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.

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Comment by Aífe Murray on December 18, 2012 at 11:01am

Yes Ramola D reading is a great way to travel to new places

Comment by Aífe Murray on December 18, 2012 at 10:49am

I agree with you Lizzie Eldridge and I think we'll learn why it works from Torill Bye Wilhelmsen 

Exciting to get all of these interesting responses

Comment by Aífe Murray on December 18, 2012 at 10:47am

Torill Bye Wilhelmsen Keep us posted about your research on the links between physical activity and thinking

Comment by Aífe Murray on December 18, 2012 at 10:46am

Nan, the long drive sounds perfect as a way of clearing. Maxine Kumin writes about the anonymity of the airport lounge as way to go into her work or being cocooned in an airplane cabin. For those of us who spend more time on the ground, though, can't beat a drive alone

Comment by Aífe Murray on December 18, 2012 at 10:43am

Wynnie, thanks for reminding me about showers -- such a good way to let ideas flow!

Comment by Ramola D on December 18, 2012 at 10:37am

Thank you so much Aife, for taking the trouble to write this article--I loved hearing about Emily's creating. Stopping to read always helps for me too--walking's a big one though, and finding a new place to walk seems to open up new places in the mind...

Comment by Wynnie on December 15, 2012 at 6:07pm

I have always liked Emily Dickenson's work.  I loved hearing about her writing strategies.  I do have a 'muse' who inspires me to write, but have also found music, late night quite time, and showers to be effective catalysts for my poetry.  But I never am surprised when and idea or poem comes to me in a unique place: driving or riding in a car, or watching TV.

Thank you for your inspiring article.

Comment by Lizzie Eldridge on December 15, 2012 at 1:43am

Walking always works for me, too. Any form of activity that takes you out of yourself and lets the mind amble around free. Even the gym does it for me sometimes. Activity takes the mind to other places and the most unexpected ideas suddenly appear...

Comment by Marybeth Holleman on December 13, 2012 at 4:22pm

Walking with my dogs, yes. But one of my problems has been remembering the insights and whole, beautiful sentences or poems that come to me while walking. A pad and pencil in the pocket, or the recorder on my smart phone.

Comment by Nan Gefen on December 13, 2012 at 3:59pm

Another thing to add to the list: driving by myself. I've found that my mind opens during longer drives--at first I have the usual list-making thoughts, but then my mind quiets as I settle into the rhythm of the road. I start thinking about the characters I'm writing about, who they are, what drives them, how I feel about them, etc. My thoughts are more generalized than specific things they say or do, but it's really helpful in deepening them.


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