Challenge Journal 3: Writing About Personal Experiences

A couple weeks ago, I started feeling a little lost about my project. I was struggling to find ownership– to feel like I could write about it in my voice and actually sound like myself. It was turning into more of a straightforward research project than I had planned, and I realized it was because of the way I was structuring it. I needed to frame it in a way that connected to me– to my life, my experiences and my personal feelings. My topic is something I’m really passionate about, and so to completely leave out a reflective element felt unnatural and forced. So I reorganized and rewrote the introduction, recalling my memories of 9/11 and the fear and anxiety my parents felt but hid from me as a child.

Writing about the past is something I remember struggling with freshman year in English 125. All we had to do was talk about a place that was special to us. I decided to write about the cottage in Canada that I visit with my family every summer. I learned to not be afraid of seaweed there, how to make a blueberry pie, how to start a fire safely in the woods and how to connect with the outdoors. It was a very personal subject. But as I wrote I had a feeling similar to the one I had a couple weeks ago during my Capstone process. I wanted to feel connected to the topic as I wrote, to show my voice and paint a picture for the reader the same exact way I saw it in my eyes. However, it felt stiff at first. When I wrote about the history of the cottage and what the cottage looks like, I felt like I was using the same words that someone who had only visited the cottage once would use. They didn’t feel like mine and I knew I needed to change that.

The change that helped me was not worrying about giving the reader enough detail during my first draft. It was easier to write from the heart and paint the picture of the cottage experience, and then go back and insert extra information that someone unfamiliar with the place would need to fully understand. That’s what I did for my Capstone introduction as well– I wrote without worrying. I finally felt like I was using my words and not someone else’s. Below is an example of the way I described the cottage without giving unnecessary background information (the reason for the unique appearance of the cottage, rather than my direct experience with it):

As we dock the boat, the cottage looks down at us from the rocky hill. The peeling paint flakes off of the wooden slats, the roof droops in the middle, and the stairs barely touch the ground on one side.

4 thoughts to “Challenge Journal 3: Writing About Personal Experiences”

  1. Melony,

    I had a similar feeling when I was writing my capstone project. You sometimes get so caught up in making sure that your research content is “perfect” that you forget about the fact that you are writing it. It’s personal to you and it will be personal to other people. I’ve mentioned this to other people, but a good way to check that my voice is being shown is to read your work out loud. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but if you start to sound like a robot then you need to add more of your voice. On the other hand, If you hear your voice, then you should be good. It’s such a perplexing situation that so many of us find ourselves being afraid to lose our voices. I think with such a sensitive topic as 9/11, it should be fairly easy to include your own tone in it because it has to do with your personal experience. Good luck with the final touch ups of your project!

    Jenn

  2. Hi Melony,

    I often struggle with a similar feeling. My capstone also relies heavily on personal experiences and the effectiveness of it hinges on how I present myself to the reader. I tend to feel anxious about writing personally and in ‘my own voice’ because it is exposing and it makes me feel vulnerable. I’ve found that a helpful way to get out of this mindset is to write from my stream of consciousness. When I get stuck or feel like I’m missing the more personal and intimate voice that my project requires, I’ll write as if I’m talking to a friend. It’s nothing more refined or edited than would naturally come out of my mouth. This tends to give my writing a more real and personal voice, because it engages the reader like a conversation. When I first started doing this, I expected that I would have to heavily edit the writing I produced and that it was more of a way to just get thoughts out. What I found, though, was that I ended up liking how this writing read and felt more than my edited work. Though your project might be a bit more formal than mine, this could be a good strategy to try if you’re struggling to connect your voice to your work. Good luck!

    Caroline

  3. Melony,

    I think finding your voice can be one of the hardest things about writing. As students who spend much time writing, you would think we would have mastered this “voice” by now, but I think what most of us fail to acknowledge is that we can and we do have different writing voices across different genres and pieces of writing, and that is fine. Most of this, in my opinion and experience, results from thinking about our piece-specific audiences and what they might be looking for in our work. What I often do in situations such as this one is try to spend a few minutes just doing a free-write and put my audience out of my mind completely. In doing so, I often find that I effectively get all of my personal thoughts and ideas down just for me to have, and I struggle to do this well if I have my audience in mind because I grow worried about how they might react to my unfiltered, personal ideas and opinions. I guess what I am trying to say is this: make it for you before you make it for them. You can fix it later, but I really believe this is the best way to get the ball rolling. When you’re the one and only member of your only audience, it couldn’t possibly be written in anyone else’s voice, could it?

  4. Hi Melony,

    I think that how you talk about finding your voice and using your voice when writing something that is close to you as hard is understandable. I feel like weirdly enough when writing about ourselves we tend to detach ourselves from the writing and it then seems hard to use our voice. I have found myself doing that quite a few times in my writing in the past and I have always found it really useful to have other people read my drafts. Some things that might not seem useful to us as the writer, especially when it is personal, might be needed to the reader. We leave details and feelings out because they seem so obvious to us but they might not be to others. A good thing to do might be to “over-share” when you first write your draft. Put it all out on the paper and then go back to it and see what really is not needed. Good Luck.

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