On Personal Narratives

20140921_200803A familiar picture?

For me, the personal narrative essay was the most intimidating part of the application—and the most important.

“We’re all in social work for a reason” is a common refrain I’ve heard at the School as well as in field. Sometimes those reasons are legion, sometimes they are far fewer. And sometimes they are personal, and I mean personal.

Such was the case for me. I didn’t know where to start. How much should I share? Would self-disclosure come off as cliche or honest? And, more fundamentally, have I even come to terms with what my story really means to me?

Questions like these (and good ol’ procrastination) kept me away from setting pen to paper for a long time. Eventually, I fell back on some creative writing exercises to get me going. Here are a few that I hope you’ll find helpful:

  • 5-min Free Write: Get out your writing instrument of choice (computer, paper and pen, pencil, thick purple marker, your pick!) and a timer. Set the timer to 5 minutes and…GO! Until time runs out, you are not allowed to stop writing, not even for a second! If you need to write out, “Blah, blah, blah,” do so—just keep writing. Ignore grammar, legibility, and page margins. The goal is to avoid self-censorship and let your stream of consciousness flow. Repeat as needed.
  • Playlist: Set up a playlist showcasing a variety of musical genres/styles (better yet, get a friend to make it for you). Start writing on a topic of your choice and hit play. Stay on that topic until the song changes. Then, immediately shift to a new topic. Again: don’t stop writing, no self-censorship. Let the music guide you and remember to completely shift gears when the new song starts.
  • Journal: Okay, I know this doesn’t sound like the best option if you’re already having trouble writing. What I really mean by this is to create two documents. One is for you; the other is for the application. All your free-writing can go on the first document. It’s there that you get to write all the extremely personal information that you’re unsure about sharing, the ideas you haven’t even voiced to your friends and family, and yes, all the frustrations and expletives that have bubbled up during the application process. After you’ve free-written yourself silly, stash those writings away, rest, and come back to them later. Read it over and pick out the pieces you feel you can cut and paste over to the application document. From there, switch into a more formal writing mode and slowly start to craft that official essay.

These exercises, especially the last, helped me craft a personal narrative for the application with which I was happy. More importantly, they also helped me sort out the significance of past experiences as it relates to my story—that is, my honest sense of self.

Before you start, be sure to check out the following link to see the School of Social Work’s official instructions for writing the personal narrative essay: http://ssw.unc.edu/files/narrative_essay_instructions_-_2015.pdf

Good luck and happy writing!

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