Creative writing can take various forms: poems, short stories, memoirs, novels, and even song lyrics. Narratives, whether in the form of a poem, a story, or an essay, often attempt to achieve or create an effect in the minds of readers. A personal narrative, a form of creative writing, is a story about personal experiences. Memoirs are personal narratives, but they can also be classified as creative nonfiction.

In this class, you will mainly write nonfiction, but if you would like to learn more about creative writing, you can check out the next level creative writing course the UNM English department offers,  English 2310 (three genres of CW). Additionally, the student literary journal at UNM, Blue Mesa Review, publishes creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The intended effect of creative writing differs depending on the writer’s goals. The intention or purpose may be to expound on the grieving process (catharsis) or to encourage an emotional response from the reader, for example, making a person laugh or cry. The potential results are unlimited. Creative writing can also be used as an outlet for people to get their thoughts and feelings out and onto paper. Many people enjoy creative writing but prefer not to share it. For this class, be prepared to share your narratives with your instructor and classmates during peer review.

Ultimately, narrative writing tries to relay a series of events in an emotionally engaging way.

You want your audience to be moved by your story, which could mean through laughter, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly you tell your story, the more emotionally engaged your audience is likely to be.

A reader may not have experienced similar life circumstances as yours, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t be able to identify emotionally with what you and your characters go through. Human strife is human strife. For this reason, the subject of the memoir cannot be you. Your story, whether a literacy narrative or a memoir, needs to be about something larger than yourself. Your task, as the writer, is to explain how an event or experience is vexing, enlightening, or engrossing, something an outside reader could potentially relate to. Here’s an example, I used to spend summers at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey–snore. Who cares, right?

But what if I explain that during my stay at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey when I was nineteen, I learn that my father has re-married without telling me, and he now has a child on the way? I understandably feel betrayed and left out. Throughout the story, I reflect on the idea of honesty and trust in father-daughter relationships while explaining the events that unfolded as my father called me on the phone and said I was his little Pica-paca-pu. Now that’s a story. The more specific the details in a memoir, the more human, appealing, and universal your story becomes.

Nonfiction and Memory

Because literacy narratives and memoirs often deal with events that happened early on in your life, you may be wondering, “But what if I don’t remember all the details?” That’s okay! Chances are that you won’t remember every word you spoke or what the weather was like, but it is important that you tell the emotional truth. In other words, you convey the heart of what happened and what it meant rather than intentionally changing aspects of the story to make it more interesting or to make yourself (or your Grandma or your third-grade teacher) look better. For example, let’s say your mother’s favorite color is red and you know when you were first learning to read that she had a red dress she wore often. It’s perfectly okay to say that your mother was wearing that red dress when she sat you down to teach you the alphabet; however, it’s not okay to say that she turned into a giant dinosaur that day. Filling in small pieces with likely details from the past is fine, but outright fabricating is not.

Structuring a Personal Narrative

When writing a personal narrative for class, first consider the prompt your teacher assigned you. Then freewrite about topics that are of general interest to you.

Once you have a general idea of what you will be writing about, you should sketch out the major events of the story that will compose your plot. Typically, these events will be revealed chronologically, and a climax at a central conflict that must be resolved by the end of the story. Major narrative events are most often conveyed in chronological order, the order in which events unfold from first to last. Stories typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and these events are typically organized by time.

Not all personal narratives are written in chronological order. Some are told backward, and some are arranged thematically. On occasion, a narrative can be structured by starting in the present and then “flashing back” to a prior, related event. Typically, this is a strategy used to create interest and tension–the reader has to read the rest of the narrative to find out what happened. When using flashback, the writer usually concludes by returning to the present and reflecting on the flashback or its resolution. Regardless of your structure, whether you tell your story chronologically or non-chronologically, you will definitely need transitional words and phrases to guide the reader through time.

Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time
after/afterward as soon as
currently during
next now
finally later
until when/whenever
at last before
eventually meanwhile
since soon
still them
while first, second, third

As always, it is important to start with a strong introduction to hook your reader into wanting to read more. Try opening the essay with an interesting event to introduce the story and get it going. Tell the story with a scene and engaging details. Finally, your conclusion should help resolve the central conflict of the story and impress upon your reader the ultimate theme of the piece. The ultimate theme of the piece is the larger wisdom or the universal experience that other people can relate to and enjoy.

