Back to Assignments

Back to Personal Writing

Tips for Writing Personal Narratives

 

Examples of Personal Writing

Rawlins, Jack, The Writer’s Way. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

For many of us, personal writing is the easiest writing we do, because we’ve trained for it every day in our talk and we believe that readers are interested. So we can often do it in the moment we really want to make ourselves known – or we start writing to someone we believe really wants to know us. One student spent the semester turning out acceptable but joyless writing addressed to me, until in the end I said to the class, "Go home and write the essay your classmates would most like to read." In one draft he dashed off this splendid "This is me" essay:

 

Citrus Hoops by Ryan Curry

I lace up my Chuck Taylor high tops in a New York basket weave -- not the normal straight style for me. I want to stand out and show the world that they shouldn’t mess with me. I pull down my socks so that they crumple atop my highs, put on my gray shorts-pull ‘em down so that my jock strap is seen on my back-and slip into a T-shirt that says "In your face, I do it with grace." Ya see, I’m goin’ back ta Citrus -- ta Citrus -- ta Citrus.

To many, Citrus is just an elementary school located at Citrus and 4th avenue, but to many others it’s the ultimate place to play roundball. The three full courts all have baskets of different heights: one at eight feet, one at eight and a half, and one at nine and a half. From dawn to dusk on weekends and from 3:00 to 8:00 on weekdays, games are played. In Chico, there is no better place to hoop.

Ya see, on eight-and-a-half-foot baskets everybody can create. Pretend that you’re Larry Bird, Charles Barkely, Magic Johnson, Cheryl Miller, and, of course, Michael Jordan. Anything is possible: twenty-foot fadeaways, reverse gorilla dunks, alley oops, and sweet drives down the lane. It’s the place where fantasies become realities: top of the key, jab step, cross over, down the gut, split the D, rise to the occasion, double pump, 360-degree right hand "slam jam bam" as Dick Vitale would say. It’s a game of fast breaks, quick shakes, pump fakes, and talking trash in your face.

But before you decide to go play at Citrus, ya gotta have an understanding. If you’re new you’re gonna have to prove yourself. And if people start talkin’ about Sir Ronald, understand that Sir Ronald is the only man known to have completed a Double Dip. No, it’s not at Baskin-Robbins. A Double Dip is when a player dunks the ball and before it hits the ground takes it out of the air and dunks it again. Understand and respect the veterans and you’ll stand a chance.

I finish lacing my shoes, step through the wire fence and call "winners." Everybody looks, nobody argues. When you’re a Citrus veteran no-no-noooobody will mess with ya.

I later found out he was the leading scorer for the varsity basketball team, the team star. He had simply assumed I wasn’t interested in hearing about any of it.

 

In some ways, personal writing asks little of you as a writer. You don’t need a strong thesis, fancy title, disciplined structure, or clever conclusion. Here’s a great character sketch with none of those things.

 

Dad by Michael Clark

I remember he used to take forever in the bathroom. Some morning I could get up, eat breakfast, get ready for school, and leave without ever seeing him. I’d hear him, though: coughing, spitting, and gagging himself. Anyone else hearing him in the morning would probably think he was going to die. But he had always done that, and I figured it was just the way all grown men got up in the morning.

When he came home in the evenings you could tell he was glad not to be at work any more. It was always best not to ask him questions about anything or make any kind of noise. Mom would ask him a couple of things while she was fixing dinner. He’d answer her. Otherwise he’d just sit at the dining room table with his martini, reading the newspaper.

At dinner, Mom would make most of the conversation. He generally reserved his participation for when we kids got too lighthearted or proud or disrespectful or something and needed trampling.

When I played in Little League, he’d drive me. The Conservation Club was next to the park. He’d hang out there until practice was over. Once he ambled a little early. He interrupted the coach and insisted on explaining the infield fly rule-not just once but three times. He’d have gone on like a broken record if the coach hadn’t stopped him and thanked him and quickly dismissed the team.

I always hated riding home with him after he’d been at the Club. Winter was the worst. We’d take our trash to the town dump. The dump was also right next to the park, so naturally we’d stop in at the Club. We’d always stay past dark. On the way home I always wanted to tell him you shouldn’t drive so fast on a day’s accumulation of ice and snow, but I never did. The couple of times we slid off the road didn’t convince him. He’d just rock the car out, get back on the road, and drive on as if nothing had happened.

