The Self as Story
Who are we? What is our essential identity? What if we, as human beings, exist in the form of something as seemingly ephemeral and changeable as a story? While it might seem strange to consider at first, there is truth in this: as social creatures, we don’t exist separately from the stories we tell about ourselves. Each day, we live, perform, and revise the unfolding narrative of our lives.
Despite our natural inclination to share our story, the professional narrative–often referred to as a “personal essay” or “personal statement”–can seem tedious. We are constantly coaxed into offering some one or two page version of ourselves. What’s the point? Why must we narrate ourselves?
The point is this: if you are unable to tell convincing and lively stories about yourself, you appear to others as mere assemblages of boring facts and abstract values. Furthermore, research has shown that self-authorship rooted in reflection is crucial for both emotional and academic growth. For this reason, it is crucial to understand and practice the professional narrative. The professional narrative assignment will help you develop and practice a set of relevant rhetorical skills that you can adapt and mobilize when you face the very different persuasive contexts of, say, a personal narrative used for a grad-school application, a research internship proposal, a study abroad scholarship, or an application for a Marshall or Fulbright award. In that sense, this assignment–just as the resume assignment and cover letter overview–invites you to practice an important professional genre that you will certainly encounter at some stage.
For this assignment, you will compose a one-page, single-spaced professional narrative in response to the following prompt:
Compose a narrative giving a picture of you as an individual during your first semester at the College of Charleston. The essay might relate some combination of formative professional or academic experiences; campus or community engagements; or more personal matters suitable for a broader audience, such as overcoming stressful transitional situations during your first semester. The essay should reflect the ways in which these experiences have shaped who you are–and who you hope to become–as a scholar, citizen, and person.
The most successful narratives will gather 2-4 key experiences from the current semester that, taken together, aptly reflect a strategically chosen set of key values and competencies in a rich and textured narrative. You might also focus on representative facets of a single formative experience.
But you just landed here at the College: how can you possibly have anything to write about? The fact is that important things happen to us every day. And even if the things that happen can seem rather ordinary, our careful reflection on what’s happening now can make even the mundane appear momentous. You might think big: a major research project in HONS 110 or another course; your engagement with the community through Honors Engaged; your first experience engaging a CofC professor about their research. But you might also think small: an idea that seized your attention; an interaction with a peer or professor, a mentor or a mentee, that taught you something crucial; a talk or event you attended and how you related it to your own interests; an action you took to improve yourself or the world around you; efforts you made as an undecided student to clarify your interests. If you’re still absolutely confused about what you’re doing and why, tell us a story about that. Tell us about the journey–the journey that by writing about it, you do something to create. Don’t think that this essay needs to reflect a complete and polished person. For now, the essay will reflect someone who is learning and seeking.
Strategies & Structure:
While there is no cookie-cutter template that will work for any given narrative, there is a general pattern to how many of these essays unfold. Here is a rough sketch:
- World, Me: First, you want to zoom in and situate the reader in the midst of a dynamic thought or action that suggests some of the essay’s grounding values and maybe even suggests some skills and competencies it will reveal. This is where your character comes to life. This experience doesn’t necessarily need to come from your first semester.
- Frame it Out: next–and this might come at the end of the first paragraph or it might consume its own paragraph–you need to reflect a bit and contextualize the opening move. Here, you get to refer to things that might have happened before you came to school–your upbringing, early experience, etc. Or you might contextualize the opening in more recent times–your status as a student at CofC, etc. The key is to answer the question: how does the opening anecdote fit into your story of growth and development? If it’s not already clear from the anecdote itself, what did you learn? This is a key move that essentially transitions from the opening move to the rest of the essay. If this kind of essay has a thesis, this is where it would occur as you make a subtle case for how whatever it was that emerges through that opening serves as a sort of guide for the rest of your narrative.
- Paragraphing Experiences: the main body of the essay will most likely focus on a set of experiences from this past semester that embody and give substance to, in some form, the value or values suggested in the opening. This is where the character you introduce in the opening becomes more complete and complex, more fully “you.” Think of each experience as a potential paragraph, and think of transitions between those paragraphs as bridges not simply between boxes of text, but between key aspects of your story. Transitions show how you get from the lab to campus, from campus to the broader Charleston community, and from Charleston to the wider world, from a rough patch to a recovery (don’t forget the power of tension). Transitions are the engine for the growth and development that drives your story.
