Ten Years Learning How To Be A Poet – Part Five: How To Write About Real Life In Poetry

Writers often take inspiration from real life. A lot of my poetry draws on points, and people from history, as well as members of my own family. Some of those poems can be incredibly personal, not only the ones specifically about myself. I’ve written about my mother shaving her legs, the death of certain family members, friendships breaking down, and assault. I’m very lucky when it comes to those close to me, as they don’t take issue with me mining my life (and in turn their own) for inspiration. However, it still raises the question of how personal is too personal, and at what point (if at any point) does a poet cross the line about what they should or shouldn’t write about?

There’s a piece of writing advice, “write what you know”, which has been taken further in recent years to ‘don’t write outside your own lived experience’. There are (of course) exceptions when it comes to fiction, fantasy being a clear example. Writing what you know becomes redundant in the sense that none of us knows how magic works, or what goes on in a world carried about by a great, cosmic turtle. Fantasy, and pushing the boundaries of the known go hand in hand, but there is a difference between creating a detailed, anatomical description for the new race of gnomes you’ve invented, and writing a novel from the perspective of a person who has lived a life utterly removed from your own. For the sake of this post, I will not be going into my thoughts on the issues regarding writing in the voice of a different race/genre/class, that isn’t the post I set out to write. What I want to talk about is weighing up how to use your own experiences in poetry, and how there is room to stretch a bit beyond those experiences when the poem calls for it.

At the end of 2020, I took part in a workshop run by Caroline Bird. I’ve mentioned it before, mostly because it was a brilliant workshop and I would recommend taking a workshop by her to any poet who is looking to explore their craft. The theme was bravery in poetry, the personal bravery to write about true experiences (true to you that is). At the start, she offered a caveat to those taking part regarding protecting themselves when writing. There are things in our lives that we may want to put into poetry, or we may feel will translate into good poems, but need to be aware of ourselves while writing. She gave permission for us to stop and step back from an exercise if we felt that the emotions coming up were too painful. I think about that permission when I write new poems, and I often think about how I’d never considered giving myself that same courtesy. There is an element of catharsis when writing personal poetry, and some poems rush out of us onto the page and leave a wake of relief. It can be physically draining to put those emotions/memories into words. Sometimes, writing it all down leads to acceptance or resolution, and sometimes it breaks open the old wounds. In the case of the latter, a poet is allowed to leave a subject alone. You don’t have to put anything into a poem that you do not wish to. Similarly, you do not have to share a poem after you have written it if you discover parts you would rather keep to yourself. 

As a writer, I have faced burnout again and again. Each time I believed that I had cracked the code, and wouldn’t end up in the same situation again. Now, coming out the end of what I think was probably a mini-burnout at the end of February, I accept that I’ll probably never fully work out how to avoid working myself right to the edge. Therefore, I am permitting myself to have time where I don’t write, I step back from my blog, and I recharge. We should all make an effort to be kind to people, and that includes ourselves, so if the personal is too personal, be kind to yourself about what you do with it. 

But what about when the personal might hurt someone outside of ourselves? 

I wrote a poem recently called ‘Abandoning Ship’ which is very, very personal. The first draft mentioned a family member, the redraft referred to her as ‘a woman’, and the current version doesn’t mention her at all. When I wrote it, I was angry about something they had said to me and I felt it was a comment that most new mums would resonate with. In the end, I removed the person and their comment from the poem because I felt that the hurt it would cause them if they read it, would be far more than the annoyance I felt at their comment. They hadn’t meant to upset me, and I was actively doing something to lash out, which is not what I want my poetry to channel. Poetry can be great for helping to purge our emotions, but the edits are a time for cooler heads. It is a reason why I try to hold new poems back for a few weeks before sending them out as journal submissions. If I can look at a piece a fortnight after it has been written, and the strength of the emotion still holds, then the poem should stay as it is. If I look at it and feel uncertain, then tweaks are in order. The sticking point comes with knowing the difference between good judgement, and general nervousness regarding sending my work out. Two years of active, regular submissions to journals have helped cure some of those nerves but I doubt they will ever vanish entirely. Most days I half-expect the fraud police to come knocking on the door and demand I stop calling myself a writer. The odd day I don’t have that voice hanging around in the back of my head are the days I feel as if I could take over the world. They are very, very good days. They are also very, very rare. 

