USA/ 16 October 2020/ Source/ https://www.nytimes.com/
Maria Fernanda Benavides, a winner of our 2019 Personal Narrative Contest, tells us how she hooks readers by dropping them into a scene.
To start, in honor of our Second Annual Personal Narrative Contest which began Oct. 13, we’re featuring three winning narratives from last year’s challenge, annotated by the students who wrote them.
Maria Fernanda Benavides, who, when she wrote this piece, was a senior at Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas, takes us behind the scenes of her winning narrative, “Speechless.”
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She told us how she came up with the idea for her essay:
After analyzing Langston Hughes’s short story “Salvation” in my creative writing class, we were asked to write an essay describing how a contradiction in our own lives has influenced us. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to write about my experience at my first high school speech tournament.
In her comments, Maria explains how she borrowed inspiration from Hughes’s story, how she crafted an opening line that hooks readers, and why editing her narrative down to just 600 words “was the best thing that could have happened to it.”
You might start by listening to Maria read her piece, following along in her original published essay (P
“Mayfier? Marfir?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, although there was no error.
“It’s Mafer. It’s a nickname for my full name, Maria Fernanda.”
Maria Fernanda Benavides: I originally started the essay explaining why I had decided to join the speech program, walking the audience through the events that led me to be sitting in my very first tournament round. But while editing, I realized that it took me six paragraphs to get to the true beginning of the story.
After discussing it with my teacher, I realized that the beginning was too descriptive and wasn’t establishing a strong enough connection with my audience that would allow them to understand how I was feeling and how I had changed by the end of the essay.
Ultimately, instead of opening with a description, I decided to begin the essay with the mispronunciation of my name to communicate the fact that I am from another country in a more dynamic way than simply stating “I am not American.”
By starting with the moment when the judge struggled to call me up to the front of the room, I could invite my audience to live this experience with me.
She stared at me blankly.
“My parents are creative,” I lied, and she laughed.
I decided to let these sentences stand on their own instead of writing them as a single long paragraph to visually portray the discomfort I felt in the room every time I was called to perform. By breaking up this part of the story in brief sentences, I could not only demonstrate how unnatural this interaction was, but also set a tone that reflected the embarrassment I felt.
“O.K., Mahfeer, you’re up!”
I settled on this incorrect pronunciation of my name to add lightheartedness to the piece. Adding humor (when appropriate) is always a great strategy to diversify the tone of the essay and make it more engaging!
I walked to the center and scanned the room before starting as instructed. I took a deep breath.
In this part, I wanted my sentence structure to reflect how methodical my thought process was before performing. In that moment, I was trying to remember all the suggestions my coach had given me, so I used punctuation to create the linear and direct pace that matched my train of thought.
I reminded myself, “Use your voice.”
When I am feeling nervous before performing, telling myself small reminders like these help ease my mind and be present in the moment. This is a little routine that I would always do as I walked to the front of the room and it is a brief, but very personal period for me. I really wanted to share that moment of intimacy with the audience here.
I also wanted to introduce early on in the essay the idea that uncovering and utilizing my voice is something I truly value. By establishing this sort of sacred connection I have to my voice and its meaning, my audience can better understand why I am so heartbroken by the end of the essay.
I spoke loudly at first, trying to hide the fact that I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth. As my performance continued, the artificial confidence became natural, and I started speaking from my heart as I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman, and I described how much I missed my father who had to travel back and forth every weekend to see my mom and me, and how disconnected I felt from my family, and how I longed to have a place I could call home.
In “Salvation,” there is a paragraph toward the beginning of the essay where Langston Hughes uses long sentences to describe the feeling of excitement his aunt told him he would feel after being saved by Jesus, and that inspired me to do the same with this paragraph.
I wanted to use longer sentences and less punctuation to convey how elated I felt while performing. For the first time, I was not thinking methodically, I was not calculating what to say next, I was not worried about how the judge would say my name. All that mattered to me in that moment was my performance. The loose sentence structure allowed me to convey to the reader that same exact sensation of freedom that I was experiencing.
This paragraph also established the first shift in tone in the essay as I transformed from being nervous and insecure into someone who had finally given herself the opportunity to express who she was without fear.
My performance came to an end, and I made my way back to my seat with newly found optimism as I reflected on how performing had consumed me.
Looking back, I would have liked to describe this sensation differently. Instead of saying “consumed,” I might have used a metaphor or an allusion to express the transformation I underwent. For example, I might have described how my environment had changed — how the room went from being an unfamiliar, cold setting to a warm, welcoming space as I finally felt comfortable in my own skin.
