Writing Personal History with Narrative Essays: Dawn Peck Shows Us How

by Memoir Mentor on October 10, 2010

If you read this blog occasionally, you know I encourage my students and readers to submit their stories to writing competitions. Some contests want narrative essay pieces, which can be a form of personal history. My students often wonder what a narrative essay is and how it differs from a story. It’s a good question, and it’s hard to answer.

We all wrote essays in school. I remember a junior high essay I wrote titled “Why I’m Proud to Be an American.”( I so wish I still had a copy of that essay to see how I thought and wrote at that time.) You probably recall the essay format–five paragraphs, the first one introduces the theme and point of view, the next three develop the theme with supporting examples, the last one ties it all together and restates the main idea.

Narrative essays, sometimes called personal essays, likewise state a point or opinion, but they feel (and are) less structured. They draw from life experiences and may even include scenes and dialogue, imagery and vivid details–like a story–but the scenes and examples are chosen and organized to support a general theme.

For example, one of my students wrote a narrative essay about the pros and cons of being left-handed, drawing from life experiences to advance her theme. Another student wrote an entertaining narrative essay titled “Garages I Have Known and Loved,” which was all about…well, I think you know.

Could we say either of these examples is a story?  Yes, in a way. The difference between story and personal essay is often subtle, but there is a distinction. We think of a story as a series of connected events—this happened, then that happened, etc., until we come to the end. Often a story has a point or a theme embedded in it, though not always. A story “feels” like the events occurred as they happened. Essays feel like the information is organized for a specific purpose, which is typically to persuade, to make a point.

This longer-than-intended intro is meant as a set-up for a delightful personal essay written by my student Dawn Peck, whose writing has been featured on this blog before. Dawn has a background in technical writing, and she seems to be drawn to narrative essay as a comfortable way to tell her life story. Let me know what you think. Is it an essay or a story?

by Dawn Peck

I couldn’t hold it!  It was going to fall!  For over 40 years I had hoisted it into place, made it ready and done the job I wanted to do.  This time it slipped, crashing out of my hands, scraping my fingers and hitting the knuckle on my ring finger – HARD! That old Penney’s sewing machine was the last of the metal-bodied behemoths and I’d always been able to lift it from the sewing cabinet. Now I couldn’t.

I tore my rings off before my finger could swell and trap them.  Then I did something I hardly EVER do. I cried.  I cried for my injured finger, I cried for my rings – the first time I’d removed my husband’s ring since his death 15 years ago — and for the fact that here was something I could no longer do.  How many others were on the way?  How soon would they appear?

Then, resorting to my usual pragmatism, I stopped the tears and, muttering several unprintable words, ran my hand under cold water and made a cup of hot tea for consolation.

As I sat clutching my teacup, I began to think of all the memories that sewing machine had helped create.  When Jenny, my fourth child, was about three and Sue, the oldest, was only nine I was still a stay-at-home wife and mother.  However, I learned of a pilot program correcting and grading English essays for Huntington Beach High School teachers.  It was very part-time and could be done at home.  All the others selected for the program were either substitutes or former English teachers.  Maybe they were one short for the study or they believed my editorial background would be sufficient for me to decipher the grammar and syntax of the average teen.  At any rate, they hired me too. With part of these grand paychecks I bought the sewing machine.  It replaced an even older Sears model and I rejoiced in all its bells and whistles.

A short time later Sue and Dave, my son, discovered the joy of being in a play.  I discovered just how quickly and cheaply I could turn out costumes when I had to.  I’d made their Halloween costumes before on the old machine, but this was definitely a step up in the production process.  For the next several years I made costumes for knights, Scheherazade, children of the 1800s prairie, Tiny Tim, animals and more.  At one point, with the unthinking addition of a bright red comb, my Chicken Little became a rooster.  When Jenny came home from dress rehearsal wailing, “Mother-r-r!” some rapid surgery was required to repair the mistake in gender.  However, the apex of my industry was a pre-Christmas rush. That year, in between Christmas shopping and wrapping, I made three penguin costumes, three orchestra costumes, one band costume and, I believe, a choir costume. Had it been required I’m sure I would have come up with a partridge in a pear tree.  I was a one-woman production line.

