Recall that in order for a story to count as a folk narrative it has to combine the elements of narrative/story (it’s got a plot rather than being an abbreviation or summary of a plot) and of folklore (it exhibits tradition and variation, and comes from informal culture rather than institutional culture). Most genres of folk narrative are culture-wide stories, such as fairy tales, myths, and legends, which can have a broad distribution over a geographical area or throughout a time span. But that’s not always the case with folk narrative, as we’ll see here.
So what is the personal narrative? It’s a story that is:
- Told in the first person, about a real experience that person had
- Variable in form and length, fitting to the context in which it’s told
- Alive only as long as its teller is, though it might also be picked up by those close to the teller (family members, intimate partners, and so on)
Why is it folklore?
- An individual’s personal narratives become traditional in their repertoire over time, exhibiting variation (in phrasing, context, and so on), thus satisying the definition of folklore as expressive culture that shows both tradition and variation
- Though the content is unique to the individual, how we construct stories is culturally determined, and the motifs and themes available to a given teller are also influenced by culture
- A personal narrative often includes folkloric texture, such as the use of formulaic speech, slang, and insider/traditional knowledge
The personal narrative is also called the personal experience narrative, and thus might be abbreviated as either PN or PEN. My notes from my folklore coursework are full of scribbles about PNs and PENs, depending on whose class I was taking.
We all have personal narratives; as such, they’re one of the most democratic forms of folklore. In contemporary America, people have generally heard of other folk narrative genres such as legends and fairy tales, but they may not have any available to tell in their repertoire. But I guarantee you that most folks have at least a handful of personal narratives that they can and do tell. Common topics include the first time someone did or tried something; life-changing events or accomplishments; travel; humorous or embarrassing incidents (especially from childhood); or how one met one’s partner/spouse.
My main mentor in the study of personal narrative, Sandra Dolby, has a lot of useful insights about the genre. She writes:
Personal narratives are best heard as they live – on the warm breath of the teller, in the resonant shell of the listener’s ear. Then their purpose is clear: like any literary performance, they are there to move us, to excite us, to entertain and teach us. In the world outside of academe, the storyteller’s responsibility is simply to be an adequate practitioner of the literary genre he chooses. It is the responsibility of the listener or reader to be moved, to respond. Sometimes the narrator takes some of that responsibility upon himself; he is moved by his own story and performance, and his own response leads his listener to a shared emotion. (x)
Personal narratives have many functions, linked broadly to entertainment, education, validating cultural norms, exerting social pressure, and providing wish fulfillment or release. More specifically, telling personal narratives about travel or extraordinary experiences can invoke wonder, while telling personal narratives about trauma or tragedy can be used to provoke empathy or pity.
For those keeping a close eye on religion, personal narrative plays a huge role in religious cultures. The sub-genre of conversion stories appears widely. Various kinds of testimony might count as personal narratives. Priests and preachers employ personal narratives in their speeches. Believers might have personal narratives about their relationship with their deity, their prayers being answered, their desires being thwarted (but it’s all part of God’s plan in some interpretations).
The neat thing about personal narratives is that because the content is so individual – even as it follows broader cultural themes – these stories include both the sacred and the secular. Pretty much everyone has personal narratives, though not everyone polishes them up nicely and is known as a great storyteller. But we all have some unique stories to tell, whether those reflect our experiences as believers or atheists. And as an atheist folklorist, I’m convinced that we need to examine these stories using rigorous academic methods, and not necessarily take the “I’m a believer now!” narratives at face value.
I know that stories this widespread and quotidian can seem beneath notice, but I truly believe that it’s important to study the facets of daily existence that tie us together. Personal narratives have the power to connect people, even if only momentarily, and that’s worthy of our attention.
Finally, as a sex educator I love how closely the personal narrative tracks with issues of pleasure, vulnerability, and risk. Dolby writes:
When a person tells a personal narrative, he or she invites someone to know him, to know her, intimately, personally. Such a person is very vulnerable; he may be repulsed or misunderstood. Like physically intimate encounters, such verbal encounters carry the risk of rejection along with the promise of pleasure. (x)
Whether it’s verbal vulnerability or physical vulnerability, revealing aspects of ourselves to a chosen audience is one way that humans connect to one another. I coauthored a blog post on this very topic over at Condom Monologues, which you can read here.
So basically, personal narratives rock and are fascinating and everyone should be more aware of them. Care you share one of yours in the comments?
Dolby Stahl, Sandra. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.