Academia, Academic Book, Academic Writing, Alexandra Socarides, Book Review, Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Emily Dickinson, Harvey Keitel, Jane Tompkins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shadows in the Sun, The American Scholar, typewriter, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, word processor, Writing
If given the opportunity one should never turn down the chance to study or read Emily Dickinson. The reason for this is because apart from a few bloggers online who like to post photos of flowers while quoting selections of her work out of context to appreciate how beautiful flowers are, many people really don’t seem to appreciate the emotional depth and endless complexity of her work, nor do they realize that much of Dickinson is wrapped up in the idea of death and disease. Dickinson as a writer is not my concern at this time, though I do really need to get around to writing about her work. Rather my focus in this essay is a book by Alexandra Socarides and the conflict of Academic writing.
A good friend of mine, who tends to be as exasperated with the elitism of academia and the humanities as much as I am, has often floated the idea about that he would love to write a thesis about the unnecessarily complex nature of academic writing and write it with so much jargon that it would stump even the most seasoned academic and see how many people would pretend to understand it. With respect to my friend, I admire the idea but there are better ways to tackle the, at times, Kafkaesque nature of academic writing. Working in the writing center at my university I often tell students who complain about writing papers for school that, unfortunately, academic writing will continue to be painful because it is the driest form of writing you can produce in your lifetime. Essays abound that are published that tackle the “geo-magnetic parameters of meta-linguistic manifestations of Middle Class desperation found in the first paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath.” Hopefully someone will understand what I just wrote, but I hope they don’t because that’s all bullshit.
The problem I have come to experience with academic writing is the unnecessary elitism found within it. I understand it on some level. Studying and writing and testing for ten years has a way of locking oneself within one’s own mind to the point that it becomes easy to ignore or forget that not everyone can see the solipsistic Marxism in Oedipus the King. Academic writing is designed to help the academic community who in turn teach new students entering that particular field. Where I am lost and cannot, and will not follow, is the philosophy that academic writing should only ever serve the interests of professionals in the field.
Instead I follow Emerson when he writes in his essay The American Scholar:
The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. (63).
This leads me back to Dr. Socarides and the book Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. The opportunity to study Dickinson emerged over my winter break to take a class entirely dedicated to her work. My thesis advisor had informed me she couldn’t advise me and since she was the rock star of the project anyway I decided to end grad school with a small whimper rather than a bang. I signed up for the class, which involves reading 127 poems a week, two chapters in a biography of her work a week, and two chapters of a critic’s work. The first critic for the class was Socarides and I began the text expecting the usual unnecessary fluff. My was I surprised.
Socarides’s book is not only readable, it’s engaging. The reader may offer the sentiment “so what?” but clearly they have never had to read twenty essays for a seminar paper and recognize how close to pulling teeth this exercise is. Academic books can likewise be agony since, as a student, you must search through hundreds of pages in order to find one quote to validate your thesis, and interacting with the text is a rare experience. With the exception of Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, Socarides’s book is the first academic work that caught my attention and held it. From the first sentence of the introduction her purpose is clear:
This book takes up the question of how Emily Dickinson made her poems, the significance of the materials she used when doing this, and the interpretive possibilities and problems that attention to details of poetic practice raises for a study of this remarkable writer’s work. While Dickinson’s poems have garnered attention from hundreds of critics since her introduction to a reading public wider than family and friends in 1890, we have yet to understand how she made the very texts that have enraptured, puzzled, frustrated, and elated her readers. (3).
Where a writer writes and what the writer writes on is something many people might take for granted. The image of Faulkner at his typewriter or Joyce Carol Oates at her laptop typing away is the immediate image that springs to mind, for the machine has become the standard delivery mechanism of a writer’s prose or verse. For those of us writing in this new page the Word Processor has seemed to become god as we type away trying always and ever to fill up the empty space, never worrying about running out of paper or room. The conflict with this attitude is that it denies the organic nature of process, something Socarides pays attention to.
Emily Dickinson did not have a typewriter, nor did she have a Word Processor. She had pages and letters and sometimes even only fragment to write upon, and her thesis argues how the arrangement, construction, and materials Dickinson composed on directly reveal the creative process of the poet.
Looking at the last chapter she addresses this concern:
By taking her choice of material seriously—not simply as containers or repositories from which a poem can be extracted and lose nothing—I have introduced the idea that we can read Dickinson’s poems […] in relation to her material and compositional practices. The social life of paper that this book has explored now comes to a stunning conclusion as we watch Dickinson take up ads, memoranda, fliers, labels, and countless other scraps of paper in her final years. (130).
I may be jumping to the climax or denouement (fancy-pants word for end) of her argument, but it’s in this last portion where a great relevance not only for Dickinson scholars but also for writers producing today. Socarides presents the poems found in the fascicles (the gathered manuscripts of her collected poems many scholars are still using and debating over today) while also providing images of the various “scraps” the poet wrote on in order to show how the limited space forced Dickinson to adapt her writing accordingly.
