Writing emotional vs. literal truth

writing emotional vs literal truth peach text over darkened image of a closeup of a spiral seashell
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Tell all the truth, but tell it slant - Emily Dickinson

One of the biggest hurdles that trips up my students, particularly my poetry students, is separating the author, yourself, from the speaker of the poem.

Poetry is not biography, and even though it is in the nonfiction section of some bookstores, the “I” in the poem is not necessarily you, the author. Even if you are writing about your own experience, you are a different person now than you were when you experienced the emotion/situation for the first time. You are changed, and your goal is to change the reader.

But reflection requires distance. How then do we write something authentic to our experience, even though we are not the same person anymore? We look for ways to express the emotional truth, not the literal truth.

First, give yourself permission to write from feeling, not fact. 

You have permission to change the details around things that did happen to you. 

You have permission to write poetry about things that didn’t actually happen to you. 

The purpose of poetry is not to tell a story, though some poems do. The purpose of poetry is not to inform, though we do learn much about humanity through poetry. The purpose of poetry is to capture an emotional truth and convey it through diction and connotation, imagery and symbolism, rhythm and tension in line breaks. 

Second, find the emotional truth.

Imagine I am writing a poem about a love affair that has ended abruptly. What actually happened was that I sat on my back porch with a coffee cup, watching the beautiful sunflowers raise their faces to the sun. But that image doesn’t give the emotional truth of my situation. Instead, to convey the feeling of loss, I can write


Before I could finish my coffee mug 

whiskey, the clouds rolled in. The sunflowers mimicked my slumped shoulders, 

as if none of us could stand upright without you. 


Using nature to reflect my emotional truth makes a strong connection with the reader. 

A writing exercise

Try this prompt to kick start a poem: Write down three factual statements about what you did when you woke up this morning. Play around with one of those sentences so that it conveys how you felt this morning, not what literally happened. Use imagery, simile or metaphor to convey the emotional truth of your morning.

Remember that there is the factual truth of your waking up (i.e., drinking whiskey from a coffee mug while clouds roll in), the emotional truth that will be central to the writing (i.e., missing a lost love), and the possible “lie” of your changing to “facts” to better evoke that emotional truth (i.e., the added detail about the sunflowers that may or not be "true," but through which you can create a natural image/action--the "slumped shoulders"--that underscores the main emotional tension). Be willing to change any details that do not serve, or serve well, the emotional truth you are trying to capture.

Do you ever struggle with the literal vs. emotional truth of a piece of writing? Will you try this writing exercise? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading:

How not to overshare when writing The Truth 

Learn and strengthen your writing voice 

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