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The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

I was reading a weekly one-pager yesterday and came upon this little note from a student:

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This student, Aleigha, had taken an elective writing class with me as a sophomore.  Now, as a senior, she wanted to revisit the story she’d begun two years ago, and give it a different ending.  I was surprised that Aleigha had remembered that story, and that its ending had nagged her for two years.  I was even more surprised, as I started to read her one-pager, that I remembered her story, too–a fictional narrative in which two soulmates are torn asunder by circumstance.  She’d ended the story unhappily, leaving the two protagonists separate.  In this year’s one-pagers, though, she’s slowly bringing them back together.

Aleigha’s narrative was powerful to her, and personal, despite its fictional genre.  Her peers’ feedback indicated that her characters’ situations were relateable–that everyone wants people in love to end up together, because it’s something we all strive for as humans.  Narratives give us something to root for.

During a Google Hangout this summer, Jackie talked about her students’ writing of narratives, and how “the transformative power of common stories” brought out their best and most vulnerable writing.  “Every child has a story to tell,” agrees Don Graves.  Because of this truth, narratives are my favorite genre to teach.

We all have a story to tell–a story that stays with us, that we can’t get out of our minds, no matter how long it’s been since the idea was seeded.

As my students write their narratives, I’m shocked by how naturally the words are flowing out of their pens.  When the topic is powerful, I feel like I have little to do in the way of writing instruction–I simply have to get out of the way and let them write.  I have mini-lessons planned on pacing, setting, sensory details, and characterization.  But I’m finding beautiful writing already extant in their drafts:

“Every time I step onto the ice, it takes me to my childhood,” Mitchell’s story begins.

Kaylee stuns me with: “The musky smell of burning wood rose into the air as the sound of water crackling split the silence.”

“Realizing you’re gay, and accepting you’re gay, are two very different things,” another story leads with.

The brilliant Tom Newkirk explains why students are able to effortlessly write this way in Minds Made for Stories:  “The hero of the story is a narrative itself…Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.”

We make sense of the world by weaving its happenings into a story–by the time our students come to their notebooks with an idea, they’ve already rehearsed this story many times.  They are just bursting to tell it.  It is home base.

While narrative may not be considered the most “rigorous” of genres, I believe it is the most important one.  It is the writing that demands to be done–the genre that is the most personally fulfilling, the most emotionally wrenching to write, but the most necessary to exorcise from our minds.  Let your students write their stories–write your own beside them–and watch your community of writers bloom.

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7 thoughts on “The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

  1. […] ’tis the season of moving past narrative and into nonfiction writing (in which we often harness the power of narrative, by the way) students will have already been immersed in a study of making claims supported by […]

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  2. […] me, narrative is central to all reading and writing.  I can find story anywhere–poetry, nonfiction, even a science […]

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  3. […] is, to me, the most powerful genre of writing one can do.  Whether the narrative rests in a fictional or true story, or acts as an […]

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  4. […] students’ narratives, I was wowed by so much of their writing.  Thoughtful leads, powerful topics, intriguing plot structures.  But, despite a mini-lesson on the conventions of writing dialogue […]

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  5. […]  The following post by Shana Karnes is reprinted with permission from the Three Teachers Talk blog.  […]

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  6. Amy October 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm Reply

    My students and I have just finished our narratives. We called them our long ones because we’re trying to break the habit of 26 lines that the TX state writing assessment allows. Writing about themselves proved a challenge for most of my writers — they haven’t done it in SO long. We do children a disservice when we teach only other types of writing and exclude narrative. We make them believe their stories do not matter, when it reality their stories matter most.

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  7. jackiecatcher October 20, 2015 at 10:06 am Reply

    I love this Shana! You capture the beauty and power of narrative writing. Reading narratives is so humbling; it reminds us, as teachers, of our place in the writing process. Our goal isn’t to beat them down but instead to show them ways to tell their story in a powerful way.

    Liked by 1 person

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