“Here is what I would like you to know,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” He maps this argument with historical information and other data, but the declaration is also rooted in memory. There is one formative experience in particular Coates shares: the moment in the Baltimore of his youth when another kid pointed a gun at him. The place: a parking lot. The time: sixth grade. The effects and related revelations: lifelong and ongoing. You can hear Coates read the passage aloud here. It appears early on in Between the World and Me, Coates’s bestselling and National Book Award-winning work of 2015.
When I teach personal narrative writing to my composition students, my overarching goal for the assignment is that it should hone their sensitivity to small or simple starting points, to seeds, like Coates’s, that germinate. So the personal narrative I assign is the Signature Story*. Any experience can be made into a story, but a Signature Story is one to which the mind returns repeatedly: it comes from an experience that continually or recurrently resurfaces, influencing behavior, thinking, choices, emotions, values…etc. We might recall a certain Signature Story freely in conversation; others, we might tell more sparingly—only to certain people in certain circumstances, for example. Still other Signature Stories might be silent ones… experiences we relive, but “tell” only to ourselves.
Either way, this is the heart of the idea: a Signature Story reminds a person of something essential about who they are in the world they inhabit.
Any time Coates or any other author recounts a past personal experience in order to make a point about present reality, students can dissect it as an example Signature Story. In doing so, the big teaching questions are these: functionally, how does personal experience play into argumentative writing? How does it play into expository writing? And craft-wise, how do writers render tangled moments of their lives as discrete narratives in the first place, and then wield the resulting stories for specific audiences and purposes?
Once I’ve introduced the idea of Signature Stories and we’ve taken Coates’s passage as an example, I acknowledge to my students that we each have a whole collection of Signature Stories. That is, many crucial moments accumulate during a life, and furthermore, they don’t always mean the same thing to us over time. But students’ task, in the Signature Story assignment, is to choose a single experience with a discernible effect. It has to be something they can write about with candor, and about which they are game to receive constructive criticism.
The prompt has some of the usual pitfalls: many students want to write about something too recent, or something too huge. Popular choices I’ve learned to discourage up front include the story of a student’s entire senior year of high school, for example (too huge; hard to make a plot), and the story of moving into their college dorm (too recent for most composition students—mostly freshmen—to comment on with much depth). With mixed feelings, I also discourage students from writing about fresh trauma: I remind them we critique one another’s writing at several stages in the assignment, and recommend they choose material they have the energy for sharing, scrutinizing, dismantling, and overhauling.
The first active step involves a version of Linda Barry’s kitchen tables exercise (haphazardly recreated from my memory of a radio interview with her until I found this 2013 transcript from “All Things Considered”), an activity which tends to convince students they have more vivid access to their memories than they previously thought,
and thus a crucial step in turning their attention from Coates’s Signature Story to the minutiae and moments that matter most in their own lives.
The sequence of lessons that follow:
Freytag’s Triangle. Students learn this traditional narrative structure and the basic parts that constitute plot: conflict, turning points, the crisis action, and change. They must chart their own experience as a series of discrete and active scenes that build to the crucial moment that affected (and continues to affect) them.
Imagery. Students review the five senses, although transitioning from “telling” to “showing via sense” is harder than they anticipate. Much peer exchange can be valuable here as they get the hang of identifying opportunities in which to use sensory perception.
Characterization. Students learn to present themselves as a character in a story: they must decide which aspects of their personalities to reveal/emphasize on the page, and which aspects are irrelevant to the story at hand. They learn to simplify themselves strategi
Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is a great resource whether applying narrative principles to fiction or, as in this assignment, nonfiction.
Major student challenge #1: discerning and articulating the significance of the experience. The more students revise and rewrite according to the skills introduced above, the more concrete their analysis of the experience tends to become. But they often begin their stories based on an instinctive sense that a certain experience was important, only later uncovering exactly how and why.
Major student challenge #2: maintaining an allegiance to literary tools (namely, action or imagery). Composition students often seem more inclined to file a report of their experiences than to apply literary techniques. But I find that repeated revision activities in all three of the above areas not only make for more lively writing, but also—crucially—it raises the analytic bar. In other words, more practice applying principles of plot and image to an experience yields a more astute assessment of that experience’s impact. Many students will actually make major interpretive discoveries when they rewrite their stories using only sound, smell, taste, and touch (no sight) or when they temporarily edit out all reflection, look only at the progression of active scenes, and have to tell a partner what qualifies each scene as a turning point in the rising action.
I give students a rubric and assign points for:
(1) Using the principles of narrative—for building scenes driven by action.
(2) Using imagery—for showing rather than telling.
(3) Process: they get points for analyzing one another’s drafts in a workshop-model peer review.
(4) Finally, they get points for change: does the story reveal at least one substantial and lingering effect of the experience? And does it show (rather than tell) that effect on the main character by using action and image?
Thoughts on the Big Picture
Isolating a formative experience and recounting it with basic literary tools provides students with time/structure—but also the creative challenge—to reflect on socially crucial questions: how does a person’s lived experience shape who that person is? And what is it about any given experience that endows it with the power to shape us?
The way I see it, this assignment provides direct practice in civic literacy. The conceptual path is fairly simple: “experience X stuck with me, and looking back, I can see how that experience connects to XYZ approaches I’ve taken to living my life.” Then it’s just one more step to get from the particular to the systemic: “…and XYZ is actually part of a social pattern.”
Coates’s Between the World and Me is my current top choice of rich texts that make this move, but really, it’s everywhere: Three Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me My Consent Doesn’t Matter, a May 2016 post in Everyday Feminism, for example, shows how the author internalized rape culture—in part from her (loving!) parents. (The author deconstructs her trained acquiescence by examining specific personal experiences that are, unfortunately, common enough to warrant the article over a hundred thousand shares in the three-ish months it’s been up.) While I have never asked students to question their own learned identities in this assignment, nor to make their own critiques of America’s social fabric, the assignment familiarizes them with a pattern. They begin to track how often narrative figures in to deconstructive projects in the published work they encounter, finding over and over, it’s the structure of the Signature Story that opens the door to social analysis.
*H/T to Dr. Bill Schneider, retired professor of anthropology and oral historian at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Master’s thesis advisor, and stellar lifestyle coach in Subarctic/Arctic cold. This assignment marries narrative craft instruction with an exercise I first encountered when taking his course, “Oral Sources,” in which we told and wrote our own Signature Stories before soliciting the stories of others.