As time went on, he’d come home later and later in the evenings. Often he’d come through the door all red-faced and walk straight into the bedroom, where we’d hear him moan a little and talk to the dog. Then he’d pass out and we wouldn’t see him again until he came home the same way the next evening.

With my brother in the Army and my sister at college, I was the only one around to see that Mom was spending her nights on the living room couch. Though it didn’t surprise me, the divorce cam as kind of a blow.

I’ve seen him a couple a times since then. I think I called him last Thanksgiving.

 

You don’t even have to be explicit about what you mean. Michael never tells us that his father is pathetically isolated from his family and the human race by his alcoholism. And strict structure can be a curse. Imagine "Dad" rewritten to an outline: "Alcoholism made my father difficult to live with for three reasons. First,…" Personal writing craves an air of authenticity and genuineness, so a little chaos, a little meandering can help by giving the illusion that what’s on the page is just what’s coming into the writer’s head as she talks to us.

 

My Mother by Lori Ann Proust

She is understanding and always there for me. She listens and is full of positive support. I am lucky to have someone who is both a close friend and a mother. Not everyone has this kind of a relationship.

I could find endless words in the thesaurus to describe my mother, but the one word that stands out above the rest is "incredible." She has cared for me and my family throughout my whole life. When I was growing up, she always did my laundry, took me to dancing lessons and the orthodontist for eight years, made me breakfast and my lunch for school everyday without fail, took my sister to field hockey, sewed my clothes, typed my papers, cooked for the family, cleaned the house, did all the yardwork, and was happily married. I don’t know how she managed to do all of these things so well and still have time for herself.

My mother is my sole support system. Whenever something exciting happens or there is a crisis in my life, she is the first person I turn to. I have seen many friends come and go in my life, but my mother is different. For eighteen years of my life, she has always been there for me. No matter the distance between us, we always are close. She understands me and knows me better than anyone else I know. She doesn’t make demands nor does she pressure me with school and my future. She has complete faith and trust in me that I am doing the right thing with my life. I make her happy by letting her know I am happy and like who I am and where my life is taking me.

Everyday I count my blessings and think about how grateful I am to have a mother who loves me. Not once do I take this for granted. I cannot imagine my life any differently without her. One thing is for certain: it just wouldn’t be the same.

Lori Ann’s peer editors focused on three things in this draft. First, the generalities kept them from meeting the mother herself. Second, nobody believed the essay, because the generalities were impossibly simplistic and sunny. The essay felt like a sales pitch. Third, the essay was short, and since mothers and daughters usually have complex relationships, they felt that a lot must be missing. In the rewrite we encourage Lori Ann to start from concretions. She said, "Well, I just had a phone conversation with her that was pretty typical -- maybe I could use that." She did, and this is what she got.

 

 

Mothers…?!!

"Hello?"

"Hi, Mom. How was your day?"

"What’s wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong, Mom. I just called to tell you I found an incredible place to live next year! It’s an apartment in an antique house. It has hardwood floors, high ceilings, it’s close to school, has lots of potential, and the rent is only…"

"Does it have summer rent?"

"Yes."

"Forget it then."

"Fine, Mom."

"I already told you that neighborhood is dangerous and full of rapists."

"Mother, I’ve lived on this street for the past three years now."

"And what about the fraternity boys across the street? Do you know what you’re in for?"

"Mother, these guys are my friends and I have also lived across the street from a fraternity house before…"

"Forget it."

"Fine, Mom. Would you rather pay $225 a month for me to live in a two-bedroom apartment instead of $150 a month? You’d also have to buy me a car because the only apartments available in September are five miles from campus."

"Does your friend Denise know what kind of a slob you are? Does she know you’re the reason why you had cockroaches in your apartment last year?"

"Mother, that’s because I lived in a dive! I found cockroaches before I even moved in..."

"Oh, are you suddenly scrubbing floors now? I just don’t see why you can’t wait until September to find a place to live. I’m not paying summer rent."

"Fine, Mom. I just thought you might appreciate my consideration in letting you know what I am doing before I sign the lease."

"Well, it sounds like you’re going to do it anyway."

"Thank you for your support, Mom."

"Bye." Click.

"Good-bye, Mom; I love you too."

To think that mothers are understanding is the world’s ultimate illusion. I had to sit in the bathroom as I was talking to my mom because there were thirty screaming girls in the hallway, stereos were blasting, and if this wasn’t enough, the smoke alarm was going off because the cooks were burning dinner. I had to control myself from sticking the phone down the toilet and flushing it. That’s how understanding she was being.

