SA1: Personal Narrative Your first essay assignment (SA1) is to write a brief pe
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SA1: Personal Narrative
Your first essay assignment (SA1) is to write a brief personal narrative. Although the focus
of this course will be formal, source-based academic writing, no outside-source material is
required for this essay. You need only your memory, your imagination, and your natural storytelling ability. Personal essays are a good way to begin a writing class because we all tell stories
every day, and we all have stories that we have told before, so the bar for content is set very low.
Telling familiar stories about ourselves lets us tap into our natural voices in our first drafts; then,
later, when we revise, we can focus our attention on how to say what we are saying. Think of this
first assignment as ‘piano tuning’ (a phrase I have borrowed from the novelist, John Barth). Use
Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting for your essay. (These instructions are MLA
formatted; an MLA-format template is available in MSWord.) The length should be about five
The subject matter for this essay is your choice, but keep in mind that this class is an
English class, not group therapy. Sharing student work in class (with names removed) is part of
my methodology, so please do not write about anything risqué or too embarrassing. In addition,
my advice is to stay away from any overly emotional subjects such as your wedding day or the
birth of your child or the death of a parent—the more emotionally charged your subject is, the
harder it is to review it dispassionately.
Do not bury the lead—that is, do not focus on unimportant details and fail to focus on the
important elements of your story. Over the years, I have received many essays I think of as
‘Trains, Planes, and Automobiles stories’ to use a very old movie reference—1987. The writer
begins a story about a trip or a vacation with details about everything they did before they
left—they got up, showered, dressed, drove to the airport, went through security, got pulled out
of line for extra scrutiny, got delayed because of weather, had a Coke and peanuts on the plane,
lost their luggage, and so on. Only instead of doing all that in one sentence or even eliminating
those details altogether, by the time they get the reader to the place where the story should
begin, they have written four or five pages and they stop. Write whatever it takes to get to
where your story begins, but then throw out the unnecessary parts and do not bore your reader
A good model of a brief personal narrative is Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks.” Tan uses her
unique personal experience to reveal something universal about learning to love who we are.
Her writing is economical—no unnecessary distractions—and engaging. Find the universal in
your own experience. We all learn lessons from our friends and families; you can write about a
time when someone taught you a lesson or when you learned something important in your life.
We all have experiences at work; you can write about your something that happened on the
job. Many of us have moved from where we grew up to some place different and strange; you
can write about the things that surprised you.
“Detasseling,” is my own response to this assignment. Not simply a story, it is a brief
essay that uses explanation and story to illustrate a slice of my Midwestern childhood.
Think about your first jobs, or something that illustrates something distinctive about where you