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.
Most Read in 2016
We don’t publish a lot of lists here on creativenonfiction.org. But at the end of every year we do like to take a look back at the stories that resonated with our readers.
In that spirit, we’ve compiled the most-read pieces published on our website in 2016, as well as the most-read work from our archives.
And for good measure, we’ve pulled together a few pieces worth an honorable mention; CNF content that was published elsewhere on the Internet; and the best advice, inspiration, and think pieces from some of our favorite publications.
If you enjoy what follows, please know that there's more where that came from. Less than 10 percent of CNF's content is available online.
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Top Stories from 2016
- I Survived the Blizzard of ’79
As the snow falls ever heavier and the temperature drops ever lower in the author's hometown, she ventures out into a world of white // BETH ANN FENNELLY
- In the Grip of the Sky
If you're wracked with joint pain, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows // SONYA HUBER
- The Math of Marriage
One simple equation compels the author to take a fifth trip down the aisle // ELANE JOHNSON
- Finding Truth in Technology
Five memoirists share their favorite tools for re-creating scenes and setting //SEJAL H. PATEL
- The Marrying Kind
Married for twenty years, happily divorced for six, the author vowed never to wed again—except in the role of officiant // JANE BERNSTEIN
- Before We’re Writers, We’re Readers
Fifteen contemporary writers of creative nonfiction discuss the nonfiction books they remember best from childhood and which influenced them as writers // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox has the last word // JANE MAHER
- How the Mind Works
The better we understand the brain's processes, the more artful our writing can be // DAVE MADDEN
- Writing Motherhood
Parenting blogs and magazines have become ubiquitous, but is the literature of motherhood still undervalued? // MARCELLE SOVIERO
- A Story We Tell Ourselves & Others
Finding inspiration in marriage memoirs // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
Top Stories from the Archive
- Picturing the Personal Essay
A visual guide // TIM BASCOM
- The Line Between Fact & Fiction
On borrowing the tools of novelists // ROY PETER CLARK
- How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&
A conversation with Cheryl Strayed // ELISSA BASSIST
- The Same Story
Two young women, pregnant at the same time by the same man // SUZANNE ROBERTS
- Poetry & Science
A view from the divide // ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING
- The “Five R’s” of Creative Nonfiction
Breaking down the essentials of the form // LEE GUTKIND
- True Empathy or Understanding Is Rare
A conversation with JUDITH BARRINGTON
- Believe It
Narrative credibility is in the eye of the beholder // SARAH SMARSH
- Man on the Tracks
When you watch a man on the tracks before an oncoming train, that’s exactly what you do: watch // ERIKA ANDERSON
- A Genre by Any Other Name?
The story behind the term creativenonfiction // DINTY W. MOORE
- Nature Mothers
From Rachel Carson to Cheryl Strayed, what women writers have found in the wild // VIVIAN WAGNER
Work originally from CNF but appearing elsewhere in 2016
- Hidden Stories and Historical Half Truths
Lies your ancestors told you // On history, heritage, and whitewashing // LITHUB
- The Suicide Memoir
True crime, mystery, and grief // A brief look at a dark genre // LITHUB
- I Invited Twelve People to Write about Their Mental Illnesses for the First Time
Here’s what happened next // WASHINGTON POST
- Pulling Your Hair Out Is Actually a Mental Illness
Here’s how I learned to stop doing it // WASHINGTON POST
- The Life of a Supermodel Sounds Glamorous
But I lived it—and it made me severely depressed // WASHINGTON POST
- On the Ethics of Writing About Your Children
Four nonfiction writers discuss how to navigate writing parenthood // LITHUB
- Dangerous [Language]
A young teacher tires of hearing “boys will be boys” // BRAIN, CHILD
- How I Helped Tell a Soldier’s Story
Jane Bernstein on finding the human detail in a memoir of war // LITHUB
- The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms
By a man who cleans them // NARRATIVELY
- Larimer and Orphan
How the last Italian store on a forgotten street in Pittsburgh found a state of grace // PLACES JOURNAL
Our favorite stories from around the Internet
ADVICE & INSPIRATION
- How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity
On finding what you’re not seeking // NY TIMES
- Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?
On the challenges of writing about trauma // BREVITY
- What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think
Want to be a better writer? Read better // QUARTZ
- If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?
It’s complicated // JANE FRIEDMAN
- Can the Academic Write?
A conversation about style // THE AWL
- How to Be a Writer
Joy, suffering, reading, and lots and lots of writing // LITHUB
- Essay Is the New Black
What I learned from veteran writers at a panel on essays // THE WRITER
- Seven Ideas to Inspire and Improve Personal Essays
Advice from the NY Times // NY TIMES
- The Need to Read
Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person, and understand life’s questions, big and small // WALL STREET JOURNAL
- Consider the Lobster Mushroom
A brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction // BREVITY
- Choose Your Own Memoir
Comic // GRANT SNIDER
THE STATE OF NONFICTION
- Print is the New “New Media”
On the resurgence of print publications // COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
- How Stories Deceive
A look at the uses (and abuses) of narrative // NEW YORKER
- How to Win an Election
How candidates use the art of storytelling to help swing elections // NY TIMES
- Fiction v Nonfiction
English literature’s made-up divide // THE GUARDIAN
- Confessions of a Reluctant Memoirist
Why has an entire genre come to be defined by its worst iterations? // LITHUB
- Can the “Literary” Survive Technology?
Sven Birkerts on our changing brains and what comes next // LITHUB
- Do You Suffer from Memory Blindness?
The influence of others on what we remember // SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
- Where Are All the Women Writing Longform?
Roy Peter Clark checks the history of the Pulitzer Prizes // POYNTER
- The Dark Side of Longform Journalism
On waiting for the bad to happen // LITHUB
- When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do
Dani Shapiro on the loneliness of the long-distance memoirist // NY TIMES
- Dealing in Uncertainty
The essay may be the perfect form for our time // LA TIMES