This assignment will give you practice in composing a narrative essay based on personal experience. Narration is one of the most common types of writing assignments--and not only in freshman composition courses. Many employers as well as graduate and professional schools will ask you to submit a personal essay (sometimes called a personal statement) before even considering you for an interview. Being able to compose a coherent version of yourself in words is clearly a valuable skill.
Write an account of a particular incident or encounter in your life that in one way or another illustrates a stage of growing up (at any age) or of personal development. You may focus on one specific experience or on a sequence of specific experiences.
The purpose of this essay is to shape and interpret a particular incident or encounter so that readers may recognize some connection between your experiences and their own. Your approach may be either humorous or serious--or somewhere in between. Consider the guidelines and suggestions that follow.
In each of the following essays, the author recounts and attempts to interpret a personal experience. Read these essays for ideas on how you might develop and organize the details of your own experience.
- "Outcasts in Salt Lake City," by James Weldon Johnson
- Ritual in Maya Angelou's Caged Bird
- "Quality," by John Galsworthy
- "A Hanging," by George Orwell
- "Two Ways of Seeing a River," by Mark Twain
Getting Started. Once you have settled on a topic for your paper (see Topic Suggestions, below), scribble anything and everything you can think of concerning the subject. Make lists, freewrite, brainstorm. In other words, generate lots of material to begin with. Later you can cut, shape, revise, and edit.
Drafting. Keep in mind your purpose for writing: the ideas and impressions that you want to convey, the particular traits you want to emphasize. Provide specific details that serve to satisfy your purpose.
Organizing. Although most of your essay will probably be united by a narrative line (that is, related moment by moment in time), make sure that you complement this narrative (at the beginning, at the end, and/or along the way) with interpretive commentary--your explanations of the meaning of the experience.
Revising. Keep your readers in mind. This is a "personal" essay in the sense that the information it contains is drawn from your own experience or at least filtered through your own observations. However, it's not a private essay--one written only for yourself or for close acquaintances. You're writing for a general audience of intelligent adults--say, your peers in a composition class.
The challenge is to write an essay that is not only interesting (vivid, precise, well-constructed) but also intellectually and emotionally inviting. Put simply, you want your readers to identify in some fashion with the people, places, and incidents that you describe.
Editing. Except when you're deliberately mimicking nonstandard speech in quoted dialogue (and even then, don't overdo it), you should write your essay in correct standard English. You may write to inform, move, or entertain your readers--but don't try to impress them. Cut out any precious writing, useless adjectives and adverbs, and wordy expressions.
Don't spend a lot of time telling how you feel or how you felt; instead, show. That is, provide the sort of specific details that will invite your readers to respond directly to your experience. Finally, save enough time to proofread carefully. Don't let surface errors distract the reader and undermine your hard work.
Following your essay, provide a brief self-evaluation by responding as specifically as you can to these four questions:
- What part of writing this essay took the most time?
- What is the most significant difference between your first draft and this final version?
- What do you think is the best part of your paper, and why?
- What part of this paper could still be improved?
- We have all had experiences that have changed the directions of our lives. Such experiences may be momentous, such as moving from one part of the country to another or losing a family member or close friend. On the other hand, they may be experiences that did not appear particularly significant at the time but have since proved to be important. Recall such a turning point in your life, and present it so as to give the reader a sense of what your life was like before the event and how it changed afterward.
- Without getting too sentimental or cute, recreate your childhood perspective of a particular family or community ritual. Your purpose might be to highlight the division between the child's perspective and the adult's, or it might be to illustrate the child's movement toward an adult perspective.
- Sometimes a significant relationship with someone can help us to mature, easily or painfully. Recount the story of such a relationship in your own life or in the life of someone you know well. If this relationship marked a turning point in your life or if it provided you with an important change of self-image, present enough information so that readers can understand the causes and effects of the change and can recognize the before-and-after portraits.
- Write a reminiscence of a place that has had considerable significance for you (either during your childhood or more recently)--positive, negative, or both. For readers who are unfamiliar with the place, demonstrate its meaning through description, a series of vignettes, and/or an account of one or two key people or events you associate with that place.
- In the spirit of the familiar saying, "It's the going, not the getting there, that matters," write an account of a memorable journey, important either because of the physical, emotional, or psychological experience of travel; or because of the phenomenon of leaving somewhere for an unknown experience.
- Additional Topic Suggestions: Narration