Updated: Jun 11
Emily Dickinson's lessons for modern writers
Long before writers sat at keyboards…
Generations before writers could connect with others with the click of an electronic mouse…
Eons before anyone could imagine communicating in instant messages with sound and pictures to people around the world…
Emily Dickinson was pouring her soul onto paper
Nearly two centuries ago, Emily Dickinson lived an isolated existence, separated from the world, pacing in her upstairs bedroom. Day after day, she was alone with her thoughts and her pen, crafting poems that rattled the literary world after her death.
Like any writer, she scribbled, revised, drew deep, angry lines through errant text. She re-organized, re-worked, re-imagined her message. She might have balled up paper and filled her fireplace with reams of rotten writing. Maybe quiet, demure, retiring Emily even cursed a little when the words wouldn’t work the way she thought they should.
I imagine her picking up her pen yet again, blotting the ink as she chased the words that put her intense — and sometimes tortured — thoughts down for all eternity.
Dickinson had to work to create masterpieces
She wrote daily. All the time. She scribbled on old envelopes, scraps of wallpaper, and chocolate wrappers. She jotted down ideas, tidbits of language, and alternative word choices. She grabbed at fleeting thoughts and captured them, then translated and condensed them into words.
Writers today are no different.
Like Emily, we record snippets of thought. We WORK to produce. We’re constantly thinking, always planning the next project. Continually striving to create a great and valuable piece of writing.
And like Emily, we’ve found that putting the words together isn’t easy.
Whether you’re a genius or a hack, a professional or an amateur, you struggle. Words don’t, after all, flow out of you effortlessly and arrange themselves into perfect lines. (At least, they don’t for me.) You fight with your brain, feeling like it’s hiding important information. You wander into gray matter, searching for memories. You meander through cerebellum on strange and disjointed journeys that keep thoughts from arranging themselves in a straight line.
The pain in your brain is not yours alone. It happens to all writers and is caused by poking, probing, and pulling at private areas of your intellect. Prolonged cogitation gives you a headache. Your mind hurts, and no matter how much you think, you can’t get it right. Take comfort. You’re in the company of genius.
Emily Dickinson’s brain pain was just like ours
The other day, I was struggling with a draft. Nothing seemed to fit together. I kept changing my focus. Every time I tried to revamp it, it got worse. Finally, I just gave up and put it aside.
The next morning, on a whim, I pulled The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson off my shelf. Weird. Really weird. I hadn’t ought about that book for years, and it’s not the kind of reading I normally do at the beginning of the day. But something compelled me to get it down and look at it.
I watched as the book opened to a page on its own and laid quietly on my desk, waiting. I wasn’t ready to sit down and read yet because an even weirder desire slapped me. I suddenly HAD to look up the historical events of this day in my Reader’s Book of Days. I scratched that itch, too, pulled the volume off the shelf, and piled it on top of Emily.
Some powerful, unseen force was pushing me toward the reclusive poet because My Book of Days informed me that this very day was Dickinson’s birthday.
Lifting that volume off the poet, I scanned the open page, struck dumb by Karmic coincidence. One page in The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson lay naked and splayed before me. I couldn’t resist touching it. Reading it. Caressing its meaning. The great poet herself was commiserating with me about the difficulty of putting abstract thought into logical order. She probably wrote poem “CVI,” (#106), just for me.
I felt a cleavage in my mind As if my brain had split; I tried to match it, seam by seam, But could not make them fit. The thought behind I strove to join Unto the thought before, But sequence ravelled out of reach Like balls upon a floor.
There was comfort in knowing that even with her genius, Emily Dickinson couldn’t always put her thoughts together. Like her, I’ve felt the “sequence raveling out of reach like balls upon a floor,” and I bet you have, too.
She wrote about brain pain more than once
Maybe Emily was thinking of writing and how hard it is to get back on track once you’ve derailed when she wrote XXVI — #26:
“The brain within its groove Runs evenly and true: But let a splinter swerve, ‘T were easier for you To put the water back When floods have slit the hills, And scooped a turnpike for themselves, And blotted out the mills!”
I have always regretted that I didn’t study more poetry in college. But today, it didn’t matter whether I’d studied it or not. Poetry has its own voice and speaks when it wants to, where it wants to, to whom it wants to. Today, it was me. Emily Dickinson spoke using the words of a poem I understand. She told me that it’s okay. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days you get brain pain.
Her soul rubbed up against mine, touching me, telling ME — a determined woman writer in a century far, far away — that pouring your soul onto paper isn’t always easy.
If you’re a writer, she’s talking to you, too.
Melissa Gouty had a paternal grandfather who quoted poetry often — usually James Whitcomb Riley — and a maternal grandmother who recited story-poems and rhymed words for pleasure. Decades ago, in a different life, she loved a poet.