The Narrative Essay

Assignment: You will write a 8 page narrative essay that connects your personal experience to the broader themes of power and representation.


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“Those who tell stories rule the world.” – proverb, attributed to the Hopi tribe

Throughout the semester, we’ve been studying how stories are related to representation. We’ve discussed the importance of who does and does not have control over a narrative, and now you have the opportunity to take control over some aspect of your own narrative.

You may use your topic for the research paper as a starting point—in what ways have you interacted with that topic? What personal experiences of yours are parallel to some of the narratives you explored in researching that topic? You are also free to choose to write about something entirely unrelated to your research paper topic, though the main goal here is to connect your personal experience to a broader context, which will ultimately lead you to make some sort of societal/cultural statement or reflection. We will be looking at several examples of how to do this effectively.

Audience: Again, you will identify an audience for this essay. Who do you intend to speak to? It is important to be as specific as possible here (i.e. your audience should not amount to just about everyone), and so you may find that asking yourself who would be interested in your topic is not always the best way to define your audience. A good way to determine a specific audience is to ask yourself who is directly impacted by what you’re discussing—who can relate? Or, who is in a position to do something about it?

Writing the Narrative Essay: The most important task for this assignment is to connect your own experience to this moment in history. A narrative essay is, in effect, a way of examining your own position within your own society or culture. The narrative essay asks you to think both microcosmically and macrocosmically. Mostly, it asks you to make connections. There are many different approaches to writing a narrative essay. In this assignment, I am encouraging you to be creative, to trust your instincts as writers, and to take ownership of your own narratives. That being said, here are a few tips for approaching this assignment:

  1. Know when to start. A narrative essay is not a memoir. Memoir is the story of a life, while a narrative essay is the story of an experience. So, knowing when to begin your narrative is crucial. You don’t necessarily have to begin at the beginning of the experience you’re describing. You don’t necessarily have to follow chronological order. Think of your beginning to the narrative essay as more of a beginning of an idea, rather than the factual beginning of the story.
  2. Rhetorical strategies. Think of the rhetorical theory we’ve discussed so far in class. You have rhetorical strategies (logos, ethos, pathos, kairos, and exigence), the stases (conjecture, definition, quality, and policy), and the parts of a full argument (introduction, narration, partition, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion). Which of these might be the most helpful to you in this essay? How might you use rhetorical strategies? How might the stases come into play? Might the parts of a full argument be helpful in terms of structure? Think especially about your use of language—descriptive language, figurative language, and sensory imagery may all help you to add texture to your narrative. You have a lot of room to be creative here.
  3. Using sources. You do not necessarily need to use sources for this paper, but if you do include direct quotes, data, or paraphrasing, be sure to cite it appropriately using MLA citation.
  4. The thesis statement.In the last assignment, I encouraged you to move away from the idea of a formal thesis statement. I encourage that even more for this assignment. The two most important goals of this assignment are to a) write about your experience, and b) connect that experience to a larger statement. The way you choose to accomplish those two goals can vary. You may choose to write more of a meditation on your own role in a larger societal phenomenon (think of Fleming’s “Shattering Black Flesh”), or you may choose to use your experience to illustrate a more formal argument (think of Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”). It is a good idea to indicate the direction of your piece somewhere in the first couple of pages, but a traditional thesis statement may or not be appropriate for the type of narrative you choose to write.
  5. The organization of a narrative essay can be as standard or as creative as you want it to be. You have a lot of freedom here. Think of the texts we’ve read so far: not all of them have narrated in a straight line. When thinking about organizing this paper, you can either a) choose to structure it around the personal narrative, or b) structure it around the larger statement or argument. There are many variations between these two techniques as well. Again, we will be looking at several examples in class.
  6. The conclusion. Writing a conclusion for a narrative essay can be tricky because a) your experience may not have a defined end, and b) the larger issue you connect your experience to may not yet be resolved. So it may be helpful, instead of thinking as the conclusion as an ending, to think of the conclusion as a statement of change. What changed as a result of your experience? What did you learn? In what ways was your perspective altered? And, what changes have taken place in the larger issue? Where does it stand to go in the future?


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