What Prose Writers Can Learn from Great Poetry

Guest post from Savannah Cordova.

There seems to be a quiet antagonism between poets and prose writers: the former feel snubbed by the wider reading public, the latter like they’re regarded as the commercial sell-out cousins of verse writers. But even beyond questions of how different writers feel they’re perceived, prose writers sometimes treat poetic writing as an entirely distinct skill from prose — approaching poetry with reverence, awe, confusion, or even fear.

Yet the fact of the matter is, good writing is good writing — and prose writers would be wise to take a few leaves out of poets’ books. To highlight how this can be done, here are four things that poets have a particular knack for, from which any writer could benefit… especially prose writers, who may find that their work isn’t so different from poetry after all.

1. Concision

By virtue of its (typical, but not obligatory) brevity, poetry as a form demands concision. At the extreme end of this practice, you’ll encounter haikus and poems like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”, pared down and distilled to the fewest words possible. While prose writers won’t be dealing with this kind of microeconomics unless they’re (literally) writing microfiction, there’s still a lot to learn from this process.

To arrive at this small number of words, a poet must be crystal-clear about what they wish to convey. It doesn’t matter whether clarity is achieved spontaneously or through several rounds of editing; the point is that once it’s there, the redundant words can be left on the cutting room floor. What’s left is condensed, controlled, and precise meaning — the kind that anyone writing short stories or even novellas should strive for.

2. Abstraction or impressionism

With all their concerns for plot, story structure, and style, prose writers can forget to pause and just meditate in abstract terms. Poets, on the other hand, take solace in the freedom provided by abstraction. Take Hart Crane’s The Bridge — to me personally, some of its lines are completely opaque, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the gathering, accelerating feeling the poem assumes, or its strange, arresting series of images.

I’m not saying plot and narrative progression don’t matter. On the contrary, abstract meditation and other impressionistic elements can actually strengthen the force of a narrative by making a character’s experience or point of view more immersive and engaging — so when it comes to narrative and poetic prose, don’t feel like you need to choose one over the other. (For more on how to strike this balance, check out Emma’s post on showing rather than telling!)

3. Capturing the moment

While we’re on the subject of meditation, something else that poetry does (and which is often neglected in longer prose works) is capture individual moments in a quiet, stunning way.

One such poem is Philip Larkin’s “Home is so Sad”: a short poem that encapsulates, in just a few lines, the haunting nature of isolation and loss. The same compact power can be felt in Seamus Heaney’s “When All the Others Were Away at Mass” — another poem that freezes time to memorialize a single, emotionally loaded moment.

Similar to incorporating abstraction or impressionism, pausing the demands of the narrative to build on the potential of a single, static scene is fantastic for your creative writing, and definitely something to practice if you’ve not tried it much before.

4. Incredible passion

Some poems are pure tour de force, ending on a note so passionate it feels like the poet just let their mic drop (without the somewhat obnoxious connotations of that gesture, perhaps). Great examples of this effect include Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice”, Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”, and Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”. Vitalized by their creators’ passion and energy, these poems sweep their readers along with their powerful verse.

Prose writers can learn a great deal from this force of emotion. While simmering tension is a great way to build suspense in longer works, moments of drama — however short and abrupt — will always raise the stakes in a story and communicate ideas more effectively. So draw from your heart, and write with passion (but as Emma says, do so with the humble awareness that you are not Wordsworth.)

I hope these lessons have been helpful to you, or at the very least raised some interesting thoughts about the different strengths of each literary form. Prose and poetry are not worlds apart, after all, and I believe that there’s plenty to be learned on both sides!


Why Managing Interruptions Matters

Get the feeling you’re working more hours but seem to be getting less done? Some of us are doing more work, especially those also trying to homeschool alongside their usual daily routine. For others it’s a struggle to structure a day. Shunted into doing a day job from home, dealing with new clients who work to a different schedule or having lost work is an opportunity to re-think our daily structure. However, trying to create anything new when the mornings and evenings are still dark, outdoors is damp, spring still feels a long way off and the ongoing lockdown encourages feelings of hiberation rather than the energy to focus. Working from home might give an illusion of more control, however, it also means being available for contact from colleagues during regular working hours.

