Personal-Experience Story. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

A prose narrative relating a personal experience, usually told in the first person, and
containing nontraditional content. Unlike most folklore, a personal-experience story is
not passed down through time and space and kept alive through variation from one teller
to another. Instead, the content of a personal-experience story is based on an actual event
in the life of the storyteller. The story may become a repeated and polished item in the
repertoire of the person who had the experience and created the story, but, in general,
such stories do not enter tradition.
While the content of personal-experience stories is not traditional in the usual sense—
that is, one cannot recognize in them known motifs or story plots—still the form, style,
and function of such stories are consistent from one story to the next. Thus, one can argue
that the genre itself is traditional. Further proof of the traditionality of the genre is found
in the many clearly traditional genres that disguise themselves as personal-experience
stories—such as tall tales, first-person jokes, and catch tales. Personal-experience stories
are found in the oldest recorded literature, such as the ancient Sumerian epic of
Gilgamesh, in which the hero reports his adventures as pointed narratives, each with a
specific, single-episodic plot.
The hallmark of the personal-experience story is that it reports a single event, usually
one that would not be considered supernatural. Folklorists use other terms to identify
longer stories with a sequence of events, such as life histories, or stories that involve
magic healing or the supernatural. Such stories are called memorates, and they usually
reflect some traditional belief, even if the experience itself is a personal one. One
function of memorates might be to reinforce the traditional beliefs at their base, as in the
following (see Stahl 1975) story of seeing the northern lights (aurora borealis) shortly
before the American entry into World War II: “Well, the last time that I’ve seen northern
lights that were spectacular was just before World War Two. Course everybody says, you
know, that anything phenomenal like that portends disaster, and all that sorta stuff. And
everybody was wondering what terrible thing was going to happen.” (One function of the
story could be to maintain the belief in such portents.)
More “secular” personal-experience stories usually serve one of three fairly specific
functions: (1) to entertain, (2) to be a cautionary tale or to illustrate the results of certain
behaviors, or (3) to present some aspect of the storyteller’s character and personal values.
Often these functions overlap, as in one teller’s story of climbing up into the cupola of
their barn while playing hide-and-seek and being unable to get down. The rest of the
story in which she finally calls out to her brother and has him stretch across the missing
rungs of the ladder so she can crawl over him to safety is entertaining, but it also cautions
against rash behavior and reveals something about the teller’s character. Thus, it serves a
didactic function.
Because of these three broad-based functions, personalexperience stories are found
easily in a great variety of contexts—informal contexts, such as bars and coffee shops,
family gatherings, work breaks, or parties, and more formal ones as well, such as in
sermons, in classrooms, on television talk shows, or in political speeches. But personalexperience stories are not simply unstructured gossip or bragging. In form they are very
much like anecdotes—short, single-episodic, often with a kind of punch line or dramatic
ending that makes them memorable. Unlike anecdotes, however, personal-experience
stories are told by the very person who had the experience. The teller, then, is the one
who creates the story, the one who turns an experience into a narrative.
A point of great theoretical interest to folklorists has to do with this process of creating
the story Most folk narratives, such as legends or fairy tales, are assumed to have had an
original “creator,” an individual who first made up the story, although generally we can
no longer trace the story back to find out who that originator was. With a personal
experience story, on the other hand, we do know who made the story up, and we can ask
some of the questions that so intrigue us about the process of literary creativity. Some
researchers are eager to discover what makes an event “story-worthy.” Some want to
know how different personalities affect the kind of story that grows out of an event. Some
want to know how a story changes over time as the teller retells and polishes it. And
some want to know which came first, the sense of event or experience or the narrative
The study of the personal-experience story began in Europe with attention to the
memorate and the “true story.” In American folklore research, one of the earliest scholars
to recognize, collect, and publish personal-experience stories was Richard M.Dorson. In
1952 Dorson included a section on “Sagamen” in his book of Upper Peninsula folklore.
Dorson recognized the similarity between these nontraditional, anecdotal stories and the
tall tales and jocular tales he collected from his informants.
