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How I Got Here, From There

posted: 9.10.10 by archived

The personal narrative assignment is the first prompt most college writers are given in writing class. I wrote about this assignment in a BITS post from the start of the Fall semester last year. At that time, I suggested some ways to alter the personal narrative assignment to encourage even greater originality (some example assignments included autoethnographies, audio narratives, literacy narratives, multigenre and multivocal variations, and so on). You can also access some ideas that I suggested for in-class writing (timelines and artifacts, as well as playlists, sketches, and storyboards). In today’s post, I suggest further personal narrative activities, inspired in part by a comic strip I used to read when I was a kid and by an article I recently read on Slate.com.

You might remember the Family Circus comic strip, a single panel staple of the Sunday funnies, now over fifty years old. One interesting, recurrent visual trope was a map of the path that one of the Family Circus kids (often Billy) took through the neighborhood in a given day. For some reason, I always loved these maps. The article in Slate, written by Julia Turner, discusses (and reprints) hand-drawn maps. (Other examples of this unique art form can be found on handmaps.org.) With the advent of the GPS, GoogleMaps, and MapQuest, it seems like the hand-drawn map could become obsolete, but Turner’s article makes an interesting case for the virtues of these sketches. I like the idea that a map can be about more than just traveling from point A to point B. Billy’s maps, for example, were really inventories of his imagination.

The assignment idea is this: Ask students to draw a Family Circus-style map of their path to college.  Or they could choose to create the map in the style of one of the hand-drawn examples. In either case, the map should include both real and figurative elements—not just the actual route they took to get to school, but the metaphorical impediments, u-turns, dead-ends, and scenic paths they traversed.

Of course, the map could be a chart of any significant journey in a student’s life. And the student could leave the final destination open if they wanted to. My hope would be that this assignment might appeal to some visual, conceptual, and spatial thinkers, might encourage some flexibility and creativity in all students, and might also get us beyond the common clichés of the personal narrative genre.

This assignment might either replace the traditional personal narrative, or serve to spur thinking and writing as a prelude to a personal narrative. (If I were to use a map to replace a written narrative assignment, I would also ask students to write a reflection about their path.)

A further, and even more multimodal, variation of this activity would be to plot the map as a board game, in the style of a popular favorite like Chutes and Ladders or Candyland. Students could create a set of rules based on their personal experiences, and even create game cards that recount episodes from their journey. By playing the game with peers, students can also fine-tune and elaborate their narratives as they guide others through the game of their story.

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Categories: Drafting, Jay Dolmage, Writing Process
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