Narrative personal experience
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Narrative personal experience
Mastering the Personal Experience Article by Deborah NewtonAfter Nora Ephron experienced a youthful incident that caused her some pain, her mother told herto buck up because everything that happens to you is copy. Copy. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "Ifyou write about the things and the people you know best, you discover your roots." And BenFranklins autobiography contains the words, "The next thing most like living ones life over againseems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by puttingit down in writing."Extrapolate those suggestions and what advice do you get? You should write about what you know.What youve experienced. And what better form to write about your lifes happenings than in apersonal experience article.Youve experienced things that can interest others. We all have. These happenings dont have to beworld-shattering -- just incidents that others can relate to, that others may find meaningful. As longas you learned something from the experience -- even something as small as allowing you to see theincident in a new light -- others will be able to relate to it. Of course, if the experience changed yourlife in a profound way, all the better for this type of article. If you write about it with the right spinand a salable structure, you can earn respectable money by turning your own personal experiencesinto articles.Womens magazines such as Redbook and Ladies Home Journal, mens magazines such as Detailsand Heartland USA, and even religious magazines such as Guideposts Magazine and The Lutheran alluse true personal experience pieces. Confession magazines such as Black Secrets and True Love arealways on the lookout for fictionalized versions of personal experiences.So, can you write and sell your personal experiences? Sure you can. Heres how.Know Where to BeginA tight structure is imperative for this type of article. Your focus must be strong. Once youve chosenthe incident you want to write about, your first step is to pick out the point or theme you want toprove with your piece, and everything in your article must build to prove this point. "Crime doesntpay" is too broad a theme for a personal experience piece. If, however, you are able to narrow thattheme to "My ex-husband kidnapped our young daughter, and my faith in the justice systemprevailed because he was sent to jail when he was caught," this would be a good focus and wouldmake an excellent personal experience article.So what is the formula for writing one of these pieces? I find the following structure works well for awide variety of these types of articles.
A personal experience story always starts on the day that something different happens to you (the"I" character of your story if youre writing in the first person, or the viewpoint character if you aretelling someone elses story.) This incident becomes your "hook" because you use it to hook orcapture the readers interest.Strive to make the hook provocative enough that the reader wants to know what will happen to theviewpoint character. A shocking statement works well as a personal experience hook ("I didnt thinkit would feel so good to pull the trigger and watch my target lurch and fall to the ground.") Or ananecdote that leaves a question in the readers mind ("When I was ten and snooping through herdresser drawer, I found out my mother wasnt a woman at all.")Because of this incident or situation, you or your focus character has to react and decide how tohandle the problem. Usually, this decision will be wrong and will cause your main character stressand suffering. Hes chosen this path, however, for a reason that seems right to him.The viewpoint character continues on the course charted by this decision until something happensto change his attitude. A dark moment or turning point forces him to make a sacrifice or some sortof choice which shows he has learned his lesson and can continue to a satisfactory conclusion to theoriginal problem. A definite theme emerges through the telling of the story. As long as yourviewpoint character learns something about himself or changes in some way, your story has done itsjob.Putting it in Practice: A Case StudyConfused? Dont be. Lets take this one step at a time with an example from a recently-publishedarticle.1) The Problem or Original Conflict (Your Hook). Your story or article always opens with anoccurrence of some sort which forces your main character to make a decision. Shes sailing along inlife and suddenly, a problem pops up. This is where you start your piece (and not a moment sooner.)For example, lets look at the September, 1999, issue of Ladies Home Journal "Can This Marriage BeSaved" column by Andrea Warren. The focus character, Rita, has remarried after her belovedhusband, the father of her two young children, was killed in the line of duty. Her problem is the factthat she cant forget her first husband. The hook to the piece is a direct quote, which makes thereader want to keep reading to find out how she solves her problem. ("Ken doesnt know this, butlately Ive been visiting the cemetery where my first husband is buried.")2) The Reaction or Bad Decision. Your focus character reacts to the problem in a way that moves thestory along and extends the tension. She makes a bad choice of actions. Ritas wrong decision is tooverindulge her children, and when Ken, her new husband, tries to discipline them, she takes theirsides against their stepfather. This renders him lower in the new familys hierarchy than he shouldbe. The reader may at first see the folly of her ways and question why she has reacted this way, buthe will understand why she does it once he learns what has motivated her to do it.3) Motivation. This is the reason your character made the bad choice she made. Ritas motivation,told in a flashback, tells the story of how her first husband was killed in the line of duty. Because of
the grief she still suffers over the loss, she has become a pushover with her kids and lets them getaway with more than they should. She still sees her first marriage and family as the mainrelationship in her life, and her second husband as just that--secondary. Motivation is often slippedinto the personal experience piece by way of a flashback, as in our example, which tells thecharacters back story, pointing to why she made the choice she made. Its also acceptable to weavethe motivation in by means of introspection -- the characters inner thoughts -- as long as thesethoughts are kept short and dont break up the flow of the narrative.4) The Body of the Story. Build your article with events that have been put into motion because ofyour main characters original choice. Be sure to include only things that have direct bearing on thestory at hand. Dont bog down the piece with incidentals such as what the focus character had forbreakfast last Tuesday unless that menu in some way contributes to the outcome of the piece. Thebody of Ritas story tells about the bitter arguments that ensue over the discipline of the childrenwhen her new husband arrives on the scene.5) The Dark Moment or Crisis. Your focus character cant go on living with this choice hes madebecause if he does, we have no story and he cant learn or change from his original (wrong) decision.So, a crisis occurs.Ritas crisis occurs when Ken begins to withdraw from the family unit and Rita stands to lose him.6) Sacrifice or Reactive Choice. Your focus character must make some sort of sacrifice or choice inorder to learn her lesson and make a change. Ritas sacrifice is to see a marriage counselor, and herchoice is to follow the counselors advice of putting her new husband above her children in thefamily dynamic.7) Satisfactory Ending. Note, I didnt say happy ending because the conclusion of your personalexperience piece doesnt necessarily have to be happy. It needs only be the right ending for theparticular situation. If you or your viewpoint characters bad decision was something horrible likerobbing a bank or injuring another person, you/she probably doesnt deserve to live happily everafter. Your ending must reflect that while you have suffered and learned this life lesson, that maynot exonerate you from suffering further consequences in your life. The satisfactory ending in oursample piece shows Ritas and Kens attempts at making time for each other and building strength asa couple. In the Ladies Home Journal example, the second part of the story is also told from Kenspoint of view, showing his problem, reaction, motivation, etc.8) Theme. After youve drafted your personal experience piece, go back over it to check to see ifyouve developed the theme you set out to develop. If youve gone off on other tangents, reworkthe piece to eliminate them. For a tight personal experience piece, only one theme should dominate.So, theres one basic structure of the modern-day personal experience piece. F. Scott Fitzgerald said,"A writer wastes nothing." Dont waste your personal experiences. Look into your own life or the lifeof someone close to you for personal experiences and write about them. The market is hungry forthese types of articles. Make them work for you.