Friday, January 13, 2023

Use Your Whole Personality in Your Writing

When I was a young writer, I went to hear a favorite poet read his work at a well-known reading venue in New York City. I was such a fan of that writer—I’d read all of his books, even his juvenilia published in tiny editions by small presses when he was just getting started. I looked on this poet as a terribly serious and important writer, and since then his reputation has continued to grow over a long and distinguished career.

The Donnell Library in New York City was at one time a major venue for poetry
What surprised me most about that poet’s reading that day was not the poems themselves, but the patter the poet spoke in introducing each poem. Invariably, the author introduced a poem with a humorous anecdote, terribly funny, and then read a deadly serious poem afterwards. Before hearing that poet in person, I had no clue he had a great sense of humor, a quality that absolutely won over that large audience.

What was so odd to me was that the poet never included his sense of humor in his writing. Not once. And yet that trait, as much the poems themselves, captivated the audience that day.


I promised myself when I heard that reading that I was going to try to include in my writing my full personality, including parts of it that might not be solemn, or that I might not think an audience would like. All of us are complicated beings, and unless we bring those complications to our writing, we’re going to miss opportunities to engage our readers in ways we could not predict.


Yes, literature is a serious art with a serious purpose, but it also requires breathing room for humor, for whimsy, for digressions that might not seem immediately part of the intent of a piece of writing. So use your whole personality in your writing. If you tend to be serious but you have a sense of humor, include that lighter side. If you always go for the punch line in your writing, allow more pathos to seep in. If your most widely used voice is sincere, use your sarcasm for a change. If you’re always satirical, let your empathy into your writing.


Using your whole personality involves not just character traits, but your interests as well. If you happen to enjoy cooking seafood dinners, or watching soccer on TV, or walking around cemeteries, those sides of you are gold for writers. They are areas you care about that can help get your readers deeply involved because they really matter to you. Not only that, you’re an expert about them, or you at least know more on the topic than most people. That doesn’t mean you should spend your entire literary career writing about your collection of Madagascar stamps, but it does mean you can include a poem about your favorite Madagascar stamp, or you can write a mystery that hinges on a Madagascar stamp.

So, don’t think that only part of your personality qualifies as literary. Every patch of your soul should be part of your literary quilt.

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry