Jenny Hubbard is the author of Paper Covers Rock, a 2012 finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, and And We Stay which was an honor book for The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2015. Both of Jenny’s novels are currently being taught in high schools and colleges nationally and internationally.
Today Jenny details what Emily Dickinson taught her over the course of writing And We Stay.
Dresses with Pockets
Once I sent And We Stay off to be published, never to be touched again by me, I was bereft. I missed being with Emily Dickinson. Having spent two years with her words, she had become that friend in English or science class who seems to know more than the teacher knows—or who at least is able to articulate it much more clearly than the teacher can. Suffice it to say that I could never elucidate all that I learned from this petite, shy nineteenth-century poet with a big, gutsy voice. But here are three of them.
Wear dresses with pockets.
Emily Dickinson kept a pencil and scraps of paper in hers. How many times has a line of poetry, or an image, come to me that I haven’t had a piece of paper or writing utensil at hand? Countless, I tell you. And, yes, it is true that when I shop for dresses, I jump for joy when the designer has thought to add a nifty little pocket.
And here’s another thing: she often wrote on the back of envelopes or fragments of envelopes, which might have something to do with the fact that her poems are so small and neat, so economical. Why use more words when fewer will do? And, anyway, who has room in a dress for a legal pad?
Side note: Dickinson wrote for herself, a fact that, if you’re a poet, you’ll want to keep in mind. She wasn’t envisioning an audience, which (I think) accounts for her more confounding stanzas. They made sense to her, but if you intend to send your poems out to the universe, you’ll want to be clear, understood by your readers. Don’t confuse ambiguity with obscurity.
As in, dare to go where no other writer has gone before. I’m still working on this one. No matter how many times you announce to readers that your work is fiction, at least one of them will refuse to believe you and will search for all kinds of juicy parallels between your life and the life of your characters. This should not deter you from excavating your brain and your heart. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson did. She wrote for herself; she wrote to put order to the chaos of her wonderings. She was not afraid to imagine what it was like to be buried in the cold ground; she did not stop herself from pushing that imagination to its limits. I give her a whole lot of credit for being this brave because when I think about the world going on without me, I cut my brain off at the pass.
On that note, any female American poet writing today owes Dickinson a great debt. Although she was probably not the first American woman to write about things other than flowers and birds and romance, she was the first to make it to widespread publication, an achievement indeed given the patriarchal, puritanical, God-centered world in which she lived.
Plant a garden.
Now that I have done so, I have no doubt whatsoever that Emily Dickinson preferred time in her garden to time at her desk, though she clearly loved both, which makes sense. Gardening and writing are similar tasks. Gardens can get very messy very fast, just like poems can. You don’t want every color and variety under the sun because then the garden confuses people. (Is this a garden or a Home Depot?) You want to edit, which sometimes means moving plants around to show them to their best advantage. If your garden is mostly shaded, as mine is, then you have an even greater challenge to find the space where a particular blossom is going to thrive.
And of course, your garden needs water: attention after the seeds and bulbs have been planted. Rain is a seasoned poet sprinkling sage advice—very friendly—but with rain come weeds, which are not friendly. Weeds are like all those extra words and ideas you don’t need, which bring us full circle to the corner of envelope, the economy of language. Plant too many flowers, and before you know it, they are fighting for the sunlight above and the nutrients below and cancelling each other out.
Emily Dickinson taught me that less is more. Not every writer chants this mantra, but so far I’ve yet to meet a reader who wants to be clunked over the head with redundant explanation. If you’ve put in the time, rewritten and revised and attended to the details—in other words, if you’ve done your job—then you shouldn’t need any frills. Just a pocket in your dress big enough to hold a pencil, a paper scrap, and a pack of seeds.
Thank you again to Jenny for this beautiful post.
If you’d like to learn more about Jenny and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.jennyhubbard.com
You can also find my review of And We Stay here on the blog (where it also made an appearance on my best of 2014 booklist because it’s fabulous).