Emily Dickinson and the Case for Elbow Room
A gross error for writers in our time is letting an ever-swelling list drain our creative energy. Following the six month mark of the release of my debut novel, I was beyond frustrated with writing, not because I didn’t love it anymore and certainly not because I had lost the will; rather, I just couldn’t do it. I would sit down and crank out a measly handful of words, none of them what I had meant to convey. And then I would break from writing to update my professional Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, followed by replying to emails, preparing for author talks and events, searching for contests and opportunities to gain exposure, and looking into additional ways to market. By the time I’d accomplished all of that, I was too drained to have the vigor for writing, much less writing well. Add in the fact that I’m also a teacher and a mother to three young children, and I really became overwhelmed with the idea of writing at all– so I stopped. I shelved an emerging manuscript (which I’ve still left in the dark to this day), and I skirted around the inevitable question of, “What are you working on now?” I offered non-committal responses and grew resentful of having published at all. In the midst of what should have been an exciting and affirming time as a writer, my creative endeavors actually looked quite bleak, and I began to wonder if I’d be able to write anything of merit going forward.
I have no idea what your to-do list looks like, but I do know that if you are like most writers, particularly those of us who are bi-vocational, there are a multitude of things vying for your attention and energy. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation to the one I described above. During my authorial dark night of the soul, I knew I had to do something to get out of the muck, so I decided to unplug. If you’ve been in the industry for any amount of time, this, admittedly, is a professional faux-pas, but I realized I just couldn’t keep up with the social and professional pace that everyone told me I needed to maintain in order to be successful. I stepped away from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I wrapped up the author events that were already scheduled, but I declined further invitations, adding no more events to my schedule for the foreseeable future. Then I poured myself into reading, taking long walks, sitting in nature and in silence, and, finally, into writing again, focusing solely on poetry for months before branching into prose again.
I’m pleased to say it worked. I’m now 30,000 words into a promising manuscript and feeling creatively-focused and fulfilled. On top of that, I’ve got quite a few fresh poems I’m proud of. I can’t say the distance I created was helpful in the promotion of my novel, nor can I say it was tangibly advantageous in the advancement of my career. However, I’m grateful I took the space all the same.
My inspiration during this recovery period was none other than Emily Dickinson. Dead one hundred and thirty-two years, Dickinson remains one of the most enigmatic and compelling poets to readers the world over (the resurgence of interest in her private life is evidenced in recent film endeavors, and there are countless books discussing her work and her life). There’s no denying Dickinson’s ability to probe the essence of what makes us human, her whimsical way with words, or the transcendence of her ideas. While I love Dickinson for her prowess as a poet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the ability she demonstrated to protect her time and energy. While I am always in favor of a good Dickinson poetry discussion, I’d like to focus on the way Dickinson lived and how it ultimately influenced her creative ability, which is something that has become invaluable to me in my journey as an author. Dickinson intentionally lived a life that left plenty of space for creative exploration and reflection, all of which was made possible by the freedom she felt in declining the sway of innumerable distractions, social expectations, and obligations.
While disconnecting from the professional and social world seemed misguided for an emerging novelist, I knew it was necessary for me. The decision to unplug was ultimately spurred on by Dickinson’s poem 620. I clung to her words, repeating the first few lines to myself when I felt the social media itch:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
While Dickinson did write for select individuals at times and though she did send poems out for consideration (publishing ten in her lifetime), her priority was not the industry; she was not seeking the next big break, and she certainly wasn’t chasing an industry-mold; rather, her words were honest and pure, untouched by expectation. During her lifetime, she mastered her voice and knew herself apart from society. Her writing process and her poems were not swayed by industry standards, editors, or the masses. If it sounds like I’m being disparaging to the publishing industry, it’s not my intention. As a reader, I’m an immense supporter, and I am grateful for the opportunity to read widely. However, as a writer, the industry can admittedly be deflating.
Realizing that her creative ability was tied to personal care, Dickinson was careful to pursue things that brought peace and balance to her life. Having spent a year away at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson moved home for good at seventeen, realizing the detriment of attempting to mold oneself (one’s passions, etc.) into something one was not. While others might argue that Dickinson’s perceived seclusion afterward was harmful, Dickinson’s life, from what we know, appears to have been quite full. She helped run her parents’ household, became the family baker (something she enjoyed vastly), crafted intimate relationships with family (particularly her brother’s children), invested deeply in friendships, took long walks, read widely, honed her knowledge of botany and put it to use (her herbarium is a scientific document), and, later, she cared for ailing parents. This is the shape life took for Dickinson during the time she wrote the bulk of her poetry from 1858-1866.
