Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 23, 2009

A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson by Barbara Dana

On Sunday afternoon I met my friend Burleigh Muten at the Jones Library to hear Barbara Dana read her new novel for teens: A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson. It was fascinating to learn about Barbara Dana’s process for the book which took about ten years to research and write, and to hear her read passages that sent us back in time and seem true to the young poet. That’s a lot of years to spend on a book, but Barbara seemed to hold no regrets. She said Emily would now be with her for the rest of her life, as was Joan of Arc, the subject of an earlier book. That’s good company.

Her research, she said, included talking with Dickinson scholars, a few of whom were in the audience. As a researcher, she first tries to find out everything she can, then, as a novelist, uses her imagination to fill in places where no record was left. She worked to get the voice right partly by playing tapes of Julie Harris reading Dickinson’s poems and letters over and over, while driving, doing dishes, or walking the dog, sometimes listening closely, other times letting the words be background to something else. Barbara acts as well as writes, and spoke of how she brings her acting into her writing process. Drawing from an exercise taught by drama teacher Uta Hagen, Barbara researches and considers aspects of clothing, habits, morals, language, buildings special to an era, then equally considers all the elements of a life that don’t change because of time and place. As an actor and writer, she tries to bring that experience-in-common to the specifics of another person.

She spent long times in archives, as well as walking through her bedroom and garden. In the special collections at Amherst College she saw Emily’s old Latin book and a lock of hair.
She spoke of being introduced to Emily Dickinson and her work by seeing Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst on Broadway. This summer, Barbara will perform that one-woman play for that Emily Dickinson International Society conference in Regina, Canada.

I look forward to reading the novel, which covers the time when Emily was nine to twenty-four. It is beautifully produced with a sepia toned cover, and reddish tones in both Emily’s hair and the fur of her beloved Newfoundland, Carlo.

April, Poetry Month, is going to be filled with other great Emily Dickinson events as Amherst celebrates its 250th anniversary and participates in The Big Read. For more information, check out

The talk was also co-sponsored by as well as the Jones Library in Amherst, Mass. one of my favorite spots on earth. But I’d never been in the beautiful Trustees Room on the third floor. Here’s a shot I took of one corner, with a mummy case that enchanted me but is apparently not so universally beloved. A librarian told me that it had been made to stash cassettes and was one of those gifts no one quite knew what to do with. Anyone need a mummy case?



  1. How wonderful! I so admire writers who put… well I can’t quite think of the right words… but SO MUCH into creating a book.

  2. Such dedication! Yay for authors!
    My daughter is reading the ARC of this book. Can’t wait for my turn.

  3. Certainly she had — I would hope — some moments of pulling out hair, but yesterday afternoon, she seemed at peace with the process and product. It was lovely — and afterward Burleigh gave me her new manuscript (three years) to read. I’m excited!

  4. That’s cool your daughter is reading the arc. I wasn’t sure where to put this on my very large pile which includes Winnie’s War and not, I’m afraid, Joyce Hostetter’s latest, but her next to latest. Yikes! I’m not sure whether to make it take its place in line, or go with the Dickinson theme as it’s the 250 anniversary of Amherst, so there are some other Dickinson readings I might get to.
    If you get back to Harvard, you should check out the Dickinson collection which I believe includes original furniture, though I could be wrong. Amherst College seemed to get the lock of hair while Harvard got the bulk, due to politics and scandals of the time… ( you can see why it takes ED scholars a long time to figure all this out)
    It was fun to hear about your trip! I await the bookstore name!

  5. “If you get back to Harvard . . . “: Please, yes.
    I’d like to visit Amherst too. I also wanted to go to Concord, but no time. So much to see. I should just move. 🙂

  6. You’ve certainly…
    …picqued my interest in this book, author and the museums, links, etc.
    ~ an Emily fan

  7. Re: You’ve certainly…
    Oh, good, I’m honored to pique such an ED fan! I’m adding another link to my post as April will be filled with more ED tributes. I’ve penciled in the April 4 event with John Barr and Marilyn Nelson. Let me know if you can go and we can meet! Other events might work for me, too, but unfortunately I’m busy on the parade to the cemetary day.

  8. the April 4 event
    I’ll let you know, thanks!

  9. I bought the book two weeks ago, and it’s on the top of my TBR pile at present. I read the first few chapters in the store, and the voice is well-done. Also? The book has research resources and notes about which Dickinson poems she borrowed from or referenced here and there. I’m very stoked to read it.

  10. I liked the voice, too, from the part I heard and read and look forward to hearing more of your impressions. And yes, what sweet notes in the back. I like the list of phrases she borrowed to put in the text. Good April reading!

  11. I read “it had been made to stash cassettes” as ” it had been made to stash cigarettes.” Yes, I have the mind of a former delinquent. I was thinking “What a great hiding place!”
    I don’t smoke anymore so I guess I’ll take a pass on the mummy. Thanks, anyway.

  12. The thing about a mummy case, is that you can stash whatever you like in there. But that would be an awful lot of cigarettes.

  13. True. Maybe chocolate? You can never have too much of that, right?

  14. April 4th!
    Egad! It’s here!!!
    My schedule—regretfully—is way too crowded to fit this in.
    What a bummer…. 😦
    I look forward to your report in your future posts.

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