- Making your Exit: Where have you been? And where are you going? In the conclusion, you will reflect briefly on the past and project into the future. You might return to the opening scene, or clarify the narrative of growth you’ve presented. Beyond that reflection, you will want to project the narrative’s grounding values meaningful towards specific future actions, plans, and goals.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that you can’t step in the same river twice. Life is flux; life is movement. Your first-semester narrative will not be your second-semester narrative. This assignment, though, gives you some building-block skills and offers you an opportunity to practice the moves that these narratives invite. Sturdy templates such as the one presented above are made to be experimented with, tweaked, and, if necessary, broken. In class, some of the examples we will look at from juniors and seniors succeed precisely by moving beyond this model.
Beyond the Basics
The professional narrative involves three distinct–though still importantly related–areas:
1) Meaningful and strategically chosen content
The best professional narratives reflect the values (influences, convictions, identity) and competencies (talents, knowledge, experience) that form an important part of who we are and what we are able to accomplish.
If you spend some time reflecting on your values and competencies–those that you currently possess, and those that you hope to attain–what emerges is likely to be a rather messy and fragmented version of yourself. In everyday life, we are much more streamlined creatures, strategically and selectively mobilizing specific pieces of this puzzle. Imagine the different combinations–the different “selves”–you unconsciously create when you talk to your mother, yell at a sibling, go on a date, approach a professor, apply for a job, or fill out your study abroad application. In professional narratives, the process of selection and combination is raised to a more conscious and thoughtful level. Which self–culled from those values and competencies, and aligned with your past experiences and future goals–do you want to create today given the audience and occasion? The best professional narratives answer this key question clearly and confidently by revealing one or two key values (and related competencies) via action and details.
Audience is the most important aspect of any professional narrative, but the one that might seem less clear in this assignment. If it helps your approach the assignment, you might write towards a specific professional context: a summer internship, a study abroad scholarship, or a research experience, for example. But given the assignment’s emphasis on reflection, you are your own audience in this self-dialog. Writing is a tool not only for self-presentation, but for self-discovery.
2) Polished Writing
The best professional narratives are also proficient on the level of the written word. You likely spent a lot of time practicing the nuts and bolts of good writing either in your high-school English class or in your academic writing class here at the College, but here’s a very brief overview of some key skills to help you craft a clear and elegant narrative:
- Clarity—don’t make anyone read something twice; or, as Wallace Stegner wisely asserts: “Hard writing makes easy reading.”
- Concision—give yourself more space than your competition. Strong professional narratives are written by those who have learned helpful strategies such as the use of active voice, the deployment of vivid verbs, and the reduction of prepositional phrases in their writing. Wait–that took me 33 words. Why not name that tune in 12 words and let my competition waste space? “Strong writers use active voice, deploy vivid verbs, and reduce prepositional phrases.” That’s better.
- Correctness—don’t let minor mistakes keep you from what your want to achieve.
- Control—take organizational control of the narrative: choose apt words; construct elegant, varied sentences; write unified and cohesive paragraphs; connect your paragraphs with meaningful transitional elements that help you tell a story: think of an architectural wonder vs. a stack of bland pancakes.
3) A Sense of Style
The professional narrative, we know, is not merely an abstract statement of values and competencies delivered in proficient prose. Such things only take on substance and meaning through action and details and style and a deep sense of character. Here are some ways to bring your story to life:
- Character—reveal growth and quirks, not habits and faults. Make sure the self you put forward is multi-dimensional, earnest, and richly human. Use the self-characterizations skills we practiced in the first blog post.
- Action—give yourself something to do. Don’t say you’re passionate; show yourself doing something about which you are passionate. Your readers will always trust your experience over even your most earnest abstractions. Your essay should be active rather than passive: it should be about things you’ve made happen, not just things that have happened to you.
- Framing—Come up with an opening that situates the reader in the midst of an engaging thought or action suggesting the narrative’s grounding values. At the end of narrative, you might return to or echo these opening moves to create a graceful sense of closure.
- Details–Add texture to your essay by giving it rich sensory detail–sound, sight, smell, touch, etc.–and work on engaging both the hearts and minds of your audience.
- Patterns and Flair—Include at least two very sophisticated sentence structures–a sentence that you wouldn’t normally write, one that might even seem smarter than you are–and flair if you dare.