Creative projects, such as writing, require uninterrupted time in an environment where a writer can develop their skills, concentrate and draw on cognitive capabilities. Some may call this “being in the zone” or “in a state of flow”. It’s space to be fully immersive in the poem or story being worked on. It’s not necessarily about writing/typing but chance to think, plot or plan. Getting there isn’t like diving in at the deep end of a swimming pool, more like padding up from the shallow end.

An interruption, such as a phone call, email or message via social media, firstly takes the writer out of their flow and secondly creates a delay in paddling back up to the deep end. Frequent interruptions are not just irritating, but prevent creative work. When you know you’re going to be interrupted, you can leave a scene part-way through or even leave mid-sentence so you know that at the start of your next creative session, you have to finish that scene/sentence and you can get back in the flow fairly quickly. However, unplanned interruptions don’t happen at convenient points.

Unfortunately, asking others not to interrupt is rarely successful. They have to be trained not to, especially children who tend to be trained not to interrupt dad when he’s working but tend not to extend this courtesy to mum. This requires discipline from the writer (although obviously not to the extent of neglecting dependents: your latest masterpiece is not an excuse to ignore everyone else completely).

  • Figure out when is the best time for you to write and when it’s not so critical for you to be interrupted. You might want to write from early morning to the start of working from home but be available in the afternoon. If your best time is in the evening, be available in the morning.
  • Don’t allow asynchronous communication to become synchronous: messages via email, social media, tools such as Slack, don’t require an immediate response. A message won’t fade because you’ve not responded within five minutes of it being sent. If closing these tools isn’t possible, turn notifications off, make use of ‘out of office’ autoresponses and train others to expect a response when you’re ready.
  • Ask whether you actually need to be at a meeting. Often, it’s easy to invite everyone to a meeting, especially when no travel is involved, rather than consider what each individual has to contribute, what each needs to know whether they need to be there. Meetings don’t just take up the time of the duration of the meeting but also preparation and the time taken to get back in the zone afterwards. If it’s a need-to-know situation, might it be better for you just to have the minutes afterwards? If you need to convey information, is that better done via a report circulated beforehand rather than a presentation with questions during the meeting?
  • Keep a channel for messages that require quick responses, e.g. a chat tool or phone. If someone needs a quick response, they use this channel. If it can wait, use other channels. You’ll also need to define what will require a quick response.
  • Practice not being at others’ beck and call. Anyone who knows me doesn’t phone me. Therefore I know when my phone rings it won’t be urgent so, unless someone has scheduled a call, I will ignore the phone. Clients in different time zones will send messages at their convenience, not yours so the onus is on you to park their message until you are in work mode. Utilise email folders so you can sort messages into ‘urgent’, ‘respond later today’, ‘respond within a week’ and ‘response not needed’.
  • Respect your writing time. Occasionally compromise is necessary, but if you let others interrupt with trivial matters, you send the message that your time isn’t important and invite further interruptions.
  • Remember each interruption comes with a cost, not just the loss of time taken to deal with it but also the time taken to get back into the rhythm of writing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress launch banner

Don’t Give Up, find your Writing Tribe

A recent twitter post suggested a writer was giving up entering competitions and trying to get published because they hadn’t made a short list. I hope the tweet was fired off in the aftermath of disappointment and not an actual plan.

Writers have very little control over who wins competitions or gets published. That control lies with editors, publishers, competition judges, literary agents and other gatekeepers. Setting your worth as a writer in terms of getting your work published or placed in competitions is wrong. A literary agent can love your novel but be unable to find a publisher, an editor can like a poem but not be able to make it fit with emerging themes when putting together a magazine or anthology, one judge on a judging panel may have loved your poem but be outnumbered by others who loved other poems. Rejection slips aren’t necessarily a judgment on your work. “Not this time” really does just mean “not this time”; next time might be a win.

