Narrative Rough Draft
    2. Personal Narrative Peer Review
    3. Personal Narrative Final Draft

    The following readings will help you with the technical aspects of the essay:

    1. The Writing Process
    2. MLA Formatting

    The following readings are effective examples of personal narratives you can use to help you craft your essay:

    1. Creative Nonfiction Readings
    2. Student Sample Personal Narratives

    The following activity will help you get started:

    The in-depth essay directions follow.

    Detailed Directions

    For this writing assignment, students are to use what they have learned about Creative Nonfiction to write a personal narrative of their own.

    To review, creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic -- or literary -- way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices. A personal narrative, then, is a work of creative nonfiction that is, well, personal. Usually, a personal narrative is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. Though writing about your personal experiences is often the subject of a personal narrative, if you are feeling self-conscious the story does not necessarily have to be about you: often writers will write about someone they love, an object, a place, or even a stranger with a remarkable story.


    Scope, or how "big" of a story you choose to tell, is an important consideration for a personal narrative. Since you have limited time in your literature or writing class, you will probably not be able to write an autobiography or memoir. For 750-1500 words, it is best to focus on a single moment in time. An effective example of this might be "The Fourth of July" by Audre Lorde (Date unknown) or "The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf (1942). But if you have a story that stretches over a few days rather than a few minutes or hours, journal entries or letters (epistolary form) can be an effective method to tell a drawn-out story through a series of vignettes, or image-centric flashes of memory. Please see the story "Bajadas" by Francisco Cantu (2015) for an effective example of the epistolary form. Lastly, some authors choose to organize their essays with anchoring images or subheaders. For an effective example of this form of personal narrative, see "Girl" by Alexander Chee (2016). Take a look at the readings in this chapter to get some ideas about scope.

    After examining these professional examples, it's time to tell your story! So where is a good place to start? Think about a metamorphic moment in your life.

    Metamorphic Moments

    a brilliant blue butterfly rests on a leaf

    "Untitled" by morganglines, 17 June 2007, published on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    What does metamorphic mean? Think of the caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly while in the chrysalis. Similarly, a metamorphic moment is an intense moment or experience which profoundly impacts or changes a person. It could be the happiest moment of a person's life, such as a wedding, birth of a child, or graduation from college. It could be the worst moment of a person's life, like the moment they realized their dream job was not a good fit after all, the moment they realized racism was real, the moment they lost someone they loved, or the moment they realized their lifelong hero was a fraud. It could be a hilarious moment, a scary moment, an extremely embarrassing moment: essentially, it is a moment that made you see the world in a new way or transformed you from the person you were to the person you are.

    Whatever the moment might be, the important idea to remember is to tell a story in a way which immerses the reader: that you make the reader feel like they are there by describing the moment in great detail using your five senses; that you use metaphors; that you have a setting, conflict, and some kind of character growth. A great essay makes a reader forget they are reading an essay. It transports them to your world. It forces them to see the world through your narrator's eyes. As one of my favorite mentors, Caroline Kremers, once said about engaging readers with your writing, "go for the jugular." (Note: please do not physically assault your readers. This is a metaphor.)

    Descriptive Imagery: Showing vs. Telling

    moon glimmering on still black water

    "moon" by George Lezenby, 14 Sep. 2017, published on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
    ― Anton Chekhov

    I went to the lake. It was cool. My breath escaped in ragged bursts, my quadriceps burning as I crested the summit. The lake stretched before me, aquamarine, glistening in the hot August afternoon sun. Ponderosa pines lined its shores, dropping their spicy-scented needles into the clear water. Despite the heat, the Montana mountain air tasted crisp.

    Which of the above lakes would you want to visit? Which one paints a more immersive picture, making you feel like you are there? When writing a story, our initial instinct is usually to make a list of chronological moments: first I did this, then I did this, then I did that, it was neat-o. That might be factual, but it does not engage the reader or invite them into your world. It bores the reader. Ever been stuck listening to someone tell a story that seems like it will never end? It probably was someone telling you a story rather than using the five senses to immerse you. In the example above, the writer uses visual (sight), auditory (sound), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), or gustatory (taste) imagery to help the reader picture the setting in their mind. By the final draft, the entire story should be compelling and richly detailed. While it's fine to have an outline or first draft that recounts the events of the story, the final draft should include dialogue, immersive description, plot twists, and metaphors to capture your reader's attention as you write.

    an aquamarine alpine lake surrounded by trees with a snow-capped mountain in the background

    "Eibsee Lake" by barnyz, 2 August 2011, published on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Need a more specific prompt to get you inspired? Check out the 7 Personal Insight Questions from the University of California's Personal Statement Prompts for Transfer Students. Interested in transferring or applying to another college or scholarship? An effective personal statement is a story that captures the attention of your readers (the college admissions team) and shows them why you are a good fit for the school/scholarship.

    Why Write A Personal Narrative, Anyway?

    First of all, writing a piece of creative work will help students gain an appreciation for the skill and effort which goes into writing, and helps them recognize common literary devices. It will help you get acquainted with some of the basic elements of writing, such as specificity, writing process, and time management. It will also allow you to practice MLA formatting. This will come in handy for future essays. But personal narratives are not just for literature and creative writing classes!

    Believe it or not, writing a personal narrative is an extremely useful skill for anyone to master. Besides helping you get into colleges and win scholarship money, you can use it to ace job interviews, get Instagram or YouTube followers, sell a product to customers through effective marketing, or share the most interesting parts of yourself with a new friend or romantic interest. In science? Telling the story of your research can help you get grants from the government. In the medical field? Listening to patient stories can help you better provide quality care. Small business owner? Personal narratives can help attract clients (think of the "About Us" section of websites!). Passionate about social justice? A powerful personal narrative can quite literally change the world. Whatever your future career or interests, effective storytelling can make a difference in your life. So what are you waiting for? Let's get writing!


    1. First, write a list of as many "metamorphic moments" you can think of.
    2. Next, write a list of the most important or memorable places you have been.
    3. Lastly, write a list of objects which hold symbolic importance to you.

    After you have written these lists, wait at least a day. Then come back and circle the 3 list items which you feel will make the best essay, or that you feel most strongly drawn to write about.

    Once you find three moments, try making a brainstorming web. Write any associated words, objects, ideas, and descriptive imagery (all five senses) you associate with this moment, place, or object. Finally, pick the topic upon which you were able to generate the most ideas. This could be your essay topic!

    Free Writing

    Find a quiet place and set a timer for 10 minutes. Write as much as possible on your topic, as much as you can remember, in as vivid of detail as possible. Try to keep the pen moving on the page without stopping. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or that mean little critical voice in your head. Your job is just to get ideas down. Pretend you are trying to explain the memory to someone who has never met the people you are describing or has never been to the place where the story takes place. How would you describe the moment to an alien? That is usually a good way to ensure you are very detailed!

    Other Generative Writing Ideas

    1. Find a picture that means a lot to you. While it is clear to you why this picture is important, it is likely not clear to a stranger. Try to describe to a stranger all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of the moment so that they understand why the picture is meaningful to you.
    2. Find an image, object, action, or place/scene that is important to you. Use this descriptive imagery worksheet by Shane Abrams to help you describe that object.

    Learning Outcomes

    • Analyze and employ logical and structural methods such as inductive and deductive reasoning, cause and effect, and logos, ethos, and pathos.
    • Use style, diction, and tone appropriate to the academic community and the purpose of the specific writing task; proofread and edit essays for presentation so they exhibit no disruptive errors in English grammar, usage, or punctuation

    2.7: The Personal Narrative Essay is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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