Turning a personal experience into a universal poem or story

Most writers initially write for themselves or a reader close to them and the writing becomes filled with references or personal experiences that aren’t suited to a wider audience.  If writing for a child, you can insert the names of their pets or reference their favourite TV programme and the child reader gets more from the story because it’s personalised.  But it doesn’t work for a wider audience of children who haven’t met the pets or don’t watch the TV programme so don’t get the references. Occasionally a writer will write in response to a personal experience, but then has to make the decision as to whether the resulting poem or story can work for a wider audience.  That decision is a tricky one and it’s not always as easy as asking if the poem or story gives enough information for the reader to follow, understand and identify with.

Fiction needs to be mutually beneficial.  Readers will stick with a poem or story that they are rewarded by.  How can a writer make a personal experience mutually beneficial?

Once recent parcel of books for review contained a pamphlet in which was a piece about the death of a man.  It was also a perfect example of how not to make a piece of writing mutually beneficial.  The details in the piece referred to the man as a “complete nobody” and implied he was a retired man living alone who had passed away during the night, no one had attended the funeral (presumably that’s no one apart from the officials) and his flat was cleared by the local authority and had contained furniture only fit for the refuse tip.  It’s a sad story although it does happen. 

The piece failed both as a poem and piece of writing.  It reduced its central figure to a cipher, a device to make the writer’s point rather than a credible character in this drama.  The writer observes, this cipher died during the night, the local authority cleared out broken furniture and a few books, the man had one friend who didn’t attend the funeral.  The writer made no attempt to suggest a life before the death.  Didn’t note the titles of those books or describe the furniture, didn’t find out if the man was a widower or single. 

The reader’s response is so what?  There is no character to care about and the event is too commonplace to startle or give the reader something to think about.  The writer is smug: “here’s a sad story but I’m not going to give you enough detail or transform my writing sufficiently to make it a rewarding read.” 

So how can writers transform a personal experience into a universal poem or story?

  • Focus: what is the message behind the experience?  In the example, the sadness of a man dying alone isn’t really enough and risks becoming clichéd.
  • Create real characters not ciphers.  Readers care about real characters and filling out a bit of detail with specifics such as what books were thrown out, how the furniture became broken, what clothes the man wore is enough to give a reader a picture of who the main character is.
  • Resist the temptation to turn yourself into a Mary-Sue (a perfected version of the author).  Mary-Sues are irritating, boring and should be kept firmly in the realm of a personal journal.
  • Resist the temptation to turn yourself into a omnipotent narrator: you’ll come across as smug and arrogant – why didn’t the writer of the example befriend his lonely cipher?
  • Take care with references and cultural short cuts.  Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen once complained that no one understood a reference to Hagar and Ishmael.  Your poem or story needs to be understood without the reader knowing the reference.
  • Read your piece, are you merely reporting or are you adding a new viewpoint or focusing on a detail not covered elsewhere?  If you characters are fully-drawn it won’t be hard to find some individual detail that makes your piece original.
  • Be compassionate and respect your reader.
  • Test it on a trusted reader for constructive feedback.
  • Accept that not all personal experiences can be transformed into a universal experience and some may be best kept private or for circulation around friends and family only.

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