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Personal Narrative Exercise

Assignment Summary

1) First I will assign the students to read and respond to several short selections. I usually use at least two short selections from one of Studs Terkel's books, an excerpt from a chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and another short excerpt from a biography. I choose these three different readings because the method of recording individual experience is very different in each one. Studs Terkel interviews a wide variety of people by asking them each the same question and then recording their responses verbatim. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was ghost-written by Alex Haley; biographies are written in the third-person by someone acknowledged to be a second party. We discuss each selection in class focusing on issues of composition and narration.

2) I divide the students into pairs and ask them to interview each other. Before we begin the interviewing, we decide on a list of questions to use during the interview. After they have interviewed each other I give them for homework the assignment of composing three different texts. The first will be a Studs Terkel-style verbatim recording of the person's narrative. Since the students do not have tape recorders they must go from memory and try to recreate their partner's exact words, speech patterns, tone, etc. The second text will be a ghost-written autobiography where they will speak as if they were their partner but will have license to embellish. Finally they will tell their partner's story in the third-person as someone hired to write a biography. (It helps to have a hand-out explaining these distinctions.)

3) In class the following time I will ask them to freewrite on the question of how easy or difficult it was to write using each of the three different techniques. Class discussion following this freewriting is usually very lively.

4) Finally I will ask volunteers to read aloud from their different texts (only with the permission of the person written about!). The students usually enjoy hearing each other's work read aloud at this time.


Instructor's Comments

I like this activity because it shows the students that there is craft involved in all three of these different techniques. It demonstrates to the students that all writing is persuasive, even "personal" writing. They are always making critical choices as they write. We will refer back to this activity many times during the semester as we do text analyses and argumentative writing. I usually do this activity right at the very beginning of the semester as we are gearing up for the personal narrative. It has the added benefit of breaking the ice and helping them to get to know each other. It starts out the semester on a very light and fun note.

genre narrative, profile
course WRT 102 and up
activity type one-on-one discussion, interviewing, individual writing assignment, freewriting
skills interpersonal communication, voice
duration 2-4 classes
materials/readings
selected short biographical and autobiographical texts
handouts: none
contributor: Kathryn Kleypas