hear. write. speak: the path to writing poetry that is true

Jennifer Camp
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Jennifer Camp, co-founder of  Gather Ministries, and author of  Loop, grew up in the middle of an almond orchard in Northern California and now lives in the busy Bay Area with her husband and three kids. A former high school English teacher, she loves to write, but she especially loves to encourage people to seek and live out the truth of their story, their identity in Christ. You can find her writing at her blog, Jennifer J. Camp .You can connect with Jennifer on both  Facebook  and  Twitter. She would love to have you join her there.

I am often surprised by words. The weight they carry, their dexterity–our emotions slung over their backs or painted on fingernails or tattooed on their skin. I appreciate their courage to show up. Their willingness to step forward–helping us decipher what it is we really feel. 

How do I feel? I have no idea. But if I pause here, pen held in hand, a notebook spread open to blank page, I will do my best to write what is true.

And there’s that word: true. What does it mean to write what is true? I have found, in my writing of poetry, that it sometimes takes a few visits to the same poem I’ve written to explore my feelings, any singular truth. To discover what it is that is true, I must make an attempt to sort it out. And the way I do that is through using poetry to write the feelings down. 

On the wall near my desk hangs a framed print of the following words: Hear. Write. Speak. Justin made it for me a few years ago, just when I started to write again. I struggled to trust myself, my words. I felt there was something wanting in me by my need to process what it is I wanted to say before being able to speak anything of any meaning. 

Let me explain what the three words mean to me. (1) Hear: Listen to my heart. (What is it feeling, thinking? What is God saying to me right now?)

(2) Write: Write the story my heart is telling. What am I hearing? Can I explain it? Can I bring the story to life? Can I allow it, through what I hear, to make sense to me on the page? 

(3) Speak: Speak the story out. This is when things get interesting–because “speaking” doesn’t mean I have to read aloud the poem (although that is super helpful and is an excellent step in the editing process.) It also doesn’t mean I have to share it with anyone (although that can be a wonderful gift–the experience of sharing my heart–for me and for anyone else with whom the poem resonates). 

My first poems, written when I was a teenager (my mom collected them all–saved in their original colored-in school folder and now housed on a shelf near my shoes in my bedroom closet after she mailed them to me a few months ago), were messes of both beauty and drama. Now, were they true? Were they true representations of what I was really feeling at the time? Yes, absolutely–even if they were, as well, often expressions of angst and confusion. It was actually one of the main ways I communicated my deeper feelings to my parents. Even as I read them now, from the perspective of someone who is older and (hopefully) a bit wiser, those poems were true. They were the best way I knew to speak what I wanted to say.

What speaking a poem does mean for us, as poets, is that we get to figure out the truth of the words now. We get to uncover their meanings. Speaking the story out–speaking the poem–is bringing it out of the shadows and shining a flashlight on its inner workings. As the poet, what am I saying? What am I feeling? What story is being told? Is it accurate? Is it an exaggeration? Or, even if the poem’s overall message is an exaggeration or an oversimplification or an overdramatization of what is true, consider this: isn’t the poem always true if we find, upon speaking it, that it is exactly what we have found we wanted to say? Can this emotion, this feeling, in the poem, be what we can begin with, as true? That is when the definition of true becomes something truly personal. You, as the poet, the creator of this art, decide the truth you want your poem to speak.

So, listen carefully to hear the story your heart is telling. Write what is on your heart. And then speak your poem back to your heart. Notice the truth that is being spoken. And if it is not true? Well, keep working. Keep listening. Keep writing. Edit. Know that the poem is not done until it is true. And, ultimately, you are the one with the authority to decide that.

For this week’s Loop Poetry Project prompt, write a poem from your unique vantage point; tell a story no one else can tell. Communicate a moment no one else has seen. But–here’s the catch–try to do it from the third-person point of view. Tell a story, going deep into a specific moment you’ve experienced, by sharing it as if it were about a different person other than yourself. This is a theory–but I am curious about whether writing in the third person rather than in the first person will give you a sense of freedom–that it will make you feel less inhibited to identify your truth. I wonder if writing from the vantage point of observing your deepest thoughts and feelings about a moment from the stance of a person outside yourself will help you to write what is true without censoring your (her) true feelings. 

For example, one morning this week I found insecurity welling up within me, and I wanted to take a good look at it, understand it a little more. But I felt frustrated about my feeling this way (yes, I was insecure about my feelings of insecurity! Oh, the irony!). Even with the deep healing that I have let God do in me over the last ten years, feeling of self-condemnation can still surface time and again. My heart was hurting, and I wanted to not ignore it. I wanted to honor it by doing my best to write what it was I was feeling, listening to my heart’s pain. But the only way I found I could do this was by taking the perspective of the third person–writing about this feeling I was experiencing as if I wasn’t myself at all. That was the only way I knew, in that moment, how to express what my heart knew was true.

So, I want to invite you to do this too: consider what it is you believe is true, right here, right now. Share an experience. How are you feeling? What do you know? Do your best to communicate this truth in a poem–and tell it in the third person–so you can get perspective on this truth. The purpose of this exercise (writing your poem in the third person) is that when you are done writing your poem’s draft, and it is time to speak the poem to yourself, you might be better able to hear what is true, and what is not. When you write, don’t hold back–you are simply the recorder, the observer, the innocent, unbiased bystander (okay, not so much, but we are going to try) who is relating a story your heart has been waiting for you to say.

When you are finished writing your poem, consider sharing it on social media using #looppoetryproject as the hashtag, so we can find you. You can also share your poem in the warm, welcoming community of Loop Poetry Project on Facebook, a private community of hundreds of Loop sister poets.

Don’t you just love the crazy adventure we are on together? I can’t wait to hear from you! (And click the two images below to download and print “Hear. Write. Speak.” to hang up in your home!)

xo, 

jennifer

This post appeared originally at jenniferjcamp.com

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About Jennifer Camp

Jennifer Camp, co-founder of  Gather Ministries, and author of  Loop, grew up in the middle of an almond orchard in Northern California and now lives in the busy Bay Area with her husband and three kids. A former high school English teacher, she loves to write, but she especially loves to encourage people to seek and live out the truth of their story, their identity in Christ. You can find her writing at her blog, Jennifer J. Camp .You can connect with Jennifer on both  Facebook  and  Twitter. She would love to have you join her there.