Emily Dickinson had red hair. I had no idea, and I bet you didn’t either. This is just one of the many details about Emily Dickinson that I had wrong. I let a combination of myth and popular opinion dictate my understanding of her. I stored her safely in a box labeled, “Eccentric poet who never left her bedroom and couldn’t function in society.” I read her poems like a dutiful student, dissecting each line and hunting for the genius hidden within.
There was plenty of genius for me to find. The brilliant tide of her intellect flowed over me. I was impressed, but I never really connected with her work. Her poems were just cleverly arranged words that I understood about as much as a stranger passing me on the street. It wasn’t until I knew more about her story, her actual story, that I was moved.
We’re so good at categorizing and judging that we often forget that people aren’t just static archetypes. He’s more than a brave soldier. She’s more than a quiet librarian. They’re more than a mob of conservative Christians. Emily Dickinson is more than a brilliant madwoman. We, none of us, can be categorized that way. And that’s what makes us so interesting. We have stories, and so should the characters in the stories that we create.
In truth, Emily Dickinson was nothing at all like the dreary girl shown in the only surviving picture of her.
In her own words, she was:
“Small like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.”
Emily was a vibrant character, full of contradictions, passions, and complications. She was devoted to her family. She loved nature and kept a lush garden. She had a dog named Carlo who walked with her every day. She was intensely spiritual but sometimes politely, and often vehemently, refused to attend church. She developed deep and passionate attachments to a few people in her life – both women and men. She read the newspaper every day. She talked about politics. She argued with her brother. She wanted to be a published writer. She wrote letters. She played the piano. She was, in short, a real person.
After I learned more about Emily Dickinson, I realized that I felt more connected to her because I understood some truths about her. I could never understand the totality of her, but I knew enough to feel something. I was awed by her genius, overwhelmed by her intensity, saddened by her unrequited passions, and uplifted by her love for even the smallest creatures. This is how I want to feel about the characters in the stories I read and write. I want to feel this level of connection to a full and vibrant person who is full of surprises and contradictions, both delightful and dreadful.
As a writer, this means that I need to find and tell the truth about my characters. That’s an overwhelming prospect, but very worth the effort. In order to do this well, I have to stop myself from categorizing and judging to quickly. I need to listen and pay attention. I need to look for the surprises, expect them even, and then decide how to weave them into the story, and ultimately reveal them. In this way, I can let the character become who she is at her very core.
And why not apply this to my non-writing life as well? Shouldn’t we all allow the people around us to be who they truly are, and then love and respect them for it? In the end, we’ll be better writers and better people for it.