What writers do have control over is what they write and the craft that goes into it. You can read, write, edit and polish your work. You can develop your craft. You can do your research and match your work to suitable markets or competitions. You can measure whether you feel your writing is stagnating or improving. Make your measurements achievable and realistic: failure to meet your own goals will lead to disillusionment. This is why writers should never measure their achievements in terms of publications and competition places but in terms of am I sending out more pieces for publication this year, do I feel my work is improving, am I still enjoying writing?

What helps is joining a writers’ group or finding fellow writers to follow on social media. You’ll open up a world of tips, advice and helpful solutions. You’ll learn that publication or getting placed in competitions is a bonus, not validation. Getting constructive feedback on your work will help you develop and improve as a writer. Knowing others get overlooked and collect rejection slips gives a sense of not being alone. Much better to vent to a fellow writer over a drink than vent on social media where others might misinterpret what you’re saying.

Your Characters are not Tourist Brochures

A sizeable portion of unpublished stories I’ve been reading recently involve their characters travelling somewhere they’ve never visited before. In a couple of cases, this was due to relocation, but in most the characters were tourists. Most of these stories bored me, even when the characters were travelling to places I had never seen so the boredom wasn’t down to familiarity. Usually a tourist visiting a place you’re familiar with sees it with a fresh set of eyes or queries something you’ve taken for granted. That was the problem, none of these travelling characters were seeing their scenery with fresh eyes. I was bored because I felt as if I was reading a tourist brochure and it made me query why I was reading the story.

How do writers avoid their characters sounding like tourist brochures?

Why is your character making this journey?

If they are relocating, are they anxious about it or keen to leave their current location behind? If they’re anxious, they will notice signs of authority such as police uniforms, street signposts, fire escapes, narrow alleyways, how crowded/empty the streets are. If optimistic, they’ll notice open spaces, bars and cafes, places they’ll want to visit.

If it’s a holiday or business trip, how prepared are they? Do they see it as a break, change to recharge, or is it a source of anxiety? Is your character the type to triple check they’ve packed their passport, have a packed itinerary with no chance of spare time or have already checked out the best locations for Instagram photos before they get there? Or is your character more likely to sling a few outfits in a weekend bag and plan to figure out their plan when they get there?

Are they travelling alone?

If so, did they organise the trip themselves or did someone else organise it for them? Do they spent the journey picturing themselves at their destination or worrying about what they’ve left behind?

If not, how do they feel about their travelling companions? If a business trip, are their fellow travellers talking about business non-stop or do they see it as a break and chance to relax? If with family members, how responsible for the others does your character feel? Is your character the one checking timetables, making sure everyone sits near each other and is comfortable? Or does someone else in the group do this, giving your character time to daydream?

Do you need to include the journey at all?

If the journey’s boring and uneventful, skip it. If disaster strikes or your character has an epiphany, include it.

When your character arrives

Are they due to meet someone and does that someone turn up on time with a welcome and reassurance or are they late and hostile? Does your character want to sight-see straightaway or head to a hotel and unpack? Is the place they’re staying better or worse than they expected? A hotel room might be gloomy or bright and airy, does it match or contrast with your character’s mood?

Sightseeing

Character A in story A visits attraction 1, attraction 2 and attraction 3. They take some photos, pick the best to upload to social media, take a break for a coffee and then visit attraction 4. Next day they do the same, except they visit attraction 5, attraction 6 and attraction 7, saving attraction 8, attraction 9 and attraction 10 for the day after. They give as much insight into what they’re seeing as a tourist information brochure. The visits go smoothly and nothing untoward happens. Nothing dramatic happens until they visit attraction 11.

