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When Should a Writer Stop Changing Words?

James visits the Dickinson Museum for some writing lessons.

Vacation usually conjures up visions of beaches and days of mindlessness. If you’re like me, though, and you can’t turn off your brain and relax, then you might turn vacations into educational experiences. And that’s why I wanted to go to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass., this summer. My girlfriend was slightly less enthusiastic. But she had fun—or so she said.

As a self-proclaimed Dickinson scholar, I did not know how much I would learn. After all, I started reading her work at age 14 and once wrote an essay about her poem “I Heard a fly Buzz When I died.” But my mind exploded during the hour-and-a-half-long tour of The Homestead, where Emily grew up, and The Evergreens, her brother’s house next door.

What was my favorite part? This is harder to answer than you might expect, especially if you’re like my aunt who has lived in the area her whole life and never heard anyone say they wanted to go to the Emily Dickinson Museum. But there were plenty of high points. I promise.

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One highlight was standing in a large parlor where the socialites Austin and his wife Susan entertained Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others.

But the greatest thing I learned had to do with words and Emily’s indecisiveness. On the tour, the guide showed us prints of some of Emily’s manuscripts and pointed out a few eccentricities. Next to some of the words there were plus signs, and in the margins sat corresponding plus signs with a list of alternative words. Why? Because Emily didn’t know what she wanted.

In the room across the hallway from Emily’s room, which was being renovated while we were visiting, there was a sitting room. On the wall hung a big board inscribed with one of her poems. But some spaces were cut out, with the words on a slider, and visitors could choose which words should fill in the space. As the tour guide said, you could create an original Dickinson poem. You could make the choices that Emily ignored.

These choices are hard for writers, who are constantly revising, even after something has been published. Writers regularly change the verbiage of their poems and stories for public readings. And there are myths about writers who go into their local Barnes and Noble and edit their published works.

But the Myth of Amherst, as neighbors referred to Emily, is a real version of these tales. She never finished her work and became famous anyway.

So here’s a word to all of the genius wordsmiths out there: if you can’t decide which word fits best, make sure that you have a good editor who is familiar with your work. That way, when you die and leave almost all of your work to be posthumously published, you will still become a legend.