Socrarides is able to observe an important facet of Dickinson’s process as a writer:
What my reading of this material artifact and the words that appear on it […] are meant to show is that the wrapper itself (its ability to be folded and creased, its various panels and sides) is the very thing that allows the poem to multiply and intensify its inclination to include variants. As in the case of the advertising flyer, the constraints presented by the material itself forced Dickinson to renegotiate the relationship of space and text, urging her to press against and play off its multiple boundaries. We might say, then, that Dickinson’s choice of these materials makes possible the sometimes-radical reworking of lines that gesture at her desire to keep these poems from coming to an end, even if they eventually do. (157-9).
Looking back then to the archetype of the “modern” writer, perhaps contemporary is a better word, there is a pressing distinction. Dickinson wrote on these small scraps in her later years, and many scholars, as Socarides notes, have interpreted this creative decision to mean that these small poems are drafts rather than actual products. What I like about Socarides argument however is that while she acknowledges this argument, she is able to explore the poet’s process. It’s a twentieth century notion that writing must be compiled into a blank page, printed out, and arranged into a clean crisp book, though as we’re moving forward the eternal white Processor is becoming more and more standard media. Looking at scraps it becomes easy to assume that these are just thoughts or quips taking the poet and that at some point she would compile these later writings into a clean, crisp fascicle like she did with the others. This reveals a presumptuous interpretation of the creative process of Dickinson and Socarides is able to observe this.
Writers have become comfortable with their computers, to the point that mistakes (whether grammatical in nature or misspelled words) are minuscule errors easily fixed by a “spelling and Grammar” search in Microsoft word. Unless the writer is hand writing, or using a typewriter, they do not or cannot appreciate the limitation of space. That endless white dominates their consciousness.
Looking back to my early days as a writer I remember my parent’s typewriter. It was an obscenely bulky beast that you had to carry around in a lopsided suitcase and plug into the wall. I remember the stillness that was its “off” stage, but when you pushed the “on” button it sprung to life, clicking some invisible pendulum endlessly. The typewriter’s heartbeat, and the soft glow of orange light beside the chipped word “On” made the typewriter’s clicking seem like the anxious humming of a hungry beast. When you held the “shift” key to move it into the “caps lock” the clicking would become a steady roar and so you’d drown it out with the heavy “click, click, click, click-click, click-click.” What I remember most however were the mistakes. You had to arrange the paper just right, and if you rotated the nobs on the side and discovered the page was lopsided you had to start over again. This was the first mistake. The other of course were the spelling errors which would of course always appear. “However” was spelled “Howrver” and because paper was used only for printing out school work or invoices the way you fixed this error was going “backspace” and typing a fat, black “X” over each letter before starting over again. The early experiments were what I now refer to as “Jammer’s X Period.”
I can’t imagine going back to that monster. It’s broken and dry now so I’ll never be able to anyway, but as I read Socarides analysis of Dickinson’s later period I remembered a line in a small movie called Shadows in the Sun. The film absorbed my attention when I was young, hungry, and desperate to discover how writers becomes the magical creatures that they are instead of the bloated alcoholic suicides they tend to be in real life. Harvey Keitel plays a novelist and he hands a typewriter to a young man:
Weldon Parish: Writing isn’t supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be hard. Typewriters make you think about the words you choose more carefully, because you can’t erase them with the push of a button.
What exactly is the process of the writer, and is the media they produce writing on explicitly connected to the way they approach writing? I have begun dozens of essays for this blog, typing in a sentence, a feeling, a thought, a title, a joke, a snappy one liner to catch the reader’s attention, but ever always and so there is the sensation that I have only pushed a few buttons to purge myself of that feeling. The words assume some kind of importance but the disconnect between the actual page and myself reduces this sensation. It’s only when I write the words physically that there seems to be a real spark of life, a direct connection because I can feel the paper and recognize the constraints of space. The process is directly connected to the medium.
Socarides makes an interesting point in the afterword when she notes:
Aware of the contours of the paper, Dickinson wrote both with and against them. While Dickinson may have been explicit about this, all writers feel the boundaries of the objects on which they write, and they register the kind of texts that might belong there. In other words, Dickinson could not have been the only poet who treated paper as a mode of knowledge production and sociality. She could not have been the only one to imagine that the surfaces of writing make a difference to the lines written there. (168).
There is much more to Socarides book that the reader should observe and process, for I have offered only a small glimpse of what is surely one of the most exhaustive and readable examinations of Dickinson’s process as a writer. I have merely observed here how, despite the fact her work would be considered “academic writing” her examinations succeed in demonstrating relevance both for scholars of Dickinson as well as composition in general. Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics digs into the creative decisions of one of America’s greatest and most important authors to understand how an artist’s medium can directly affect their work, and those that call themselves writers (as I do) should take notice.
It’s easy to type words on an endless word processor, because there is no limit to what can be produced. Words become just little bricks filling up space rather than meaningful symbols of ideas, emotions, objects, and feelings that the reader should consider deeply. In many ways I see a correlation between this notion and the ideas expressed in much of the academic writing I sift through. Socarides’s book is a wonderful boon then for it reminds me why I wanted to be a scholar and a writer. It’s one thing to fill up pages with words hoping that their complexity and space ultimately mean something to the reader, it’s quite another to consider carefully each word in relation to another so that it doesn’t take an expert to understand another expert.