Creative Nonfiction: How to Craft a Personal Narrative | Daniel Krieger | Skillshare

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Creative Nonfiction: How to Craft a Personal Narrative

teacher avatar Daniel Krieger, Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Class Overview


    • 2.

      Your Assignment


    • 3.

      A Weighty Matter


    • 4.

      Choose a Story and Write a Draft


    • 5.



    • 6.

      Then What?


    • 7.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

Join journalist Daniel Krieger as he shows you how to craft a nonfiction personal narrative, with an in-depth look at its parts. He’ll illuminate the process by deconstructing a story that he wrote for the New York Times Magazine Lives column. He will also talk about choosing the right story, strategies for composing it, how to revise it, and what might come next. For the project, all you need to do is come up with a discovery you made that affected you that you’d like to share. This class is appropriate for anyone who gets a thrill out of writing true stories, and the skills you learn can be applied to just about any form of storytelling.

Meet Your Teacher

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Daniel Krieger



A freelance writer in New York, Daniel Krieger has contributed regularly to the New York Times in recent years, both features and breaking news reporting, as well as other publications, writing about wellness, New York life, and Japan. He grew up in New York, has lived in Japan, Colombia and Argentina, and speaks Japanese and Spanish. For many years, he was also an ESL teacher, most recently at Columbia University's American Language Program.

