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Non Fiction Narrative Essays

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:

Fiction Devices

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.

Poetic  Devices

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:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Sensory imagery-language that stirs the senses–sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
  • Personification
  • Metonymy
  • synecdoche

Other Techniques

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:

  1. First Draft-Get your story down on paper. Don`t worry about logic or structure. Your goal is to write down the details.
  2. Second draft-Revise for point of view, tone, imagery, simile, metaphor, showing and telling. Revise for language and sentence style. Revise grammar and punctuation.
  3. Third and final write-Polish it.  No typos. No spelling mistakes. Make it perfect to publish.

Resources

For addition resources to assist you in learning to write the personal narrative essay, read the following:

  1. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Miller and Paola
  2. The Truth of the Matter by Dinty Moore
  3. Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, Style by Eileen Pollack
  4. How to Write Your Own Stories by Lois Daniel
  5. Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
  6. On Writing by William Zinsser
  7. Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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Related

In the wide world of writing prompts, the options are slim for creative nonfiction writers. Even the relevant prompts are often jumbled together with essay and fictional prompts, making it hard for writers to find what they really want.

But not to worry. I present one whole hefty list of prompts just for creative nonfiction writers.

One small note before you dive in: don’t be afraid to mix and match the prompts. Each suggestion was meant to highlight a specific line of inspiration. There is absolutely no reason that two or three of these can’t be explored within one piece.

In fact, just use my tiny suggestions as springboards. Good luck!

1. Explore a scene or story from your memory by reimagining it from an alternate perspective. Write the event from the point of view of a passing bystander, another person close to the event, a pet, or even an inanimate object. When choosing your narrator, pay attention to how objective they would have been, what they would have paid attention to, and what sort of background knowledge they would have had about the scene.

2. Tell the nonfiction story that you don’t want your mother to read. You know the one. Don’t censor yourself.

3. Recall a moment in which you felt a strong spiritual or unidentifiable energy. Describe the scene in vivid detail, with special attention to the senses. Connect that scene to your relationship with your own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Examine how you incorporated that experience into your worldview.

4. Create a timeline of events depicting your life by using newspaper headlines. Try to focus on events that didn’t involve you directly, but connect them to the pivotal events in your life.

5. Tell the story of one of your family holiday gatherings. Identify any of your family’s common trademarks, such as your one aunt that seems to tell the same joke at every Christmas, or your two uncles that always hide from the rest of the family by doing the dishes. Explore how you are linked within this family dynamic, and how these little quirks evolved and changed over the years.

6. Tell the story of a location. Possibly one that is very close to your heart that you already know well, or a new one that inspires your curiosity. Pay particular attention to your own connection to the location, however small or large that connection may be.

7. Chose a location that you’ve come to know as an adult. Compare how you interact with this setting now to how you interacted with similar settings when you were a child. How has your perspective changed?



If you like these creative nonfiction prompts, check out the other creative writing prompts here at Bookfox.

There are:

  • photo writing prompts
  • musical prompts
  • historical fiction prompts
  • first line generators
  • and more


 

8. Describe a time in which you expected or wanted to feel a religious or spiritual moment, but couldn’t. What were you hoping would happen? How do you choose to interpret that?

9. Recall a key lesson that parents or family members tried to impart onto you as a child. For example: “live with a healthy mind and healthy body,” or “put others before yourself.” Revisit that lesson as an adult and connect it to how you have come to interpret it as you grew up or in your adult life. Feel free to pick a less serious lesson and have a little bit of fun with it.

10. Revisit a special birthday from when you were younger. Describe specific details, with emphasis upon the senses. Now that you have years of context, how do you feel about what your parents and family did or did not do for you? What does that event mean to you now?

11. Choose an event in your life that someone else remembers differently. Describe both memories and debate the differences. Who do you think is right? Why do you think you remember it differently?

12. Choose a strong emotion and think of two memories associated with it. What are the links between those two memories?

13. Think of a lesson you learned recently and apply it to a memory. How would your behavior have changed if you had applied the lesson back then?

14. Choose a commonplace or otherwise unremarkable memory and describe it in the most dramatic and absurd way possible. For inspiration, I’m leaving you with some quotes from Douglas Adams. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” “He leant tensely against the corridor wall and frowned like a man trying to unbend a corkscrew by telekinesis.” “It was a deep, hollow malevolent voice which sounded like molten tar glurping out of a drum with evil on its mind.”

15. Have you seen those bizarre Illuminati videos in which some automated voice tries to prove that Arch Duke Ferdinand is actually alive and has a monopoly on the world’s dairy farms? For this prompt, think of people in your life who have believed in crazy conspiracy theories, and write about the time they first shared them with you. Think of how your beliefs might seem naïve to them, and explore the tension between the competing versions of history.



Lee Gutkind, who has been called the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction,” teaches you his best tricks for writing compelling true stories.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up



 

16. What do you want more than anything in your life? Write about the burning hot core of your desire, and how that desire has changed over your life.

17. Recall what stressed you out most as a child. Was it the creaking stairs leading to the basement? Or being lost at the store? Explore your current relationship to that stressor. Did you ever move past that fear or anxiety? How do you interact with it now?

18. What relationship in your life has caused the most pain? Write the key scene in that relationship, when everything was at stake.

19. Write about a road trip you took, and about where all your fellow travelers ended up in life versus where you ended up. Are you glad you didn’t end up where they did, or are you jealous?

20. How has your identity changed over the course of your life? Write a scene from your teenage years that epitomizes the type of person you were, and then write a scene from recent life that shows how you’ve changed.

21. What event in your life has angered you the most? Write the scene where it happened, and tell us what you would do if it happened again.

22. What single experience most shaped who you are? Describe the experience in a single, vivid scene.

23. Who was your first friend to die? Write about how you learned of their death, and how you and their other friends mourned them.

24. Choose a happy or comfortable memory and write it in a way that makes the memory creepy or eerie to the reader. Don’t change the basic facts of the event, only select different facts and present them differently.

25. Show yourself in a scene pursuing the thing you want most in the world. Try to show the reader, without telling them, about your character flaws.

26. If you could throw five items into the fire, what would they be and why? To be clear, by throwing them in this fire, there would be no trace of them left anywhere, even if it’s something on the Internet or a memory. This is a very powerful fire. What would the consequences be?

27. What physical object or family heirloom ties together your grandparents, your parents, and yourself? Describe this object in great detail, and what it has meant to generations of your family.





 

28. Tell a story from your life in inverted chronological order. Start with the end, then backpedal to the middle, then tell the beginning, and then fill in the rest of the gaps.

29. Write about your favorite trip or journey, and how that high level of happiness was eventually threatened.

30. Look at some photographs of your childhood. Look at the pictures of your old room, the clothes you wore, and the places you had been. Try to remember a friend from that time period, and describe the first memory of a time when they pressured you or made you uncomfortable or angry.

31. Take a small, boring moment that happened today and write as much as you can about it. Go overboard describing it, and make this boring moment exciting by describing it in intense detail with ecstatic prose. Eventually connect this small, boring detail with the grand narrative of your life, your bigger purpose and intentions.

32. Describe the best meal you ever ate. Then describe a conflict you had with the people you shared it with, one that happened before, during, or after.

33. Recall an individual that you particularly hated. Describe their cruelty to you, and try to write yourself into an understanding of why they might have done it.

34. What was the best/worst letter you ever received or wrote? Write about the situation surrounding that letter, and why it was so important.

35. Recall a name you’ve given to a toy, a car, a pet, or a child, and tell us the story of how you and your family selected that name. Who fought over the name? What was the significance of that name? What happened to the animal or thing you named?

36. Write about experiencing the craziest natural event you’ve ever seen — tornado, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane. Dramatize the physical danger of the natural event as well as the tension between you and the people you were with.

37. Tell the story of the most important person that has shaped your town and its culture (you might have to do some research). How did the activity of that person  influence the way you grew up or live currently?





 

38. Scientists have wondered for years how nature and nurture plays into the development of human minds and their choices. Explore where you and your siblings are today and the choices that brought you there. Would you like to trade places with your sibling? Would you be happy living in their shoes? How have your personal choices differed over the years?

39. Write a scene of a time when someone older than you gave you advice, and write about how you followed it or ignored it and the consequences.

40. Write a single, three-paragraph scene when your sexual desire was thwarted by yourself or someone else.

41. Describe a scene when you were stereotyping someone. Did someone challenge you, or if you only felt guilty by yourself, how did you change your behavior afterwards?

42. Describe the biggest epiphany of your life, then backtrack and tell the lead-up to that scene or the aftermath. In the lead-up or aftermath, show how the epiphany was either overrated or every bit as valuable as you’d previously thought.

43. Write about a fork in the road in your life, and how you made the decision to go the direction you did.

44. Explore an addiction you had or currently have. Whether the addiction is as serious as alcohol or cigarettes, or something much more mundane like texting, video games, or internet usage, describe in vivid detail the first time you tried it. If you quit, tell the story of how you quit.

45. Recall a scene in which you chose to remain silent. Whether it was your boss’s racist rant, or just an argument not worth having, explore the scene and why you chose not to speak.

46. Revisit a moment in your life that you feel you will never be able to forget. What about that moment made it so unforgettable?

47. What makes you feel guilty? Revisit a moment that you are ashamed of or feel guilty for and explore why that is. Describe the scene and the event and communicate why you feel this way.

48. Write about a moment in which you acted selflessly or against your own benefit. What motivated you to do so? What were the circumstances? How did you feel after words?

49. Write about the most pivotal scene in a relationship with someone in your extended family — Uncle, aunt, cousin, grandmother. Describe the tension or happiness you shared, and how that came to affect your relationship from that point onward.

50. If all else fails, try a writing-sprint. Set an alarm for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and write as much as possible within that time span. Even if you begin with no inspiration, you might be surprised with what you come up with by the end.





 

For added pressure, try these writing websites:

If you stop writing for more than 5 seconds, everything you’ve written disappears. It’s like writing with someone with a whip behind your chair. But with this new update you can choose to get positive reinforcements, too, like a kitten or candy, or to have your words disemvoweled rather than disappear.

A points-based system to encourage writers to write 750 words every single day. You get bonus points for not skipping days, and bonus points for writing more than 750 words.

Every 100 words you write, you get shown a picture of a kitten. Ah, simple motivation. No word whether a dog version of the site is in the works for those who are more dog people.

For more on creative nonfiction writing, I suggest Creative Nonfiction. This website works with its print magazine counterpart to specifically cater to creative nonfiction writers and operates as an excellent starting point for more inspiration. Happy writing!

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