Last updated on September 23rd, 2023.
Read yourself to success
I read a lot of books, as I’m sure you do too. And, for me, I’d rather read a personal narrative such as an autobiography or a memoir more than any other genre of literature. Why? Because we can learn so much from personal narratives. Yes, of course, I’m probably never going to use the mountaineering tips I learned while reading all those books on climbing Mt. Everest. Nor will I ever need to plan a military raid on the enemy or run a 5-star restaurant in New York City – all things I’ve learned from reading memoirs. It was enjoyable and eye-opening to learn those things, however!
(If you like reading other people’s narratives, you’ll want to check out the top three experts on self-improvement!
Benefits of reading personal narratives
But you won’t just get helpful (or not-so-helpful) tips from reading a personal narrative. You will also learn how people achieved their success. How people achieved the proverbial pulling themselves up from their bootstraps. Now that is knowledge we can all use. Because, reading about how someone reached their position in life, found a cure for something, or helped people in need, will allow you to take those lessons and adapt them to your life. Perhaps they will inspire you to strive for greatness.
On the other hand, reading personal narratives about lives gone wrong and mistakes people have made is still beneficial. You’ll learn what not to do. You’ll learn how not to go down the wrong path and what actions not to take.
(The article “No Room for Guilt in Abundance” provides a few personal narratives for you to start reading!)
The personal narrative in literature
As I said, I love reading personal narratives because it allows me to see the motives and actions of others. How they got to where they ended up. How they dealt with that crisis or that triumph. And what they thought about themselves.
If you feel that reading a personal narrative, autobiography or memoir is not really your cup of tea, take a look at the following five personal narratives. They’re all very popular, no doubt because they are engaging, well-written and show both the good side and bad side of people. They inspire and teach us lessons that we can use in our own lives. Pick one up and see what you think. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Journalist Jon Krakauer retells the story of the fateful day on Mt. Everest in 1996 that claimed the lives of five mountaineers and impacted countless other climbers, family members and rescuers alike. Krakauer gives an in-depth look at his actions as well as the actions of others on the mountain. And he pulls no punches with his opinions of where everything went wrong. It’s an action-packed book that you’re sure to enjoy!
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Punk icon Patti Smith gives us an honest and frank look at the late 1960’s art scene in New York City and her relationship with provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith and Mapplethorpe were young artists just starting out and they leaned on each other for inspiration, love and drive. I loved this book; the narrative really gets into the mindset of creative people.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay’s brilliant and candid memoir of her relationship with food and her struggles with a negative body image can go a long way to help people confront their own anxieties about pleasure, consumption and health. She shows us how to balance self-comfort with self-care in hopes that we can lead healthier and happier lives.
Persepolis: The Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Personal narratives don’t always come in prose form. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis uses black and white comic strip pictures to give the reader a glimpse of what it was like to grow up during the Iranian revolution. The tale is frank; the revolution was a time of public violence and upheaval. And Satrapi had to learn to navigate between the public world, sometimes violent and frightening, and her personal life. If you like Persepolis, there is a volume 2, in which Satrapi travels with us to her adulthood. Both books are noteworthy and must-reads.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Former first lady Michelle Obama wrote this powerful memoir, showing the reader how her childhood shaped her to become the strong women’s advocate, health ambassador and devoted mother and partner that we all know her as. She balanced motherhood and work in her early career and then lived in a fishbowl during her eight years in the White House, all with grace and strength. The memoir is an impassioned look at Obama’s life and will inspire generations to come.
So, there you have it. Read personal narratives to gain the insight to go further in life or maybe not go as far as you were planning!
What is a Personal Narrative?
Simply speaking, a Personal Narrative is first-person story about a person’s life. The personal narrative, just like any piece of prose, has a beginning, a middle and an end. And, according to Charlotte Linde of the Institute for Research on Learning, it’s a chance for the writer to morally appraise themselves and show the reader why the narrator is a good person, or what circumstances caused them to go down the wrong path.
But personal narratives can also be spoken. For instance, a personal narrative can be the story of an incident that a narrator tells to a listener at a party, job interviewer or even an audience at a story-telling event. And the narrator may change aspects of the story for each listener or audience. The narrator may have that one story they tell about themselves at a party or gathering. Their delivery and telling of their narrative can be thought of like public relations. These facts are what he wants you to know in order to form an opinion of him. However, there may be other facts that he has left out, that are not part of his narrative.
Further, since no one is static, a person’s morals, ideals and values may change as they go through life. These changing viewpoints can also change the details of the personal narrative. At one point in their life, the narrator may be proud of an action, and may detail the story of that action to listeners/readers in a positive tone. But, later on, the narrator may have changed their values, and now that action embarrasses them or make them looking inward negatively.
In this article, we’ll talk in-depth about personal narratives, including what exactly does the term “personal narrative” mean. We’ll discuss the purpose of personal narratives, the use of personal narratives in psychology, and offers descriptions of positive and false narratives. Then, we’ll show you how to begin a personal narrative and, finally, answer the question as to whether a personal narrative has to be true. Wow, we’ve got a lot to cover! Read on; and then go begin writing your own personal narrative!
What does “Personal Narrative” mean?
Let’s first talk about what a “narrative” is. Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a “narrative” is “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values.” So, the personal narrative, as we said above, is the presentation of the narrator’s life or experiences. And, of course, it can often sway the reader’s opinion, depending on what facts are given and what facts are kept out of the story.
What is the purpose of a personal narrative?
I tend to read personal narratives, autobiographies and memoirs more than fiction. I want to be inspired by the true stories of strength and hard work. And I want to learn the life lessons of others.
There are many purposes to a personal narrative:
- The writer can discuss how they got to where they are in life.