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1. Class Overview: I'm Daniel Krieger. I'm a freelance journalist in New York. I mostly write feature articles about a wide range of subjects. I don't really have a beat. What I'm after are compelling stories about people. Places phenomenon, For example. I recently had a piece about the struggles of street vendors in New York City. I once wrote a story about a village hang out for bike messengers. Did one about E cigarettes subculture in the city, a profile of a dictionary collector and scholar who has over 20,000 books in her apartment . I wrote about gun culture in New York City, Sumo On the piece that was a major breakthrough for me. A personal narrative about getting a ticket for being in the park after curfew. Who knew? I love writing personal narrative. Which brings us to this class today. I'm going to tell you what I know about crafting personal narratives, and I'm going to give you an assignment to write one about a discovery that you made. We're going to start by deconstructing one that I wrote. We're gonna unpack it and look inside of it, and I'm gonna highlight a bunch of its features and then we're going to get into the process. We're gonna look at how you choose this story, how you compose it, revising it and what might come after that. I'm going to assume that this is new free, and the skills that you learn in this class will be applicable to any type of storytelling that you might want to get into in the future. In whatever medium. For the purpose of this class, I'm going to make a distinction between personal narratives and personal essays. Personal narratives focus on the flow of the events of the experience, and the character changes. But in a personal essay that doesn't necessarily have to happen, a personal essay can be about a condition. I can write about how I love dogs, and I can explain it with numerous reasons and examples and anecdotes. But at the end, I would be unchanged. My condition would be the same. I love dogs, but with a personal narrative change that the character experiences and the way they end up differently at the end is what it's all about. I was an SL teacher for many years. I lived abroad. I taught in Argentina, in Japan and about 10 years ago, I got this intense, irrepressible urge to write about my experiences and to publish them. The only problem was I had no idea how to do that, and I didn't have the skills either. So I set out on an odyssey to learn how to write a personal narrative. I sought out teachers, people who could help me. I read books. I practiced all the time, and little by little, I got better. I got to the point where I could publish one of these stories as well, so the bottom line is this is a reasonable skill. 2. Your Assignment: So this is your assignment. Write a personal narrative about a discovery you made that affected you. Life is full of discoveries. You can call them revelations. You can call them epiphanies, whatever you like. I want you to look into your experience and try to find one that you can share that will answer three basic questions. What was the discovery? How did it affect you and how did it come about? The possibilities are infinite. Maybe. Was something you discovered in your childhood, for instance, that you are mortal. Or perhaps it was discovering that your parents are fallible. Maybe it was a discovery that you made last week at work about your boss. Or perhaps it was a discovery that you made about yourself about something that's dark and painful, or maybe something uplifting. Whatever the discovery is, it affected you, and you made it. As far as the parameters. I'm going to say 500 to 1000 words, which is 1 to 2 pages, typed, single spaced. The idea of this assignment is for you to get your feet wet. It's low stakes. It's just a chance to see what it's like to write a personal narrative to help you. I'm going to look very deeply at one that I wrote about a discovery that I made. It's called a weighty matter. So in order to really fully appreciate my discussion, I recommend that you read it before watching the video. So if you haven't go ahead and do that now 3. A Weighty Matter: the story that I'm going to be talking about today Awaiting Matter was published in The New York Times Magazine in The Lives column. The Lives column has very good examples of personal narratives. They are stories from people's everyday lives that are short, meaningful and powerful. Of course, there are lots of other places where you could find good examples of personal narratives. But for our purpose today, this is what will focus on. I'll be using my piece toe highlight the elements of the story structure, things like Conflict Plot Exposition. You may have heard of these things before, maybe in a high school English class or someplace like that, and you might recognize them as fictional devices. And that's because creative nonfiction, which personal narratives are, uses fictional devices in the same way as fiction. The key difference, though, between fiction and creative nonfiction, is that creative nonfiction has to be true. You can't have a composite character, you can't make stuff up. There's a contract between the writer and the reader that if you're gonna call it nonfiction, it really happened. So these elements that I'm going to be discussing will be useful for us because They'll give us a vocabulary for looking at a story and understanding how the structure works to begin. I'm going to talk about the lead. The lead sets up the story and draws the reader in Here's mine. A few months ago in Osaka, Japanese friend I hadn't seen for a while asked if I had put on weight after considering a variety of responses. I did what any 40 year old narcissist would do. I denied it. Are you sure? She said in Japanese with a smile. You look fatter. What do you mean? Fatter on the same. But your face. It looks fatter, I'm sure your arms too. So I started the peace with the first moment of the story right where the action began when the woman asked me about my weight. This'd is a good way to start a personal narrative right where the action begins and a note about leads. David Remnick once said that a lead shines a light through the whole piece, and I think this one achieves it because it goes to the heart of the story. This issue about my weight dialogue is what people say. Dialogue can be very useful for advancing your story. You can pick the things that people said that are the most interesting, the most colorful, the most unusual, and highlight them by showing the reader here where their words sometimes you might need to refer to something someone says, But maybe it wasn't so interesting. In that case, you