by Courtney Spohn
On June 24, 2020, I listened to Sarah Jane Abbott, a children’s and middle-grade editor, during one of the Highlight Foundation’s Writer Chats. Abbott said her publishing house is looking to publish happy stories now because, as moderator Sarah Aronson said, “we all want to be happy right now.” I heard this and wondered what types of books I’ll read to my young son a couple of years from now. Are we going to miss the emotional import of this moment because we’re looking for happy stories? As a poetry editor, I want to read happy poems only if they are genuinely happy poems. I want to read sad poems, grief-filled poems, angry poems, love poems, hopeful poems only if they are genuinely sad, grief-filled, angry, full of love, hopeful. I want to encourage all poets to feel the emotions they’re actually feeling and write their poetry accordingly.
Please “go there” when you feel safe enough to do so. I’ve read quite a few poems recounting difficult, even traumatic, events that seem to be autobiographical, and I’m stopped when a writer relies on the experience to speak for itself or when the writer wants to put a lesson or moral on it before the experience feels ready to be packaged in such a way. Conflicting advice that I’ve given and read is to “show, don’t tell.” When I’m reading about a difficult event, I want to know what meaning the writer finds in it. When we’re looking at a personal experience in a poem, I want to hear more than the details of the event. I want to hear how the writer feels. And how does the writer see it now? These are not questions that need to be answered literally. I want to hear clues about how a writer put their hand to paper after something damaging happened to them. How did you do that? And why? Again, these are not literal questions looking for literal answers. Tell me through emotions—I believe this is how we understand each other.
I also believe we skip over a few emotional steps when we try to package our experience in a way that makes it look culturally acceptable—we can look virtuous, for example, if we say we learned a lesson or deepened a value, like forgiveness. Yet our experiences, and where we’re at with them, may not honestly be leading us toward cultural acceptability. Many of us feel the tension between saying what we mean while wanting to feel a sense of belonging in a community. So we observe the community’s rules and may hide the parts of ourselves so that we can hold on to the sense of belonging. I encourage writers to write what they really mean—to express how they really feel. Tell us about the conflicting emotions or the emotions that many people (I like calling those people “idiots”) tell us are “too much.” Tell the truth about where you are and see what happens in your writing.
I share this to encourage writers during hard times—when that battle between being true to themselves or their community feels like an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of us understand a wide range and depth of feeling and have the capacity for all kinds of stories, not just the happy ones. Please trust your authentic voice and, when it feels right, please share this voice. Our authenticity helps develop our sense of connection.
Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.