Since then American researchers have become increasingly interested in the personalexperience story and its close neighbors. Some efforts have been made to classify
personalexperience stories by theme, as evidenced in books such as Eleanor Wachs’
Crime Victim Stories (1988). Some scholars, such as Richard Bauman, have offered
detailed textual analysis and some fme insights into the wonderfully flexible storytelling
style of individual performers. Some, such as this author, have been interested in
examining how the cultural frame of reference is used by the teller and the listener to
make the story personally meaningful.
Some of the possibilities for attending to the richness of cultural allusion, style, and
creativity in the telling of personalexperience stories can be suggested more easily by
including a segment of one narrative text. The story below, transcribed in part, was told
by Larry Scheiber in 1974 in Huntington, Indiana, to the author and a number of friends.
At the beginning of the story, we learn that Larry and his friend “Tiny Wires” had gone
cat-fishing using a bucket of chicken blood as bait. They had set the bucket of leftover
bait under the trailer that they were sharing that summer. Finally, the stench became so
bad that they knew they had to get rid of it. The rotting blood had attracted flies, and the
bucket was full of maggots. After a bribe of Mickey’s Malt, Larry agreed to drag the
bucket out from under the trailer. They decide to throw the whole thing in the river. The
story concludes:
There’s a bridge out there, one bridge past Broadway, just a little stony
job, about three-foot-high railing. I said, “You drive across that and go
realslow.” I said, ‘I’ll just heave the whole goddamn mess over the
railing, and we’ll take off like a big-ass bird.” So he’s driving real slow
and I’m hangin’ out the window—this thing’s heavy, man! My ol’ Biceps
isn’t all that big, ya know. I’m holdin onto that damn bucket. Wires says,
“OK, give ‘er hell!” So I get my arm underneath it [motions
accompanying actions described]—so I [throwing motion]—uhh!—I
threw it as hard as I could. Hell, it must’ve weighed sixty pounds! It made
it right to the railing and jumped back. [Motion with hand straight up, and
noise—apparent from motions that the contents of the bucket came down
all over him] [Laughter and groans] Did you ever just drop a glass of
water—see how it shoots up? Hell, I was hangin’ out the window or the
whole car woulda been full. I’m not kiddin’ ya, it just buried me in
Larry fmishes the story by recounting how Wires drove to a car wash
and used the high-pressure water to try to get the maggots off his car—
with Larry still hanging out the window. But the maggots stuck to the car
and had to be removed with a putty knife. The best part of the story,
according Larry, was watching Wires try to get the maggots off with a
putty knife. He closed with, “Oh God—it was hell! Every time I think of
Tiny, I think of that goddamn bucket of maggots.”
Larry’s story, like so many personal-experience stories, not only
instructs and entertains, but also forges a subde bond between the teller
and the listener. The teller reveals somediing about himself, while the
listener learns something about the storyteller. Personal-experience stories
serve a number of functions, but perhaps the most telling function is that
they invite intimacy, a chance for the teller and the listener to know each
other better.
Sandra K.Dolby
Bauman, Richard. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dégh, Linda. 1985. When I Was Six We Moved West. New York Folklore 11:99–108.
Dorson, Richard M. 1952. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
pp. 249–272.
Dorson, Richard M., and Sandra K.D (olby) Stahl, eds. 1977. Stories of Personal Experience.
Journal of the Folklore Institute (Special Double Issue) 14 (1–2).
Stahl, Sandra K.Dolby. 1975. The Personal Narrative as a Folklore Genre. Ph.D. diss., Indiana
——. 1977. The Oral Personal Narrative in Its Generic Context. Fabula 18:18–39.
——. 1985. A Literary Folkloristic Methodology for the Study of Meaning in Personal Narrative.
Journal of Folklore Research 22:45–69.
——. 1988. Contributions of Personal Narrative Research to North American Folkloristics. Fabula
——. 1989. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University