While it may seem like a tremendous shift in trajectory to go from analysis and persuasive essays to a personal narrative, many of the same principles apply here: demonstrating an awareness of audience, providing context, using specifics to strengthen ideas, articulating a clear sense of purpose. Here you must in some respects turn the critical lens of analysis away from texts and public issues and place it on yourself and your life. Still, there are differences, and we’ll cover those in the next few weeks.
You must select an event from your life that changed you in some identifiable way and tell us, your readers, about it. Easy, yes? If only.
Whereas the analysis essay was directed to other English 401 students and the persuasive essay was to whatever audience you thought appropriate, in this essay you’re writing to a more generalized audience—your fellow classmates at UNH, in our class and beyond. Because we are not you and did not have the experience(s) you did, you must do a lot of work in providing background—where this happened and when, what things looked/smelled/sounded/felt like, who the people in the essay are and why they’re important. Obviously, then, there needs to be a sense of context.
Also, specifics are key. We must see who you were before this event and who you were after. You can provide evidence of these selves by describing to us your thoughts, words, and actions. We must also know why this event changed you (cause and effect). To understand the situation, you’ll need to give us details of sight and sound, smell and touch, where and when these events happened. In this way an external reader can grasp your meaning, just as they could with the prior essays.
As with the previous essays, you cannot reasonably tell us everything about this event. You must therefore choose the most significant portions and communicate them to us in a way we, as outsiders, can follow. Because this means digging into your past rather than conducting research, you will likely generate more material than you need. Once you do, you can make decisions about what is important for us as readers to know and what can be omitted. You have a great deal more choice compared to the prior essays in terms of development—some events can be reported in brief summary, and some will demand fuller treatment. More on that in class.
Throughout the essay you must reflect on your experience: why it was important, what you learned from it. This is not a tacked-on paragraph of what you learned (“And that’s why I never take life for granted.”) at the end; it should be incorporated throughout. The analytical approach—that is, looking closely—you took to a casebook text must now be on you and this change.
Narratives are bound by time, so while you do have more freedom to experiment with structure, chronology (more than logic) plays an important role here. Cause and effect is also really important to giving a narrative a sense of flow, but it doesn’t have to be rigid. If you have the chance, I recommend watching Pulp Fiction and/or Memento as good examples of unusually structured narratives. We’ll also be looking at some example essays that move beyond the simple “X happened, which caused Y, which caused…” structure that, while effective, can make for predictable writing.
Because this essay draws from your own experience, your personality should shine through in your word choice and attitude. As with structure, you have room to experiment stylistically, to imprint the essay with more of your own distinctive character. Slang, interruptions, fragments, sarcasm, and other deviations from more formal conventions are acceptable. But that doesn’t mean throwing grammar and punctuation out the window, of course.
Your essays should be typed, printed in dark ink, and double-spaced, with one-inch margins. Place your name, the date, and my name in the upper left-hand hand corner of the first page. Double space, and then center your title. Double space again and begin typing your essay, numbering all the pages. Staple the essay with the works cited (if applicable) and the afterthought.
In a file folder, include the following:
- Your final essay, which should be 5-6 pages (no more than half a page beyond the upper limit)
- The works cited page, if applicable
- The afterthought—on a separate page after the works cited—reflecting on the changes you’ve
made from draft to draft and discussing the process of writing your essay (why you made the
decisions you did, which peer advice you followed and did not and why, what worked and didn’t
as you revised, etc.)
- Rough drafts
- Any peer review sheets