Narrative or Essay English?

In Ontario, Canada there are 4 mandatory, & 2 optional English classes in high school. The first mandatory ones, designed to be taken once per year, focus on essay writing to do in-depth studies of various English Literature pieces ranging from Shakespeare to classic novels like Frankenstein and Heart of Darkness. In the midst of it are grammar, and the start of learning literary criticism. Very little is reserved for learning how to compose narratives.

Narrative writing is more the focus of the Writer’s Craft, which also focuses on many different genres of writing. These courses are offered to students in grade 12, though weren’t promoted as much when I was in high school because they’re not compulsory. As a result, I fear this gives the impression that writing the perfect essay is more important than writing an excellent narrative. Interesting theory schools indirectly promote given best selling novels aren’t usually a pile of essays sewed together.

In fact, I think a lot of what is absorbed by humans in the Western world are narratives, not essays in the strict high school sense of the word. E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, wrote an essay about the importance of narratives in human life. In it he notices how narratives are the most important piece of writing humans have, because it is incorporated and everything we do ranging from writing an objective news article, to planning a party, to talking about the day’s events:

The fiction writer, looking around [them], understands the homage a modern up-to-date world of nonfiction specialists pays to [their] craft– even as it isolates [them] and tells [them] [they are] a liar. Newsweeklies present the events of the world as instalments in a serial melodrama. Weather reports on television are constructed with exact attention to conflict (high-pressure areas clashing with low), suspense (the climax of tomorrow’s prediction coming after the commercial), and the consistency of voice (the personality of the weather caster). The marketing and advertising of product-facts is unquestionably a fictional enterprise. As is every government’s representations of its activities. And modern psychology, with its concepts of sublimation, repression, identity crisis, complex, and so on, proposes the interchangeable parts for the stories of all of us; in this sense, it is the industrialization of story telling.

But nothing is as good at fiction as fiction. It is the most ancient way of knowing but also the most modern, managing when it’s done right to burn all the functions of language back together into powerful fused revelation(E. L. Doctorow, Ultimate Discourse).

Know what is interesting? He uses an essay to defend narratives, which require some knowledge of essay writing if they’re going to be written down.  Narratives still need to follow English grammar, be written in paragraphs, & most have a thesis statement woven into the story. Essays, despite objectivity, do tell a story but instead of hiding the thesis statement within the characters and events it states it immediately, and uses various forms of research, which can be a narrative in and of itself, and other people’s research narratives to prove the point.

Perhaps this is a sign: Narratives need essays and essays need narratives. Yet in high school, learning how to effectively write a narrative takes a back seat.  That should change I think. Narratives are already being told by students, so why not teach them to be more effective with them? Imagine how much information would be exchanged if narratives and essays were allowed to overlap?

Think about it. Or even better, write a narrative about it and see where it takes you.



Maybe Charlie Brown would’ve been more enthusiastic about the assignment if the teacher asked him to write a story about his summer, instead?



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