December 5, 2021

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Telling Short, Memorable Stories With Metropolitan Diary

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Featured Column: Metropolitan Diary

Since 1976, Metropolitan Diary has been a home for reader-submitted stories about those “only-in-New-York experiences.” Each week, its editors write, New Yorkers and visitors to the city “share anecdotes, memories, quirky encounters and overheard snippets that reveal the city’s spirit and heart.”

What we like about this column is that it is an excellent model for narrative writing. Each story focuses on a small, memorable moment — an overheard conversation, an encounter on the subway, a small act of kindness — that often ends up saying something bigger about human nature, the world we live in or just the uniqueness of New York City.

What stories do you have to share about a community you belong to, whether that’s your city, your school or even somewhere online? In this lesson, you’ll read several stories from Metropolitan Diary and then write your own about a memorable encounter you had that surprised, delighted or inspired you.

Ideas for Teachers: Use this lesson as part of our unit on narrative writing. If students like what they wrote, they can expand on it and submit it to our Personal Narrative Writing Contest until Nov. 17.

Have you ever had an encounter in your city or community that surprised, delighted or inspired you? Perhaps an interaction with a friend or a stranger at the bus stop, in a skate park, at your job, in a classroom or online, in a video game chat or the comments section of a post? It might be something that happened to you, or something you observed or overheard.

Take a minute or so to brainstorm places in your community where you often see special, unusual or funny things happen.

Then, use the sentence starter below to write for a few minutes about whatever comes to mind:

An encounter that I had that I’ll never forget is …

First, choose at least three of the Metropolitan Diary stories from this PDF to read. If none of these inspire you, you can find many more in the Metropolitan Diary column.

You might read one together as a class, one with a partner and one on your own. For each story you read, respond to the questions below.

As you read, annotate and take notes on what you notice about the way these pieces are written. Here are some questions to consider for each story:

1. What is the event or small, memorable moment that this story focuses on? Why do you think the writer might have chosen it?

2. Ed Shanahan, the editor of Metropolitan Diary, says that he often looks for stories that have “sharp memories of people, places and things” and “settings that instantly put the reader in the city.” Circle or underline the descriptive details in the story. What do these details contribute to the story? Why do you think the author included them?

3. The purpose of Metropolitan Diary is to share stories that surprise, delight and inspire. What kind of response or reaction do you think the author of the story you read was trying to elicit from the reader? What word choices, literary devices or other “writer’s moves” help achieve this response?

4. Many of the stories readers submit impart some kind of universal message about human kindness, happy coincidences, making connections or what it’s like to live in New York City. What do you think is the message of the story you read? What lines help communicate that message?

5. Mr. Shanahan says he also keeps a close eye on the kicker, or the last line of the story, and almost always cuts commentary such as “that’s why I love New York.” Why do you think he does that? How does the story you read end? Do you think the ending is effective? Why or why not?

6. Which of the stories did you find the most interesting, meaningful or compelling? Why? What did the author do that you admired that you might like to try in your own writing?

Now, it’s your turn: Write your own story modeled after Metropolitan Diary about a memorable encounter in a community you belong to. You might continue what you started in the warm-up or write something entirely new.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Your story should be about a small, memorable moment — and it should be true (that is, it happened to you, or you were there when it happened).

  • Metropolitan Diary stories are all about New York City, but your story can be about any community you belong to.

  • Try to make your piece fewer than 300 words, the way Metropolitan Diary pieces are. Yours can even be fewer than 100 words, like many of the stories you read, as long as it has a beginning, middle and end.

  • Play with form. You can write your piece as a traditional story, but it can also take the form of a poem or a short play.

  • Consider the larger message you want your piece to impart. What does this anecdote say about your community? What does it tell us about the world we live in, human nature or life itself? Then, see if you can employ some of the writing moves you noticed in the Metropolitan Diary pieces you read to help communicate your message — descriptive details that evoke a sense of place, literary devices that elicit a reaction and a kicker that subtly, but effectively, tells your reader what your piece is about.

  • If you want to go further, try making your own pen and ink drawing, like those created by the Metropolitan Diary illustrator Agnes Lee, to go with your piece.

If you like, post your finished work in the comments! (You can post comments up to 1500 characters — or about 250 words. If your story is longer than that, you can post it in two comments.)

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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