Crafting a Personal Narrative

Craft features are the tools a writer uses to tell stories. Some examples of craft features include theme, characterization, setting, mood, imagery, persona, and plot–these help shape and craft your story.

Craft features, stylistic elements, or literary devices are all synonyms for the same basic idea. These are your writer’s toolbox, and using craft features effectively in a piece of writing tells the reader that you know your focus and are using craft to support your larger idea–some people call it a theme, some people call it a universal experience.

Here are a few craft features, or writer’s tools, defined for you from Successful Writing:

  • Plot – The events as they unfold in sequence

  • Characters -The people who inhabit the story and move it forward. Typically, there are minor characters and main characters. The minor characters generally play supporting roles to the main character or the protagonist. Characters are fleshed out not only through how the author describes them but also through their actions, dialogue, and thoughts.

  • Conflict -The primary problem or obstacle that unfolds in the plot that the protagonist must solve or overcome by the end of the narrative. The way in which the protagonist resolves the conflict of the plot results in the theme of the narrative

  • Theme – The ultimate message the narrative is trying to express; it can be either explicit or implicit. A story’s theme is also what makes it significant. If the story has lasting meaning to you, it will be meaningful to your readers.

Successful Writing introduced a few craft features to help you write a personal narrative, but there are more features available for you to use in a personal narrative. The chapter continues with more talk of plot, and then other features.

Plot Triangle

Review this video for more information on how a plot triangle works.

Credit:  “Plot Triangle,” by Jennifer Jordan. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

Elements of a Memoir

  • Basic Orienting Facts-Lets the reader know who, when, where, and what is happening.
  • Organization-This is so important that it has a whole sub-section on the next page.
  • Structure-This is also so important it has a whole sub-section on the next page.
  • Scene-The reader likes vivid descriptions of the setting and what you said in order to feel immersed in a story. Scene is the opposite of summary. Use scene sparingly when you want to slow down and focus on an important part of the story.
  • Summary-This term is slightly different when used in creative writing. In academic writing, when you summarize, you tell the reader the main idea of a text. In creative writing, summary is different–it’s a way to manage time. When you tell the reader what used to happen in your family, for example, you could explain, “My mother used to cook Sunday dinner for the family. She often made a roast.” You are summarizing what used to happen in the past. If you were to write about a specific Sunday, and you fleshed out what happened in scene with dialogue, included details about the sound of vegetables being chopped, described the smells in the kitchen, and told the reader what your mother was wearing, and reflected on the conversation you had, that would be a scene. Summary condenses information in both academic and creative writing, but in creative writing, summary is linked to time management.
  • Persona– Be aware that the character of you in the memoir is a construct. It’s not literally you, because you are not words on the page, right? You are flesh and bone and you have a rich inner life. Use that rich inner life to develop your persona. Persona comes from the Latin word for mask. It’s the version of you that you would like to illustrate for the reader in your memoir. This is a complicated concept. One way to think of your persona is you in relationship to the situation or people in the story. The persona can also be shaped by time: who and what you were like when you were twelve, for example. It can be shaped by relationship to your topic: who and what you are like in relationship to your mother or third grade teacher or your sergeant in boot camp.
  • Accountability to the reader-Readers won’t automatically question your credibility as a narrator on the page, but if you seem very infallible or somehow superhuman while everyone else in the story is tragically flawed, then the reader will wonder about the truthfulness of your own self-depiction. You are accountable to telling the story to your reader as truthfully as you can, while using craft elements to engage the reader. It’s a daunting task. Also, readers like protagonists who are flawed, so be truthful about your mistakes.
  • Setting-Where and when the story takes place.
  • Mood-The emotional weight or atmosphere of a story, created through details, description, and other craft features, for example, sometimes setting can help create a mood.
  • Imagery-An image in a story, or in a poem, is a description that appeals to one of the five senses. An image should also convey additional meaning, either emotional and/or intellectual. It’s not an image to say green gelatin. Green gelatin is meaningless until the reader injects the gelatin with meaning. You can, however, create an image if you were to write, “The Frog Eye Salad recipe that my beloved grandmother used to make for Sunday picnics.” The latter description is specific and contains emotional content.
  • Reflection-The sense and interpretation that you make of the events that transpired in your memoir and how you feel and/or think about them. You can also reflect on the story and relate the events to the universal meaning or theme you would like to include in the story.

