Personal Narrative Generate ideas for personal narrative
Personal Narrative Generate ideas for personal narrative due towards end of course and revolving around the theme of the American Dream. We will now get started on your 2nd major paper in the course: a personal narrative. This style of paper goes by names as varied as the genre itself: personal essay, personal narrative, memoir, creative non-fiction, etc. I have chosen the term personal narrative because the word “narrative” effectively describes what you will be asked to accomplish in this paper: personally reflecting on, responding to, and creating your own narrative (story) and experience with the American Dream. In other words, you will write an essay about what and how the American Dream influences you. While the final or polished draft needs to be 4-6 pages double-spaced, you will be required to turn in all drafts/assignments as part of your final submission. Your first draft/assignment is more of a collection. You are to fill at least 4 pages single-spaced with stories and anecdotes that come to your mind as you think about the following prompt: What experiences and impressions have you had with what is called the American Dream? Record these stories in your first or “collecting” draft. Don’t worry about putting the stories into a polished form or only recording stories that you think are appropriate to a pre-determined theme. A creative mind will make connections that weren’t obvious at first. Think creatively. In other words, don’t censor yourself as you write and don’t think the stories you record need to be fit easily into a bigger story. “Fitting” is a later assignment. Right now you’re a butterfly collector of stories. Don’t treat this as a rush-write, though. You probably won’t (shouldn’t) be able to finish this assignment in one or even two sittings. Think of this first draft as collecting over the period of several writing sessions. Collecting isn’t just sitting down and writing. You should talk with others; look for stories or memories during your daily routine; write down things you overhear; collect interesting things that have anything to do with the American Dream, or just dreams or even nightmares or maybe sleep-walking or sleep-talking. What will likely happen as you collect stories is that you will be reminded of or find stories that are interesting but may not on the surface seem to be about the American Dream. That is a good thing. Record those experiences as well. At this point you do not know what the essay’s final form will be and the most obscure fact or story may end up being the crux of your essay. Collect, collect, collect! Before progressing further, I’d like you to read a former student’s personal narrative; it began with the same prompt you’ve been given. The student has since used the narrative for scholarship essays, application essays and law-firm interviews. He has given permission to use the essay; read it as an excellent example of the sort of narrative you will write. Remember, it began as a collection of stories. Death of a Korean Boxer “Korean Boxer” is a beautifully written essay about one person’s experience with the American dream. Did you notice how the essay explored and shaped the American Dream from the personal experience of a Korean family? As you tackle this first writing assignment, remember what John Donne famously said about “no man [being] an island.” A personal narrative is not only about you. You are part of a culture, a sub-culture, a family, an environment, your ancestors, and other stories. Almost every student I’ve taught (including the student who wrote “Death of a Korean Boxer”) initially said, “I have nothing interesting to write about.” If you limit your essay to only yourself, you are probably right, but every person has a fascinating story when he or she realizes that they are not Donne’s “island,” separate and alone. As you collect stories, ask people who are important in your life about dreams, about aspirations, about broken dreams, about how a family ended up living where it does, etc. If nothing else, I’d say everyone has at least one eccentric aunt, uncle, or distant relation to begin writing about. The rest will come if you trust the process. The other thing I’d like you to remember is specificity. You will be tempted, as you record your stories, to write them down in a very general way. Learn to be specific in your writing; generalities are meaningless while specifics are magic. For example, if I were trying to tell you about my mother, I’d be tempted to be a lazy writer and say, “my mother was an amazing and resourceful woman.” That is meaningless to the reader isn’t it? You have no picture or understanding of my mother because generalities are meaningless. How do I fix that? I could tell you that my mother raised 10 children in the Canadian bush without much money. A little better right? But still not specific enough. So, I’ll tell you that on Christmas day when I was 4 years old, our family had no food in the house, but a yearling moose wandered into our yard along the paths my Dad had made through 10-foot snow drifts; my Dad shot the moose and hauled it into the attic (it was a like a freezer up there because we only had a wood stove on the main floor for heat), where my mother butchered the moose with a hacksaw. We lived through the rest of the winter on moose meat which