What is a personal experience narrative?

 

What is a personal experience narrative? header graphic.

 

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the personal experience narrative genre with help from scholars William Labov and Joshua Waletzky, Sandra K.D. Stahl, Gillian Bennett, and others, helping you analyse a personal experience narrative, and discussing ways to bring personal experience narratives to your story craft.

Folkloric Definition of Personal Experience Narrative

Scholars William Labov and Joshua Waletzky define the personal experience narrative as a "...verbal technique for recapitulating experience, in particular, a technique of constructing narrative units which match the temporal sequence of that experience (Labov and Waletsky 1967, 13)." In other words, it's a verbal means of ordering personal events along a timeline. Sandra K.D. Stahl's definition is a bit more straightforward. She writes that “The personal narrative is a prose narrative relating to a personal experience; it is usually told in first person and its content is nontraditional (Stahl 1977, 20).”

These definitions give us our basic checklist, and I'll add a note of my own as well. Personal experience narratives are:

  • First-Person Prose Narratives: Stories told or written by a person about her own experience.
  • Sequential: Told from the beginning of the event to its end.
  • Non-Traditional: Unique to the individual who tells the story.
  • Told for an Audience: Shaped to suit the narrator's listeners or readers.

However, the personal experience narrative is far more complex than this checklist suggests. For example, Gillian Bennett writes that women often backtrack and repeat key elements of personal experience narratives in order to create multi-layered, multi-textured stories (Bennett 1989, 174), which means they are not always sequential. It might also come as no surprise to the writers among you that the structure of narrative outlined in scholarship is similar to what we use in the construction of fiction. Labov and Waletzky write that narratives are comprised of an orientation serving to situate the listener, a complicating action in the body of the narrative, an evaluation revealing the attitude of the narrator toward the narrative, a resolution of the complicating action, and an optional coda, which returns the narrator and the listener to the present moment (Labov and Waletsky 1967, 32-41). So at least structurally, personal experience narratives are quite traditional.

Finally, the role of the audience should not be underestimated in any discussion of the genre. By way of explanation, let me tell you a personal experience narrative of my own:

Some years ago, I was playing YouTube videos at a kitchen table with a canny twelve-year-old niece. I thought she might like to watch the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, so I played one of the videos for her. But about two minutes after it started, the puppets started using the word 'fuck' over and over again in a comedy routine. Mortified (I had forgotten they used that word), I stopped the video, but not before my niece shrieked with laughter and called me "Age Inappropriate Aunt Ceallaigh."

Audiences matter, and their place in a narrative environment is widely discussed in scholarship.

Example of a Personal Experience Narrative

Ready to work? Great! Give the piece that follows a good read, and using the checklist above, see what elements of personal experience narrative you find in it.

The Rig, the Bridge, and the Bayou Beneath

Because this edition of the newsletter is about personal experience narratives, I thought I'd offer another of mine:

Between the summer of 1997 and the summer of 1998, I was an over-the-road truck driver. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I was assigned a Texas-Arkansas-Illinois run, and my boyfriend Sean came with me. On the Texas part of the run, I started having trouble with the tractor's electrical system, but I hated leaving it on overnight because of the diesel fumes. So after I picked up the load of paper waiting for me in Arkansas, I stopped the truck at a derelict, bayou gas station and turned the tractor off while we slept.

The next morning, the proprietor of the gas station banged on my door, offered me coffee, and politely asked me to move (I can't begin to describe this gas station to you. I thought it had been abandoned for years and was amazed to see lights on inside). But the tractor wouldn't start, so I had to contact my dispatcher, who called a tow truck to jump it. The fella who arrived in the tow truck looked like the gas station and couldn't bring himself to believe I was the driver. He kept talking to Sean, and Sean kept gesturing at me, and finally the fella pointed at my truck and asked, "You let her drive that thing?"

I threw up my hands, handed the necessary paperwork to Sean, and asked him to get the fella's signature. And because this was the middle of Arkansas bayou country in the days before GPS was commonplace, I asked him to get directions to the nearest truck mechanic as well.

Here's where the story gets interesting.

We got back on the road and followed the man's directions. There were no towns, no houses, nothing but trees for about an hour, when the road narrowed to two slender lanes without shoulders and abruptly ended at a bridge where the land sloped down about a hundred feet toward the water. But friends, this was no ordinary bridge. It was a winding, one-lane bayou bridge on concrete stilts, and we couldn't see the other side of it.

What was I going to do, back the truck up fifty miles? I had to cross and hope it held the 80,000 pounds of tractor, trailer, and paper I had under me. I also had to hope nobody was coming the other way. So I crossed, slowly, sounding my airhorn every few seconds. I don't remember how long the bridge was (must have been at least half a mile), but I remember the concrete guard rails on either side of my tires, and I remember the treetops below. I also remember the sway of the bridge, back and forth, as I took each winding curve.