My mother can be full of positive support but not when you need to hear it the most. "I’m sure you can find something cleaner, can’t you? You’re such a slob -- I guess it wouldn’t matter anyway." Right, Mom. To my mother’s dismay, I am an immaculate person -- just ask any of my friends. She is practically married to the Pine Sol man. She thinks her house is as sterile as the hospital. Well, I have news for her…

Whenever something exciting happens in my life, my mother is usually the first person I turn to. I don’t know why because she always shoots down my dreams. I sent her flowers and a poem I wrote myself for Mother’s Day and what does she do? She acts irrational over the telephone. "Why can’t you wait until September to find a place? I’m not paying summer rent." Right, Mom. I already told her twice I would pay summer rent myself. Anyone with common sense would realize that it’s an advantage to find the best place now. That way you don’t have to pay storage over the summer.

For eighteen years of my life she has raised me. She knows me better than anyone else I know. It just doesn’t make sense why she can’t be more sensitive and supportive of my dreams. All I wanted was to hear her say, "It sounds great!" But it was obviously too much to ask.

The phone rang as I was finishing this paper tonight.

"Hello?"

"Hi. I’ve been talking to your father about that apartment, and he said he would pay half your summer rent. That way we don’t have to pay for storage." (What did I tell you, Mom…)" So go ahead and sign the lease." (I didn’t tell you this before, but…I already did!)

"I’ll see you soon, Mom. I love you."

My mom will never know this, but I went ahead and signed the lease yesterday, without her approval or support. I felt good about it, knowing I did the right thing. Today’s phone call reassured me that I had done the right thing. Although my mother can be irrational sometimes, she is still my mother and I love her dearly.

First draft was her head talking
Second draft is living experience – feels in her gut
She now has to reconcile the dissonance between the 1st draft (good-daughter party line on mothers) and the evidence (harsh reality)
Writing now to fight for her right to be herself – essay crackles with the energy of the conflict
Generalizations can be places to hide – concrete facts of phone transcript force Lori Ann to come out behind the cliches – show don’t tell
Diagnose your writing for telling instead of showing – highlight every sentence that contains an abstraction or generalization – a feeling, a mood, a judgment, an interpretation
Rewrite by replacing abstraction with concretions – what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch – look for objects, gestures, verbal habits, specific anecdotes and events that reveal truths about subject

 

  

Top Chicken by Katie Jaques

The recess bell shrills and we are outside like so many pistol shots heading for the monkey bars. Out of the shuffling and shouting two distinct lines emerge, one at each end of the metal battleground which looms several feet above our collective heads. I glance cockily at the other team and begin counting. My match is the fourth girl down, Julie Grovner. She is a chubby brunette cry-baby who, for show and tell one Friday, brought miniature bottles of eau de toilette for each of us girls. A complacent smile spreads across my face. Too easy, I decide.

We have won the first two matches and lost the third, and now it’s my turn. I climb up the side ladder and take hold of the overhead bars, slippery as iron snakes, hanging like suspended railroad tracks against the cloudless ten o’clock sky. I methodically swing first to the right, then the left, wiping each opposing hand dry of accumulated sweat as I do so. The yellowed oval calluses gracing each palm attest to my huge success as a chicken fighter, and I note them with a quick sense of pride.

At an observer’s terse shriek, "Go!", I lurch forward, anxious for battle. Julie sways toward me more slowly, her stubby legs flailing wildly. I can practically smell her fear and see, from the corner of my eye, her black patent leather shoes as they arc widely in a feeble attempt to encircle my waist. Swinging broadly to the right, I escape her grasp and can hear the shouts from the other kids getting louder, fueling my desire to win even more. To be pulled down to the black playground surface at this point is to lose my reputation. I set my teeth and curl my toes up tightly inside my brown stained oxfords in anticipation.

Julie can feel the pressure too, and releases, for one second, her left hand in order to wipe it dry, grimacing with strain as she does so. Quickly, hand over hand, I close the gap between us and tighten my long legs about her thick waist, squeezing my victim like a merciless boa constrictor.

The shouts are deafening now. Julie’s brown eyes widen in surprise as she attempts to return her free hand to the bar. Noting this, I instinctively lock my ankles together behind her arched back and begin to pull her downward, watching her one remaining hand slowly relinquish its grip, knowing all too well the Indian burn sensation the metal generously imparts to the loser’s palm.

