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The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

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

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.

blog-Importance-of-Narrative-NCTEblog-clipartDuring 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.

Shana Karnes currently teaches twelfth-grade English in Morgantown, West Virginia. Visit Shana’s blog at threeteacherstalk.com, find her on Twitter at @litreader, or talk books on GoodReads at www.goodreads.com/mrskarnes.