could simply paraphrase, which is what I did in my lead in the first sentence. And then you'll also notice that my lead included dialogue because that was very important for setting up the dilemma that my character faced. Now let's talk about plot. Plot is the sequence of events that makes up the story. The plot traces the ark of the experience of the main character, who in this case is me, and it answers the questions, What happened and what happened next. Let's consider awaiting matter. I can block out that story into four stages of the plot, the 1st 1 I call complication. Essentially, I am being told that I have gained weight. I don't think I have. I keep hearing it, it escalates. This is the complication phase. Next is what I call Discovery. That led me to the next phase where I discover Oh my God, it's true. And then after that, there's a secondary complication. Why is this happening? Why are people so gleefully sharing this information with me? I found out. And then in the next and final phase, I show resolution. I've reached a point of acceptance. I'm OK with this. I can suck the fatty tune out of life without fretting about calories and then on to the final moment of the peace when I'm in the donut shop with the woman, which really highlights how comfortable I am with this new awareness of myself. Now let's look at Exposition Exposition offers information the reader needs to know. In addition to telling the reader stuff they need to know Exposition is very useful for breaking up the action of the story and providing some variety. It's good to think about the flow of the information that you're presenting the reader and mixing it up a little bit, so it's fresh and interesting to read in my story Awaiting matter. You could see that I sprinkled the exposition a little bit here a little bit there, but there was one point where I had an entire paragraph of exposition because there was this really important thing I needed to establish about the context of living in Japan. I'm going to read that to you now. Since coming to Japan earlier this year to teach English, I found that certain features of my appearance attracted more attention than they did back home. In a land of what some Japanese disparagingly call big faces, small noses, boring black hair, little eyes and short legs. My small face, tall nose, wavy brown hair, round blue eyes and long legs made me quite the exotic specimen. I was single and an active participant in the dating market, but this obsession with my gut was throwing me off my game. So after that, I go right back into the action of the piece because I took so long away from it. And now we're at a crucial point of the story where the problem is escalating. Next up, conflict conflict creates tension and drama and propels the plot forward. The main conflict in awaiting matter comes from the dis jumped between how other people are seeing me as heavier versus how I see myself, the same as I always waas and you'll notice the way that the conflict happens is that it builds. We call this the escalation, the thickening of the plot, and it leads directly to the resolution. When I'm in my bathroom weighing myself, The bigger the thickening, the more intense it thickens, the bigger the payoff you get later. A little anecdote about conflict. When I took a writing class about 10 years ago, I wrote a story about going to Argentina and learning Spanish. And I was really proud of this story for its amazing turns of phrase and all of the great writing in it. So I brought it into the class toe, workshop it on Lee Toe, learn that I was missing one key ingredient. There was no conflict in the story. It was just something I did. I went and I learned a language I didn't encounter obstacles. There wasn't tension. There wasn't a thickening of any plot. And after I realized that I was like, Oh my God, how could I forget that the reason why was because I had never consciously thought about the elements of the structure. So if I can help you avoid a pitfall like that, then my job is done. Now let's look at scenes scenes, put the reader in a place with actions and details by describing what's happening and how things look and how they smell and how they feel and how they sound. You are transporting the reader into a place in a waiting matter. There are three main scenes. The 1st 1 was in the classroom, where I gave some details about what was happening when I sucked in my navel. I looked at my stomach and I was engaging in a conversation with my students. This scene was important because it set up the next scene, the big One, the discovery in the bathroom where I went in there and I weighed myself. I'm going to read that seem to you now. That night, after borrowing a Winnie the Pooh scale from a neighbor under the pretext of weighing something, I stood facing my bathroom's full length mirror and mounted it above Poussin serene, smiling place and the overflowing honeypot he held in his paws. The red digits on the scales display climb and flashed and finally settled. I was £21 over my official weight. One note about that scene. When I wrote my first draft of the piece. I did not have that seen in it. All I had was simply describing how I weighed myself and realised the truth. But when I had a trusted reader have a look at it, he mentioned to me, Hey, you know, you might want to get into that a little more and explore what was going on in that bathroom. It hadn't occurred to me, but it turned out that it was such a good suggestion because I was able to provide this really vivid account of what took place rather than just glossing over it. So when you're choosing scenes, you want to pick ones that really hit the mark. The final scene in the story was in the donut shop, and I'll be talking about that next. Finally, the ending. The ending wraps things up when considering your ending, you want to think about where you're gonna leave the reader. So looking at awaiting matter, where did I leave you? Perhaps with a little bit of a question mark, it's kind of a cool effect. People ask me, Is there a sequel because they want to know what happened with the doughnut girl. I agonize over writing endings. I spend so much time trying to figure out what the best way to end a story is. You need something that really sums everything up. As I said, it wraps it up, but it also creates a completion to the experience for the reader. So one thing you can do when you're writing your ending is right past the ending of the action to see if there's any other little tidbits to include, and then you can scale it back afterwards. So those are the seven elements of structure. Of course, it's not exhaustive. There is a lot more to talk about, but I think