The Narrative Essay or Autobiographical Essay
by Owen Fourie
When you are given an assignment to write a paper about yourself, the first thing you should do is to find a focal point for your essay.
Focus! Focus! Focus!
What is a focal point? For this purpose, it is an event in your life around which you can build your story. It could be an incident that marked a big change in your life. Perhaps it was something that gave you a new understanding of who you are or what you would like to be.
If you are someone who thinks deeply about things, there might be a life-changing thought that you have had that could become the focal point of your story. By establishing a focal point, you will save yourself from rambling on through a set of boring details as you try to give a general view of yourself.
It is important to avoid trying to give a broad sweep of your life from your birth to the present. Even if your particular assignment requires you to tell so much about yourself, it would be better handled if you were to have a focal point around which to develop all these details. In this case, take as your focal point a specific event that has bearing on your earliest years as well as on your more recent years.
Such an event could be the death of a grandmother who had much influence in your life in your earliest days and whose influence is still greatly felt. Taking her death as your focal point, you must be careful, of course, to tell more about yourself than about your grandmother. This remains a story about you, no matter how great her influence has been. This is one example of a focal point that should prompt you to think of others that are meaningful to you.
Far better than trying to develop a whole-life account around a focal point is an essay that takes one outstanding event in your life. With that event in focus, you build up to it – to the climax of the event itself – and then you tell what happened afterwards and reveal your thoughts about the matter. All the time, as you describe these things, you are writing in the first person using “I” and “me” and “my.” You are writing about yourself.
No plot, no story
Be sure to develop your essay as a short (true) story. In other words, have a plotline in which you describe
- the situation or a problem and introduce your characters (limiting the number of characters preferably to one other person besides you);
- the rising action in which you introduce a conflict between the characters or between the characters and a set of circumstances (perhaps a storm);
- the climax: the moment at which the tension is at breaking point;
- the falling action: the events following the high point of the story;
- the resolution: how the whole matter was resolved, how it ended, and your thoughts about it.
I had a student who wrote a most wonderful autobiographical essay. She told of an incident as a preschooler when she and her cousin were playing doctor and patient. Her cousin (let’s call her Hailey) was the doctor. The writer (let’s call her Lisa) was the patient.
Hailey, who was a year older and “who should have known better,” had diagnosed a rare and incurable disease in her patient. Lisa had no choice in the matter, and Hailey proceeded downstairs to announce to Lisa’s shocked mother that her daughter was dead!
The “deceased” patient thought this would be fun and played along by giving her best imitation of a dead person. She heard her mother bounding up the stairs taking two or three steps at a time. Of course, when her mother found that she was not dead, she breathed a sigh of relief, but logic took over. Hailey was reprimanded, and Lisa was spanked for playing along and causing her mother such momentary anguish.
This student focused on that one incident. She began with the sound of the spanking, and then she took her readers through a humorous description of the events that led to the spanking and to her conclusion: she would never trust her cousin again! The essay was focused, simple, clear, and funny. Lisa followed the directions for this assignment and received an excellent grade. You can achieve this too, if you follow this advice.
What has been your experience with writing an essay about yourself? What were the guidelines given to you for this exercise? What did you find difficult? Do you feel that with what has been written here, you have a better idea of what to do? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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