So much of writing relies on lived experience. It’s really common (and I mean reeeeeeally common) to hear of fictional work being “based on a true story”, but how much do we need to know is “true” or lived? And is lived truth an inherently “better” base for material to be true in reception?
I remember being terribly frightened once (well, millions of times, but this time with particular acuity) that I couldn’t write a poem that wasn’t “true”, wasn’t something that I was either experiencing now or previously. I confided this fear in a peer from the workshop I was in at the time, and she gave me thus:
“Start writing lying poems.” I don’t know why I was so shocked by the directive. Maybe it was something about how simple the equation is in conjunction to how bound up with anxiety I was. Whatever. It gave me permission—command, actually—to stretch out of my sticking.
It’s still a challenge for me to twist out of experienced life within my work. There’s a real fear that I don’t have the imaginative capacities to summon something wholly fictitious, but that’s the trick: all poems have the chance to be considered fictitious or as something outside of poet’s being. Poems’re often better than us, every iota composed with a kind of rationale and intention, things regularly missing from human behavior. Poems can lie to get to the truth of the matter, something that’s fearsome and hard to say in the moment should that moment ever come, and they create the circumstances in which their realities exist, thereby making them true to the matter they’re concerned with, making distance between the poet and the poem. Thankfully, that distance can be antithetical to the literal and the lived. A poet can need that buffer, especially if creating something deeply close to “real life”, not necessarily to excuse behavior (though that is an element that can pursued), but to explore what else is exposed beyond nerves. Check out the peripherals of your truths. Something more interesting may be happening there that needs to be guessed at given the opacity of its inclusion. Or, maybe someone else needs to be heard for a while.
If a poet needs to start somewhere, lived experience is totally acceptable. I’m not negating the approach, as, like I said, I still struggle to make up experiences. Some find lying easier than others, but once you figure out that it’s a tool (and one worth applying!), the reins fall away a bit, even if just momentarily. Hell, why not start by lying small for practice? I mean, we’ve all had that imaginary conversation in the bathroom mirror with someone who isn’t there. Write that shit down! Clearly, you needed to hear something in your own voice.
So, was it you who left the ice cream out on the kitchen table? I thought so.