News From Elsewhere

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.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Emily Dickinson, Hope, Identity, Laments, Letters, life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

18 responses to “News From Elsewhere

  1. You express this anxiety about revealing our most intimate selves through writing so well. I feel that myself so often. Am I exposing too much? I feel this today but will I feel this way tomorrow? My own blogging varies differing distances that I hold myself from myself and my reader. Sometimes it’s like I’m writing about someone else across a great expanse of time, sometimes it’s extremely close. The closer I get the more “real”, unfiltered it feels, and the more I personally like what I write, but also the more anxiety I feel about what I’ve shared with others.

    I like what you write 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.” I think that’s what can feel so slippery about ourselves, how we move between these distances with ourselves and others, how we filter our feelings, create different “selves”, demeanors for different audiences. No wonder we can hardly grasp who we really are, let alone express that self to others.

    I love your last line. I’m so glad that Dickinsen wrote her letter to the world and did not censor her writing for fear of embarrassment, and I’m so glad that you are doing the same. Speaking our “truth” however we do so may be the only worthwhile thing, in a larger context, that we ever do.

  2. Thomas

    Truth or perpetual embarrassment….I like that. I think writing is both. That’s probably why people lie so much. No one wants to be embarrassed. Maybe that’s the true genius of the great writers…they just don’t care what others think? Say what you will and let people think what they want.
    Maybe they have a special gene that after they hit the “publish” button there are no second thoughts. No remorse.
    I wish I had that gene…

    • dmarshall58

      I knew someone in school who said that most writing teachers give precisely the wrong advice in suggesting that student ought to know exactly what they want to say. Her point of view was closer to Robert Frost’s “No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader.” She felt we should be writing about everything that confused us or frightened us or moved us inexplicably. Something ought to be a stake. I wonder if you can have art without risk, and maybe that’s why it appeals to thrill seekers like us. –D

  3. This is a very thoughtful post, thank you for having the courage to be vulnerable and to wonder about embarrassment.

    I can relate to most all of what you say, especially your tendency to “turn a broken shoelace into a personal apocalypse.” The difference with me is that my real life is pretty much an ongoing crisis of some sort, so I consider my (Friday) posts mild. With the monthly “letters”, I just spill everything. It’s supposed to be something for the reader to figure out– but I think I’m probably pretty blatant. I don’t know– I keep calling the posts on my blog “therapy” Somebody last week told me I had “guts” but I still think I’m not “gutsy” enough and should risk more..

    Thank you for sharing what private life you do decide to share, your posts are wonderful, thanks for taking the risks you do.

    • dmarshall58

      Though I’m still fairly circumspect in what I say here, it’s nonetheless strange to have people I know and see often following my second life here. For the most part, it’s wonderful, but it also makes me cautious, careful not to complain or vent excessively.

      I enjoy your confessions because they speak to a universal experience, and sharing troubles usually does. And I do think you leave a lot for the reader to figure out. The biggest trouble with our own writing is that we will never be able to see it as others do. Sometimes, if I find something I wrote long ago, I come close… but not really. Memory comes flooding back, and I’m no longer reading the words but the experience behind them. No one else reads that. No one can.

      Thanks in turn for sharing. –D

      • Heh, now that you’ve brought it up…..none of my close friends know I have a blog except one, however, everyone in the “second circle” of friends knows. As a matter of fact, only two of my close friends know I write poetry or anything else, and NONE of my family members (all three of them) know that I do any of these things. (Ditto for close friends and family on social networking sites). Maybe that is what gives me my leeway to get a little more personal. Although those in the “first circle” know of most of the things I write about, they don’t always know the emotions surrounding them. They see me as a “trouper” or a “survivor”, which I guess is what I show them, but all I see is “me”. (as in Plain Old Me, not Egocentric Me) When I blog, or write a story or a poem, I am exposing myself in a completely different way, and I think the fact that I know I’m talking to a lot of “strangers” helps. I guess the same way it’s easy– even enjoyable– for me to speak in front of a large group, but torturous to speak in front of a small one. You just don’t say the same things to those two different groups. Though I guess in my world what I would say to those two groups is pretty much the opposite of what most would say….

        Okay, so in your reply to Thomas, you mentioned Robert Frost’s viewpoint: “No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader.”, Besides loving that viewpoint, I think I just discovered in writing this post that I may have a slight problem with intimacy. (shrugs shoulders and puts hands out palms up Woody Allen style)

        I agree about never being able to see our writing as others do. It’s hard to get that distance. Even as open as I seem to be in my writing, I’m always holding something back, but I’m not mindful of that, I’m probably holding as much back from myself as I am from anybody. This kind of makes me sad because I really write hoping others can relate. It’s that “If I can affect just one person….” thing, but sometimes I just feel so lost and need to figure things out in this kind of odd (publicly blogging) way.

        I think I’ve really tuned in to your blog because regardless of how much you reveal personally, I can tell you feel deeply about lots of things. I think being able to convey that feeling without saying too much is the sign of a good writer (one of them anyway), and that comforts me, as I think it does your other readers.

