Tag Archives: writing process

Emily Dickinson Lives Upstairs

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The sun shines on a clear, warm April afternoon. Eager to be outdoors, I bound the stairs two at a time and knock on Emily’s door, waving a fragrant lilac blossom in front of me like a parade flag. She answers: “I’m nobody, come in.” Not this again.

“Emily, it’s such a pretty day. Look at the lilacs! Let’s go out and take some pictures of flowers and bees…” When she doesn’t respond, I boldly add: “We might even find friends who like to write! Then there’d be more than two of–”

“Too public,” she snaps. “Do I look like a frog to you?”

I can’t be around her when she gets like this.

*

I often invite writers to stay with me because I need the literary companionship: someone who understands what it’s like to be driven, mad, from bed at 3 in the morning to capture the words that come unbidden into my head. I thought Emily would at least mitigate the loneliness of writing… maybe even provide a forum for feedback. But she prefers solitude, thrives on it. I’m lucky to connect with her once a week.

*

Emily Dickinson hates my nickname. “Jules,” she sneers. “Jewels are cheap and common commodities that symbolize society’s base, rampant materialism.” I stare at her, willing her to stop talking, but she rambles on. “Ju-li-a, however, has three pleasing syllables. Why would you settle for less than a three-syllable name?”

“Em…” I say.

Her sherry-colored eyes flash in tight fury. “Em? Em!” Her nostrils flare. In a dark corner of her room, I see her dun pet mouse, Grief, dive and cower under its bedding. “Em is the thirteenth letter of the English alphabet! My- Name- Is- Emily!”

She retreats, sullen, into the somber shadows of her room, shutting the door between us. Her bedsprings creak. I sigh. “And stop using alliteration so loosely,” she adds. “It isn’t dignified!”

*

Pro: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Con: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Pro: She is one of America’s finest poets.

Con: Her reputation (perhaps unfair) is that of an agoraphobic recluse.

Pro: We share a love of words, a healthy disdain of death, and a beloved friend named Susan.

Con: She’s kind of judgy.

*

A postal delivery person knocks at the front door. The dog leaps off the couch in an eruption of warning barks. I pull at the curtains to seal off any light from outside and sink lower into my chair. I don’t want to answer the door. I’ve just gotten home from work and I’m exhausted. He knocks again, followed by footsteps and the sound of the postal truck driving away.

A birdlike shadow hovers at the base of the stairwell. Emily smiles slyly at me. “In my day, we considered it rude to disregard a knock on one’s door!” Her mouse nuzzles her shoulder. “Isn’t it rude, little G?” she asks the mouse, stroking its chin. Emily turns softly in woolen stocking feet, ascending the stairs, a singsong lilt to her voice: “Julia’s asocial, Julia’s asocial…”

*

The other day, after an especially long hermetic gap, I stopped by Emily’s room. She didn’t answer. I opened the door and peered inside. The mouse was running laps on its wheel, but Emily was gone. I noticed several little notebooks, spilling out from underneath her bed, and picked one up out of curiosity. Flipping through, I recognized Emily’s slanted cursive, punctuated with long dashes and exclamation points: her poetry.

The floorboards groaned behind me. “Unhand my fascicles at once!” she shrieked. Her right eyelid twitched.

I dropped the booklet immediately: “Emily! Oh my gosh, I’m so–”

She surged towards me, slapping my arms. “Wretch! Thief! Out of my room this instant!”

“Em, let me help you with this. These books are flammable and they degrade easily… I can show you how–”

She threw a dictionary at me and slammed the door.

*

Wanting to make amends for the fascicle debacle, I register Emily for an email account and teach her how to use it. Amherstgossamer1830 learns to type with astounding speed and wastes no time in resuming her prolific correspondences, or “electronic missives” as she insists on calling them. Two hours later, she rushes into the living room, grinning, her cheeks flushed.

“Success?” I ask.

“I just penned 187 missives and 15 poems!” Breathless, she inquires: “How long will it take to receive returned correspondence? Six weeks? Eight?”

I shake my head. “It really depends on the person you’ve written to. Some people reply immediately, while others take a while. You should start receiving some responses in one or two days.”

Her jaw drops.

*

Sometimes visitors ask what it’s like to live with “that intense chick who wears white all the time.” I like it. She’s feisty and she botanizes like a boss. Above all, she encourages me to write and provides inspiration during the lulls.

*

“Why is my name on your computer?” asks Emily.

“Because it’s the 130th anniversary of your death.” She looks confused. “You’re famous, Em.”

“I am not,” she says, brushing at her dress as if it’s overrun with spiders. “And please stop calling me Em.

“A random search on your name yields over 18 million results! College students recite your poetry to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’! You have a museum!”

She sniffs. “Irrelevant. Fickle.” This information, apparently news to her, sends Emily out into her “laboratory”: the garden, where she examines spherical onion blossoms and measures the alkalinity of the soil. She returns several moments later, clutching a bundle of clover and mint.

“Sing the song for me,” she says.

“Are you sure? The lyrics are, um, a little questionable.”

She smiles for the first time all day. “I love questionable!”

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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WIP

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Finding inspiration in the La Sals and the red rock faces that surrounded us.

Work in Progress (WIP) is an accounting term that represents the value of the components of a product or idea in mid-production, items and materials not quite finished but necessary for a product’s completion. In the construction of a home, for example, WIP accounts for the inventory of nails, screws, hinges, drywall, and lumber that eventually become finished rooms. In writing, drafts are the WIP that wait in ‘inventory’ for their time to galvanize into completed essays.

At the end of April, I had four WIP pieces saved on my desktop. I also had had enough with my glitch-ridden computer, which had been operating strangely for some time. I took my laptop to be repaired, hastily transferring my files to a USB drive in the dark hours before my children awoke for school. A technician removed and reinstalled the operating system, thus restoring efficiency to my writing tool of choice. However, when I returned home, I realized that I hadn’t copied the WIP documents. Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine, my mouse bounced between two windows and highlighted the wrong files to transfer. My WIP essays were gone. I stared at my desktop and tried not to cry.

I tell my middle school students that words are just words: they only have the power that we give to them. Following Faulkner, I advise students that they must never hesitate to “kill their darlings,” and should look at their writing instead as a process toward reaching even greater literary heights. Revise, revise, revise! Don’t fall so in love with your words that you lose the ability to write harder, better! Yet, confronted with a loss of my own short-sighted creation – so many hours of drafting and research – what I would have given to see my precious darlings again.

A long-awaited trip to the outskirts of Moab, Utah, with three peers and 21 students wrenched me from the scene of devastation. We could not bring technology with us. It felt almost like a relief to put my computer out of mind for a few days, and focus instead on being a participant rather than an observer.

For the next few days, our group slept in tipis. We hiked, read, sloshed, played, and explored. Four sopping, scrambling teenagers fished me out of class three waves when our raft entirely and epically wiped out. I began to recover small bits of the ideas I’d lost and imagine new ones. The red rocks that surrounded us advised me to be strong. Coyotes yipped nightly salutations, while, by day, lizards suggested idyllic boulders on which to lounge. I wiggled my toes in the ruddy clay creek and the wind roared its approval. Cottonwoods applauded as I played in the sand. The desert revealed a much larger work in progress.

I came home to a blank desktop, opened a new document, and started to write.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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