Category: Famous Authors

How to write like Emily Dickinson

She wore all white, she hid herself away from the world, and she was an urban legend in her hometown. She also wrote some of the most unusual and enduring poetry of all time — and nobody but Emily Dickinson herself realized it until after her death.

Who is Emily Dickinson?

Nineteenth-century American lyric poet Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems, but only 10 were published in her lifetime, which began in 1830 and ended in 1886. After living all her 55 years in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was memorialized as a master gardener fascinated by botany and an eccentric recluse rather than as a poet.

Dickinson grew up in a strict, religious household ruled by evangelical Calvinism. She and her younger sister, Lavinia, never married and lived at home with their parents all their lives. Her older brother, Austin, did eventually marry, but only moved as far away as next door.

Though Dickinson eventually gained small-town notoriety as a shut-in, she wasn’t a true hermit, especially early in life. During her childhood and teenage years, she attended Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. As a young woman, she entertained guests, went to events in town, and was a frequent visitor at her brother’s house.

Dickinson started writing poetry in her teens, creating the majority of her poems between 1861 and 1865 — years which coincided with the American Civil War. Fully two-thirds of her poetic output occurred before 1866.

That year, a series of personal tragedies struck. Her beloved dog died, her mother was bedridden, and Dickinson was obliged to take on the household chores when the family lost their servant. She stopped going out, stopped communicating with friends except through letters, and stopped interacting with visitors to the house (though she would occasionally leave them poems and floral gifts from her garden). She started wearing all white. And this is how she continued to live for the final 15 years of her life. During this latter period, she wrote, on average, 35 poems per year.

Her first major publication came in 1890, four years after her death, when a collection of her poems was published under the title Poems. Dickinson’s idiosyncratic diction, grammar, meter, and rhyme were all edited to conform to contemporary poetic conventions, and titles were added to her untitled poems. A full collection of authentic versions of her poems — including “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” and “Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant” — wasn’t published until more than 100 years later in 1998.

 

Write like Emily Dickinson in three easy steps
(plus one bonus step!)

Step 1: Watch Gilligan’s Island

Dickinson was a lyric poet, writing verses in a style similar to the vocal music of the hymns and ballads of her time. Lyric poems have been around for more than 500 years and are typically short, express the feelings of a single protagonist (often the poet herself), and give the overall impression that they could be sung, should you happen upon the right tune.

Enter Gilligan’s Island.

Structurally, Dickinson’s poems were frequently written in common meter: four lines per stanza and an alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter pattern having a stressed-unstressed rhythm, (or, put more simply, an 8-6-8-6 syllable pattern in which the words read as STRESSED SYLLABLE, unstressed syllable).

Common meter is very popular with writers of vocal music. This is why you can easily sing Dickinson’s poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” also works.

 

Step 2: Stop and smell the roses. Then add death.

Dickinson’s poems are elusive, evasive, first-person narratives that hide as much as they express. Her keen interest in the natural world, her religious faith, and her struggle to express emotions best kept repressed according to the mores of her time all contributed to a wholly original poetic style.

Bees, flowers, the sun, the woods, or even the great indoors were all favorite subjects. Take a walk in a park or sit in your backyard, and write down what you see and hear.

Now add death. And immortality. But don’t go all goth on us; don’t mistake Dickinson’s understanding of immortality for some kind of cool vampire existence. It isn’t about fame-mongering, either. This immortality is of the religious salvation variety.

While you’re at it, embrace your daddy issues and put in an aloof god-father-master figure who’s also an imaginary lover to whom you chastely submit yourself. Add a couple more flowers, a beam of sunlight, a dash of existential loneliness, and you’re done.

 

Step 3: Listen to some hip hop

To get the Dickinson flavor, you need to slant a few of your rhymes, then meddle with the meter you worked so hard to master.

What’s slant rhyme, you ask? If you’ve listened to hip hop, you’ve encountered slant rhyme. The best way to describe it is to say it’s words that almost rhyme, but not quite.

One of my favorite (and druggiest) examples comes from Dead Obies towards the end of their song, “Montréal $ud

Sorry bruh, been hard to reach
Tell Momma that it wasn’t me
I’ll be home in a couple weeks
With a duffle bag and a pound of weed
For real.

In this stanza, each end-line word slant rhymes with all the others (the “ee” sound).

As for meter, Dickinson wasn’t always strict about the regularity of her iambs, occasionally relaxing the strictures of the common meter to allow a syllable to slip in or out. Whether Dickinson actually intended to include slant rhymes in her poems, and whether her verse was meant to vary in meter is debatable (by yours truly, at least).

My theory? The regional dialect of early- to mid-19th century New England, coupled with variations in poetic pronunciation might have allowed some of Dickinson’s slant rhymes to be read as full rhymes, and the syllables in certain words to increase or decrease.

One need look no further for an example of this phenomenon than the two American pronunciations of the word “poem.” A recent online debate over whether the word is pronounced with two syllables (“poh-em”) or one (“pome”) illustrates the point.

Using the contested word, it’s quite easy to create two poems that will or will not display correct meter and a full rhyme, depending on your U.S. regional speech pattern.

“Poem” as a two-syllable word:

I have a pair of socks with holes
I really need to sew ‘em
I meant to do it, truthfully!
Instead, I wrote this poem.

And as a single-syllable word:

I went into the library
And grabbed a weighty tome
I kept it, though it’s overdue.
It’s where I wrote this poem.

