In the Moment

Read this article, which looks at an example of a personal narrative. How does this type of writing differ from literary analysis or a research paper? When is this type of writing appropriate?

Assignment Description and Example Assignment Response

This assignment asks you to craft a story based on personal experience. This is different from literary analysis or research paper assignments which ask you to open with a thesis to continually reference and support. Stories are constructed differently. Successful stories describe events in such a way that readers get to experience the story as if they were directly observing events. Consider the following when drafting, writing, and revising:

Place your readers into a significant moment you've experienced. Narrow your focus from the start. Select a story out of one, tiny, narrow corner of your life and avoid expanding on all the details around the story. Do not give us an introduction that explains everything before it happens. Let the story speak for itself and trust your readers work at discovering what your story is about. Try to drop your readers into the action of your story to create immediacy.

A large disk of snow lifted in the wind from the top of the semi-truck in front of me. I took hold of the steering wheel with both hands as the sheet of snow fell and burst onto my windshield. I had successfully resisted the instinctive pull to turn the wheel sharply to the right or left and now, with the snow melting on the windshield, I turned on my wipers to clear my line of sight behind the truck. "Slow and easy", I tell myself, and concentrate on keeping the car balanced between tracks of snow in the road.

Context should be embedded into your story throughout, not provided as a separate section of your story.

Not until I had pulled into the parking lot of the indoor soccer arena, found a parking spot, and turned off the car did I let my arms relax their grip on the steering wheel. I reached back and pulled my soccer bag from the backseat before opening the door and leaning into the wind, jogging cautiously to the front door of the arena. Once inside, the sights, sounds, and smells were all familiar. I had been playing indoor co-ed soccer for years with the same group of friends. We met in front of court three where we were scheduled to be playing tonight.

Pay particular attention to character development by asking yourself what actions best represent the people you plan to include into your story.

The first person to greet me was Rob.

"So you made it through the blizzard – too bad", Rob said with a wide grin. He was always sarcastic in his humor. Rob was born in England and had moved to the U.S. for college. He was our captain on what he called "the pitch", always shouting for us to get back on defense. "Stupid Americans", he would say after a loss, "always wanting to score instead of play good defense". He pronounced it de-FENSE as opposed to the American pronunciation of DE-fense. We always laughed at him berating Americans before bringing up our successful revolution and the fact that here he was living in America by choice.

Try experimenting with dialogue as dialogue always brings your story into active, present tense which is enlivening for your readers. On a related note, successful dialogue on the page is not merely an accurate representation of what people say in real life, it is oftentimes pared down to the most important, well-stated things that people say.

I can't remember if the game was an important one or not, whether we were playing one of our heated rivalry games against the team from Bell's Brewery that usually ended in a shoving match or if our shot at the championship was swinging in the balance. What I do remember is joking with Rob at halftime. He said he was done telling me to get back on defense since I never listened anyway.

"The best defense is offense", I told him.

"I'm really starting to dislike you", he said. Again with that smile to tell me he was joking along with me. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and said, "You've got a lot to learn from me".

Relate your story in a way that reveals its significance to you. If the story is revealing itself to you as you write then your readers will experience it as a revelation also. In other words, don't simply write about the event; show us how you experienced it as opposed to what it means to you or what you learned from the experience. This is very tricky to pull off successfully. On the one hand, you don't want to over-tell the story in such a way that gives your readers nothing to make sense of on their own. On the other hand, you don't want to alienate your readers by confusing them with not enough information to comprehend your moment.

At the start of the second half I was on the field when something happened. Something I still don't quite understand. It came upon all of us, a type of twilight wherein time seemed sticky and disjointed. We collectively knew something was wrong. Rob had collapsed onto the turf and we all stood there, staring. The ball silently rolled into a corner and stopped with no one in pursuit.

Use concrete and specific detail to represent your point of view and your situation. Avoid direct explanation in favor of concrete details that show the reader what you mean, rather than tell the reader. Attach your ideas to visible things. In general, you want to dramatize your situation so that your readers experience it as though it were happening before their eyes, so that the readers are in the position of an observer at the scene. This is different than a narrative in which you offer a synopsis, in effect telling the reader about something which has happened to you instead of allowing the reader to witness the event for themselves.

Rather than the usual flow of time that moves on undetected, the next ten minutes occurred like quick photographs blurred at their edges. There was a scramble to get inside bags for a cell phone. A call to 911. Shouts to the administrator's office in the center of the arena. The color purple rising to the surface of Rob's cheeks. Questions: "What happened?" "Does anyone know CPR?" The thick black boots with reflective yellow trim of the firefighters that came through the door. The relief that everything would be OK now that they were here followed by a reinvigorated sense of fear once I realized that they were moving too slowly. The scratch of artificial turf beneath the rubber soles of my soccer shoes. Ripping the goal from the wall so that Rob could be carried to an ambulance on a stretcher. The smell of his urine and shit as they carried him through the opening of the goal and into the blinking ambulance. The crunch and grind of ice beneath the tires of the ambulance as it finally drove off.

Avoid explanatory, epilogue conclusions that try to sum up everything for your readers. Trust your readers to draw their own conclusions from the moment you've crafted for them to experience.

I was reckless on my drive home – weaving in-and-out of traffic, feeling the car slip several times from my control as the snow and ice disconnected what should have been a firm line from my hands to the steering wheel to the tires to the road. Later that evening I thought of the soccer ball, how it had rolled into the corner with no one running after it. With so many lights strung to the ceiling of the arena it cast a strange shadow sitting there in the corner of the field. I wondered if anyone had walked over to retrieve it before turning out the lights and locking the doors.

Source: Jason Wirtz,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

Last modified: Thursday, November 21, 2019, 2:13 PM