it's a good start for us. Another important part of learning how to do this that I wanted to point out to you is reading in a more active way what I call reading like a writer. Ordinarily, when you read something, you might just simply read what's there without giving much thought to how it was expressed . But when you read like a writer, you go in there and you dissect it. You ask questions about how the writer employed the different elements of structure. Oh, look at that. They started with exposition. That's kind of fresh. They didn't use any dialogue. Oh, what a great scene, This kind of thing. I want you to learn how to appreciate these different elements by looking at how others do them. So what I recommend is go to the New York Times website and read a few more lives columns and consider the things that I've been talking about when you look at them. You know, when I wrote awaiting matter, I read about 50 of these live stories. I just kept reading them and reading them because I wanted to learn how to do it. And that was the only way that I thought I could learn. And I think I did eventually managed to internalize the structure. Why? Because my teachers were the people who had succeeded on getting into the column. 4. Choose a Story and Write a Draft: So what kind of experience is good for your story? I want you to consider this deeply because a mediocre story that's beautifully told is still a mediocre story. I've had experiences where I sweated over a story on Lee to find out much later that it had some serious deficiency that couldn't be fixed. So if I can help you figure out a way to avoid that, I'd be very pleased. There are a few techniques I want to tell you about for discovering your story of discovery First listing, also known as brainstorming You. Um, your prompt is discoveries I made that affected me, and you just go uncritically as quickly as you can. You make a list of all the discoveries that you've had in your life, and then you review them. Maybe there's something there. Another way to do it is free writing. The same prompt discoveries I made that affected me, but this time you're writing it in a prose form. It's a little more open. Who knows what terrain you'll get into When you do this? I find that free writing always brings unexpected insights, and then once you arrive at a story and you think maybe this could work another way that you could approach This is to test it out, tell this story to someone and see how they react. So once you've chosen a story, the next step is to write a draft. And for me, I can tell you this is the biggest challenge of all. I'm so intimidated by a blank computer screen. How do you even get started? Sometimes I really need a while. Toe. Work up all the energy I need to bang out this draft. But once I do, I feel a lot better. So how can you go about this? Well, one way you can approach it is to forget everything I've told you about structure and conflict and plot. And just sit down and tell your story as best you can. Another way is consider these elements as you compose. This wasn't what I did when I was writing my life story, but I still think there's value to considering these different elements and how you want to use them as you're composing. Really? It's up to you to decide what your processes you might want to experiment to figure it out . It's up to you. For me, the act of writing is like solving a puzzle. No, actually, it is a puzzle. Writing is literally a puzzle that I am trying to solve. If I look at all of the writing assignments I've ever done, that's exactly what I was doing. I'm looking at these different pieces thes different elements, all of this material. And I'm figuring out how to solve this puzzle, which is unique, which has never been solved before. And the way I answer that question, how am I gonna put these pieces together? Is the solution to the puzzle? Here are a few miscellaneous tips that I want to give you before I send you on your way into the wonderful world of composition. First, tell your story chronologically. Keep it simple. Use the past tense. You can experiment with chronology later, but for the purpose of this assignment, chronological is good. Also, I recommend that you issue highfalutin words like, for instance, issue and highfalutin. They're lovely, but I think they can be distracting in this type of story, and I think there's a lot of elegance and power that can come from using simple common words. But in a powerful way. I also have a few tips toe offer you that came from some lives. Editors. These are especially useful. One more action. Mawr details less rumination. Answer the question. What did you do? What were the actions occurring? How did it look? How did it smell? How did it sound? These are the things that will make your story vivid. To tell a small story an evocative particular moment. This is a good reminder that it doesn't have to be some major life changing event. Little is good. You may even argue that my experience in awaiting matter is a trivial one. And you would hurt my feelings if you argue that. But I could understand your point. Three. Go to the outer limit of your comfort zone in revealing something about yourself. This is where it gets really interesting. 5. Revise!: So once you have your draft, you're ready for the next stage revision and revision and mawr revision. This is where it can get really exciting because you can turn a piece of writing that is really full of problems and not working into something that sings and shines and is beautiful and inspires people. And this is where it happens In the revision stage. I myself consider myself an average writer, but I think I'm a much better revise er, and I think that's how I really make my stories work. So how do I do it? Well, I start with cutting. I go through and brutally I remove the words, the phrases, the sentences, the paragraphs that don't deserve to be there. If they're not carrying their weight, if they don't need to be there, you can cut them. Another thing I do is sometimes I need to add stuff for extra context or who knows what. But expanding can also be the way to go when Mawr needs to be given, and another thing I do is moving things around. Sometimes when you're looking at the whole piece, you might realize that you can achieve a certain effect or order things in a different way to make it more interesting for the reader. Remember, this is a puzzle that's never been solved before, and this is your unique solution. Another way to evaluate your own writing while you're revising or even to evaluate someone else's writing is to interrogate it mercilessly, relentlessly, intensively. Ask questions, toe, look into it and find out what's working