Audience Of A Personal Narrative Essay

Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”

Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay

Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.

But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”

Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.

Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.

Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.

Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.

People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.

Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.

Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:

This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.

Or:

Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.

And there are more artful ways.

Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.

For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:

Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.

Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?

Well, consider that Rodriguez has

  • introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
  • informed us that writing is central to his life,
  • clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
  • provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?

These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.

Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.

Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.

Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.

The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.

And then you’ve lost the reader.

Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.

Here is his opening:

A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.

Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.

Are these emotions true?

Yes, they are.

Are they interesting for a reader?

Often, they simply are not.

The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.

These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.

In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.

Final Thoughts
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.

This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.

Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.

And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.

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Craft & Technique, Creative Nonfiction Writing, Excerpts, Haven't Written Anything Yet, Writing for Beginners, Memoir, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, Writing Editor Blogs, Writing Short Stories & Essay Writing, Writing Your First Draft

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 Narrative Essay

A narrative essay is more of a short story where the author uses transitions, flashbacks, and other literary devices. There is normally a plot, a narrator, or a protagonist. Some of the characteristics of narrative essays include:

This is a narrative essay format where one describes the way an event took place right from the beginning through to the end. There is normally some form of transition so that the reader can make a connection.

  • There is a plot, characters and other details that surround them

Any narrative essay writer should ensure that they include all the details of an event in such a way that all these concepts are included in the paper. A high school narrative essay has a simpler plot and fewer characters as compared to a university narrative essay.

  • Personal experiences are described

Essays on narrative experiences are filled with personal experiences. It is common to use the pronoun ‘I’ and the protagonist is the writer of the essay. They write my narrative essay on what they saw or experienced.

  • Literary techniques are employed

A complete school narrative essay uses literary devices to attract the interest and appeal to the emotions of its audiences. Good narrative essays go to the extent of placing some of these devices strategically.

  • The story always has a moral

When you write a narrative essay, always ensure that there is a moral to the story, or the whole paper will not make sense.

  • The ending contains suspense or is a complete part of a continuous experience

Writing narrative essays requires prowess in developing endings that leave the reader yearning for more.

 Narrative Papers

If you want to know how to write a narrative essay, think of:

  • Why should I write these narrative papers? What is my position in the paper?
  • Who are my audiences? Personal narrative essays may be explicit, and it is important to include only relevant details. For example, narratives on fighting and drugs are not suitable for young children. A college narrative essay may be explicit because it is meant for adults.
  • What ways should I cite my research materials if any? Should I have narrative essays APA citation? Is narrative essays MLA citation suitable?
  • Where do example narrative essays of this kind applicable?

After answering these questions, check out sample narrative essays from other writers to have an idea over that which is needed.

 

 Narrative Essay Writing: Do’s and Don’ts

DO: Tell a story that you love something that you know will catch the attention of the reader because it caught yours. You could even discuss your personal experiences or history or even events that you have gone through. Give a vivid yet complete description of an experience in an interesting manner.

DO: Always have an outline. It may be an experience that you have already gone through, but you need to have some form of organization. Focus on a particular line of thought so that you remain on the topic and have flow. An outline helps you find the transition from one paragraph to the next.

DO: Narrative essay writing requires the clever use of literal language. Decide on the type of similes, metaphors and other literal devices that you can add to make your work more interesting.

DO: Check for grammar and spelling once you are done. You may be writing about a personal experience, but your grammar has to be on point.

DON’T: Avoid copying an experience that somebody else went through. Be very direct with the way you handle a variety of issues and make sure you are honest.

It is important to realize that narrative essay topics vary but they all have a personal touch to them. Always make sure that you maintain honesty when writing such papers.

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