Character B in story B goes to visit attraction 1, supposedly the most popular tourist attraction, but finds it closed for refurbishment. They check their schedule and decide to move on to attraction 2, figuring they can stay longer and move on to attraction 3 at the scheduled time. At attraction 2, there’s a huge crowd and they can’t get close enough to the attraction to get a good look. When they push their way through the crowd, the attraction’s smaller then they thought it would be and the shadows make it impossible to get a decent photo. They push their way back out of the crowd and get to the bus stop to move on to attraction 3 only find their wallet’s been stolen. They slump to the kerb. Not speaking the local language, they see no point in reporting the theft. Storm clouds gather.

Character C in story C picks attraction 1 because of their interest in the artifacts/ history of the attraction and finds it exceeds their expectations, moreover they meet someone who seems interested in them and agrees to a dinner date. Their date then tells them an amusing story not in the guidebooks and offers to show them the real treasures of the place, taking them off the beaten tourist paths. Not only do they learn more about the place then they would have done through an official guide, they learn even more about their date. Character C hurries back to their hotel, eager to ensure they look their best and carry on their earlier conversation. By the end of the date, they decide that love at first sight really is a thing.

Which story would you read and why?

I bet none of you chose story A or at least you’d have skipped the sightseeing episodes in the hope that something really did happen at attraction 11.

What’s missing from story A (at least in the first 10 attractions) is the character. We don’t know their motivations for picking the sites they visit, we don’t know how they feel or what they observe at those attractions and they’re doing typical tourist actions. Moreover, the visits aren’t moving the plot on or laying foundations for future drama. Not readers would bother sticking around to find out what happens at attraction 11.

In stories where the character relocates, some writers chose to start with the main character in their original location, explain the need for relocation, describe the journey (often boring unless something happens that’s relevant to the story) and have their character arrive, often using bland observations so readers aren’t seeing the journey though the character’s eyes. Of course the story actually starts at the point of relocation so the explanation about the need for relocation is backstory and the writer’s started in the wrong place. An error they’ve compounded by making the journey boring and lacking in insight.


 

Ideal Writing Conditions

“Do your best with what you’ve got”
Toni Morrison 18 February 1931 – 5 August 2019

What are your ideal writing conditions?

A large desk with space not only to write but to hold stacks of notes, reference books and plans with a whiteboard for temporary notes? Or a small desk, just room for a laptop, and no distractions.

Do you have a window with view with an appealing landscape or a windowless room so the only thing you can focus on is your screen? Does your ideal room have bookcases and a couch so you can take a break and read? Or a daybed for daydreaming? Or a stationary cycle or treadmill so you can use a burst of exercise to refresh? A coffee machine permanently bubbling away or poi pourri strategically scattered with scents to motivate?

Do you have internet access so you can quickly research on the go or do you block social media? Do you have music on or write in relative silence? Or are you the type of writer who prefers to sit in a cafe, surrounded by a buzz of people?

Do you have an optimum routine: perhaps some exercise in the morning and then a solid block of time to write or do you prefer to write first and take long walks in the afternoon? Do you do all your research and plot out your writing before you begin or do you research as you go?

Are you the sort content to write in isolation, only sharing work once it’s thoroughly published or do you want to be close to beta-readers for quick feedback or to discuss a knotty problem in line two or whether your current sonnet needs to rhyme or not?

Do you write first drafts with a specific brand of pen in a specific brand of notebook or scribble on whatever’s to hand? Do you prefer to draft on a phone or laptop? Do you have to create a certain ambience to write?

Who provides your meals and picks up the household chores?

Sorry, reality intruded there, didn’t it?

Very few writers get to write in their ideal conditions. For most of us, life really does intrude and we have to drop the idea of creating a specific set of conditions to write and making do with the conditions on offer. That means figuring out when the best time to write is and, as far as possible, arranging a routine around it. It might not be a separate room but a corner in a lounge or a favourite spot in a cafe or library if home contains too many distractions. It might be creating a short routine, a metaphorical sharpening of a pencil, to make a buffer between a day job and writing or between family demands and the need to re-enter a manuscript’s world.