      • dmarshall58

        I’m guessing that for every blogger, writing is a balancing act–maybe even a teetering act–between exposing too much and playing it safe. Some bloggers stay well away from the edge, and others stand right on it. Where I am seems to vary from post to post, and I admire your willingness to stand in the risky spots. Perhaps part of that is not being known, but, if you were more known by friends and family, you would probably be just as courageous. I’m guessing it’s in your nature the way a degree of timidity is in mine. Though I feel a little more “out there” in this blog, I still reassure myself at every step toward the edge, “It really doesn’t matter that much.” Someday, I may discover I’m wrong, but, for now, I’m like you, just hoping a little honesty can form a connection. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. –D

      • Well, whichever it is for you, you’re doing it right.

        You make me think of something I said to a friend the other night when asked to read a new draft– which I had planned on posting later– My response was, “No, this is private. It’s between me and the world.”

      • dmarshall58

        Kurt Vonnegut always advised that you should write to please one person. “If you throw open the window to make love to the world,” he said, “you will get pneumonia.” I don’t know about that… I can’t write to one person. Occasionally a glimmer of a person will occur to me (mostly “He/She will hate that”), but I understand the odd privacy of speaking to no particular person. Maybe that’s why it’s so strange when blogs intrudes on “real life.” –D

      • Exactly. And exactly why I don’t like my family or close friends to know.

        My blog posts are whatever they are, and I also tell myself it doesn’t really matter. The “letters” are the only posts that are written to/for anyone. I kind of use all the posts as a journal, although I know that obviously, they are all public. Forming a connection is definitely part of why I do it, and I guess my timidity comes in when I have to share something personal with someone I know very well. I hope this doesn’t make me a coward. I think it’s just backlash from my past. People in cyberspace can only get just so close.

        The internet, with all it exposes, still gives one the capability to at least feel anonymous, and I guess I like that.

      • dmarshall58

        True cowardice is hiding things from yourself, so you are no coward. –D

  4. There is something about the distance set by the cyberworld. While all our remarks are visible to a potentially large number of people, we assume we will never meet those people. That provides some safety. I know I feel less vulnerable. When I first realised that people on the web have little, or no, embarrassment about talking of personal things, I felt a degree of freedom and power within myself.

    Your case is a little different, as your essays are about life, often your life [sort of]; they are philosophical discussions, musings, thinking aloud on paper, whatever you want to call it, but there has to be a degree of personal stuff [vocabulary pre- second coffee]. It’s not as if you are coming to the blog to moan. Really. You don’t moan. Your thinking is of interest because you convey truths and all the best writing does that.


    • dmarshall58

      Considering an audience, you can help wishing to satisfy at least your conception of what they want from you. I certainly try not to moan, in part because I’m thinking of people out there and how unbecoming it might be to wring my hands over everything. You’re right that there’s safety in talking to cyberstrangers we may never meet, but how do you feel about the non-strangers who read your work online?

      Maybe my trouble is that the personal stuff seems the most interesting–and the most universal and human–stuff I have. Confession isn’t really my thing, except that I suspect none of us say enough about what we really feel and so don’t know that others secretly feel as we do. There’s consolation in discovering company. I benefit from that consolation and would like to give comfort too.

      I’m really enjoying your blog. Thank you for visiting. –D

      • Family and friends? What they see is my work on poetry. The frank discussions of self happen in comments, which they don’t usually read, as they are reading the blog for me rather than the poetic aspects. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it becomes a safe way to let them know something is up, should they read the comments. They can choose to ignore, but they will have the knowledge. Funny, I always think of my cyber friends, never of my known crowd. Now, I’ll ponder.

      • dmarshall58

        I confess to doing a little hiding in comments as well. Your statement that “They can choose to ignore, but they will have the knowledge” seems apt–many of the people who read our posts may be deliberately hiding what they know. It’s an peculiar state wondering who knows what and seems unique to bloggers and readers they know and see often. I wonder how many people choose to bridge the person they read and the person they talk to. For me, a few do, but I wonder if there are others who, like eavesdroppers, just like listening. Perhaps it’s better not to consider them… that way lies paranoia. Thanks for you comments! –D

  5. I responded to an inquiry about why I don’t write and they were shocked to know that fear is what stifles me. Most who know me see me as fearless and in many ways I am. I could find solace in knowing that the reasons for my fear are similar in many ways to yours and those who have responded to your post, but doing so only weakens my resolve to write, and I must write. Therein lies the rub!
    I was struck by your statement that you are not an exhibitionist because it is the exact opposite of me. Therefore, I am mystified for the opposite reason; why not expose myself? It makes no sense.
    I must have had dmarshal58’s teacher because I am continually asking myself, “what are you trying to say?”. When nothing concrete replies, I quit writing.

    • dmarshall58

      Writing is always mysterious, expose yourself or no. I’m sometimes afraid I’m missing what I’m REALLY saying and that there’s something hidden even from me and it’s an embarrassing something. Then there’s the question of whether you’re any good… I worry I’m the only one who can’t see how amateurish and crass I am. We are very similar in the compulsion to write–I must write too. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

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