We learn far more from stories than instructions, whether from the Bible, fables or the latest celebrity interview. Instructions are very much a one-off template to get a job done, whereas a story gives readers characters, a narrative arc and sub plots to think about and the best stories offer credible characters who solve their own problems and allow to reader to think about what they would have done in that situation or what their reaction would have been if the same thing had happened to them.
We’re quick to share stories too: the toddler telling their parents about their day (regardless of whether the parent was there or not), strangers finding themselves next to each other on a train, in a waiting room, telling friends or family about an event, updating our status on social media or retweeting an article we came across. Reading books may be falling in popularity but we still watch films, TV dramas, follow a narrative in a computer game, listen to chat shows. The popularity of the ‘triumph over adversity’ story is undiminishable and who doesn’t enjoy gloating when hearing about someone who’s behaved badly getting a just punishment?
This desire to share stories is one of the main motivations for writers to write. But writing personal or “confessional” poems comes with pitfalls which are not just about writing technique. Writing about a personal experience isn’t just about deciding on the best approach and whittling out the irrelevant details to get to the heart of the story. There’s a difference between writing about something in a personal journal or sharing it with a friend, and putting that poem out in the public domain by seeking to get it published or performing it.
- Is it worth sharing?
- Have you got to the true heart of your story or are you too focused on making it true to life?
- Can you be objective?
- Are you ready for unscripted reactions?
Sharing a Story in a Poem
A story doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic to share, but it needs to be communicable. If your story needs a long preamble to explain the situation or the characters, it’s probably best to keep it to share with people who know the people involved. Telling a reader “you had to be there,” is insulting and unhelpful.
Can you show the reader why you or your narrating character took the course of action they did? If you need to dictate your conclusion to the reader rather than allowing them to take their own view, it’s probably not a shareable story.
Telling the Truth
The truth isn’t necessarily what happened. It’s about illustrating the heart of your story. A good writer strips out extraneous detail, no matter how interesting, and beings the story into sharp focus. It can be hard to separate detail from story when you have a strong emotional involvement, so it may be better to wait until you have that emotional distance before deciding to try and get your poem published.
It may be necessary to alter the telling of what happened to make a better poem. We do this a lot in real life, little embellishments or omissions, the little white lies to make something sound better. In a poem, you might want to make a ten minute wait a half-hour one or skip parts of the story to keep the momentum going and keep the reader engaged.
There’s a reason that workshop tutors’ hearts sink whenever a participant says “that’s how it happened.” Real life is messy, inconvenient and boring. There isn’t space for that in a poem.
Can you be Objective?
Can you read back your draft and edit it as if you are reading it for the first time? Can you let go of that stanza focused on the description something that isn’t key to the story and ought to be cut? It may be you have the draft of what could be a brilliant poem, but if you can’t read it with an editor’s eyes, keep it in the notebook to come back to later.
Are you ready for unscripted reactions?
It’s your story: you know how you reacted. But could you cope with someone else playing devil’s advocate and taking an opposing view? Could you bear someone laughing at your tragedy? Could you bear your joke falling flat? Could you cope with an editor suggesting you need to swap stanzas four and five and lose two lines from stanza six?
If your answer is “no,” you’re not yet ready to publish. This isn’t a reflection on the standard of your poem. You can guess how a reasonable person would react, but not everyone is reasonable. Once you decide to submit your poem for publication, you can’t rely on readers taking into consideration it’s personal when they comment on it. If you are going to read your poem to an audience, it’s not fair to ask them to excuse you for getting tearful at the end of the first stanza. The audience wants to hear the poem, not your personal reaction to it.