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What Would Dickinson Do?

January 8, 2014

This essay was published this month in Toad Suck Review 

by Greg Graham

I wonder if Emily Dickinson would have been the same Emily Dickinson if she’d had Facebook or Twitter (not to mention TV). I mean, seriously, today’s recluse is an amateur compared to Dickinson. Our idea of being non-social is going home and watching reruns of Friends while flipping through our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds. If we’re feeling anti-social and need to vent, we can sit on our couch and digitally offer scathing opinions about any number of things: books, dishwashers, earphones, politics, religion… the possibilities are endless. Heck, even if your personal life is a wreck, it feels good to score a victory for justice by skewering General Electric because their blender won’t crush ice or by taking on that NRA fanatic who said something stupid on your sister-in-law’s Facebook page.

Others choose not to contribute to their social network, but they’re there, scrolling through the fabulous lives of their Facebook “friends” aka people they barely know or used to know. Especially when we’re going through a hard time, maybe feeling lonely or disconnected because of a break-up or a screw-up, social networks can kick us while we’re down. The writer Stephen Marche caused quite a stir when his article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely” was published in The Atlantic in May of 2012. The online version of the article has received 367 comments to this point, with the top ranked comment coming from Tow Mater, who offers this insight: “It doesn’t make anyone more lonely or narcissistic it just exposes it more brazenly.” Talk about a letdown. But fear not, countless articles of retort have been written, bearing brilliant titles like “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? Don’t Be Stupid” and “Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely.” Marche’s contentious claim is that we are superconnected but lonelier than ever. He points to the scene in The Social Network of Mark Zuckerberg sending a friend request to an ex-girlfriend and then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking as emblematic of the day in which we live. “We have all been in that scene,” Marche says, “transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.”

At least the majority of us have, myself included. And I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Dickinson would be equally sucked into the social networking vortex if she lived among us today. If she was writing on a laptop instead of in a notebook, would she have been taken out of what she called “the hallowing of pain”? Would she have striven to reach “the Summit” she spoke of if the social life she could not enjoy was available to her through digital images and electronic chit-chat popping up or scrolling across her screen in the comfort of her home? It’s a fair question, I think.

I’m writing these words the same way Dickinson wrote—with a pen on paper, tucked away in my bedroom away from all my screens. But I won’t be here long: I’ll soon mosey into the kitchen where my laptop is sitting and I’ll check my Twitter feed (Yay! Somebody with 2971 followers followed me! I am somebody). I’ll look to see if anybody retweeted my last tweet, then I’ll flip over to see how many likes my most recent blog post has garnered. I’ll probably check to see if my favorite baseball team is winning, then glance at my email. Now what was that thing I was writing?

I wonder what Ms. Dickinson would think of me. She’d probably regard me as one of those about whom she wrote “The Summit is not given to him who strives severe at the middle of the hill, But He who has achieved the Top — All — is the price of All.” The top she speaks of is not being the “top author” or “best poet.” On the contrary, the top for her is pure inspiration, which she achieved because she stared down her loneliness, which she called “the icycles of the soul.” And she describes reaching the top in ecstatic language:

Deprived of other Banquet,
I entertained Myself —
At first — a scant nutrition —
An insufficient Loaf —
But grown by slender addings
To so esteemed a size
‘Tis sumptuous enough for me —
And almost to suffice …

This attainment of pure inspiration put into words on paper was enough for Dickinson. She shied away from publication. “Publication,” she said, “is the auction of the mind.” Well, if that be the case, count me as a big sellout, because as soon as I write something half-decent I’m scrounging for publishers. Between the pieces of writing I manage to get published, I write blog posts and send tweets like I’m throwing fishing lures into the water. I put it out there and pray for a nibble.

The propensity for fast and furious self-publication and self-promotion can weaken the strength of our work. And Emily Dickinson and I are not the only ones who think this way. Recording artist John Mayer had four million followers on Twitter and one day decided Twitter was taking over his creative life, so he quit. When asked why, Mayer responed:

The tweets are getting shorter, but the songs are still
4 minutes long. You’re coming up with 140-character
zingers, and the song is still 4 minutes long…I
realized about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought
anymore. And I was a tweetaholic. I had four million Twitter
followers, and I was always writing on it. And I stopped using
Twitter as an outlet and I started using Twitter as the instrument to
riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and
smaller. And I couldn’t write a song.”

Using Dickinson’s language, it seems Mayer found himself stopping midway. He was no longer reaching the Summit, and drastic measures had to be taken.

I’m impressed. Hell, I think I’ll write a blog post about it. I bet people will really like that one. Wait… Oh, what’s the use; I’ll probably keep blogging and tweeting and begging somebody to publish my stuff. After all, I’m pretty sure I’m not the next Mayer or Dickinson or Thoreau. I’ve been working on one poem for four years now and it still sucks.