Emitting a loud squeal, Julie drops to the charcoal turf ashamed and slowly hobbles over to her own side unacknowledged. Amidst the hoopla, I quickly monkey-walk back to my own team, unable to repress a victory grin that stretches from ear to ear. Climbing down and taking my place at the back of the line, I casually pick at an old callus with a shaking hand, barely noticing my aching thighs, counting out my next opponent.

I love how Katie captures the enormous importance of childhood experience. The battle on the bars takes on the weight of D Day. Words count here: "Julie drops to the charcoal turf ashamed and slowly hobbles over to her own side unacknowledged" is rich with resonant verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, and the last word is worth more than most entire paragraphs. "Too easy, I decide" is a wonderful example of the power of the unexpected staccato sentence.

 

Polly by Stephanie Miner

The first time I saw her, she scared the pants off me.

Once a week she would come into the market where I worked, drawing attention every feeble step of the way.

"I’m here for my groceries, Eddie," she would yell out of her crackling voice, blowing an occasional drop of saliva out of her mouth as she worked to push the words past what few teeth she had left. Ed, my boss, would utter an irritated grunt of recognition. He was always bothered by her, so I usually took on the responsibility of waiting on her.

The old woman would take her grocery cart that doubled as a walker and shuffle up the aisles trying to find her groceries, yelling for assistance every step of the way.

"Where’s the milk?" she would croak out. "Somebody help me find the milk. I don’t see the milk." She looked at me with empty cataract-covered eyes as I walked over to help her.

"Which one are you?" she would ask me. "Are you Lori?" She asked me this same question every time she saw me, and I’d politely tell her no, that Lori had quit working there over a year and a half ago. She’d always laugh at her own mistake. "Polly’s getting old, ya know. I can’t remember all my kids’ names." She’d then reach out and run a calloused, dirty, arthritic hand through my hair.

"I remember you now. You’re the kid with the golden hair. Stephanie with the golden hair. Mine was like that." I tried to imagine her almost non-existent hair being full and golden blonde. She had once been a strong woman – almost as strong as the few silver strands of hair that still hung onto her scalp.

For almost two hours Polly would make her way around the store, yelling for this or that. Tourists would ask who the obnoxious little man was. I’d respond by telling then that the sweet old woman was a local who had simply gotten up in her years, all ninety-two of them

Talking with Polly was always an experience. "I can’t hear ya, Honey, gonna have to speak up. I need some bacon. Lotsa fat." I’d ask her how much bacon she needed.

"Bacon. Lotsa fat," she’d respond. I’d ask her how much again, this time louder.

"Bacon!" she’d yell. How much?, I’d scream in return.

Polly was very careful to keep track of her scant supply of money. She insisted that the cashier write a receipt for her, in addition to the cash register receipt, with the words PAID IN FULL written so big she could see it. After safety-pinning her money purse (a small, tattered fabric bag) to the lining of her clothing, she’d gather up her bags and yell for a ride home. "I’m ready, Eddie. Let’s go."

Those were the last words I ever heard Polly say. She died twenty-four hours after the authorities tried to force her to stay in a convalescent home.

"She loved you," an elderly customer told me when I returned to work over Christmas vacation and heard the tragic news. "She loved all her kids. Every person in this town is her kid. She loved her kids."

 

 

[Comments on "Polly"]

Although this essay is a cliché: the decrepit, crusty senior citizen has preserved her personal dignity and really loves people beneath the crust. But Stephanie’s technique makes the cliché come alive. It has a lovely opening hook. It has a fine ear for Polly’s speaking voice. The timing of the "bacon" conversation is awesome. And the point of view is a stroke of genius. Stephanie makes everyone else fade into the background so Polly seems to move through the world of isolation. Polly is the only person allowed to talk, for instance.

 

Obviously the thing to do now is to go write a personal essay of your own. If you want to hone technique first, here are some ways.

  1. Choose someone in your life and make a list objects, verbal expressions, and behaviors that capture the essence of him. How does he usually dress? What are his verbal tics? And so on. For three of the items on the list, write brief paragraphs showing how the item reveals a lot about the person.
  2. Write a half- to one-page monologue or dialogue that reveals the character of someone in your life.
  3. Write an essay which, like "Citrus Hoops", says most clearly and loudly to the world, "This is me."

Back to Assignments

Back to Personal Writing

Tips for Writing Personal Narratives