DWELL IN POSSIBILITY

A Message for Your Creative Spirit on the Birthday of Emily Dickinson

Today, December 10th, 2017, is the birthday of Emily Dickinson, born on this day in 1830.

When you think of Dickinson, what can you recall of her life and her work? Most of us were given her poetry early, in grade school. Emily Dickinson, we know, is an important American poet.

When we tell Dickinson’s story, we frame her work in “similarity” to others of the time, to others *we* find relevant and important. We build a network of connections around her life, in which to tell her tale. Dickinson is “like” Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, “like” Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Other important writers. Here/hear the reverberation: canon, canon, canon.

And perhaps, we know and recall the story of her solitude, her “reclusiveness,” her choice to remain unmarried, at the family homestead, later caring for her ailing mother. If we are literature scholars or followed her story deeper, perhaps we’ve been intrigued by the nature of her relationship to Susan Gilbert.

There is a mythology around Dickinson not dissimilar to that of other “headstrong” “troubled” artists and writers. Even while praising her works, in retrospect, we distance her choices from acceptable social behavior. Even the Emily Dickinson museum writes, “No discussion of the poet’s health is complete without mentioning her increasing withdrawal from normal social situations.”

So I ask you, today, considering your own life, possibility, and choices in the world: “normal” for whom?


As creative people in the world, we are constantly prevailed upon to conform to culturally standard expectations of social and cultural behaviors. And yet, if we did, the result would be a void, where the art used to be.

As creative people in the world, we are constantly prevailed upon to conform to culturally standard expectations of social and cultural behaviors. And yet, if we did, the result would be a void, where the art used to be.

Making, writing, thinking, introspection, selfcare — all of these (not to be confused with their commercialised, fetishized versions) are by their very nature anti consumer behaviors. In these times we produce, we find alternatives, we build, we heal, we learn from plants and animals, we become comfortable with silence and solitude.

Dickinson, by remaining “unmarried,” defied another convention — and yet even now, 121 years after her death, we still lack adequate standard language with which to discuss the agentive choice to stay independent. “Unmarried” or “single” or “alone” are all words about lack.

To describe full, productive, deep, pleasurable solitude as “antisocial” is the only thing lacking here — lacking an ability to comprehend and language the more-than-adequacy, the normalcy, the choice, the place and space of true individual agency in a culture ever increasingly defined by consumer patterns and the deep power of financial interests.

There’s deep ableism here too — a writing of the word “normal” that precludes different physical, social, and cultural ways of being in the world being equal. A body’s ability or preference towards solitude and/or away from certain patterns of behavior and interaction isn’t ours to judge or deem inferior or broken.


To describe full, productive, deep, pleasurable solitude as “antisocial” is the only thing lacking here — lacking an ability to comprehend and language the more-than-adequacy, the normalcy, the choice, the place and space of true individual agency in a culture ever increasingly defined by consumer patterns and the deep power of financial interests.

A collaborator and incredible artist wrote on her FB page this week that she is grateful for her partner (also an artist) and friends who accept her for her ways of being in the world, explaining how she used to “feel guilty for not being more social or for the amount of time she spent making stuff” but that she’s now embracing this choice, recognizing these patterns of desire to make as inherent in her even as a child.

I’ve been talking about this so much recently. As creative people with drive and ideas that could easily outrun the number of hours in the day / week / month / year / life, we are in a very unique position that is so hard for other folks to understand — and in so doing, we often are questioned and pressured, sometimes shamed and insulted, for the ways in which we use resources like time and money differently.

If you come from a family battling precarity (like I did) in which survival is the primary motivation, even when and if art making is considered valuable there is an understanding that it must not threaten security. As that security comes in various forms, this means I was taught (and maybe you were too) that art making and solitude needed to take a back seat to finding a partner, to focusing on financial and family responsibilities, to developing and cultivating social capital, and then also to not wasting time, on anything that could be seen as frivolous or selfish (translation: any of the previous list, unless there is a likelihood of renumeration.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve been trying to have compassion for those who might criticise or try to make us feel guilty for the work that we do — I think it’s a reflection on the way our practice destabilizes the system of worth in which they understand themselves. If what we’re doing is not only ok but desirable and good, then where does that leave them, if they are not creatively driven, inspired, passionate.


If folks are able to make you agree that you “should” be spending time with family, going out to dinner, whatever, instead, in a non-making space or capacity, it validates their choices and sense of self-worth. It’s not about you at all. Ironically, it probably means that they, too, are concerned that what you are doing IS more valuable, and that they don’t see themselves as having the ability to be a maker in the way they see you doing or understand how to access that space.

If folks are able to make you agree that you “should” be spending time with family, going out to dinner, whatever, instead, in a non-making space or capacity, it validates their choices and sense of self-worth. It’s not about you at all. Ironically, it probably means that they, too, are concerned that what you are doing IS more valuable, and and that they don’t see themselves as having the ability to be a maker in the way they see you doing or understand how to access that space.

It’s taken me a long, long time to rewire my thinking around selfishness, frivolity, responsibility, wastefulness, and “abnormal” behaviors and tendencies regarding making (as well as thinking and selfcare).

And this is part of what helped me make that switch: I realized at some point that the things I value most highly in the world were things wrought in this space, and that those who found that time and space often did (and do so) in defiance. And — importantly — that while we mythologize this historicized defiance for the figureheads we turn artists and writers into, that we do so while simultaneously persisting in systems that are loathe to encourage that space for us. That we, often shameful and fearful for not being able to turn our passions into demonstrable capital, turn away from these pursuits.

So, today, I offer you Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson’s lived story is the story of fierce, independent perseverance primarily in solitude. Instead of attending social functions she attended to the plants and flowers of her world, deeply engaged in botany and naturalism all her days.

The poems of hers that were published during her lifetime were altered to fit the conventions of the time. But the vast holdings of her writings, and later other ephemera, have held in their pages deep and lasting inspiration for countless people — as I imagine they will for years to come.

Now, a caveat: Dickinson’s family had a house where she could live out her days, and she didn’t have to work to survive, as most of us do. But — she wrote outside of convention, creating unrecognizable, uncategorizable (at that time, basically unpublishable) work, and insodoing left a legacy that we still look to as being wholly original.

If you’re struggling with work that isn’t getting accepted, if you’re not getting published, if you’re questioning the sanity of your choices in building your own world, turning off your phone, not going to the party, please remember this: as you do so, you may be changing (if not saving) countless lives, in a story larger and longer than the one you can currently find words for.


don’t forget that the history of the avant-garde, indeed the history of any radical thought across disciplines is the history of self publishing, not of approval, permission, and easy acceptance.

And, if you’re still driven to publish: don’t forget that the history of the avant-garde, indeed the history of any radical thought across disciplines is the history of self publishing, not of approval, permission, and easy acceptance.

Tell me, how many editors, workshop instructors, reviewers do you think would question and bear down on the punctuation and capitalization here, in the Dickinson poem below? Exactly. And yet? Dickinson, a blessing, today and always. Thank you for sticking to your guns. May we learn by your example.


I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior — for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors — the fairest –
For Occupation — This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

If, friends and readers, you are interested in engaging in discussion about intentionally building interpersonal support infrastructures that are more understanding of and conducive to creative practice, please take a look at this earlier post, and contact lynne@theoperatingsystem.org to participate in our upcoming initiative beginning in January. (Live in NYC, and virtually.)