and what's not working. Here are some questions that you can use one. Does the lead draw you in how to are the events of the plot causally connected. Three. Do you include a scene or two with actions and vivid details? Four. Do you include dialogue that helps move the story forward? Fine. Do you answer the main questions of this assignment? What was the discovery that you made? How did you make it? How did it affect you? Six. Was there a clear conflict with a thickening plot? Seven. How well does the ending wrap things up? Where does it leave the reader? Eight. How much exposition do you have? Is it all essential? Nine. How does the whole thing flow? So how much to revise? It's really up to you to decide. But in my case, I like to take my time for a piece like this at least a few days, maybe a week or two. The goal is to get a fresh perspective on the story so you can look at it with fresh eyes. That way you can make better judgments about it. Ah, few things that I do to get this kind of fresh take include reading it out loud, um, printing it out and going for a tactile experience where I can write on the page, reading it on different devices like my iPad and my iPhone and also reading it on my computer screen, but with different sized fonts. I also like to try to catch myself off guard. So, for instance, I'll have the story in my bag. I'm sitting on the train. Ah, whip it out and start reading it from the end. Anything that can shake things up and take me out of the normal way that I look at the story this way, I can look at it in an objective way and again make the best decisions. I often go through many, many drafts of a piece because I tend to be a little bit obsessive about this. So for a weighty matter, I did at least 20 drafts, but it paid off in the end because I was able to get to a point where I really told the story that was worthwhile. 6. Then What?: they say a piece of writing is never finished but abandoned. So how do you know when you're done with your work? Well, when I reach a point where I'm not cutting things or moving them or adding them, and I'm frankly tired of working on it, that's when I think it's good to get some feedback. So who do you get feedback from? I think it's good to have one or two trusted readers who you can share it with who will give you constructive feedback, things that help you make it better. Another way to get feedback is to join a writing group. In that way you can look at a bunch of stories, get feedback from other people, and this kind of environment can be really productive for improving your writing skills. When I was first learning how to do this about 10 years ago, I had to write over a dozen of these essays before I got to a point where I got one published and that was in The New York Times and then the next year I got another one published, which was awaiting matter. But what you don't see in those stories it's all of the struggle that went into getting to the point where I could write something like that. I remember sitting there and asking myself, How do I do this? And I kept getting rejected. I wanted to publish something, and I kept trying to send in these essays to different places, and I just failed and failed and failed. I couldn't do it. But now I look at all of those essays as apprentice efforts. Each one was crucial training another step toward that goal that I eventually reached. And for me, the ultimate goal was when I got a weighty matter published and I'll never forget when the editor called me and told me he wanted my story and tears came to my eyes. So where would you like to go with this? It's possible that for you, this is just a exercise in itself, some kind of apprentice effort toe learn this incredible skill. Maybe for you. There's just great pleasure in a story well told. Also, writing itself is very therapeutic, especially when you're writing about painful experiences. Studies have shown this, so there's a lot of value in just doing it, perhaps like me, you have higher aspirations. Maybe you want to get this story published. Maybe you want to get a story in the future published. Well, there's good news, because for personal narratives, typically you don't need to write a pitch. You just send in the whole thing because the editors need to see it because it's all about the execution. There are so many different venues around that published this type of writing. The trick is to figure out the one that's right for a particular piece. I'm going to recommend a dozen places where you can start looking. But really, it's up to you to research this market and to find out the right one for you. The New York Times Modern love. This is a great place to find stories about relationships. New York times dot com Opinion ater Blawg Private Lives Mr. Baylor's Neighborhood. This one focuses on Lee on stories about New York Buzzfeed the All Salon, The Boston Globe magazine connections. Dame magazine. XO Jane Happened to me The Morning News Medium and box. First person 7. Final Thoughts: today. I told you what I know about writing personal narratives. We started by deconstructing one that I wrote through which I aim to show you the different parts of its structure so you can get an understanding of how the puzzle comes together. We also looked at the process how to choose a story, how to compose one, how to revise it and what might come after that. And by showing you this notion of reading like a writer, you could become a lot more aware of how stories work, whatever the medium is. Now, when you watch a film, you can see some of these same structural elements playing out. When I got into this 10 years ago, I never imagined how far I would get with it. At the time, it was just some need that I had, and it was it was a hobby was something I was just learning how to do. But by practicing really intensely, I managed to get to a point where I could produce publishable stories. How did I get there? Well, as I said, practice. But there was another part which is feedback intensive feedback. I think that's a crucial part, every writer needs an editor. So I want you to consider that in addition to the practice, you get others who can somehow guide you, help you as you try to compose your story. And I hope that the tips and the tricks that I showed you today will also contribute to that endeavor. So now it's your turn to write a story and please share it with the class so that everyone else can look at it and give comments. And for everyone who's reading the stories, please remember, the comments should be constructive. We want to help each other improve here. I'm really looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with. Thanks for taking my class and good luck.