But I do worry about the Dickinsons and Thoreaus of the future. We can argue whether or not Facebook and Instagram are making all of us lonelier, but what about the ones who are naturally loners? Are image-focused social media keeping them in a perpetual state of pseudo-sociality, never satisfying but knocking the edge off? Is contentment harder to attain when surrounded by a virtual collection of beautiful people living fabulous lives? Most of us have probably found ourselves feeling down with nothing to do and flipping through Facebook, becoming more convinced that our lives suck: Our children are not as beautiful or successful, our parents don’t love each other as much, our spouse isn’t as hot, the list goes on and on. Sucked in by the compulsive desire for acceptance, self-loathing turns to virtual self-mutilation. It hurts so good.

Before everyone got plugged into everything, loners often learned to find contentment in solitude. The longing for connection has always been there for human beings, but today connection has become a digitally mediated impulse purchase. You don’t have to go looking for it; you’re just standing there in the check-out line and it’s staring you in the face like a pack of gum.

How many loner types in the past went on to become brilliant writers, artists, or spiritual leaders? One has to wonder if Dickinson would have written such painfully beautiful poetry if she had access to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather than scratching out meaning on those well-worn writing pads, she could’ve sat staring at endless pictures of acquaintances living the life she was apparently unable to manage.

I’m glad she didn’t. Where would we be without the gritty ones who went through the fire and came back bearing gifts for the rest of us? And what does our future look like if the hero’s journey is repeatedly being short-circuited by ever-present social networks? Who will persevere in the aloneness long enough to have scars to show and stories to tell, offering up something sublime out of the thick darkness?


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  1. Christine Archer permalink

    Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven
    By Hans Ostrom

    They call each other “E”. Elvis picks
    wildflowers near the river and brings
    them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.
    In heaven Emily wears her hair long, sports
    Levis and western blouses with rhinestones.
    Elvis is lean again, wears baggy trousers
    and T-shirts, a letterman’s jacket from Tupelo High.
    They take long walks and often hold hands.
    She prefers they remain just friends. Forever.
    Emily’s poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
    Electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
    Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.
    Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
    he will play guitar and sing “I Taste a Liquor
    Never Brewed” to the tune of “Love Me Tender.”
    Emily will clap and harmonize. Alone
    in their cabins later, they’ll listen to the river
    and nap. They will not think of Amherst
    or Las Vegas. They know why God made them
    roommates. It’s because America
    was their hometown. It’s because
    God is a thing without
    feathers. It’s because
    God wears blue suede shoes.

  2. Christine Archer permalink

    Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List
    By Andrea Carlisle

    Figure out what to wear—white dress?
    Put hair in bun
    Bake gingerbread for Sue
    Peer out window at passersby
    Write poem
    Hide poem

    White dress? Off-white dress?
    Feed cats
    Chat with Lavinia
    Work in garden
    Letter to T.W.H.

    White dress or what?
    Eavesdrop on visitors from behind door
    Write poem
    Hide poem

    Try on new white dress
    Gardening—watch out for narrow fellows in grass!
    Gingerbread, cakes, treats
    Poems: Write and hide them

    Embroider sash for white dress
    Write poetry
    Water flowers on windowsill
    Hide everything

  3. Christine Archer permalink

    Couldn’t resist posting those poems about ED that I originally posted on, guess what, Facebook, years ago. I don’t have to struggle for an answer to your question. No. Facebook, et al, is an unintended barrier to creativity and relationships. I have to consciously go away. As for being a twit on twitter …. forget aboud it. (How do you say that Italian gangster style?)

  4. Jeff Griffin permalink

    Good words, good thoughts. I have read and/or listened to others share their thoughts on the impact of social media on our selves, our children, our species … and opinions differ, as they should. “We” (those who use social media) are in the middle of a big “experiment”, and “we” are the subjects … and we probably won’t have any good data, any solid results, any conclusions for 10, 20, maybe 50 years. Who knows?

    This I know. I have used Facebook off and on over the past several years. And although there are times when Facebook can bring real beauty, interest and enrichment into my life … like reconnecting with someone from my past … or experiencing the events in the lives of those around me in “almost real time” … I have never really had any moments using Facebook that brought me close to the feelings that I have when I go out to dinner on a Friday night with my wife and two kids. Or when I finish reading a good book. Or when I watch my son play basketball, or my daughter volleyball. Or any number of real events in my life. Does social media diminish me in some way? Probably not, because I go to it intermittently and have never had much fascination with it. But I worry very much about the effects on my children, especially my daughter. With me, social media (Facebook) is something relatively small and unimportant in my life. My daughter … she is immersed in it … she is one that your words really speak about.

    Thanks for writing about this!

    • Thanks for the comments Jeff. I agree with you: I think we make a mistake when we view the experience of others through the lens of our own experience (of course it’s impossible to completely avoid this). You can I experience social media entirely differently from our children.

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