On the difference between writing poetry and writing essays

Art by Maine Manalansan

For the longest time, I thought I was going to be a poet.

Writing poems had been a nervous habit, lines and verses replacing diary entries I couldn’t be bothered to jot down and parts of conversations I didn’t have the guts to put out there. I wrote a poem when I couldn’t stop thinking about a crush, or after a fight with my mom, or when something monumental happened. I’d write about abstract things like fear and change and things I couldn’t explain.

I always was the worst at saying things out loud.

I wrote the most poetry when I was 17, the same year I discovered Sylvia Plath, because of course I did. There was one about my walk home from school, watching the sunset as I marched down the sloping path of asphalt to my house, and another about riding trains with no destination in mind. There was one (okay, more than one) about the boy I would always see in the hallways between classes at university whose name I didn’t find out for a year, and the time we accidentally smiled at each other.

But most of them were about someone I hardly ever saw or spoke to anymore, about a series of long-ago moments that (honestly, don’t laugh) felt like the progression of a Sarah Dessen novel. Think about this: He learned a Jonas Brothers song for me and I pretended to be unfazed! Maybe I do deserve to be alone.

I posted most of these poems on my Tumblr, and I got an anonymous Ask accusing me of pining after this person. Which I didn’t think was quite a fair assumption, but they weren’t entirely wrong, either. He just became a walking creative prompt. Nothing ever came of it, so I was left with all these pieces that would never fit together to form anything. All I could do was pretend they were case studies for my anthropology class, a vain effort to find out why things happened the way they did and why I was the way I was.

By the time I turned 19, I’d begun to turn to writers like Chelsea Martin and Megan Boyle, whose deeply revealing treatises on failure and loneliness and disconnect became objects I repeatedly fell back on during a particularly empty summer, one of the last ones at a time in my life where the idea of summer still held any meaning.

The old feelings were no longer there, so why was I still writing about  them? They felt false, feigned. I wasn’t being honest with myself.

My poetry professor told me my work “had potential,” but that it lacked focus. “You don’t always have to spell it out,” she advised.

I’m a serial overthinker. I always had to spell it out.

By the time I turned 19, I’d begun to turn to writers like Chelsea Martin and Megan Boyle, whose deeply revealing treatises on failure and loneliness and disconnect became objects I repeatedly fell back on during a particularly empty summer, one of the last ones at a time in my life where the idea of summer still held any meaning.

I was a late bloomer in that respect, I guess. I never thought to turn to essays for solace or a creative outlet because I’d grown used to strict rules regarding form and content for school assignments: margins, line spacing, impeccable cursive, zero erasures. It wasn’t until I was old enough to unlearn that sort of thinking that I realized I might have been missing out.

Part of the reason I grew to love writing essays is because I loved reading them. The more details they held, the more specific they were to the life of the author, the more intimate they got, the more they stood out to me and the more I understood — even if I’d never gone through the same thing myself, or if I’d experienced it differently. That summer, I spent so many days at home by myself, going hours without speaking. The words on the page or my phone screen, whether they were about a pile of clothes on the floor or a weekend spent climbing the tallest mountain in the world, reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

Part of the reason I grew to love writing essays is because I loved reading them. The more details they held, the more specific they were to the life of the author, the more intimate they got, the more they stood out to me and the more I understood — even if I’d never gone through the same thing myself, or if I’d experienced it differently.

And every time I would stop reading, a voice in my head would begin narrating. I would begin thinking in the first person — which we always do anyway, I suppose, but this felt different, more purposeful, accompanied by an impulse to write something down.

It turns out that essays work better for me because I can take my time and evaluate what I’m trying to get across, putting a thought process on the page for the reader to see, the way you’d show your math teacher a clear (or chaotic, I don’t judge) solution to solving a problem. I liked being able to untangle a personal mess and even recreate the moments I never want to forget.

Over the years I’ve written poetry less and less, although not by deliberate choice. With poems, you get to replay a memory over and over. Essays, I’ve found, let the memory play out. You get to reach the conclusion. You get to turn it over and see it from all sides. You get to live the aftermath. When I write a poem, I press a wound. But I can only ever write an essay when I’ve let it heal.

Maybe I’m not a poet after all, and that’s okay.

To me, poetry has been an excision of feelings, an excuse to keep doing nothing. But essays are collected experiences in their own way.

To me, poetry has been an excision of feelings, an excuse to keep doing nothing. But essays are collected experiences in their own way.

I’m part of a generation that found its collective voice online, on Livejournal or Blogger. And even before that, there were journals and wherever else we could spill our souls. You get used to sharing every mundane aspect of life. I’d always done it looking toward the future, as a way to remember what matters. Essays just taught me to filter out the important stuff, the ones that might mean something to someone else.

My penchant for the medium didn’t come until I was leaving my teenage years behind, but now I’m starting to think that maybe the timing was right. At that age, I could say I was the tiniest bit wiser, and I had more life experience to back it up. I could make more sense of it.

And all I can do now, as indeed any of us can, is to keep collecting my experiences and seeing what I can learn from them, and where they take me next.

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