Writing Well

Life Line: Personal Narratives

Word Watch

Autobiographies and biographies are types of personal narratives.

The great American showman and circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum was near death in 1891 when an editor of a New York newspaper contacted his agent to see if Barnum would enjoy having his obituary published while he could still read it. Never one to refuse a little free publicity, Barnum told his agent he thought it was a fine idea. The next day, P.T. Barnum read a four-column story about his own life and death—and loved it.

Okay, so maybe you haven't scaled K2, plundered the Andréa Doria, or started your own circus. “My life is about as exciting as watching paint dry,” you think. Wrong. Your life is actually tremendously exciting. That's because even mundane events are fascinating in the hands of a good writer. And that's you, buddy.

When you write a personal narrative, you relate a meaningful incident from the first-person point of view. The story might describe a conflict that you untangled, a discovery that you made, or an experience that moved you in some way, for instance.

A personal narrative has the same elements as a short story—plot, speaker, characters, setting, theme, and point of view. But when you write a personal narrative, you're not creating these elements from your imagination. Rather, they come from your own experience. Consider interviewing family, friends, and neighbors about the incident you wish to describe. Considering their recollections can help shed light on your memories and enable you to view the incident from several different vantage points.

Author! Author!

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D., published in 1791, is the greatest biography in English and a treasure chest of in-your-face erudition. It's like a talk show with a great guest and a host smart enough to keep quiet and listen. You should be so lucky.

Many people use the following process as they write their personal narratives:

  • Jot down the main events in the narrative.
  • Arrange the events in chronological order, from first to last. A flow chart can help you straighten out the time tangle.
  • Decide if you wish to use a flashback, flash forward, or straight chronology.
  • Draft the narrative, writing in the first-person point of view.
  • Show, don't tell. Don't just make claims; instead, provide your readers with specific details and images that make your point.
  • Weave in figures of speech, sensory details, and dialogue to spice up your story.
  • As you revise and edit, make sure that your personal narrative has a clear focus. The nature of the experience itself may naturally indicate the focus, or you may wish to show the effects of the experience to underline its importance.

Here's a personal narrative about a key incident in the writer's life. Notice the sparkling detail, engaging dialogue, and clear theme.

Writer's Block

Be on your guard against clichés, shopworn phrases like “good as gold” and “so quiet you could hear a pin drop” that have lost their power through overuse. Replace these hackneyed expressions with fresh comparisons.

I Will Survive

  • At the age of 20, I was a headstrong young woman who thought, “I know everything.” I did not realize my naiveté until I found myself in tears on the New Jersey Turnpike, with $15 in my pocket and half a tank of gas, driving a decrepit 1969 Volkswagen death trap with no floor boards or brakes.
  • Against my father's strong advice, I had left my home in Kentucky to work as a live-in nanny in Chatham, New Jersey. Without so much as an interview, I had been hired. My father said it would never work, but what did he know? He had no faith in me. He wanted to dominate me. He didn't even know me!
  • “You'll be home within six weeks,” he said. He was wrong. I lasted eight weeks, and didn't know how to get home. With echoes of “I told you so” ringing in my ears, I had to make a decision. Should I call my father, ask for money, and crawl the 856 miles back home with my tail between my legs—or drive to New York City and take my chances? Filled with fear, I drove through the Holland Tunnel, hoping to find food, faith, and strength on the other side.
  • “What do I have to lose?” I half-asked, half-told myself. I spent the next week riding the subway, trying to think of a plan. After many long, silent summer days in the nauseating stench of urine and the sweat of human sardines commuting in the heat, I thought there must be a better way. So I returned to my car and drove across the bridge to the beach, to Long Island.
  • I found public showers at the beach, and there were crowds of happy people, peaceful and serene, unlike the sardines of the subway, mashed into the E-train, bogged down with the baggage of tension, and oppressed by the heat. Here I could think and plan.
  • It was day nine that I blended into a company picnic. The tantalizing aroma of free hot dogs called me, and the crowd was large. No one would recognize me as an outsider. And if they did, what was the worst they could do? Take away my hot dog? Tell me to leave? Have me arrested? It was a risk I would have to take.
  • After successfully caging four hot dogs, I felt brave. I had been silent for days, lonely and scared. I began talking, first to children, then to the clown hired to entertain them. Finally, I approached some adults.
  • The following week, I reported to this company for work. I thought I would work a few weeks to earn enough money to get home. That was eight years ago. I am still at the same company, I have married, and I still live on Long Island.
  • I view this as the most positive experience of my life. Although I was frightened, hungry, and insecure, I learned that I am a survivor. I can do anything I set my mind to, and with faith, I will always get through.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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