Sparks and Brush Strokes: What Storytellers Can Learn from Emily Dickinson

by Jay O’Callahan

ocallahanEmily Dickinson was an artist who worked at her craft as we storytellers do. She worked with metaphor, cadence, rhythm, rhyme, character and shape. One critic called her a primitive in that she saw everything as if it was there for the first time. She can teach us about surprise and about the importance of searching for a brief phrase, a brush stroke that brings a moment alive.

In one poem she writes, “The moon was but a chin of gold.” A chin of gold is so much more interesting than a sliver of gold. She writes again about the moon saying,

Her Bonnet is the Firmament
The universe her shoe.

I can imagine when Emily wrote that line, “the universe her shoe” she might have jumped up, clapped her hands. She thought deeply and originally about life and yet she kept something of the joy of girlhood always with her. She searches for the word. She writes, “Night keeps fetching stars.” It’s that word “fetching” that is unusual and we’re glad she found it. Or “The wind tapped like a tired man.” Again we are surprised.

What I hope to do in the workshop is to work with “sparks”, simple words that evoke memories that are simply waiting to emerge. Those memories are often fresh and in them we find a brush stroke or a word or a metaphor that’s new.

Emily Dickinson’s flood subject was living and dying. She’s interested in all of life. Some of her verses are full of hard questions. Are her prayers heard? Is there life beyond the grave? “God’s Right Hand . . . / is amputated now / and God cannot be found –” She’s often frustrated, sad, hurt, yet writes a letter to Elizabeth Holland in October of 1870 that,

Life is the finest secret.
So long as that remains, we must all whisper.

Dickinson reminds us that ordinary life is quite amazing. And that is her subject. Again she writes, “Drama’s Vitallest expression is the Common Day.” What can be more common than news? There is always news. So a poem begins,

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

That last line, “From Immortality”, is unexpected and not only surprises us, it enlarges us. It reminds us that there is something vast about this business of living.

In the workshop in addition to working with “sparks” and brush strokes, we’ll explore telling things at a slant. She writes,

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies

And she finishes the poem

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Dickinson challenges us to find the right word, to see life freshly, and to explore all of life through our art – storytelling.

About Jay

Jay O’Callahan takes a bare stage and single-handedly transforms it into a dynamic and sensitive world filled with compelling characters.  He has performed at festivals and theaters throughout the world, including at the Olympics, and been applauded by the media, including The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. The Associated Press trumpeted him as “a theater troupe inside one body.” Time Magazine dubbed Jay “a genius.”

Jay has received numerous awards for his performances, books, and media and also is a regular contributor to National Public Radio.  Don’t miss your chance to learn from him on this blog topic at the 2013 National Storytelling Conference, August 1-4, in Richmond, Virginia:

Contact Jay


4 thoughts on “Sparks and Brush Strokes: What Storytellers Can Learn from Emily Dickinson”

  1. Jay, You have done what my high school English teacher could not do: you have made me want to read Emily Dickenson. You are correct – she does have a penchant for choosing just the right word, one the reminds us life is not ordinary. Every day is amazing.

  2. You make me remember the 4 middle school boys who made a barbershop quartet performance (in about 5 minutes) from E. D.’s poem that goes, I think “Some say, when a word is said that it is dead.
    I say, it just begins to live that day.”
    The boys sang “some say” 4 times on different notes, fell dead and then sprang back to life. They all took a bow at the end. I could IMAGINE their straw hats and striped jackets like the Buffalo Bills singing in The Music Man. Thanks for the memory – thanks to E.D. barbershop harmony alive in the world and middle school boys’ imaginative frivolity!

  3. Jay, your discussion of Emily Dickinson reminds me of the wonderful time I had at your workshop in Cohassett, Massachusetts last summer where you helped us craft better stories by adding details for our listeners to flesh-in the people and places we told about.
    Your noting the “surprise” words that Dickinson puts into her poems calls to mind the last word of a blessing by William Sloane Coffin which I use at the conclusion of my President John Adams portrayals at the end of the Q&A to give my performance a punctuation with a snap.
    It goes like this: “May God give us the grace to know that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.” No one expects the word “love” and everyone is delighted by it.

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