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Burak, Kathryn: "At That Exact Moment When Poetry Might Change Your Life: Bringing Emily Dickinson into the lives of teen readers through fiction"

At That Exact Moment When Poetry Might Change Your Life: Bringing Emily Dickinson into the lives of teen readers through fiction

Kathryn Burak, Boston University

In my novel for young adults, I called upon both the poetry and home of Emily Dickinson to create a story about a contemporary teen. My presentation will reveal how Dickinson's poetry as well as her "lore" can set the stage for a story of a young woman—a reader and a writer—who is just discovering the power of Dickinson. My novel, Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things, is the story of a young woman who turns to Dickinson's poetry looking for kinship in darkness, but realizes how much light, life, and redemption she can actually find there. At the exact moment she needs it, Dickinson's poetry changes her life.

Claire, the story's main character, finds her solace from grief in the poet's home, which is not far from the house she and her father share in Amherst. Her deceased mother was a Dickinson fan, and Claire senses more than Emily Dickinson's presence in the museum. She feels her mother is there, too. Claire isn’t insane. In a very real sense, through sharing her mother’s love of poetry, her mother is still alive—inside the words and what they evoke. Claire’s mission is to be as close as possible to the words, and in turn, to her mother as well as Dickinson. Claire haunts the homestead; she even dons the poet’s iconic white dress. One evening, startled by a young man who followed her to the house fearing for her state of mind, Claire runs into the night, still wearing the poet's white dress. What follows is Claire's journey through poetry to find out why and how her best friend disappeared, and to come to terms with her mother's mental illness. She ultimately comes to understand that life deals rough cards sometimes, but inside yourself you can find power to overcome it all. Throughout her story, Claire finds a guiding light in Emily Dickinson's words—and of course, her dress.

Poetry can be a guiding light for teens, perhaps even more than any other readers. Poetry, particularly Dickinson’s, might be transformational at a key moment in their lives. I'll read from my book, look at Dickinson's biography, and talk about the importance of authenticity in writing meant for teens: starting with “the real” and working toward fiction.