Of Emily Dickinson, showing your work, and unsexy survival
I confess that I didn’t think much about Emily Dickinson before the show Dickinson.
For me, she was just a poet who scholars dubbed as weird or eccentric and so I thought she was weird and eccentric. Her poetry was more of the same. She was never married and lived within four walls most of her life. She was more likely depressed. This was the extent of my knowledge of Dickinson and most people’s knowledge sadly to say.
Watching Dickinson on AppleTV the past three seasons had me doing a double-take about her, her poetry, my writing, who I was as a writer, the narrative of who I was. I watched each week as some of her eccentric behavior reflected me on the screen — rebuffing social conventions and norms, the joy of being in one place for long periods of time, how there is life in the mundane, and the occasional twerking during a house party in 1800s clothing.
But the part of that narrative I most gravitated to was the act of being ignored.
I’m currently reading Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon, in preparation for going independent with my creative work. This is a book other creative entrepreneurs like Ali Abdaal have read and recommended. The premise so far (I’m still reading) is to literally be the amateur you are and show how you are learning a new thing — hobbies, skills, etc. to the world as you learn it.
The book suggests that by showing the ugly and the good, documenting the process as you go through the process, you, the creative, will find your niche, your people.
The big thesis so far: share yourself in the context of your work.
If Emily Dickinson were alive during this time, would she find her niche? If she showed the process of her work when she created her best work, would it be as well-received? Would it be as good? Or, if we ask the big question, would we notice?
Sometimes, I feel like no one hears me like I’m screaming and a crowd of people walking past me without a turn of the head or a blink. It’s only when it’s extreme, when there is trauma to be learned about, that I am given some thought. Not the warning signs, not when I need help, not when I’m saying that I’m drowning but after I’ve already drowned. Then it’s the shock of others for not having survived. There are memorials to people not surviving and testimonies about it, but not enough marking when someone asked for help and received it.
Survival isn’t sexy.
Is that what made Dickinson even more interesting. That while alive she wasn’t regarded and may have been just surviving but sometime after her death, someone noticed her enough to say that she didn’t survive, what depth she had!
If Dickinson had a Twitter account or Instagram, would she be white noise?
The thing about showing your work is that people must be interested in your work to be able to have a stake in the process. In short, they must want to hear you. Now, this has worked for others. Writer Joann Penn comes to mind and she continues to show her work. As a listener to her podcast, The Creative Penn, for years, I can say that the best part of each episode is always her updates, learning what the bee in her bonnet is, and then seeing her turn that into her next project, book, audiobook, blog post, etc. Though her interviews with other independent writers and business folks are interesting, the 15-minute update on her personal goals is the most fascinating part.
Emily (now) and Joanna have their audience. When I start publishing, will I have mine? When I show my work, will people care enough to read through it all, listen through it all, have a stake in my success? Or, will survival still be unsexy?
There’s no resolution to this. Obviously, I’m going to show my work; I find I work best when I do. Will people listen? Will people care?
Well, that’s one thing I wish the book would have discussed-the joy is in the work, not in the popularity. At least I think it is. That’s what Dickinson believed anyway. She rarely published during her lifetime but she loved the work. She adjusted her life to do the work, so much so that the narrative was adjusted to say she was a recluse, an eccentric, a strange woman who walked the streets of Amherst in white.
Or maybe, just maybe, she was just showing her work.
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