This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
These days, I don’t write many letters, but when I did, news wasn’t my style. And people seemed to meet my letters with apprehension, skim them, and then put them aside for consideration later… which often turned into much later. On more than one occasion, someone I saw after a long absence formed a mildly sour smile and tipped his or her head in silent concern and embarrassment. “Your letters….” I heard those expressions say.
We’d start talking instead of writing, and friendship returned in moments. It helped to stay away from anything seen on the page.
In graduate school, one of the lecturers discussing Emily Dickinson’s correspondence addressed how challenging it must have been to be her friend. As brilliant as she was, she was, in seventies-speak, “Intense.” Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higgins sounds demure enough—she asks, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” However, her aesthetic meditations quickly explode into real crises, and she steps close enough to the edge of obsession and mania that the bottom of her dress gets wet.
She also tells Higgins, “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” Many of my students like to believe Dickinson wrote for herself, and of course she did. But she also desired an audience, or she never would have bothered to write Higgins in the first place. Her “supposed person” may also have offered a degree of protection. Though she said “That’s not really me,” the neediness of her letters to Higgins accelerates quickly, and soon she’s telling him she has no “Monarch” in her life, and “cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.” She begins to beg him to visit, and, when he says he can’t, she delays her reply, “Not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far. I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me.”
I’m no Emily Dickinson, but I sometimes wonder if these posts are my letters to the world. My crises are more visible here. In my real life I appear placid. Here I share doubt. In real life I’ve learned to disguise my quiet desperation, but the desperation hasn’t really changed. My mind can turn a broken shoelace into a personal apocalypse. Even good news can arrive like a page soaked in the most sulfurous molasses—sweet, yes, but with bitter promise.
And I’m in the odd position of having a few readers now. Where before I could regard this blog as a laboratory, a chance to sort out thoughts and formulate theories, now some people know my pronouncements. Once I might safely quote myself, now I feel how odious that is. Yet, as the different seas of my life begin to mingle, I wonder if some people will come to regard me as my returning friends did. I’ve experienced that state often enough with other people—there’s so much I know about them that I don’t discuss, so much I see as our intimate knowledge and don’t address. After being immersed in darker or more forceful currents, you can have trouble resurfacing.
I confess a few moments of embarrassment when someone mentions reading my blog or says me back to me. Naturally, I think, “Should I have admitted that?” or “Am I going to get in trouble?” or “Is it okay to feel as I do?” and “Oh, what did I say?” I’m no exhibitionist. I’m an intensely private person, so this urge to expose myself mystifies me a bit. Emily Dickinson’s desperation is in me too—we aren’t truly writing for ourselves, but for some company.
I tell myself it should take courage to write. Writing without risk hardly seems like writing at all, and, seen from a written or spoken perspective, I am one person. I tell myself that, if I begin by saying none of us are what we seem, I have a better chance of reaching readers and giving something greater than self-absorbed news. I tell myself I have to be vulnerable to touch anyone.
Then I think about Dickinson’s power—her loud voice blasting from her private world—and hope writing really is truth and not perpetual embarrassment.