Annette Simmons, in her excellent book about writing memoirs, WHOEVER TELLS THE BEST STORY WINS, advises, “…we must learn to conjure up genuine emotions and relive the story in our imagination in a way that feels significant to us first so our story feels personally significant to others.”
As with storytellers, so it is with poets. One of the best ways for a poet to connect with her audience is to tell a story in a way that feels immediate and real, that opens up her head and her heart and shows the others what it feels like to be in the middle of some situation. Chances are her audience will be able to understand the feelings even if they have not been in the same situation.
It’s the standard thing to do that for things like lovelorn and heartbreak poems. It’s sort of a cliché, actually. However, this way of sharing your emotions does not have to be limited to stories of heartbreak and loss. You can expand it to encompass your other life-things…like your job, for instance. You, too, can write Country-Western songs (Yee-hah!)
Here’s a poem I wrote about what it’s like to be in the process of evicting someone. It comes out of having been a residential property manager for over 20 years.
Aw, good grief!
Here we are, co-opted into
A hoary old melodrama of the vaudeville kind.
I get to be the villain –
Just your average, run-of-the-mill,
Greedy, grabby landlady.
Got the standard black, pointy witch hat
PLUS dominatrix leather.
I can pace around like a predatory beast,
Snarling large and cracking this really cool bullwhip.
And you…you get to be the downtrodden slob,
Shivering in your tattered, well-worn rags,
Surrounded by your sniveling, tear-dripping wife
And all the wailing waifs of your life –
All of the poster children for the latest fight-hunger campaign.
It’s winter, right?
Sleet, snow, hail….
And here we are at center stage:
The Victim (that’s you), hunkered and huddled,
Pleading for mercy from
The stone-cold, nasty bitch with the vault of squashed buffalo nickels.
Next we enact the crucial moment,
When I get to twirl my waxed false mustache and declaim,
“You MUST pay the rent!”
You, of course, shake and shiver and you wring your hands as
You quiver out (in tremolo voice): “I CAN’T pay the rent!”
Can we NOT go there?
This does not have to be a “Perils of Pauline” re-run.
It’s just us – you and me,
People with a problem needing a graceful resolve.
Tell ya what:
Let’s go for the grace….
How ’bout we dump these dumb costumes
And toss out that stupid script?
Come on, let’s sit.
What are we gonna do next?
We know that.
HOW shall we dance?
by Netta Kanoho
TARGET: YOUR FEELINGS
How do you conjure emotions in poetry and story-telling? It comes, I think, from really being able to name your feelings. If you can’t pinpoint what you are feeling, if you don’t know whether you’re feeling sad or mad or just hungry and irritable, then you’ll just sit there telling yourself, “Oh, wow. This feels bad.”
That doesn’t make a story. It doesn’t breathe life into the facts. With no words for the feelings you’re feeling, there is no way to share and communicate the things. So you need to learn how to talk about how you feel so you can connect and talk about things that everybody else can also feel.
That’s the cool thing about this. If you can pinpoint, understand and know your own feelings, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll get better at understanding and knowing the feelings other people feel.
It can get to be a bit of a project, this feeling thing. They’re all sort of tangled up in your head and…well, they’re messy! (I think they breed and make all kinds of hybrids as well. You can feel sad-but-happy, angry-and-humiliated, righteous-yet -scared and so on.)
You can, of course, go pay a professional friend who will help you get in touch with all that stuff. If they’ve been trained right and are exceptionally good at what they do, your therapist or psychologist or whatever will be able to guide you through the morass in your head and maybe help you find out WHY you are such a dingleberry. You can spend your hours going over every past cause and every present effect ad nauseum.
That, it seems to me, is a bit of a side-track that only gets you tangled up in the fascination of your own back-story. Unless you are not able to function as a semi-rational adult in this crazy-making world and your life is really a sinkhole getting deeper, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to go that route. You’re just wanting to learn how to tell a good story here.
I’ve figured out that the best way to find a good story to tell is to go live one and then brag about it. It’s also great to talk with other people who are making their own as well. You can’t do that when you’re focused on figuring out what went wrong and why such-and-so happened, tracking and preserving the timelines of your suffering.
The best way to tell a good story is to write out the ones you know and share them with other people to see if something similar happened to them. If you do that, you’ll notice that some stories, the ones with the universal themes of sadness and suffering, joy and celebration, and life and death resonate with other people. You’ll be able to tell because they will pull out one of their own stories to share with you.
NAMING THE FEELINGS
To get good at conjuring emotions, it is a matter, really, of pinpointing what to call all the feelings you are feeling in your body, in your heart, and in your head. You do that by practicing naming the feelings that come up.
A good tool for this is an ordinary elementary school composition book. (I always use the wide-ruled ones because it makes me feel like I’m back at my old grade-school desk.) You need a writing implement…an ordinary throw-away pen works best for me, but you can get as fancy as you want.
The task, whenever you work up a big old tangle of all that good emotional stuff inside you, is to grab the composition book and start writing. No editing allowed. Just write, write, write. You have to do it for at least three pages. More is fine if you haven’t run out of steam yet.
Be obscene if you like. Be scathing and rabid and all the other stuff you’ve been holding back. Let it all out.
Then, put it away. That’s right. DON’T stew on it. Go on with your day and get through it the best way you can. When you’ve got an easeful bit of time, maybe in the late night hours or in the early morning when nobody else is awake, pull out that book and look it over.
I mean, REALLY look at what you vomited out all over the page. If you have to indulge in the emotions again, that’s fine, but in the middle of all that, TAKE NOTES. When you say this, what is it you are feeling? Anger? No, it’s Rage. Okay. This one, what’s that? Bitterness, maybe. What’s that one? Jealousy, perhaps. And so on.
You’ll start to see, after a while, that certain feelings are packed in the words you are using. Look at the words. What are they? Make the connections and the links between those words and the feelings they bring up.
Do this exercise over and over again until you’ve unpacked all the feelings that are working in you as your story unfolds. You’ll develop a feeling vocabulary that works for you, one that will build connections between you and your audience.
Why does this work? Because all those building-block feelings you are feeling are the same feelings other people are feeling as well. Humans are constructed alike. The feeling-mechanisms in our bodies are pretty much standard issue and they all work the same way.
The one thing you have to get over when you do this exercise is making judgments about the feelings you are feeling. For your purposes when building this vocabulary lexicon, there are no good or bad feelings. They are just there. Noting down that the feelings are there and naming them is your only job in this. (You don’t get to beat yourself up for feeling them. THAT is not what this is about.)
Once you’ve built up a vocabulary, it’ll be easier to play with it when you construct your poems or your stories for public consumption.
Has this been helpful to you? Please let me know….leave a comment and we can talk story….