- The writer can show the reader the steps it took to gain success or meet a life’s goal.
- The writer can also show the reader where they went wrong and how they got back on track.
- The writer can describe an interesting incident or experience from their life.
What is a personal narrative in psychology?
The personal narrative tells the story of a person’s identity. It’s what type of person they think they are. Also, from a psychological point of view, the personal narrative could give clues as to how a person dealt with a particular personal experience and how they may approach future experiences. You can gain insight into how the narrator looks at themselves, which can influence how other people look at them.
But there is a form of therapy called Narrative Therapy that seeks to rewrite the narrator’s story. Psychologists work to help the narrator separate their identities from their problems or their mistakes. That way, the narrator won’t define themselves by one segment of time.
Psychologists further teach their clients that they are not their past or their heritage. How they define and present themselves and how they “write” their narrative can change. Psychologists believe that biology doesn’t determine your future; “nurture” takes precedence over “nature.”
Narrative therapy patients work with their doctors, talking through aspects of their lives. This is in contrast to traditional therapy, where a therapist may give advice to the patient. Instead, through conversation, the practitioners support the patient into realizing the answers that they already know to solve their problems.
The therapy also uses a technique called “Outsider Witnesses Mapping.” In this therapy, outsiders, generally friends or past clients of the therapist, listen as the patient and practitioner converse. Then, the outsiders are asked to say what stood out, without judgment. They are asked how they may change their viewpoint of themselves passed on what they witnessed. Lastly, the patient is asked what stood out from the conversation between the outsider and the practitioner. This therapy is beneficial because the patients finds out that they are not the only one with a specific problem. And they may find a solution to their problems based on how the outsider coped and dealt with similar problems. Narrative therapy can be very beneficial to patients with feelings of pain and failure.
(If you enjoy narrative therapy, you might enjoy this article on positive psychology!)
What is a positive narrative?
In psychology, the positive narrative theory says that problems or barriers in life are in fact advantages for one to tackle difficulties, learn from the situation, and grow stronger and better able to handle challenges and obstacles.
In a positive narrative, the narrator does not deny that a problem exists. That is a given. But, instead of being frozen, overwhelmed by the problem, they work to fashion a plan to solve the problem. In life, this will allow a person to rewrite their brain and think of problems as challenges. This can help people in their careers and relationships.
And not only can a positive narrative help in careers and relationships, but people with a positive narrative have less stress in their life and have stronger immune systems, allowing them to ward off diseases and lead healthier lives.
To me, writing a positive narrative about yourself is like writing a great resume. You’re going to highlight the positives in your career, like projects you’ve succeed on. And you may talk about your volunteerism and other interests. All of the great things on your resume will make someone else feel positive about you, and they should also make you feel positive about yourself!
What is a false narrative?
A false narrative, on the other hand, is problematic and can even be dangerous to those around you. The false narrative is the story you tell yourself and others. It may be the story you are fooling yourself into believing, but it is not completely grounded in the truth. The false narrative you may tell yourself and others could try to explain why you failed at a project, or why you may have let yourself down in a situation. There may be specks of truth in your narrative, but it has been shaped erroneously. We use false narratives to make ourselves feel better and because it is hard to face the truth. And, in a larger scale, a false narrative from, say, a government, can cause havoc.
But, experts say that if we can employ critical thinking, we can learn to spot false narratives, from people and from larger institutions. Ask yourself if there is evidence that backs up the claim that the person has stated. Further, is that evidence trustworthy and is the source of the claim trustworthy? Ask yourself if the speaker or writer has an agenda behind their claims. Those and other questions will help you determine if the narrative is false or can be believed.
How do you start a personal narrative?
A good way to start a personal narrative is to jot down some of the interesting or exciting things you’ve done in your life or the lessons you want to teach others. Ultimately, what is it about you that you want others to know? Have you had an inner conflict you’d like to share? That’s your first step.
If you want to convey your personal narrative to others, know that, like prose, a narrative has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s helpful to first start an outline. Just like writing an essay or a story, your outline should follow this example:
- Paragraph 1: Intro, with thesis statement that states your idea.
- Paragraph 2-4: Examples to support your thesis statement.
- Paragraph 5: Wrap up, recounting what you’ve written above.
When you’re done writing, it’s a good idea to have a personal friend, someone close to you, read it, before you sent it off for publication or retell it at a storytelling event. They’ll help you tighten it up a bit and find any grammatical errors you may have missed.
Does a personal narrative have to be true?
That’s a tricky question. We’d all like personal narratives to be true, but in some cases, the truth changes. What you felt about yourself when you wrote that personal narrative five years ago may not be what you think about yourself now. So, is that narrative still the truth? That is really something you will have to decide for yourself. And, as we spoke above, you can even use critical thinking to determine if your own personal narrative is true, not just the personal narratives of others.
So it’s really very subjective. If you ever listen to the Moth, a storytelling program on the radio, you’ll know that they require the stories to be true. Again, this is only my opinion, but I don’t think it’s fair to the reader or listener to frame a personal narrative as true but for them to realize later on that is was not. So, my advice is to stick to the truth as much as you can.
Start your writing engines!
I hope you get something positive out of this article. I’ve given you examples of some of what I think are the best personal narratives out there. And, I’ve discussed the questions: What is a personal narrative, as well as what is its purpose? Then, I’ve talked about what the personal narrative means in the psychological setting and gone in depth to discuss narrative therapy. And I hope I’ve given you useful things to think about when constructing your own narrative, such as the difference between a positive and false narrative and how to take those first steps to write your own narrative. Lastly, I’ve given you my subjective opinion on the question of whether a personal narrative must be the truth. So let’s all go out there and start writing our personal narratives. Good luck!