Major Paper #2–The Personal Narrative Essay
A narrative is simply a story. A personal narrative is a true story, focusing largely on the writer’s own life.
For Essay #2, the Personal Narrative, you will be writing a short essay (at least 3-4 pages in length) about a significant event in your own life. This event need not –and probably should not–be inherently, overly dramatic. Sometimes the most influential moments in our lives are smaller moments, events that we may not recognize as influential until years after the experience. In the personal narrative essay, you will want to tell the story as accurately as you can—search your deep memory—and tell the story from your own perspective. You will also want to exercise your selectivity as a writer, choosing to summarize background information/exposition, and really dramatize important scenes for the reader.
During the course of this unit, you will want to read the examples of the Personal Narrative in Chapter 2.
Here is one sample personal narrative:
Even as a law breaking mischievous youth I had always looked up to Police Officers in my neighborhood. I even looked up to them when they would chase my friends and I when we snuck out at night and kicked sprinkler heads off, or got caught drinking underage. I loved to watch the show “Cops” and always pictured myself in the situations being portrayed on television. In my youth I did a lot of things that most people would look down on and police departments may shun you for, but that didn’t stop me from aspiring to join their ranks.
After serving in the military for over five years and attaining the rank of SGT (P), I was sent orders for recruiting. This was not the path I wanted my career to go down, so I opted to decline the orders. Once I had done this I was faced with a decision, what should I do now? I decided I would try to get hired at a local police department. At the time I was stationed in Manhattan, KS and had to choose between Manhattan, Salina, and Topeka. Topeka and Manhattan were testing on the same days and as fate would have it I decided to give Manhattan a try.
Having no navigational skills in the city I was first challenged in finding the testing sight for the physical agility test. The site was located at the RCPD range, which was off of Pillsbury Drive, near Pillsbury Crossing. When I arrived I was shocked to see that I would be up against forty some odd people fighting for five or six slots. Once I got out of my truck and started talking to other hopeful applicants I became worried. What was I going to do if I didn’t get hired I asked myself. I felt as though I was under qualified after finding out that 60%- 70% of the applicants had degrees in Criminal Justice. I thought for sure that college would be a major hiring point. I had come this far though and had no reason to doubt my ability to prove myself on an obstacle course.
The air was thin and cold on this particular day, making just breathing a chore. Gazing out at the course the towers were tall and a long climb, the walls were high with steep drops to the other side. Tires lined the courses isles to test your agility running through them, and at the end of the obstacle course there was a 170 pound dummy that you had to drag to a safe zone. I felt confident since I was still in the Army and was in the best cardiovascular condition in my life. The lieutenant introduced himself to the crowd and began explaining the course, at the end of his explanation and demonstration he asked for volunteers to go first. In my mind I thought it would be good to volunteer, but I had learned early on in the Army not to volunteer for anything. I held my ground and stayed back to gauge the motivated people stepping to the front. I felt as if watching them would give me an edge. I watched several individuals run through the course until it was finally my turn.
Once I stepped up to the starting line my adrenaline was pumping full blast, I felt unstoppable at that point. I had heard the fastest time was 2:09 through the course on this day and I was determined to beat it. I took off up the steep flight of stairs and down the other side simulating a chase. I felt like a wild animal closing on my prey as I hopped the fence and dropped to the other side. Next I ran through a make shift neighborhood setting and to a high wall I had to climb. Once at the top I ran down the steps and around the turnaround point. It was then that I realized how fast I was moving, I was flying through the course and hurting badly inside. I told myself that it was mind over matter and to suck it up for another 30 seconds. I ran to the shooting simulation and picked the bad guy out of the stand up targets, ran to the dummy drag and drug the 170 pounds 20 yards like a dog carries a flea on a daily basis.
Once I was at the end of the line I heard the scorer yell “2:03.” I had done it. At that point I felt as if the job were in the bag. My score got beat by a fraction of a second later in the day, but I was still proud that I was able to overcome the pain to get to the finish line. After several vocabulary tests, spelling tests, writing tests, and a few oral review boards I was hired. I lived my childhood dream of becoming a Police Officer for three years. It was a thankless job in many ways, but it was also gratifying at times. I have since moved to San Antonio and changed professions, but often reflect on some of the experiences I had. I know I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Deciding What’s Significant
Again, a personal narrative is simply a story from someone’s own life. But how does one decide what to write about?
In general, what you need to do is to figure out which events in your life have been “significant” in some way. What events have impacted how you see yourself and how you see others? What events have shaped your worldview, values, and beliefs?
Next, you’ll want to choose which event in particular you would like to write about (and are ready to write about). I usually prefer for students to stay away from subject matter and events that are inherently dramatic (ie car crashes, deaths, break-ups, etc.) Instead, I recommend you think about events that did not seem significant at the time, but later–after reflection–you found very important and/or revealing. In other words, “significant” does not mean there has to be coffins or tears, screaming matches or fiery blazes.
Use the “consider possible topics” suggestions in Chapter 2 of your textbook for brainstorming. In addition to the ideas listed in the book, you might examine your own childhood memories. Most of the memories we retain from our deep past stick with us for a reason, so this can provide insight into some significant events that you may have never recognized as “significant” before.
After listing remembered events, and working on recalling key places, people, and conversation, decide which story about your own life you’d like to pursue for this essay.
Elements of Story: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue
The following four terms (plot, character, setting, and dialogue) are the four major elements of story. In other words, these are all essentials for your personal narrative.
1.) PLOT: A plot is a pattern of events or actions that lead to a change in a character or situation. In the case of this assignment, the plot of your essay should be limited to a key event or series of events that actually occurred in your real life, and resulted in some sort of change in your character, your relationships with others, your worldview, or your situation.
Plot also always includes some kind of tension or conflict. This conflict may be external, between two people (for instance, a fist-fight with your brother, or a disagreement with your mother). In contrast, the conflict may be purely internal (for instance, a conflict between what you desire and your sense of morality). By the end of your essay, we should have some sense that the conflict has been dealt with somehow, if not entirely resolved.
2.) CHARACTER: A character is any person depicted on the page. We often think of characters in terms of fiction, characters “made-up” or “invented” by the author to further the story or illustrate a point. Even in fiction, however, characters are often based on real-life people. In your narrative essay, you yourself will become a character—even though you must remain true to the facts of your life, personality, etc.—just because you will be reproducing yourself on the page. As a readers, we’ll want to get a sense of who you are as a character on the page in the course of your essay. By the end of the essay, we will also want to know why/how your experience was significant. How did it change you?
To take it even further, beyond the scope of your own life, how was this experience and/or the change it produced significant?
You may also decide to have other characters in your essay, but these must also be real life people who were actually a part of the events you describe. If many people were present during the events you describe, you will need to decide which of those real-life people need to be represented on the page. You will want to limit yourself to including only the characters who played some sort of significant role in the experience. In addition, you will need to decide how much or how little we really need to know about all the characters you include in your personal narrative.
3.) SETTING: The setting includes time and place. When did all of this happen? How old were you? Where exactly did it happen? As a writer, you must decide how much the reader needs to know about what’s happening when and where. However, you should keep in mind that setting is important, setting the stage for the action of your narrative. You should also note that setting can help set the tone of your piece, establishing the “feeling” of the experience and your attitudes about it.
4.) DIALOGUE: Dialogue reports conversation between characters directly, and is usually represented in quotes. Especially if you choose to write about something in your deep past, you may not remember everything that was said verbatim. What you will need to do—if you choose to use dialogue—is to plausibly re-create the conversation, based on what you do remember.