By Lisa Donovan
As a young undergraduate student I remember wrestling with the fact that my writing often held traces of my own story, but I could not commit to writing my experiences outright. I remember thinking that I wanted to privilege the reader and not burden them with my plight. Two different instructors interrogated me on this position, one of whom blurted out during a workshop, “What the hell happened to you?” That is a long story, but one that includes domestic abuse, child abuse, CPS, and, unfortunately, murder. The struggle, thinking of it now, came from not wanting to be defined by events I had no control over.
Years later and personal narrative is a form I still wrestle with, but I have come to find some aspects of the form important, including its role in sharing counter-narratives and personal testimony that challenge the dominant narratives. Take, for instance, the personal narratives of survivors of Hurricane Katrina vs. the overarching story related by media. Take, for instance, the abundant emphasis on looting, which served to paint a very specific picture of the survivors. This image is flat in comparison to the stories told by those who were there, what they experienced, what they had to do to survive, and what they witnessed.
Even here, while writing, I find myself denying the personal because, in fact, my husband and I both were in New Orleans during Katrina. A good friend kept every newspaper that reported on the storm. I remember looking at them and thinking, this was not my experience, this is not how it happened. After a few weeks, my husband took all those newspaper images and made a collage out of them, imbuing them with his perspective. By the way, the looting, in my experience, began because of the need for milk for babies.
On another level, I love reading about others and their moments of triumph, failure, extreme humor, etc., and I know I’m not alone. Personal narrative takes the messiness of experience and works it into something to share, something carefully crafted and well written. I’ve learned over time that the personal narrative can be a quiet awakening to not the events, so much as your thought process and growth. Often, a personal narrative written by another, read at the right moment, can be a gift.
Lisa Donovan is the author of the forthcoming hybrid work of non-fiction and poetry, Red of Split Water, from Trembling Pillow Press. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Denver and an M.F.A. from Brown University. Her class, Intro to Personal Narrative, starts August 18.