A Timely Descent into Writer Madness

I like a look of Agony –

Because I know it’s true,

Men do not sham convulsions –

Nor simulate, a Throe,

 The eyes glaze once – and that is Death –

Impossible to feign

Beads upon the Forehead –

By homely anguish Strung.

 ~ E. Dickinson

I transcribed this poem onto my mirror today. I’d heard it for the first time in a literature class senior year of college, and it jumped off the page to me. Something about its authenticity captured my imagination. Then, recently, I watched the series Dickinson, and ever since I saw the episode that highlighted this poem, I can’t get it out of my head.

I memorized it.

It torments me.

I sing the words to myself as I spin haphazardly around the kitchen – day in and day out – “I like a look of Agony – Because I know it’s true.” Why? I wonder. Why is it plaguing me so?

The Bad Girl of Amherst

One thing’s for sure. I want to know Emily Dickinson. I want to understand her. The true her. Not the her that’s been portrayed to me. Emily Dickinson was no spinster who cried all day in a white dress (nod to that episode of Dickinson where the writers point out the misinterpretation through a trippy futuristic imagination flash forward through the lens of Sylvia Plath). No, Emily Dickinson was the bad girl of Amherst. A raging queer. A woman on her own path who knew her own heart (Nod to Anne Lister of Halifax, another historical woman who’s been haunting me of late.)

These women’s words are spinning around my head like a rabid spider, sending me into a, perhaps timely, descent into writer madness.

I say ‘perhaps timely’ because I’m writing a novel right now. Just broke 109K words. In the process of drafting this manuscript, I’ve been practicing the Proust approach to writing my characters-–give them a life, a real life. I see them as autonomous, living, breathing beings, and I am just a vessel. You have to be a little mad to live like that.

Writer Madness is a Special Flavor of Madness.

I’ve begun to feel a level of kinship with these women writes of the past that brings them to life in my mind. I hear their words, their unique voices, wrapping around my brain – chattering, chattering, chattering – mixing with my words. Their input simultaneously informs and confuses me. It’s like I have a constant teleprompter screen running through my head streaming their opinions of my writing as I write.

I texted my best friend tonight, another writer: “Hey. Do u ever think about the legacy of women writers as a sort of ancestral mentorship that runs thru ur veins?”

Perhaps a rude text to send considering she literally just got out of knee reconstruction surgery and is high as a kite on anesthesia and Oxy and what a trippy path that will send her down but-–oh well, damage is done. Maybe it will help her relate to my condition.

These Women Fought for the Right to Write

And they found a way to document their truth in a time in history when homosexuality was widely viewed as perverse. And now I’m here, over a hundred years later, doing what they loved (and probably to some degree loathed) and what they were loathed for, and burdened with the recognition that I can only do it because they did.

Do I not owe them every word??

And just beyond their words… their spirit, their untamable spirit. Oh, how it lives in their writing! How it defied everything that they were expected to hold dear in that time period. Their indomitable spirit that society and, let’s face it, cisheteropatriarchy still LOVES to quash. Why do we hold the image of Emily Dickinson as some isolated and depressed homebody when there’s so much evidence that she lived a million lives and loved with a heated intensity otherwise unmatched by women in her time? Even in this time?

AND that she was QUEER.

I Used to Not Like Emily Dickinson…

Or, should I say, I didn’t get her. She seemed so…boring to me. Just another old white lady who scribbled some words on paper. Why was she added to the history books?

I realized this week that my opinion of her had been tempered by the narrative I’d been taught in public school. My first exposure to Emily Dickinson was in middle school, in that language arts class where we read “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me…” I thought of her as…well, the way many people think of her: a recluse crying in a white dress. How weak. How boring. Why should her words have any influence?

Our Society Propagates the Watered-down Version of Historic Women Writers as a Matter of Course

We don’t get to know them. Society doesn’t like for us to know their fiery spirit and the intense emotions and experiences that gave life to their words. No – you have to dig deeply into their writing (not just the popularized stuff) and examine their lives alongside of their writing, to understand the truth of them.

That they were fierce.

Meanwhile, we know the personalities and passions of almost every white man in the literary canon.

Hemingway? Macho boy with an alcohol problem who loved to travel and bullfight and box.

Thoreau? He’s a transcendentalist whose choice for isolation was not “sad” (as supposedly was Dickinson’s) but rather, romantic, poetic, honorable.

These men are portrayed as multi-dimensional.

Our women writers seen as one-dimensional paper dolls. Unless you dig.

Why Must one Become an Archeologist to Understand These Women Writers?

This week, I felt a kinship with Dickinson in a way I had never felt before. She feels alive to me. As does Sylvia Plath. As does Anais Nin. As does Anne Lister. All these women wrote silently, and for themselves (or their lovers), yet commanded the world in their subtlety.

Lately, I feel their lives, and their deaths, and their words in ways I never have before. Every word I write, I feel them standing over my shoulder, nodding or shaking their head in approval or disapproval.

As a queer woman writer of the now, I can’t help but feel the mentorship of the queer women writers of the past. They occupy space in my mind, and they speak to me when I write. At times, I find their input immensely helpful. Other times, it is immensely distracting, when I attune to their energy, and so many voices chime in, I don’t know who to listen to first.

And that’s what’s led to my timely, or perhaps untimely, descent into writer madness.

The Bottom Line Is This:

We can learn from the writers that came before in a myriad of ways. While some are more disruptive than others, each is a gift.