The bridge held, and nobody came the other way. A few miles later, the Interstate crossed the road and led to a TA truck stop in Illinois, where we spent Thanksgiving while the mechanics replaced my tractor batteries. I married the boy who came with me on that run, and he tells this story now, too. Twenty-two years later, we still think the tow truck fella sent us across that bridge on purpose.

Analysis

How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this piece is a first-person prose narrative because I told a story about my own experience. It's sequential because I told it from the beginning to the end of the events described, though I did include a few narrative asides along the way. It's non-traditional in content because (one hopes) there isn't a large body of folklore about driving tractor-trailers across bayou bridges not rated for them, though the clever writers among you will recognize the traditionality of the narrative structure I used. Finally, I told it for an audience, namely; you. So I kept the colourful language I used on that bridge out of the narrative. Age Inappropriate Aunt Ceallaigh can be taught.

How a Personal Experience Narrative Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Personal Experience Narratives

If you've read previous issues of this newsletter, you'll have already noted in my discussions of legends and memorates that I'm cautious about sharing other people's stories. The same holds true for personal experience narratives. Taken out of context, they become vulnerable to appropriation. With this in mind, I don't recommend you use existing personal experience narratives in your fiction writing unless you've obtained the express, written permission of the narrator after explaining your intentions.

Creation of New Personal Experience Narratives

Because this topic is so rich, I'm going to give you a bit more scholarship here with an eye toward helping you port it into your writing practice.

Psychologist Ulric Neisser argues that not all self-narratives are true and cites as proof of this the complexities of autobiographical memory, which must distinguish "(1) actual past events and the historical self who participated in them; (2) those events as they were then experienced, including the individual's own perceived self at the time; (3) the remembering self, that is, the individual in the act of recalling those events on some later occasion; and (4) the remembered self constructed on that occasion (Neisser 1994, 2)."

  • How might your characters' faulty memories contribute to their personal experience narratives about an incident?
  • How might outside narratives manipulate your characters' memories?
  • How might other people manipulate your characters' memories (also called gaslighting)?

Arthur Frank discusses the "emplotment" of lives by way of narrative. He also writes that "The stories that people grow up on are unchosen, and as templates for experience - or what we hitch a ride on - these stories lead people into choices that are unchosen (Frank 2010, chap.1)."

  • How are your characters' lives emplotted by outside cultural, political, or religious narratives? How do they come to internalize those emplotted narratives as their own?
  • What unchosen stories did your characters grow up with, and how do these influence them to make unchosen choices?

Personal narratives about communal and familial life not only form the basis of shared identities and values but also display these to outside listeners, who might then form opinions about what they've heard and share them in other contexts. Yvonne Lockwood writes that the relationship between oral tradition and history is fraught for this reason, since folk history, comprised as it is of various shared traditions, might not be an accurate reflection of an event as it happened but rather "...a statement about individual and collective concepts and beliefs concerning what happened (Lockwood 1977, 98)."

  • What family and community stories are shared among your characters and the people around them?
  • Who has the right to tell these stories?
  • What family and community stories have been silenced?
  • Who silenced these stories, and why?
  • Who still knows these stories and tells them anyway? Why?

As you might have realized, personal experience narrative is a special interest of mine, so I could go on throwing relevant scholarship at you for some time, but I'll stop now. However, I hope I've given you something to chew on, and I hope you find a way to integrate these ideas into your creative work.

A Closing Passage on Personal Experience Narrative

Even the most personal of narratives rely on and invoke collective narratives - symbols, linguistic formulations, structures, and vocabularies of motive - without which the personal would remain unintelligible and uninterpretable. Because of the conventionalized character of narrative then, our stories are likely to express ideological effects and hegemonic assumptions. We are as likely to be shackled by the stories we tell (or that are culturally available for our telling) as we are by the form of oppression they might seek to reveal (Ewick and Silbey 1995, 212).

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with the summer solstice newsletter, which is devoted to folkloric elements in my own fiction.

Bibliography

  • Bennett, Gillian. 1989. ‘“And I Turned Round to Her and Said...” A Preliminary Analysis of Shape and Structure in Women’s Storytelling’. Folklore 100 (2): 167–83.
  • Ewick, Patricia, and Susan S. Silbey. 1995. ‘Subversive Stories and Hegemonic Tales: Toward a Sociology of Narrative’. Law and Society Review 29 (2): 197–226.
  • Frank, Arthur W. 2010. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Labov, William, and Joshua Waletsky. 1967. ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience’. In Essays in the Verbal and Visual Arts, edited by June Helm, 12–44. Seattle: University of Washington.
  • Neisser, Ulric. 1994. ‘Self-Narratives: True and False’. In The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative, edited by Ulric Neisser and Robyn Fivush. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stahl, Sandra K. D. 1977. ‘The Oral Personal Narrative in Its Generic Context’. Fabula 18 (1): 18–39.

My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com. #FolkloreAndFiction #csmaccath #FolkloreThursday