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Enough About Me, Tell Me Something About You…

posted: 9.18.09 by archived

For many college writers, the personal narrative assignment is the first prompt they are given in writing class. As Robert Connors wrote in 1987,

“From the 1890’s through today, personal writing assignments have remained central to the teaching of composition. Almost every writing course includes personal writing, most start with it, and many concentrate on it.  Personal writing is not only widely assigned, but is widely accepted by students.”

One of the main goals of a personal narrative assignment is, simply, fluency. We want to get students to feel comfortable writing. So we ask them to begin by writing about themselves. The assignment can also serve an important social function in a writing classroom. Each essay allows the students to introduce themselves to you (their teacher) and to their peers. Sharing this writing allows students to learn from and about one another.

There are, however, some disadvantages to this classic assignment as well. For instance, when I say that the personal narrative assignment is popular and common, I am also speaking to teachers who have read thousands of these papers in their careers (or just this week). We can readily recognize the recurrent sub-genres of this form of student writing: from conversion narratives to stories of athletic triumph. Often, a personal narrative reads like a prose résumé or the treatment for a predictable Hollywood movie. It can be difficult to push students to write a personal essay that contains “genuine” reflection or critical thinking.

It is possible that the impetus for reflection or critical thinking calls for a difficult gymnastic — many students simply aren’t yet comfortable thinking critically about themselves. Many students may feel they don’t have enough distance from an experience to write about it. Others might not see their life as interesting enough to share. For many students, this assignment is simply too close to one of the most high-stakes forms of writing they have been asked to do in their lives: the college entrance essay. And so the genre doesn’t really feel new, and maybe it feels fraught to them.

Of course, none of these explanations should dissuade us from encouraging students to do this writing. There is too much to gain. I feel we need creative ways to critically engage the personal.

So I’ve developed alternative lessons and assignment ideas to help move students beyond predictable and clichéd narratives and toward more engaging writing.

Here are a few assignments to get students started:

  • Dialogue: Ask students to re-create an important conversation from their past.
  • Adjectives: Ask students to compile a list of adjectives that best describe them, and then use these words in a poem or short story.
  • Character Sketches: Ask students to describe important people in their lives (and perhaps to draw them).
  • Artifacts: Ask students to describe or draw pictures of key objects from their past (a baseball glove, a tree in their backyard, a bike), tell the story of the object to the class, and then write this story down.
  • Story Board: Ask students to draw several scenes from their past, describe the sequence between these key scenes, and then write this description down.
  • Playlist/Mix Tape: Ask students to choose a song that has deep personal meaning to them, or that was the “soundtrack” to an important moment or period in their life. Then listen to the song and freewrite, allowing the song to call up memories.

I find these in-class activities can spur students to “enter” their own lives from different angles. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the ways the entire assignment of a personal narrative can be redesigned.

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Categories: Drafting, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorics, Writing Process
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One Response to “Enough About Me, Tell Me Something About You…”

  1. Joy Clark, Yakima Valley Community College Says:

    These are great ideas that I will look forward to putting to use. Thanks!