Professional Learning

The Fever Dream: A Personal Narrative Exercise

Blogger Todd Finley shares a writing exercise on crafting a personal narrative

January 28, 2011

On the first day of a composition class, even confident novice writers can be jittery and guarded, wary that they might get night-sticked by the grammar police. Will my inability to diagram sentences jeopardize my GPA?

Typically, students possess one method of composing; they write a single sentence, polish it, write another and polish, etc., until arriving at their last sentence. This method, which one suspects is a defensive response to instructor commentary that focuses primarily on grammar and punctuation, retards idea development. Imagine traversing a Long Island porch by violently working a spindle rocker. To disrupt the over-use of this mono-strategy, my job as teacher is to grab up perfectionist writers by the hair and drop them into the drafting process where speed, not caution, is prized. This motivation helped me devise the following personal narrative writing exercise. It's called Fever Dream.

Part I: Map Out a Visual Timeline

Have students create a visual autobiographical timeline, as illustrated by Professor Don Moyer. Also visit Andy Peter Schön's visual timeline, which incorporates a photo of the Machu Picchu pyramid. ReadWriteThink's Graphic Mapping tool is useful for younger students, but has downloading limitations. Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullets blog shows how to create an autobiographical timeline that is purely visual. Muralist Diego Rivera's Glorious Victory (1954) and Gerra Mundial (1933) show how historical timelines can be modified and made compelling. Visual timelines are seductively easy for students to complete?they're just sequential lists with pictures?and are a simple starting activity.

Drawing the visual timeline by hand is more time-efficient than using 21st century technologies. Time allotment varies with each class. I allow students about 5 minutes less time than I think they'll actually need to complete this step. Why? A challenging deadline spikes students' adrenalin levels and inhibits over-thinking. What does the teacher really want? Am I doing this right?

Part II: Play Some Multi-Media Inspiration

Pause the writing activity so students can rest and listen to The Cradle Place (2004), from Thomas Lux's "Render Render" on Excerpt:

...add a fever and the virus that blinded an eye, now's the time to add guilt and fear, throw logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders used for "clearing"), boil and boil, render it down and distill, concentrate that for which there is no other use at all, boil it down, down...

Lux's poem inspires young writers and shows how the psychic innards of a writer's life can be biopsied and made into art. Listening to the poet take a giant breath at the beginning of his piece, students realize that Lux intended Render Render to be read as a single driving sentence, an approach that makes a fine transition to the next step.

Part III: Write a One-Page Narrative in One-Sentence

Instruct students to pick an event from their life graph. What has the most resonance to you? What section scares you? Motivates you? Do not choose archetypal moments like your first driver's license or the day grandpa died, because those events invite cliché's. In contrast to the timeline activity, the written description of the event need not be chronological. The objective is to break speed limits and rule limits. A single rule, however, must be followed: the entire page can use no more than one sentence. Monica Gardner, a university student in my class last semester, hit a psychic geyser in her one-sentence quick-write. She gave me permission to share a portion of her Fever Dream piece with Edutopia readers:

...all you do is scrub and scrub and that feeling of being so dirty, so guilty, your fault you know, it always is, you can wash your skin bloody, a fresh pink, a look of new, but there's absolutely no way to get those memories off and out, you let it happen over and over, get lost, have no control, you freeze, drifting in and out of consciousness seeing shapes and shadows, jumping at hallucinations, no more you think.

Strong stuff, right? Gardner maintains that level of passion throughout her entire piece. I juice the one-sentence quickwrite activity with word-free music, like Peter Gabriel's Birdy or The Peace Orchestra's Marakesh. The music should not be so loud that it distracts students from laying down words. Tell the students to use lots of ands and semicolons and write like Racer X drives. Go fast. Own the road. Don't look back.

Part IV: Revising

I give students a week to revise. I tell them to take out the run-on sentences without sacrificing the energy of their initial one-sentence narrative. At this point in the exercise, drafts are generally abstract "tellings" of lives lived. Telling the reader what happened can efficiently help the reader absorb information.

However, information is only one color in the personal narrative palette. The personal narrative should also use dialogue, imagery, character description, detail, metaphor, and establish the setting.

Students that experience flow on the first day of writing class will likely experiment with drafting later. The art of the exercise is injecting just enough tension -- using novelty and time guidelines -- to help students part ways with their fossilized sentence-by-sentence writing method. It also reinvents a potentially stale personal narrative activity.

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