Emily Dickinson is an easy person to obsess over. Scholars have…

Emily Dickinson is an easy person to obsess over. Scholars have penned hundreds of thousands of words about her life. Archives rest in their respective institutions, bursting with paper scraps and scrawled missives. Her legend floats a ghost, the shy “Belle of Amherst” – an image which many a biographer (rightly) rages against.

Evidence of who she truly was lies in letters and in poems. Here and there, a told scene from her day. Gossip between acquaintances. Florid pleas wrought in metaphor. 

We can see her making custard pie with her mother (also named Emily). Her, writing at a window overlooking the graveyard or the common or the Evergreens. Her, talking philosophy late into the night with her brother Austin. She prunes roses, writes letters, presses and classifies flowers, bakes bread. 

She leaves scant evidence of her lovers, and of her illness. She clearly struggled with some chronic illness, but it is hard to say what. Something that affected her eyes, something that granted her exemption from social requirements. Something that made her feel like an “invalid.”

In a way she leaves a great deal of evidence! But all of it is packed into metaphors. Her poetry evokes deep feeling, and perhaps that is a more honest portrayal than the retelling of a scene. 

I think that my biggest challenge as biographer and storyteller will be pulling those scenes into something coherent and true. So there are lots of questions that arise. How closely do I integrate the poetry into the narrative? Which events can I  infer based on “what was most likely” to have happened? How much fabrication on my part is allowable in scenes with dialogue?

There’s plenty to figure out before I can get this off the ground, and I’ve been a bit paralyzed by that fear of being inaccurate. I think I’m finally reaching the point at which I must write in order to discover.

(illustration mine)

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About abi nighthill

Abi has a BA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago.
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