Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft. They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters. Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.
Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote. It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience. How did this happen? Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.
Here’s an example: A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.
When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky. The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.
In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey. Unfortunately, they have no luck. As it grows dark, they decide to go home.
As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them. Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck. “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby. “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.” The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch. The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.” Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.” Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died. I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”
It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.
No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative. By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.