To get an idea of what Dickinson may have sounded like, listen to a recording of President Calvin Coolidge, who grew up in New England and was educated at Amherst College in Dickinson’s hometown during the 1890s.

 

Bonus points: Add some dashes and capitalize the nouns

The original versions of Dickinson’s poems are marked by odd capitalizations and unexpected dashes. Though often characterized as unique to her writing style, they’re more likely a product of her early 19th-century education. A contemporary book, A Grammar of the English Language: For the Use of Schools, believed to have been part of the curriculum during Dickinson’s time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, prescribes the same use of dashes for transitions and dramatic pauses, as well as capitalization for common nouns when serving as personified concepts like “Love” or “Glory.”

 

Emily Dickinson dash

Emily Dickinson capitalization

 

Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization in action:

Hope is the thing with feathers

As you can see, the dashes are modest, no larger than periods, almost stray marks. And the capitalizations are unobtrusive.

In its dashless, conventionally capitalized and punctuated state, the poem is rendered:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

But some versions double-down on the dashes, transforming them from scant hyphens into meaty M-dashes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Which do you prefer? Personally, I like the dashes. I’m not completely sold on the capitalizations, however. You can see how this hybrid approach to Dickinson’s style worked in a poem at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

How to write like Ernest Hemingway

This is the big Kahuna. The guy with an app named after him. The generalissimo of sturdy, stark, macho American prose. The one and only author that your dad, your boss, your pothead roommate, your English teacher, and that Guy in Your MFA all agree is a Good Writer™.

Can you learn to write like America’s most consistently admired author? Indeed you can. But there are five very important steps you must take.

Who is Ernest Hemingway?

20th-century novelist, short story author, and journalist Ernest Hemingway was born about 10 miles outside of Chicago in 1899. After a boyhood straight out of Boys’ Life — hunting and fishing at a cabin in Michigan in the summer; boxing, football, and other competitive sports during the school year — he went straight from high school to a newspaper job.

After a stint of World War I military service, Hemingway spent the 1920s writing in Paris. Besides churning out scintillating prose for the Toronto Star, such as his 1922 article, “A Canadian with $1,000 a Year Can Live Very Comfortably and Enjoyably in Paris,” and hanging out with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway began to produce fiction. In 1926, he published the novel that put him on the map: The Sun Also Rises.

The hits kept coming: a book of short stories titled Men Without Women in 1927, the novel A Farewell to Arms in 1929, the war-time novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, and your grandpa’s favorite novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which gained a wide audience thanks to its publication in Life magazine in 1952 and garnered Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize.

Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He committed suicide in 1961 at his house just outside of Idaho’s famed Sun Valley ski resort.

What’s so special about Ernest Hemingway’s writing?

Hemingway’s extremely simple, journalistic writing style was a breath of fresh air to the post-war literary landscape of the 1920s. It’s a style that remained largely unchanged throughout his career, and it still appeals to 21st-century readers both casual and scrupulous. Whether you’re a kid halfway through the fourth grade or a grad student, a CEO or a factory worker, Hemingway’s precise deployment of nouns and verbs can make a complicated scene come to life.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was a warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.

“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

No muss, no fuss. No SAT vocabulary words. No semi-colons. No exclamation points! No adverbs. Nearly no adjectives. It’s a writing style any English-speaker can understand, yet through the power of rhythm, repetition, and ironic understatement, it rises above the clunky naiveté found in basically-worded texts like children’s books or school essays.

Write like Hemingway in five easy steps

Let’s Hemingway-ify what many consider to be the worst piece of prose ever written in the English language.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with.

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Step 1. Simplify the sentences
All those run-on sentences, taped together with semi-colons and commas? Turn them into simple sentences. If you’ve got more than twelve words in a sentence, cut five. If you’re concerned that your sentences are too short, staple three at time together with ands.

Step 2. Delete all the adverbs
While you’re at it, delete most of the adjectives, too. And substitute one-syllable words for any words more than three syllables.

Step 3. Change the setting to Spain or Paris
And make sure a world war is underway. Don’t forget to mention the names of the streets your protagonist walks down and landmarks they glimpse.

Step 4. Make sure your protagonist is a manly man
Don’t describe him. Give him a manly sport to engage in: a rugged, dangerous activity that’s typically done solo. Bullfighting, fishing, and big-game hunting are all safe bets. If he feels an emotion, we don’t want to hear about it. Should a woman happen to stray into your story, keep her at arm’s length for the reader with a vague, slightly unsympathetic characterization.

Step 5. Add alcohol
Your characters should always be drinking. Do not mention famous name-brands, but do state the specific type of liquor they are consuming. They can get drunk, but never sentimental. Sentimentality has no place in Hemingway’s prose style.

Okay, let’s take a look at our Hemingway-ified text:

It was night and it was dark and rain was falling on the streets of Paris. The rain fell hard and the wind blew along the rooftops and the yellow flames in the street lamps flickered.

Nick Adams walked down the Rue des Criminels. He walked alone. He went into the bar in the Hotel de Chien for a glass of fine de Bordeaux but there was none tonight because the supply lines had been cut by the Germans. He walked to the Rue de St. Martin to buy a newspaper. The evening edition was sold out. He asked for the bullfight reports from Barcelona and paid the old woman two francs for the papers and went back out into the rain.

Your turn! Are you trying to write ad copy that will appeal to a broad audience? An essay for school? A business report for work? Then Hemingway’s unadorned, direct-to-the point, jargon-free style will serve you well.

Just don’t, um, include the booze.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers & Candy” series, at the-delve.com.