The Narrative/Autobiographical Essay
last revised 9/21/04

We've talked a little about opened-form writing which tends to use literary techniques to somehow tell a significant and “true” story (but, I have to ask, what exactly is "truth"?).   Truthful story telling, or memoir (also known as creative non-fiction or autobiography), is a type of writing used all around the world to preserve wisdom, reveal truths, educate, and entertain (142).  For some audiences, opened-form memoirs (that use a lot of concrete description and narration) are much more convincing than “colder,” closed-form arguments or research essays; thus knowing how to write non-trivial autobiographical stories will broaden your ability to appeal to multiple audiences (and it will broaden your ability to read more subtle works without overt theses).  Some authors (like Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Susan Griffin) like to combine academic research and autobiography, which is currently a very hot approach to writing.  

Writing memoir also increases your ability to see below the surface of the mere "facts" around you.  Memoir writers must find and imply what Toni Morrison calls the underlying Truth of events--the secrets, the hidden stories, the things people don't often notice or talk about (William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth, 113).  Another way of thinking about what lies below the surface comes from Philip Gerard in Creative Nonfiction.  He says that a good narrative has an "apparent subject and a deeper subject" (7).  For instance, in Maya Angelou's "Champion of the World" chapter, the apparent or surface story is about people listening to a Joe Louis boxing match; the deeper subject, however, is about people from a persecuted race feeling a sense of rare triumph.  Can you think of any other deeper meanings her story implies (or states directly, even)?  Sometimes you may not know the deeper subject, or theme, of your own stories until you write them, but you have to be willing to explore this in order to avoid having the reader say, "So what?"

Understanding narrative writing will also help you be more inferentially perceptive when reading subtle, opened-form essays for other classes, in newspapers, and in journals--you can begin to speculate what the text is trying to imply between the lines (the connotations of the text).  Knowing how to read memoir increases your literacy and critical reading skills ten-fold because narrative authors seldom give you an overt thesis of any kind--you usually have to find many of the implied meanings yourself.

The Assignment:

Write an opened-form, narrative essay about some tiny, myopic, focused pivotal moment in your life, effectively playing with the literary elements:

You will probably find it useful to develop your story through the use of contraries or conflict, creating tension that moves the story forward (Lee calls this “pull, the what's-going-to-happen-next of your story; or the how-did-this-conflict-come-to-be of your story; or the how-will-this-be-resolved-or-lived-through of your story; or the how-will-you-keep-surprising-me of your story; or the how-the-hell-will-you-make-meaning-out-of-this-random-party-of-language of your story).  Contrary templates that create good tension are: old self vs. new self; now vs. then; old values vs. new values; old view vs. new view of person X or thing Y

Length: 3-5 pages, double-spaced (about 900-1500 words).

Due Date: Workshopping and Revising during week 5 and 6.

Subject-Matter Choices: Focus.  Don't tell us the story of your life (that would be a novel-sized work, not a 3-5 page essay).  Don't tell us the entire story of your summer either.  Focus on a small moment of time, a story with 1-3 scenes at the most (a scene is a dramatized moment in time that takes place in one location).  These moments DO NOT have to be obviously dramatic or like a made-for-TV movie, however.  Quiet pivotal moments can be just as good as dramatic ones (and even better)--the way you write about them is what makes them work or not work.  I do suggest, however, that you think about pivotal moments that contain one or more of the following tensions or contraries: moments of enlightenment, realizations, passages, confrontations, tests, choices, compromises, losses, and/or regrets.  To help you, your story can follow the old/new template (old me vs new me, old view vs. new view).  Risky pivotal moments are often the hardest but most interesting stories to tell.  Risky stories might be things you don't want your mother to read.  They might be stories that you know certain audiences would shy away from or judge harshly.  You must think about how the story has tension, and how the story could imply deeper meanings, then add some of these deeper ideas into the story via more pointed sensory details and, perhaps, an occasional overt point sentence.  Think about how Annie Dillard does this in her essay--where does she make overt point sentences?  Where do you feel there are more meanings than what she is stating?  How do you know?

Rhetorical Choices:  Often the audience you choose to write for will determine your purpose, genre, style and structure (see chapter 4 for more information).  Opened-form writers are writing for people who like stories, who like imagery, who like unique artistry in wording and structure, who don't want to be hit over the head with easy meanings or black and white situations.  When we tell stories from our personal, particular lives, we do have to think about who will be able to understand our story.  Can only teenagers or Latinos or Jews or Mormons or Queers relate to your story (which may be ok sometimes), or are you making your unique situation something many people can understand (does it have "universal" appeal somehow)?  As was stated above, this kind of essay is trying to imply meaning via detail rather than through the use of top-down thesis-based, argumentative, academic prose.

Suggested Writing Process:  If I were doing this assignment, one possible process I might use would begin with reading the composing advice on pages 161-163 for more ideas.  Then I would brainstorm in my journal about some of my pivotal moments that fit the old/new contract (contraries are defined on p. 143; tension is defined on page 490; the old/new contract is defined on p. 466).  I would then freewrite about a few of those pivotal moments to see which one really makes me want to write.  Then I will freewrite in more detail about my story perhaps using the FOR WRITING AND DISCUSSION gray box guides: the first one on plot is at the bottom of p. 146; the next one on character is on p. 148; the next one on setting is at the bottom of page 148; the last one on theme, or significance, is on p. 149-50.   Most authors read to get ideas for their writing (this is actually how I begin my writing process), so I would read the sample essays in chapter 7 (page 150-160), and chapter 19 (page 486-87; 491-93; 501-03) to get ideas about introductions, descriptions, scenes, dialogue, character, flashbacks, gaps, figurative language, and theme.  I would revise my freewrite based on some of these techniques.  I would then have 2-3 peers review my essay, revise it, then I would let it incubate (let it sit without looking at it so I can see it from a fresh perspective).  I would go online with the OWL, or go to the the LC 227 writing lab, and revise it again based on some of those comments.  Finally I would edit its surface errors and polish other stylistic, sentence structure, transitional, or usage choices (yes, I do this as I go, but I focus on it more toward the end of the process).

Points Available: You can get up to 100 points on this essay (this essay cannot be revised for a better grade).