But the times moved on.  The prairie costumes were shortened and remade into grade school dresses.  The Scheherazade costume became a sparkly mini-dress for an eighth-grade party.  I powered past a First Communion dress and veil and forged on to eighth-grade graduation dresses.

As times and fashions changed, there were no more hand-me-downs to alter and mommy-made dresses just weren’t “in.”  My kids’ daily wardrobe was dominated by corduroys and blue jeans.  Do none of those pants EVER come in a length or bottom width that approximates the build of the pre-teen or teen who who’ll wear them?  Drat these bell-bottoms! I thought.  The only true failure I can remember was the night when, either through lack of sleep or over-amount of inattention I accidentally cut and hemmed the same leg of a new pair of jeans, twice.  I can still hear the anguished cry of “Mother-r-r!” when the owner tried them on.  Some sewing mistakes cannot be repaired.

When the oldest three were in high school, we acquired a camper.  That monster slept six people and a dog in three double beds and a floor.  For good reason, it was immediately christened “The Ugly Camper.”  Sewing a lot of boring straight hems, I tried to beautify it with a complete set of neatly-trimmed beige curtains.  Well, they DID give us privacy on our 1976 cross-country trip and for several years thereafter..

By then, I had been back at work full-time for several years and the sewing machine was mostly on hiatus.  However, when Sue, my oldest daughter, graduated from high school she planned a summer cycling trip through England.  I learned how to assemble and sew heavy canvas saddlebags from a kit. The trip was a great success and so were the saddlebags.  They lasted for years!

Eventually we went from saddlebags to wedding gowns.  No, I didn’t sew them.  I had my limits. Jenny chose to wear my gown.  However, since she was slightly curvier in all the right places than I had ever been, it needed alteration.  We happily farmed this out to a friend of hers in the theater who had made costumes for her over the past few years.  He finished the job, then left town for a long-planned vacation.  On her first full try-on at home once again I heard the anguished cry of “Mother-r-r!”  This time it was, “He forgot to alter the sleeves!  I can’t get my arms close enough together to hold my bouquet.”  I’d already remodeled my veil for her and the trusty machine was still standing at attention.  I ripped out the old sleeves, fitted new ones out of net and appliquéd the old lace over the net.  We met the deadline and the remodel was a beautiful success!

Once all three weddings were over I had another inspiration.  I found Christmas angel tree-topper dolls with the right hair color for each daughter and dressed them in replicas of each one’s wedding dress.  Jenny, who had worn mine, repaid me by creating (by hand) a version for my own tree.  Every Christmas it gives me extra joy.

Within a few years I was retired and making baby clothes for the grandchildren.  Not many, though;   baby clothes were now mostly stretchy knit and the old machine began to rebel at learning this new-fangled method.  So did I. We were becoming dinosaurs.

However, I could still turn out a few dresses for Celia and Kenzie, my granddaughters. Later I made wardrobes for their American Girl dolls from scraps of clothes I’d sewn for them and their mothers, Jenny and Katy.

One of my most memorable moments came, though, when I began to teach Celia to use the old sewing machine.  We made a simple t-shaped robe for her Barbie out of scraps remaining from a long-ago Halloween costume for her uncle (he was an abominable snowman), and converted for her mother and later for her (it became a bunny).  Celia took the last few stitches and cut the thread.  Turning the garment right-side out, she held it up and gazed at it in pure rapture.  “Look what I made!” she cried.


By now, my tea was cold, my fingers much improved, and Jenny and her children, Celia and Colin, were at the front door.  Presenting my tale of woe with true dramatic intensity, I borrowed Jenny’s muscles to resurrect the sewing machine. Then I started on the job that had been my original project, shortening and hemming two pair of Colin’s new school uniform pants. “Hmmph!” I muttered.  “Do none of these pants ever come in a length or bottom width that approximates the build of the teen or pre-teen who will wear them?”   If aged metal could groan, I’m sure I would have heard a reply.

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