I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.
This section contrasts the loose structure of the earlier paragraph. I mirrored this technique from Hughes, as well! In “Salvation,” most long paragraphs are characterized by unconstrained, lengthy sentences followed by short statements that are left as their own paragraphs.
By using periods, which symbolize closure, rather than punctuation that expresses continuation, like commas, I wanted to demonstrate how I believed I had been found; the process of searching for a place where I belonged had come to an end.
Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped off my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating state points or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.
Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper in her hand, and the entire cafeteria surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the finalists were. Then, I saw it.
Originally, I talked about the waiting process in greater detail. In my first draft, I had two lengthy paragraphs mentioning interactions I had with my teammates while waiting for results. I had another long paragraph about how people crammed together to read the postings.
I decided to cut those paragraphs not only because they diverted the audience from the story, but because it made the essay read more like a description instead of an internal monologue, and that sudden change in narration style did not match the rhythm of the piece. Additionally, I really wanted to emphasize that what mattered most to me was to experience that sensation of freedom again.
The first draft of my essay was about three pages long, but cutting it to 600 words was the best thing that could have happened to it. Knowing I only had 600 words to tell my story made me realize that the description and detail I originally thought was crucial to the essay actually prevented me from better describing the emotional journey I went through.
My name. Written in dense, black letters.
I let this paragraph stand alone because it was the first time I was proud of my name instead of being worried about how others might perceive it. I wanted to literally build a concrete, physical space for this moment given how monumental it was for me.
I smiled to myself.
This time, as I walked to the oratory final, I did so by myself, as I had finally acquired the self-assurance needed to navigate the quiet hallways of the high school. I could only hear the heels of the two girls behind me.
I wanted to emphasize the sound of the heels walking behind me because they serve as a metaphor to describe how, despite feeling like I had gained peace, the perception others hold of my identity was always trailing behind me.
“I heard that Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She broke over me. I didn’t see her performance. Did you? Did you see her performance? What is her speech about?” she questioned the other one.
“It’s about being a Mexican immigrant.”
“Oh, so that’s why she broke.”
“It’s the same pity narrative, there’s nothing different about it.”
I considered narrating this section instead of using dialogue. However, I found that writing the conversation between the two girls and not giving myself a speaking part allowed me to metaphorically state how I had lost my own voice.
Suddenly, the confidence that I had acquired from the previous rounds vanished, and I found myself wishing that I had my older, more experienced teammates by my side to help me block the girls’ words. But no one was there.
This paragraph begins with a long, loose sentence that is then contrasted with a definitive statement as I became aware of the fact that my voice was no longer my own but an interpretation of others’ perceptions of it. It makes a subtle comment on the theme of the essay, which is that the speech program gave me my voice, but it also took it away.
I thought my narrative was what made my words matter, what made me matter.
I considered making this statement part of the next paragraph but I ultimately decided to leave it on its own because this is the moment where the audience arrives at the beginning of my epiphany: If my experience was what defined my voice, but my words were instantly belittled, then who was I?
This section marks a shift in voice, illustrating my loss of innocence. Consequently, both the audience and I no longer see speech through rose-colored glasses; instead we face the crude reality of what it means to be a foreigner both inside and outside of the activity.
But they didn’t matter. Not anymore. From that moment on, I knew I would be recognized around the circuit as the Mexican girl whose name no one knows how to pronounce. I didn’t even need to speak about my identity to be identified. Everyone would recognize me not for my achievement or my being, but by the peculiar way I pronounce words. I could speak about different topics, but it felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. It felt like my voice didn’t make a difference.
“Mafer, how did it feel?” my coach asked me after the round. “It felt amazing!” I lied.
I didn’t feel anything. Not anymore. Speech gave me a voice, but it also took it away.
I drew inspiration from “Salvation” again when constructing the ending. At the end of Hughes’s short story, there is a moment where the narrator is crying himself to sleep; his aunt believes he is emotional because God had come into his life, when in reality he is crying because he had lied about seeing God and didn’t believe in religion anymore.
Similarly, in my essay, I wrote that I lied to my coach about having found my voice, when in reality the sensation of completeness and belonging I used to feel when I performed was gone and I didn’t know how to recover it. The lie also parallels the excuse I made up for the nature of my name at the beginning of the essay to demonstrate how, despite believing I had found my haven, ultimately, I was as lost as I was at the beginning of the story — only now the hope of finding that sense of belonging had also vanished and my true self with it.