Monday, 30 August 2010

Emily Dickinson - The Soap Opera ( or how to put off beginning your novel )

I have this theory about biography, that it's all a bit leechy, people living off dead people, appealing to the worst in us, making us dig into the lives of other writers, artists or whoever and coming up with conclusions which have very little to do with the person themselves. Go to the work if you want to find the person.
Having said all that I must confess to being fasinated by Emily Dickinson. When I was eighteen I spent a lot of time in Amherst. I can't remember caring one bit about the Dickinson family. I had much more important things in mind, like romance and Amherst College and how to get the bus there from Troy, New York where I was at school.

I decided that I wanted to set the beginning of my new novel in New England and it seemed easy to do research through reading about Emily Dickinson. Big Mistake. I did not realize that the Dickinson family stories read like Coronation Street and how interested I would be. I could now lecture on Emily Dickinson.
Research is like that, for a month or two you know everything there is to know and beyond that the knowledge fizzles out because you are on to something else.

There are several very good biographies of Emily Dickinson. I was amazed to see them all. My knowledge of her consisted of knowing that a) she was a very good poet b) she was reclusive and c) she lived in one of the prettiest towns in the world.

All I wanted was some background for my story. Now I am hooked.  I understand there is another biography coming out this year though what on earth there could be left to say I have no idea.  But since everybody has a theory, or several theories about her life and her family here goes. I think Emily Dickinson had such a fantastic inner life that she was bored by the life of the small stuffy college town and was quite happy to sit upstairs writing her poems and not having to deal with it.

She would have been much better off in New York where she could have gone out and not been known by anybody and been able to work freely. Of course she wouldn't have had all the tremendous dreadful background that made her work what it is so there you are. You can argue round and round about her and how exciting it is and it serves one very useful purpose - it stops me from writing my book.

One useful tip when trying to get started - I went to a dreadful concert last night, achingly, mind numbingly boring and so my mind went off and beyond the banging of the music I thought of two good ideas and dashed home to note them down. Only the fact that I was with a friend and had no notebook or pen stopped me from doing so in the middle of the concert. 

My daughter says this is the height of rudeness but I have actually done it. I once went to a concert on my own and somebody was playing a harpsichord. Now I have nothing against the harpsichord but it really was dire and in between each piece he gave us a ten minute talk on the next. And I wrote the whole way through. I was hoping they would think I was doing a review. So it isn't just good music which inspires me but obviously any at all, which is something of a worry now I come to think of it.
 My friend, Norma once said,
'Beginning your novel's hell, the end's hell and the bit in the middle isn't so wonderful either.'
I think I shall go back to reading Emily Dickinson until the next concert.


  1. Love it, Liz. I used to write constantly during Biology lessons. The teacher could never work out why someone so industrious should get such terrible exam results.

    Adore Norma's quote.

  2. That takes me back. I used to sit at the back of the class in biology lessons and write poetry! Obviously biology lessons are the way forward for writers. I failed my 'O' level though that wasn't as bad as Maths which I failed twice!