You can use all of these tools or craft features to help you tell a story that is vibrant and focused. All of these craft features work together in a story to help the writer convey the ultimate theme or universal experience in a nonfiction work. That universal experience, what reading and writing means for you, personally, getting down to that level of personal experience actually makes your writing more appealing and universal to the reader. The more specific your descriptions and stories become, the more easily the reader can relate and enjoy your stories.


The textbook Rhetoric and Composition describes memoirs as a form of creative writing, a first-person autobiographical text that records a writer’s reaction to important events in their life. This is different from an autobiography. Influential people, such as former U. S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, often write lengthy autobiographies depicting the many critical events of their lives and careers. But every writer has experienced a few critical events that will be of interest to people who do not know them. These individual events are great topics for memoir.

According to Greg Martin, a professor at UNM, when a person creates a memoir, the writer is examining a specific time in their life, and a very specific relationship–a relationship to a person or idea. The memoir must be larger than the writer in that an outside reader could relate to themes or universal meaning in the text.

How to Write a Memoir

You don’t have to be nearing the end of your life to write a memoir. A book-length memoir can cover your lifetime, but it had better be focused on some aspect of your persona, which is how you characterize yourself in memoir. So even two hundred pages of memoir needs focus.

Focus is central to any genre of writing–academic essays, business letters, memoirs, and so on. For this course, when you write a memoir, focus is even more important. Since you only have two to three pages to tell a story from your life, your persona (that is, you characterized on the page) should focus on a universal meaning you would like to relay to the reader and a relationship between you and something larger than yourself–a relationship to a person, an activity, a struggle. Pick a short time period, or maybe even a moment, for this course’s assignment, and focus on relaying to the audience what made that event in your life special, important, or life-changing.

If you are assigned a memoir in class, you will want to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What is the story I want to tell?
  2. Why do I want to tell it?
  3. How could an outside reader relate to what I write?

The third point above is important because you always want to think about the reader when you write. If you are writing a personal narrative, you aren’t just writing about yourself. You’re writing about the human experience, and what it means to live inside your body and your mind at this particular moment in time.

Here’s an example of how a reader can relate to a narrative. Think about a children’s story, take Cinderella for example. She’s a nice, young lady; she’s so nice that even small animals are drawn to her. They know she won’t hurt them, but her family is mean, and they don’t see that she is special and beautiful.

Have you ever experienced or known someone who was not understood by a parental figure? Have you ever snuck out at night to go to a party, especially if there was a super-hot person who invited you? Have you experienced being double-crossed? Have you ever been forced to do chores you didn’t want to do? Cinderella experienced all these struggles and the story compels the reader to connect with the audience.

On many levels, this children’s story is relatable to an outside audience. Yes, it is fiction, and the fantastical elements might make it seem like an ordinary person couldn’t identify with the story; however, the specific details allow the reader to be immersed in the story and identify with the protagonist.

In this vein, you will write memoir. The way to create a more human and relatable story is to write specific details, and reflect on the story and what it means to you now. Professor Martin has said that one of the most important parts of writing memoir is reflection. Reflection is you looking back on the events that you are describing and making sense of them.

Reflection in memoir is similar to interpreting and analyzing evidence in an academic essay. When you read about Analytical Writing, you will notice that interpreting evidence and making sense of statistics or facts is important. The same goes for writing memoir. You have to write about why the situation you have narrated is important or universal–how does it relate to the reader? What did you learn? What can we learn? However, you don’t want to sound so dogmatic when you begin the reflection area of an essay because the reader will have their own interpretation of the events you describe. And that’s the hard part about memoir–once you create a piece of art and present it to an audience, the audience will have a different interpretation from what you have created. And that’s fine. It’s part of the process of creating art–writing is art. Creative writing should be lyrical, and lecturing never sounds pretty. You can reflect by using other craft features like imagery and metaphor to help you create the meaning, theme, or universal wisdom in your story. But it’s up to the reader to decide on meaning.


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