Auction of the Mind

Today brings a peppery dismissal of the dirty business of publishing. Emily does not favor it.

#709, c. 1863

Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man —
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly — but We — would rather
From Our Garret go
White — Unto the White Creator —
Then invest — Our Snow —

Thought belong to Him who gave it —
Then — to Him who bear
Its Corporeal illustration — Sell
The Royal Air —

In the Parcel — Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace —
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price —

Emily, my goodness, why such a snoot? It’s okay to publish. Try not to think of it as selling your soul, but sharing your soul. Sharing is good, right?

Okay, I know why this bothers her. It bothers me too, but not for the same reasons. Furthermore I don’t entirely buy Emily’s rejection of publication as somehow a degradation of her poems as emanations of her spirit. After all, she did send a parcel to the learned reader Mr. Higginson to ask if her poems “breathed”. She wanted to know if they were alive. I love that she made her poems into living entities. Clearly she saw them as beings separate from her, that she would send out to live in the world on their own. Did they breathe? Did they have legs? Could they be published?

Writing is a tool for communicating one person’s ideas and experiences into the mind of another person. The symbols have meaning, and the system of symbols we’ve conceived as writing is the way one idea gets to its destination into the mind of another person. Without that tool that makes a record of the thoughts, no one else would get it. Publication is just the next step in the process that begins when any one of us picks up a pen and a notebook. Publication moves that record farther out into the wider world so that more people may receive what the writer has recorded. The mistake is thinking that publication matters more than the initial writing in the notebook—the quiet private conversation between writer and page.

What begins in privacy will want to move into the larger world. A child is conceived and nurtured in the dark, out of sight. Eventually that child must enter the world and be seen. The same with the poems.

Some say: Why bother trying to publish at all? Just write what you want. Forget about publication. It’s all a trap anyway. Just write and enjoy! Writing for money is like having sex for money. It takes all the joy out of it. Hmmmm . . . . not sure what I think about that. Will let it stand for the moment.

Emily’s point is a good one, the one about reducing human spirit to disgrace of price. The money part of publication is sticky. As soon as money enters into the process, the excitement of pure creativity deflates. Money sets up a standard that has nothing to do with telling a good story. That makes it hard to accept money for your writing and still preserve the living, breathing center of the work. Like selling your baby.

Unfortunately writers do not live on air and sunlight. They live in homes, wear clothes and eat food just like regular people. It’s troubling, I know, but true.

Also I can’t help but think that Emily speaks from a rather privileged place. She lived in her father’s house all her life and was not required (as far as I know) to do anything in the world to earn her keep. She was free to follow the wanderings of her imagination because someone else was providing her livelihood. I am grateful to Emily’s father that he was willing and able to support her because if he had not, we would not have this big, fat book of poems now. It is an ugly fact of writing that it must be subsidized or the writer will perish. (I hear Virginia Woolf humming in the back of my mind right now. That’s where she keeps her room of her own.)

At this writing, I am mindful of the fact that two of my former students from my creative writing workshop recently had their work published. One wrote the cover story for our local weekly paper. The other has published his first novel. Both are over the moon. Happy. Simply joyful to see their work realized in the world. I know how that feels. It’s a total rush. No doubt about it. There is something undeniably magical and purely pleasurable in seeing your “baby”, something you crafted from your own imagination . . . (I would argue that everyone, even the journalists and non-fiction folk are crafting from imagination) . . . out there, externalized, whole, complete . . . and making sense to someone else. That’s what we live for. It never gets any better than that.

The first time this happened for me was in the third grade. I wrote a poem for the school newspaper. The poem described a sunrise, comparing it to a newborn fawn while hundreds of dewdrops greet the dawn, etc. It was a work of genius, rhymed and everything. When it was published, my mother read it aloud at the dinner table for my family. She smiled as she read, her gaze directed downward to the page. I still have a visual memory in my mind’s eye, an image of her lips as they spoke the words I had written. In that instant, it all clicked into place. I come up with the ideas and the words, those go onto the page, someone else reads it. And likes it! Gets it! This was power. Immense. I was eight years old, and I had found my calling. This is what I would do with the rest of my life. I have never been more happy or more tortured since.

(Writing is like a mad, bad boyfriend that I am besotted with and can’t get away from. Still, it works for us.)

I’ll close by saying that Emily is privileged and so can afford her lofty refusal to “Sell/ the Royal Air”. The rest of us are not so fortunate. Yet, I am glad to have Emily, once again, glad that she has enjoyed her privilege, her safety, her tidy home life. All that made it possible for her to remain faithful to an ideal the rest of us can’t afford. We need her and her sterling clarity, to hold something pure at the center. The reason we do this. Otherwise we might forget.

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