Mom chiseled off the hanging carcass and would turn into steaks or sometimes soups/broths using the water she melted down from snow, since we didn’t have plumbing either. All of a sudden, because I wrote specifics, you have a very clear picture of my mother’s personality, her resourcefulness, her strength. True story, by the way. I don’t know yet how or if I will work that story into an essay, but as you collect specific stories like this, your narrative will start to emerge. A final reminder before you get started: the process of writing is just as important as the essay’s final version or your grade. Please do not try to skip steps in the process or you will miss out on what will be one of the most influential writing experiences you will likely have. Here is a check list for this assignment: Collect stories, anecdotes. Write stories down as specifically as possible. Resist temptation to attach morals too quickly. Fill the equivalent of four pages single-spaced; keep your work as a first draft to be turned in later.We’ll return to your personal narrative in this lesson. At this point, you should have at least four (4) pages of specific stories from your collection draft. Don’t assume that you are finished with collecting, though, as new stories and ideas will likely come to you as you work on the second part of the narrative: generating dialogue. Your assignment will be to write down about one page (single-spaced) of specific dialogue from the stories you’ve collected thus far. Most likely, you will need to ask people in the stories what they remember saying or being said, and reconstruct dialogue as best you can. We’ll talk more about the ethics of generating dialogue later in the lesson, but now I’d like you to think about why you are being asked to generate dialogue to be used in the final draft. Put simply, well-written dialogue has the power to convey meaning and create images that are powerful in ways that even specific details can’t achieve by themselves. Think back to the “Death of a Korean Boxer” essay and some of the natural but powerful use of dialogue in that essay: I have bought myself a small casket. If I lose, I will not walk out of the ring. You win if you have four hours of sleep. You lose if you have five. When people were hungry, winning just wasn’t a goal. Winning was food. The outcome of the match will not only affect Kim Duk Koo personally, but will influence the direction of Korean boxing. What do I have to offer this family? The specific dialogue of the essay both stands out and shapes the main idea of the narrative. For me, the line “I have bought myself a small casket” is something like a good thesis statement in a research or analytical paper: it tells the reader what the paper is about, but does so without moralizing or dumbing the essay down. That is important to remember; don’t cheat your essay by being too eager to attach an easy moral to your story. Let your specifics and dialogue shape and give meaning to your essay rather than imposing a hackneyed and trite meaning to it. How effective would the “Boxer” essay be if the author had just said something like, “from my father’s experiences I learned to work hard and never give up?” Not quite as powerful and ironically, meaningful, as letting the dialogue speak. Trite sayings don’t help a narrative; they cheapen the experience or even get in the way. So, how to generate good dialogue? Some of your dialogue likely will not need to be generated; you will just need to write down what people say either in person or in writing. Some of your best dialogue, however, will need to be reconstructed as best you can. It is important that you do this ethically—assigning words to people who did not say the thing you claim is not only unethical, in some cases it is illegal and can get you into big trouble. In cases where you are reconstructing dialogue, check with the subject to see if what you have written is a good approximation of the actual dialogue. In situations where that is not possible, you will need to be as honest to the spirit of what a person said as possible. In other words, don’t put words in your peoples’ mouths; listen to them and recreate their words as honestly and in the best manner that you can. Your assignment now is to comb through your previous draft, select some of the more interesting stories you think you might want to use (you certainly won’t use them all in your final draft) and recreate at least one page (single-spaced) of dialogue from those stories. In addition to helping your final draft, recording dialogue will help you begin developing your own voice as a writer: unique, clear, and compelling. Tip: If any of your dialogue uses other languages or technical terms that need translating, include both the phrase and translation. Dialogue with translation is a very powerful and economical way to be specific and create meaning in few words.Returning to your personal narrative, you should at this point begin to see a thread in your dialogue and story collection. In other words, you should have an idea of which stories will best convey your experience with the American Dream as well as what angle or spin on the dream you are seeing emerge. The assignment now is to research literary, historical, and/or factual information related to your emerging main idea. For example, I remember the moment the author of “Korean