With the careful eye of a botanist and with the security that comes from feeling at home, Dickinson discovered herself and later her poetry through the observation of the natural world around her, and in this spirit, her poetry is vibrant, meticulous, and wise. Judith Farr, author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, writes that, “The photo facsimiles of the herbarium now available to readers at the Houghton Library still present the girl Emily appealingly: the one who misspelled, who arranged pressed flowers in artistic form, who with Wordsworthian tenderness considered nature her friend.” It is this kinship with nature that balanced Dickinson, brought depth to her poetry, and resonates with readers today. Had she not given as much consideration to her garden, her poetry would’ve taken a different form, or mayhap it would have taken no form at all.
This is not to say that Dickinson’s life was easy. She experienced disappointment, doubt, and heartache like the rest of us, but she was not a floundering woman as many early-school exposures impress upon students. Instead, she was a woman assured of her talents and cultivating them within the life she desired instead of trying to grow them in spite of a life she detested. Dickinson was a woman who lived in possibility, who lived outside of societal boundaries, and who was able to explore the landscape of poetry organically.
Though poetry was my first love, I’d moved away from writing it in past years to focus solely on my novels. One night, I read through “I dwell in Possibility” over and over again; I stagnated on phrases and drunk in imagery. It made me realize how much I’d lost touch with myself (not everyone will experience escape and healing through poetry, but when we experience burn out, it is important to find healthy, creative endeavors during the recovery process).
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Upon reading this poem a lightness blossomed in my chest and a love for the written word swelled. The tether around my muse began to loosen as I realized that I had freedom in my words and ideas, and I clumsily began to put feeling to pencil. It was a redemptive step in my recovery.
At the time, I lived in the New England area, and I was able to visit the Dickinson Homestead in Massachusetts several times. The museum gives a lovely tour; I highly recommend it. I swear you can feel her spirit on the grounds; it dwells in the slant of light coming in through unabashed windows encircling the house, in the lively (replicated) floral wallpaper covering her walls, in the simplicity of her desk nestled beneath a window, in the sway of the trees. When asked to read a poem to the group, I had to decline due to the surge of emotion I felt.
While focus on poetry is a large component of the tour, it also gives due insight into Dickinson the woman, far more complex than the reclusive woman presented to students in their school years. Some of my favorite insights from the museum follow: Dickinson took her love of baking and her appreciation of children and created cookie baskets. She frequently baked cookies and then lowered them down from a window in a basket to the eagerly-awaiting neighborhood children; it was something that gave her joy. The tour also displays prints of her herbarium, and it’s impressive; the pride she took in horticulture is evident. Guests are given peaks into her most intimate relationships and can feel the love emanating from her actions and her words. Reflecting on Dickinson’s life, I felt affirmed in my decision to scale back and rejuvenate, to give precedence to what would allow me to be the best version of myself.
Had being a socialite given Dickinson energy, had romantic relationships with men given her life, had she desired power within the church or within her community, the stories told at the museum would be different. None of these things in and of themselves are wrong, nor would they be obstacles to writing, necessarily; they just weren’t Emily; for her, obstacles they would’ve been. Dickinson pursued the things that were life-giving for her, and in doing so, she had ample room and energy for poetry. Upon Emily’s death, Susan Gilbert Huntington Dickinson, sister-in-law of Emily, wrote in the obituary that, “The sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work.”
During my burnout, I drew conviction from this one line and asked myself what sort of atmosphere was fit for my worth and work until I found clarity and peace. Then, I followed Dickinson’s example and simply cut out the rest–the things that hindered me. When I feel restless, which is embarrassingly more often than I’d like to admit, when I am frustrated by the pace of my writing, when ideas feel like they’re dancing around in my unapproachable subconscious, I remind myself of poem 690– that my future is composed of my everyday choices; somehow a day feels manageable. Dickinson compels us to realize that the goals we chase, the dreams we hold close, the outcomes we desire are pieced together by the present, and the present is what requires our energy:
Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –
So, writer friends and colleagues, I implore you: dwell on your nows, be kind to yourself, break away when you need to, fight the urge to push yourself into a mold that isn’t going to fit you or your vision– and when you lose your way, look to Dickinson for guidance. Afterall, with 1800 poems, if you’ve got a problem, she’s got a poem for it.