Brainstorming Topics for the Memoir/Personal Narrative Essay
For those of you struggling to identify pivotal moments to write about, it might help to think about this assignment as connected to the larger course themes of identity. Think about . . .
Øa time when you went through a big change in your life, in your character, your social identity, social status, etc. What caused this transformation? Was it a product of self re-invention or an external factor? How did you feel about this change? What insight did you gain about yourself or the world through this experience?
Øa significant “first”:
n a first big accomplishment/significant milestone
n a first major incident when you acted out of character
n when you first became aware of or embraced a particular social identity or role you hold
n when you first realized a discrepancy between how you saw yourself vs. how you were seen by others
Øa time when you falsely presented yourself. What was your motivation?
Øa time when you felt like your personal identity came in conflict with your social identity (as a member of a particular social group based on gender, class, race, religion, political orientation, etc.)
Øa time when you felt conflict between your identity as an individual vs. a member of the collective
Topics/purpose to be wary of:
--for personal therapy (journals are better for this)
--for vendetta/soapbox/axe to grind (write a letter)
--topics you might not be comfortable sharing with your classmates having since your papers will be read and critiqued by your peers
--conflicts you are currently experiencing for which you recognize no resolution, from which you can’t get enough distance to identify the realization
Leaping the hurdles to begin:
I don’t want to look bad!
--Remember: It is the emotional honesty of flawed heroes that makes for compelling narratives.
Does anyone want to read about my mad mother/trip to India/life on the farm? Is it worth it?
--Ask instead, “Do I want to write it? Is it important to me that it is written?”
Do I have the right to tell the world about my crazy mother/my boyfriend’s infidelity/my nasty neighbors?
--If it has been deeply significant in your life, then, as a starting point, you have the right to tell it as part of your story. You can also try the Scarlett O’Hara trick—worry about that tomorrow. After you write the rough draft, you can decide to delete the controversial parts.
Where in the huge tangle of events do I start?
--If you are having difficulty discerning the actual origins of the story you want to tell, then try the patchwork quilter’s method—just start making small pieces. Start by writing key scenes.
Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed several different invention strategies to uncover engaging persuasive essay topics. This week, we’ll focus our brainstorming on uncovering essay topics for the Narrative Essay.
Narrative essays tell a story. In English classes, most instructors ask students to tell a story about themselves, such as an event from the past or a story about their family. Narratives can be quite personal, and students have the opportunity to be creative, utilizing fictional techniques including dialogue, description, characterization and plot development.
Choosing a narrative topic that meets assignment guidelines as well as maintains readers’ interest is often daunting for beginning writers, but spending a little time utilizing several invention strategies will set you on your way to an engaging narrative topic and an entertaining essay.
Invention strategies will be different for a narrative essay than for a persuasive essay. Narratives will draw more on personal experience, so for narrative essays, we’ll do what’s called memory mining. Memory mining is simply brainstorming to uncover memories of people, places, events, and experiences. To simplify, we’ll break our memories down into categories. Try to list at least 3 memories for each category.
Memories of people
Memories of your immediate family are obvious, but consider other people who may have influenced your life. Did you have a favorite teacher or coach? Did you have a first boss who was a mentor? Did you meet someone who left a profound effect on your life? List the person and a brief note on why they come to mind. Below are some examples that could become an intriguing story:
- My high schoolhistory teacher taught me the importance of learning from our past
- My grandmother’s love of baking
- The homeless man I passed each day on the way to the bus stop
Memories of times and places
If I were to ask you to recall a place from your youth, I bet it would be easy. Places are full of memories of sights, sounds, smells – the making of a great narrative essay. Places can be inside home or outside in the city or country. A place could be a garden or a doctor’s office. Think of “time” in terms of era: junior high science lab; the summer you broke both your legs and spent the time in your bed; the maple tree where you kissed your first boyfriend over winter break. Work past the obvious and list as many times and places as you can.
- Early autumn in the Tennessee mountains
- The first day of deer hunting season
- Your Quinceañera
Memories of events
Often when we think of “events,” we immediately thing big – graduation, wedding, birth, death – but an event doesn’t necessarily have to be a big occasion. An event could be your last day of high school, saying goodbye to your favorite teacher. It could be a tornado drill at school when you got to snuggle close to the girl/boy of your dreams. It could be the first time you drove a car and went the wrong way down a one-way street (was I the only one who did that?). Think outside the box.
- Getting a black belt in karate
- The first – and last – time you sat on Santa’s lap
- Parents’ silver wedding anniversary
Memories of happy experiences
This might be an event, but could also be something simple, like a bubble bath or working Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter. Think small and large when brainstorming happy experiences.
- Catching the winning touchdown pass
- Opening the letter of acceptance from the journal where you submitted a poem
- Senior prom
Memories of unhappy experiences
We’ve all had unhappy experiences, but trying to determine which ones might make a good essay can be challenging. Think in terms of how you will tell the story of your unhappy experience before you commit it to paper. A break-up or death may come to mind first, but take some time to consider if there is a story in the experience that others can derive meaning from.
- Being pulled over by the police
- Wrecking my father’s beloved Camero
- Being ejected from the final game and disappointing my teammates
Memories of accomplishments
Accomplishments can be big or small. The emotions we might feel after accomplishing something might range from elation to sadness.
- Winning an award
- Completing the marathon
- Hitting weight loss goal
Supporting Ideas: Testing Your Topic
If you’ve spent some time memory mining, you should have a good list of topic ideas. Now you can begin to brainstorm supporting ideas. Pick one of your favorite topics you’ve uncovered, and list related memories as they come to mind.
For example, one student might choose her grandmother’s love a baking. Here is a list of memories surrounding that topic:
Grandma baked iced sugar cookies every Christmas
specialty was pecan pie
always wore her blue floral apron
flour in hair
let me lick bowl
types of cookies
favorite Betty Crocker cookbook
colored frosting and sprinkles
kitchen smelled good
singing along to Elvis music
Dad only ate unfrosted cookies
I learned how to use mixer
she let me add ingredients
learned to read recipes
I was glad sister didn’t like to help
made extra frosting so I could eat it
wrapped cookies in box and gave as gifts
couldn’t bake as she got older
I baked for her and she helped decorate
This is a long list, and every related memory may not make it into the final draft. If you have too much material for your essay, decide what the main ideas you want to write about are.
In our narrative, we want to show Grandma’s love of baking and how she passed it on, so the details of Grandma’s actions and what the writer learned from Grandma are important. Other details, such as the writer’s feelings about her sister, her Dad’s favorite cookies, or which cookbook Grandma used, may be less important and can be omitted. Once you decide what the story is you want to tell, you’ll begin to see what the important memories are, the focus will gradually become clearer, and the story will start to spring from the memories.
Easy as pie.
Published by E. Mack
Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack