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  AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVE

The experiences in your life - joys, disappointments, initiations, humiliations, religious climaxes, narrow escapes, flashes of insight, mundane routines and other incidents that are a part of your unique history - helped form the person you are now. The first piece of writing you will do for this class combines elements from two of the major subgenres of creative nonfiction: memoir and personal essay. This piece of writing will focus on your memory of a past incident - ideally one that you feel reveals an important part of your personality and/or which illustrates a general philosophical or psychological truth - and will render it in a somewhat essay-like form.

Unlike the rest of the writing you will do for this course, this assignment details in step-by-step fashion some points you might consider in putting together this piece of creative nonfiction. Feel free to follow this instruction sheet word for word, point by point, or - if you're one of those daring folks who starts using your new computer without reading the manual first or who prefers to do abdominal surgery before attending medical school - just give the sheet a thorough once-over reading and then work on the assignment following your own writing process.

1. Thinking About An Incident


Think back through your life and note any special incidents that come to mind. Don't necessarily filter out those that aren't crucial to your development; sometimes seemingly trivial events can turn out to be the most special and illuminating, or at least the most amusing. Unless you want to write a ten-page piece, keep your incidents brief: a few hours, or at most a single day. Some examples might be: an accident; a fight or disagreement and its resolution; a moment of spiritual awareness; a fear that you overcame; the beginning or ending of a relationship; an encounter with a famous person; the day you learned to tie your shoes; the day a loved one died; a rite of passage, such as a graduation, first sexual experience, or the first day you went sky-diving; the breakfast you ate this morning ... you get the idea. The story can be uplifting or tragic, satirical
or absurd, but it should end up telling the reader something about you. Jot down three or four such possible incidents on a piece of paper.

2. Freewriting To Select An Incident

Do a bit of freewriting on the first of the incidents you jotted down; describe it in a few sentences and then write another sentence or two explaining how this was significant in your life and answering the question, "What do I want to say about myself by describing this incident?"

Go through this freewriting process for each of the incidents you jotted down. The process of freewriting should give you some sense about which story you want to select: you might have written more about one incident, or you might have felt a surge of adrenaline (or any other hormone) when writing about one of them. If you have no more feeling for one incident than another, then take out a coin from your pocket or purse and flip it: heads for the story about your pet turtle, and tails for the one about the time you saved the children from the flooded storm drain.

3. Remembering/Rediscovering Your Feelings At The Time Of The Incident

Read the following questions and then write down some quick responses. You may want to use complete sentences, or you may want to freewrite, jotting down phrases or words. Try to put down everything that occurs to you as you consider each question. Don't censor your reactions as silly or unworthy of mention; you want to get down as much information - even jumbled information - as you can. You can sort it out later.

- What was your initial response to the incident; what bodily sensations and emotions did you have? Try to be as specific and as detailed as you can; really try to project yourself back into that incident and re-experience it.

- Did you show your reactions, or did you keep them hidden?

- What thoughts were going through your mind at the time, if any?

- Did you talk about the experience at the time? If so, to whom did you talk, and what did you
say? Were you acting a role for the people present? If you didn't talk to anyone, why not?

4. Discovering/Exploring Your Present Feelings About The Incident

Jot down some quick responses to a new set of questions that probe your present feelings about
the incident:

- As you think about the incident now, do you have any physical sensations or emotions?
How are they different from the ones you experienced at the time of the incident?

- Do you have a different, or more mature, understanding of the incident, now that you have
some historical perspective on it?

- What do you think of the way you first responded? Was your reaction appropriate, or did
you overreact in some way?

- What does that response say about the kind of person you were then?

-Would you react the same way now, or have you changed? If you've changed, how?

- Why have you chosen this incident? What does it say about you?

5. Discovering A Sequence Of Events Within The Incident

A narrative - whether a movie script, novel, short story, or piece of creative nonfiction such as this - is made up of a set of events in time. When you are ready to write the first draft of your autobiographical narrative, it will be helpful if you've already given some thought to the sequence of events within your incident. For the next step, do a freewrite, outlining a tentative sequence of events for the incident. Don't try to comment on it or analyze it now, and don't get vividly descriptive yet; save that for the next step. Just put down everything you can remember about what happened within the time scope of your incident, whether it was an hour or a day.

6. Recalling Descriptive Details


Vivid description - writing that touches the reader's senses - is what makes a narrative come alive, so that the reader feels as though s/he's a part of the scene. Do a freewrite in which you write down without stopping, without planning, as quickly as you can, a description of the scene of the incident. Think about how things looked, sounded, smelled, felt, even tasted. You can let yourself wax poetic here; if a metaphor suggests itself to you, jump on it. If your large intestine felt like a wounded kingsnake, write it. If dead fronds from a tall dragonblood tree reminded you of abandoned swords, write that down. Don't forget to describe, in as much detail as you can, any other people in the incident. Make them seem real to your reader.

7. Writing The First Draft

You've now accumulated a jumble of disparate information, some organized and some not, about your incident. Most of this material will be useful in writing your first draft, believe it or not. Some of it will be so elegantly stated that you can use it verbatim. More of it will be useful, but will require some rewording or amplifying or cleaning up for the sake of style and mechanics. Some of it will be jarring, clichéd, or just won't fit, and you'll want to trash it. Use your "gut feelings" here: if a passage doesn't quite sound right, revise it or trash it; don't make the writerly mistake of including every phrase you wrote just because they help fill out the three or four pages you think the assignment requires. Revising and deleting with care and judgment is as important a skill for writers as is the writing itself.

As you get ready to write the draft, remember that you've written down a tentative sequence of events for your incident. This list can help organize your draft, forming a framework onto which you can hang your feelings and perceptions, past and present. Obviously, however, there's no set way to organize this material. You may have to experiment with several formats before you come up with one that satisfies you. Outlining is a useful tool here, and the word processor will be a great help, since with it you can move whole blocks of text freely, trying out different approaches to the story.

8. The Assignment Succinctly Restated


While you're proceeding with the first draft, keep in mind that the basic, bottom-line assignment is this:

Pick and relate an incident which you feel reveals an important part of your personality or which illustrates some philosophical or psychological truth.

Minor truths are acceptable in this class.

I think of this assignment as kind of a transitional piece, one that contains elements of the academic essays you're used to writing for the university, but which incorporates elements and strategies more typically found and taught within the province of creative writing. For that reason, this first creative nonfiction piece might have a form such as ...

- An essay-like opening paragraph that: draws in the reader with a fascinating first sentence; discusses the topic generally; and ends with a statement that summarizes the abstract philosophical or psychological point you're making. This thesis might answer the question: What does this narrative illustrate about some significant psychological trait, or what timeless and universal truths about human nature does it reveal?

- A short story-like body of supporting paragraphs that contain the actual narration and are fleshed out with concrete detail and vivid description.

- A conclusion that is not repetitive but instead adds something new - maybe your current reaction to the story.

As you work on this piece, keep in mind that the above is just a suggestion for a format. This is an advanced writing course, so I hereby issue your Artistic License, which entitles you to veer from the assignment in any direction your imagination leads you. However ... if you feel like being outrageously creative and straying far from the bounds of exposition - and if grades are important to you - you might want to check with me first.


 
  Revised 3/15/07 MP