It means moving away from the idea that there are ideal conditions to write and creating conditions to write in. It takes discipline and desire.

To Publish or Not to Publish?

In a recent conversation on EAVA FM, I was asked for tips for aspiring writers:

  • Read, you can’t be a writer unless you read.
  • Guard your writing time – you may need to negotiate with family members or partners but if you don’t give your writing time priority, it won’t be important to them either.
  • It’s writing that makes you a writer, not being published.

Writing is the process through which ideas, characters, themes, issues, plots emerge from your thoughts and/or dreams in a way that enables you to write them down or type them. The process then extends to editing and polishing until you have a poem or story. It may be that you leave the new piece aside and come back to it at a later date so you can look at it with fresh eyes or you take it to a workshop or writers’ group or get a beta reader to look over it for constructive criticism to improve it further.

No piece of writing is wasted, even if it ends up binned or deleted, it’s all practice. Understanding how a story failed makes you better able to tackle a fresh story. Trying and failing to write a villanelle will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the form and there’s no reason to try and rewrite the failed villanelle in a different form or take one of the stanzas and start a new poem based on the extract.

Whether you show your writing to others is entirely up to you. If you want the external validation of publication, consider whether you are seeking that validation to confirm you are a writer or whether you want to share and communicate your work with others. If it’s all about you, it’s unlikely to appeal to readers. If it’s about sharing, publication is one of the routes to a readership. If others are pressurising you to get published, what are their motives? Do they need you to be published to call you a writer or do they think your writing should be shared with others? It is about you or your work?

Should you publish?

  • If it’s a shiny badge stating ‘writer’ that you’re after, make your own. The validation feels great, but publication is about reaching out to readers, not primarily to make you feel good
  • If you want to share and communicate to readers, you need a form of publication to make that happen
  • If you’re under pressure to publish, don’t. It has to be something you want, not something you do to please others.
  • Are you prepared to promote your publications on social media and market your publications? If you can’t engage with the process, it’s not worth doing and publishers, especially poetry publishers, need engaged writers.
  • Are you ready to accept that once out in the public domain, you have very little control over how readers react to your work? There will be critics and detractors as well as readers. Readers will filter your work through their lenses and may misunderstand your intentions or add baggage that you didn’t consider.
  • How will you handle reviews? Don’t read them is easier said than done. Reading, doing your research and approaching the right reviewers for your work takes time, but you won’t have control over what reviewers say.

Routes to Publication

  • Magazines and publishers – the obvious route but not the only one.
  • Competitions – many poetry competitions publish winning and short listed entries in an anthology or on a website
  • Blogs – some bloggers will publish poems but check the standard of poems (would you be happy for your work to be in the company of poems already posted?) and check guest post guidelines. You could create your own blog but be prepared to spend time promoting it. Also be aware that poems uploaded to a blog will be considered published and that will limit your options for getting blogged poems published elsewhere.
  • Performance – read at open mic slots or organise your own readings
  • Recordings – free software, e.g. Audacity, make it easy to record and upload readings of your poems. If your strength is in performance, burning a collection of recordings to a CD can be an alternative to book publication or a complement to a printed collection.

Have you backed-up your Writing Files?

Do you regularly back-up your work or leave it to chance? 3:AM Magazine were temporarily off-line due to problems with their service provider and O2 customers were temporarily unable to make calls and access on-line serivces due to a technical fault.

What would happen if you found your blog was unavailable? Would you be able to re-create it with another provider or would all your work be lost? If your computer developed a fault and you were unable to access your files, do you have copies elsewhere or would you have lost all your work?

