This morning I was eavesdropping on the kindergarten Zoom as Raffi’s teacher told the class how to write a personal narrative. Your story, she said, must have some details that make the reader understand what you were experiencing— “It was a hot day at the park” is a better sentence than “We went to the park.” Your story should have a beginning, middle and end. And it should, ideally, start with something called a “catchy lede,” which makes the reader want pay attention. Raffi wrote a story about “two crashes” — him crashing on his scooter a moment after his friend E crashed on his bike. “I hurted my knees,” his story concluded. It ticked all the boxes, and was accompanied by a good illustration. I thought, even kindergarteners can do this better than I can right now.
“Personal narrative” was once how I made sense of my experiences. It was what I did, what I loved reading. I thought that telling the truth could, in the aggregate, change the world. I wanted to champion other people’s autobiographical work and publish it, and I was sure that everyone would agree with me about the writing I found valuable, artful and true and the writing I found phony and gimmicky. I thought that I would get better and better at doing this thing that I loved over the course of a long career. I would write essay after essay and be known as a great essayist.