How to Write a Personal Narrative to Transform Your Life

Your life is driven by a story. You may not be conscious of it, but there is an underlying narrative—a philosophy, religion, or set of beliefs—directing the course of your life. 

A messy storyline creates a messy life. A cohesive narrative, on the other hand, is a tool to process the chaos of life. Forging a healthy storyline gives you a default mindset to make sense of the highs, lows, and dissonance that life throws at you. 

In order to craft a strong personal narrative, you need to apply “emplotment”—a term coined by Ricoeur to describe the assembling of dissonant life events into a cohesive narrative. In simple terms, it is flipping the script from being defined by an event that happens in your life, to you defining the event. You are the one assigning the meaning. 

This process of crafting a defining life story has three stages: prefiguration → configuration → refiguration. 

Prefiguration begins with assessing your past—looking at the major events that have happened in your life. Specifically, the traditions, rules, beliefs that form your current worldview; your unconscious biases and presuppositions you bring to the table. This is the lens through which you interpret life.  

Configuration (Emplotment) is perhaps the most important stage. This is where you are actively processing a recent event. Ricoeur refers to this synthesizing of new experiences with your past experiences as “emplotment.” It requires a symbiotic bridging between an event and the definition you apply to it.   

Refiguration is where new understandings, adaptation, and transformation happens, i.e., how your emplotment process ultimately affects and changes you. If the first two stages are in alignment, then how you are ultimately affected and transformed will be consistent. You should not be experience extreme dissonance or or feel chaotic. Any new or unexpected life events will not derail you. Ricoeur calls this the realization of true “narrative innovation.”  

Here’s a helpful analogy to sum up:

  • Prefiguration: think of yourself as an author writing a story; outline the major events of your childhood and young adult life. Ask yourself whether your foundational beliefs need to be changed. Perhaps you’ve been shaped by childhood experiences in a way that is not true to who you are or would like to be.
  • Configuration (Emplotment): put yourself in the shoes of the editor; re-writing and tidying up a scene or chapter of the story as it takes place. you are weaving new material into your life story. 
  • Refiguration: Here, act as the reader of your story or the viewer of your movie playing out. Think of how you might be emotionally affected or moved by a scene. Your response should be positive. That means that all three stages are in alignment.  

A popular saying is “life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond.” It is an accurate reflection of what it means to live with a cohesive narrative—allowing you to pull together diverse events in your life to form a meaningful whole.