Boxer” discovered the Sports Illustrated article about Kim Duk Koo. At that point in the process, he knew he wanted to write about his country’s and father’s attitude towards winning, towards fighting, towards pursuing success. But he hadn’t yet discovered the importance of boxing. He stumbled onto the story by talking to his father about basketball (the author was on his school team at the time). His father said something like, “I never got to participate in sports . . . boxing was the only sport I remember when I was a boy.” The author started researching boxing and found the story of Kim Duk Koo, the perfect way to start his essay and also give it a framework. I can’t promise that something as serendipitous will happen for you, but if you research possible historical, factual, or literary connections to your essay, some good things will happen. Could your essay benefit from your study of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The Declaration of Independence? Maybe your family has a tradition that needs to be explained factually. I remember a student writing a powerful essay about fire-fighting, and part of the essay included a factual explication of how experts locate the source of a fire. In many ways, this step of the process is a game of hide-and-seek, but you’ll only know exactly what you’re looking for when you find it. When you do find some of these connections, record them and save them for use in your final draft and submission. Length of this assignment should be two (2) pages, single-spaced. If more stories or dialogue come to you in the process, include those observations in your previous drafts; you won’t use everything but you will be recording even more great starts to other possible essays.This lesson will wrap up your personal narrative. By this point in the writing process, you should have plenty of stories, specific observations, facts, history, literary references, and dialogue to put together an excellent essay. Where do you begin “fitting” it together? There is no single way you should begin, but here are some guidelines that may help you get writing. You might try writing the essay in real-time—using present tense and following your recent experience . For example, “Today, my friend told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to graduate”—and using flashbacks to tell your story. You might start, like the “Korean Boxer” essay, with an account of a personal or famous event, tell the story, and then use specifics from your other drafts to connect your observations with the beginning. There are many ways to successfully bring everything together; you’ll need to find a way that works for you. Many students have found that a good way to write the essay is to write a specific (dialogue, story, fact, etc.), comment briefly on the specific, then move on to another specific (another story, more dialogue, etc.). If you get stuck, try this: dive back into your former drafts and see if something you’ve overlooked could be used. Regardless of how you choose to format your narrative, there are two things that you will need to do. The first is come up with a good title. If you have been engaging in the writing process as assigned, you should be able to find the right title in one of your drafts. Use a line of dialogue for your title; a line from one of the stories you’ve collected; a word that has emerged in your drafts as an important word. Whatever your title is, you are forbidden from using titles such as “My Essay,” “Personal Narrative,” or my personal least favorite, “Assignment #2.” These sorts of titles are death to good writing. Give your reader a sort of “movie trailer,” except that it will be an essay teaser rather than something visual. The second thing to remember is that you will need to bring your essay to what I call the “vertical movement” or “jump.” This phrase refers to what the message of the essay is, what the essay says about the American Dream. Vertical movement is similar to the “moral of the story,” but I deliberately avoid the term “moral of the story” because your essay is going to be about more than just a common phrase that sums up your experience in an easily categorized way. Don’t fall into the trap of preaching to your reader. Do your essay the justice it deserves and sum up the essay in a way which is really you, not the overused words of someone else. One way to approach this is to think of “jump” this way: if the essay/narrative is the horizontal movement of the essay, the vertical movement is the author thinking about the story. In “Korean Boxer,” the horizontal movement is the Kim Duk Koo story, the mini-stories about the father, the facts about study time and work hours. The vertical movement is the author thinking about what his fight will be, thinking about what hongery chin means to him, thinking about what the stories mean to him. Most students will conclude their essays with this vertical movement; experience suggests that is the most effective way. Try to avoid being sententious or moralistic in your vertical movement; just think out loud (on paper) about what the stories you told suggest about your experience with the American Dream. Finally, submit your essay in a portfolio form according to the instructions in the syllabus and in the Finalizing Your Personal Narrative section.

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