“By the third line, I know whether it’s going to turn into a poem or a story. With poems, I talk to people. In stories, they talk to me.”–Grace Paley
Alice Walker has spoken about how she follows her characters around and takes down what they have to say. That can be the magic of writing stories. I wrote a short story about a young woman who could not believe her boyfriend was guilty of raping a woman. No matter how I tried to write the ending, it never felt right. Finally, I took the story and started typing it again from the very beginning. By the time I reached the end, my character took over and told me what she was going to do. And while I hated her choice (she decided to believe he was innocent), it was the only way the story could be truthful in the end. If we know our characters well enough, they will tell us all about themselves in ways we could not imagine when we first identified them for our story.
Poetry is different. It’s about telling a moment, a truth, a spark in a fresh, indelible way. It seems to come from us (though there may be a muse smiling down on us as we write). Emily Dickinson said of poetry, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know about it. Is there any other way?”
A video on Emily Dickinson.
Poetry comes from the body: your rhythms, your fascinations, your connectedness to all that surrounds you, and most of all, from your truths. It’s a way of offering up your soul to the world. You may create the narrator – and some poets do write in another’s voice – but most poetry remains a reflection of you.
Exercise: Choose a secret your mother or best friend told you once, a secret you were amazed about. Write three lines about it. Read over what you wrote. Is there a story there? Do you see certain characters coming alive ready to tell what happened?
Or is there something in that secret that connects to specific feelings in you? Does it challenge a belief you hold dear? Does it offer a kernel of wisdom you want to explore?
Does it open you up to mystery or delight or grief? Do you feel the center of a poem opening up to you?
Make the everyday daring!