The Caroline Bird workshop was a masterclass (literally) in tackling those experiences that you want (emphasis on the want) to put into poems, but are not sure how to write. Her advice to mythologise your memories was an idea that struck me as wonderful in its simplicity. Myth has crept into my poetry on many occasions. Greek, Norse, and Celtic gods litter my writing, and I have a little bookcase dedicated to the books I own on the subject. I had not thought about mythologizing my history, however. The poem I wrote for the workshop exercise is currently sitting on my laptop, desperately waiting for me to get around to redrafting it. When I wrote it, I loved it. The excitement of a new lens filled me with enthusiasm and I sent it out as a submission without really redrafting the piece. It was rejected, and when I returned to it as I do with all rejected poems, I found some elements needed polishing. The idea was still good. My execution needed more practice. 

When you take real life, and you present it as fiction, you can create an extra level of protection for yourself. A poem can be real without being true. I would desperately love to take credit for that saying but I’m stealing it from my friend, and fellow poet Helen Kay. In my case, I took an experience that happened to me in secondary school and instead of writing the poem as ‘I’, I wrote about a doe. The people from the event became various woodland creatures. I was still able to see the reality of what had taken place within the words, but for a stranger, or indeed a friend or family member, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious. There are poems that I know my grandmother will not read as the topic is too close to home for her. A poem I wrote years ago deals with my grandfather being injured by one of his cattle, and the poem is specific and clear. I talk about ‘eleven broken ribs, smash sternum, destroyed spleen’, and the fear of believing I was watching my grandfather die in front of me. Until now, it was not a poem I had considered revisiting, but if I were to approach it now I would likely tackle it differently. I would also call it something other than ‘Grandfather’, but titling poems is going to be my next blog post. Then again, maybe I would write it down in the same way. Not all stories need to be mythologized to be told. 

There are going to be writers who have no issue with baring their souls for everyone to see. My husband has often accused me of over-sharing with friends, and I have to admit that those who follow this blog have seen a fair bit of what makes me, me, over the years. I started writing my life into my poems after my mother told me that my best work, was my personal work. Just as Caroline Bird gave her workshop participants permission to recognise their emotional boundaries, my mother permitted me to write about what was true to me. She has since commented that it’s incredibly weird to attend a poetry reading where you are the subject of the poems, and those poems are being read to a crowd. We have yet to find a topic that she is against me writing about, and I wonder if that is part of the reason why I’m cautious with how I write about family. I have been trusted to handle my words with care so far, and I wouldn’t want to break that trust. 

As always, you should write the poems that you want to write, not the poems that I (or anyone else) tell you to. However, for those of you who fancy it, I’m going to suggest a writing exercise: write about yesterday, but instead of yourself at the centre of the poem, write it from the viewpoint of your kitchen cabinet, or a crack in the hallway plaster. This can be a poem you keep to yourself or share in the comments below, or you can ignore the prompt entirely. No matter what you decide, thank you for sticking with me through another rambling post that may, or may not have achieved the points set out in the title. 

2 Comments

  1. I love the writing from an inanimate object’s point of view part. That’s pretty unique. I do try to write everyday scenes from different perspectives, but writing from my cabinet’s POV is something cool I want to try. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Reply

  2. I would think that writing about others’ lived experiences would still be an imaginative process, since you can only observe their surface level behavior. So, it is still your story to tell. If that makes sense? One caveat; if the story is too detailed with information that would certainly identify the subject, then you might want to check with them first, because they might want to tell their own story.

    I have a friend who is an author, and she went to burning man one summer — there is a ‘gift economy’ at burning man. Nobody sells anything, but you can (and will rely on) gifts from others in a reciprocal way. My friend had a ‘booth’ (concept, not literally) where she gave away jewelry that she had made in trade for peoples’ stories. ‘Tell me a story and choose a necklace!” I love that way of collecting stories because it just seems like such a fundamental part of being human. Trading stories.

    And, a lot of people don’t have the time or patience or temperament to actually tell their own stories; so collecting those stories is a bit like collecting acorns that have fallen to the ground. Beautiful and full of potential, but likely to fade and become dust, but for the little squirrel that collects them.

    Reply

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