Creating back-up copies of work sounds tedious and time-consuming, but is necessary and, thanks to cloud computing, needn’t be overly time-consuming either. Consider these options:

  • Your ISP: does your ISP offer a back-up and storage facility on-line? Generally you’ll get a fixed amount of free space with the option of paying for more but word processed, text files don’t take up much room so the free option is probably sufficient. You may also be able to run the storage facility on booting up your computer so your files are automatically backed-up during your working session and you don’t have to think about it. This means your files are stored on your computer and your ISP’s servers.
  • On-line storage via a service such as Dropbox or ThinkFree Office. At the end of your working session, simply save a copy to your account. Usually it’s free to create an account and have a limited amount of storage with the option to pay for extra. Using these services means there’s a copy of your work on your computer and in your on-line storage account.
  • Email a copy to yourself. Not practical for files with hi-res images or videos, but an option for text files. When you send a file as an attachment, the email creates a copy. If you email submissions to editors, you’ll have a copy in your sent items folder anyway. So you’ll have a copy on your computer and a copy on your email client, via your ISP or on-line depending on which email service you use.
  • Save a copy to a flash drive. You’ll have a copy on your computer and a copy on portable storage, useful if you need to use someone else’s computer if yours develops a problem or you need to replace your computer or you temporarily lose access to on-line accounts.
  • If you write a blog or have a website, keep copies of your articles or pages in your word processor so if your blog or website goes down, you could re-create it. If you get into the habit of drafting articles on your word processor before uploading them to your blog or website, you’ll have two copies. If you then synchronise your word processor files with your on-line storage, you’ll have three copies (on your site, on your word processor and in your on-line storage).
  • Hard copies – if you’re submitting work to an editor who doesn’t take email or on-line submissions, print a second copy and keep somewhere safe (ideally a fire-proof cabinet). Of if you’re in the habit of drafting everything on paper first, keep your originals. Not as practical as an electronic copy, but it does mean if the worst happens, you can re-type your work.

If you haven’t backed-up your work and your computer develops faults, you may be able to restore some files via a computer recovery service. But why take the risk?

By

Ten Tips for New Years Writing Resolutions

The Best Of lists have been compiled and analysed, the mornings are still dark, the evenings are still dark and the days still short, largely grey and damp and body clocks are still in holiday rhythm, so must be time to make those New Year’s Resolutions. 

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t front load the year by starting all your resolutions in January.
  • Resolve to check submission guidelines and competition rules to avoid wasting your time and postage by making submissions destined to be rejected and your competition entries disqualified.
  • Keep “write more” resolutions achievable and factor in research and editing time.
  • Keep reading – you’ll never develop as a writer if you don’t read and poetry magazines are always looking to increase subscribers.
  • Keep resolutions under your control – you can send out more work to publishers or write more guest blog posts but you can’t control whether or not your work or posts get accepted.
  • Factor in publicity – marketing departments, where publishers have them, can’t magic up sales without the author’s involvement in publicity.  However, writers can influence what kind of publicity they do.  You’ll know what works for you so if a marketing department ask you to do a book tour you can’t do because you’ve got caring or job commitments and hate readings, you can offer to do radio interviews and/or podcasts instead.
  • Ensure you have something to publicise – if you dash off a press release every time you get an acceptance, your local news desk will press delete every time they see your email address and thus miss that brilliant story about your climb up the Himalayas and the sequence of poems you published as a result to raise funds for a tiger sanctuary.
  • Try something new – those quiet times when there’s no book to publicise or when waiting for editors’ responses are a good time to research setting up a website, try out a new social networking site or start your next writing project.
  • Social media – monitor readers, friends and followers, but don’t sweat over daily statistics, focus on the trend and if that’s downwards, review whether you’re using the right platform for you.  If you love performing, you may be better off doing interviews and podcasts rather than blog posts.  If followers drop off, balance updates about you and/or your writing with related articles or stories by others.
  • Review – focus on successes and don’t be too concerned by failure.  Rejection is part of a writer’s life and the best way of dealing with it is to polish the piece that got rejected and try another editor.  All editors receive more submissions than they can publish, but a significant proportion of rejections are due to the writer not following submission guidelines.

Above all, enjoy writing.  If your writing becomes a chore, it will become a chore for readers too.

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 clichĂ©d.
  • 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.