The Power of Personal Narrative
An excerpt from Greg Graham’s thesis “A Pedagogy of Fluency in a Densely Woven World.”
Three cheers for the personal narrative!
James Britton and Janet Emig provided compelling research in the 1970‘s that cited expressive, personal writing as the best way to develop student‘s writing abilities. Numerous composition theorists have followed in their footsteps to offer a strong defense of the personal essay. In an essay published in Healing and Writing entitled “Language, Power, and Consciousness,” Guy Allen tells the fascinating story of how he stumbled upon the effectiveness of the personal essay in teaching writing to college students.
In 1982, Allen was a writing teacher discouraged by the lack of authentic engagement or style in his student‘s writing. Their writing was flat and disconnected from their lives. Then, Allen says, the students taught the teacher. In particular, one student improvised upon an assignment and wrote a personal narrative that was bursting with meaning. Allen read it to the class, which prompted others to follow suit. The students started acting more like writers, with Allen responding “like an editor, more ally than judge” (254). Allen found that the personal essay provoked the meaning-making he wanted for his students, which in turn pushed them to wrestle with language as never before. He explained:
The personal essay solved a problem that dogs university writing courses: the absence of real content. Under the new format students became directly responsible for content. Students reflected on themselves and their experience. Students came to recognize that their lives and the lives of their families contained meaning that could be the subject of writing. (255)
As Allen suggests, students need to believe that their lives contain meaning—that they have a story to tell. Some students will complain that their lives are boring with nothing worth telling. One effective way to convince them otherwise is to share interesting published stories written about ordinary lives. Peter Schreffler of Bowling Green University faced this challenge with his students, who mostly hail from small towns and moderately-sized suburbs. He found Garrison Keillor to be an excellent model for the personal narrative. He starts with audio stories from News From Lake Wobegon and then moves on to written accounts in Keillor‘s book Lake Wobegon Days. Keillor‘s homespun humor and wit resonates with Schreffler‘s students and opens their eyes to their own potential as storytellers. Schreffler concludes, “When we allow our students to hear and see what is possible, many of them discover that writing can be a glorious expedition into the self and into the world around them” (85).
In the introduction to Healing and Writing, Anderson and MacCurdy make the case for the capability of personal narrative to do more than ignite fluency; it can also enable trauma survivors to deal with their trauma: “Through the dual possibilities of permanence and revision, the chief healing effect of writing is thus to recover and exert a measure of control over that which we can never control—the past” (Anderson and MacCurdy 7). Though healing is beyond the scope of this thesis, the power of personal narrative illuminated by Anderson and MacCurdy buttresses the contention that such writing is the surest path to a truly transformational literacy, one that critically engages with word and world. And yet the academic world often misses the connection between critical engagement with word and world and exploring/telling one‘s own story. Anderson and MacCurdy point to this oversight in the field of rhetoric and composition:
Our own professional discourse and its history [may] render us unable to recognize that our students‘ public and private worlds are inextricably connected. For them (and us, too, if we are truly honest about it), the pain of divorce, the loss of a loved one, the memory of an attack on a dark street are the sites at which the dissonance of lived experience creates authentic opportunities for significant political and personal change. When teachers exclude lived experience in favor of more abstract or distanced concepts, concerns, and representations of reality, they rob students of genuine opportunities to engage in the very individual and collective work such teachers expect them to do. (13)
Walter Fisher makes a similar point in his treatise on the narrative paradigm. He challenges the Aristotelian paradigm of rational man and offers narrative man as a more accurate point of reference (378). One of the intriguing aspects of Fisher‘s narrative paradigm is the leveling of the playing field. Narrative is much more natural, much less dependent on knowledge or intelligence. Indeed, it is usually my students with less knowledge of conventions who write the most gripping narratives. Those who are sufficiently tamed by conventional methods seem much more likely to bore me to tears! Fisher states:
The actualization of the narrative paradigm does not require a given form of society. Where the rational world paradigm is an ever-present part of our consciousness because we have been educated into it, the narrative impulse is part of our very being because we acquire narrativity in the natural process of socialization. (383)
So, the personal narrative not only promotes critical engagement by synthesizing student‘s public and private worlds; it also promotes fluency by liberating the student from the domesticating influence of the academy. However, the fact remains that some students enter the classroom with more fluency under their belts. Rather than seeing this as a problem, it is better to view this discrepancy as an opportunity.
All humans are storytellers, but it goes without saying that some are better storytellers than others. Some first-year writing students have grown up with a rich oral inheritance that has flourished into a powerful literacy. These students are the writing teacher‘s greatest allies in creating a community of writers. They will be the “master storytellers” who will establish what Sanders calls the “fluency of the group” (8). Together with the teacher, they will set forth the narrative currents which their post-literate classmates will be able to navigate in the safety of their fellows. This may seem idealistic, but I have seen it work in the classroom time and time again.
As I have sought to establish here, it all starts with the personal narrative essay. Though this old staple of the first-year writing classroom has been battered and bruised for decades by scholars in rhetoric and composition, it continues to be a favorite of first-year writing instructors. Why? Skeptics say that it is sensationalism or emotionalism or some other ism, but perhaps it is because we teachers love to see our students come alive to the world of writing and, as Janet Emig and James Britton found, there is no better way to light the literary fires than through personal, expressive writing.
*For sources, see Bibliography