Why do I avoid sitting down to write? Why do I fight something that “feels right” once I am actually doing it? I turned to Emily Dickinson -- my usual source of inspiration and whose 182nd birthday is today -- and a look at her process to figure out how she moved past her resistance. What I found was intriguing. Emily Dickinson transformed her writing barriers into a door to her work.
Emily Dickinson’s first writing strategy arrived in the form of a shaggy dog. When Emily was about 20 years old she was getting depressed about having time to write. Her responsibilities -- managing the household while nursing an invalid mother -- were immense. To help lift her spirits Emily's father bought her a Newfoundland which she named Carlo. And so began a 15-year partnership with her “mute Confederate,” where poet and dog roamed the woods and byways of her small Massachusetts town. Walking with Carlo raised Emily’s spirits and apparently aided her writing, for these were by far her most prolific years.
Yesterday I pushed back from my feelings of guilt and tried the youthful Emily Dickinson’s approach. Perambulating my city like a flaneur turned out to be more useful than I would have thought. It didn’t simply provide those chance encounters with strangers that help inspire. Dislodging myself from the known literal pathways seemed to open the neural pathways. The meditative aspect of walking changed my “no's” into “what if’s.”
Away from my desk, from the level of sentences, I thought about walking in my characters’ shoes, even began moving paragraphs around in my head. Sentences arrived unbidden and I yanked pen and paper from my pocket, trying to catch new ideas before they got away. Okay, I’m late to appreciate what Wallace Stevens knew, forming poems in his head as he walked from Westerly Terrace to his job at The Hartford Insurance and Indemnity Company. Nietzsche claimed he never trusted a thought that didn't come from walking. It’s another thing for a skeptic to try it. Find it works.
But here is where things get interesting. Emily Dickinson’s second writing strategy is one I know well as a baker. She wrote in the kitchen in between making a loaf cake with Irish immigrant maid Margaret Maher and drying the plates Margaret washed. “Oh,” I thought, “so there was something about the maid and something about the activity of the kitchen that drew her?”
I know how baking and even scrubbing my stove can stimulate my writing. This “kitchen” strategy did, after all, get me to write an entire book (Maid as Muse, www.maidasmuse.com/book). But what’s odd is that Emily Dickinson’s second method was once the barrier to her writing. “That’s juicy,” I thought. How did she make that transition exactly -- transforming her youthful barrier to writing -- too much time in the kitchen -- into a door? How had kitchen duties become a source of inspiration and the place to write?
By about age 40 Emily began sticking close to home -- helping create that recluse image. Carlo was gone. Emily had secured, after a clever recruitment campaign, a reliable maid to manage the household. And yet -- here’s the puzzler -- Emily kept straying back into the kitchen. Wasn’t the maid supposed to free her from the kitchen so she could focus on writing? Were things getting circular?
Yet, the evidence showed that Emily Dickinson was often headquartered in her pantry writing. Pencil and paper, remembered her cousins, were always ready beside Emily’s pastry board. Caught midway through mixing up a coconut cake, Emily appears to have been so inspired she turned over the recipe and jotted a poem on the reverse (as I wrote about on Four Pounds Flour).
Was Emily Dickinson someone who could operate in the midst of chaos -- like Emma Donoghue, who apparently manages to sit writing on her living room with children climbing all over it? Or was Emily using dishwashing, as Antiguan novelist Joanne C. Hill wrote here, to muse on her work so the “key will turn in the lock”?
Here’s what I think unites Emily Dickinson’s two writing strategies. When young Emily walked with Carlo, her shaggy companion did not speak back. When an older Emily entered the kitchen to bake, separating eggs or mixing butter with sugar, it didn’t require focused thought or even conversation. Her mind was free and the muse could descend. Wordless activities allow words to pour in.
On those days you have doubts, aren't sure where a piece is going, head in what looks like the opposite direction -- do some activity that requires no language -- and you may find some surprises when the words emerge. And discover that old blocks have indeed become doors to your writing.