“Publication – is the auction of the Mind of Man.”

Fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s poems – including the one above – were published during her lifetime. Yet Dickinson kept writing poetry, adding to her backlist of poems until she had written something like 1800 of them. Maybe, just maybe, she valued writing poetry more than being published.

Many of our clients ask if we can help them get published. Sometimes they ask this even before they have a book to be published in whatever sense they are talking about publication (this is a term with many definitions these days). We think they are missing the point – and we always say we are here to help writers improve what they have written.

This goes back to our previous blog in which we shared the idea that writing is a gift. If this is true, if the words that come to the writer are a gift, is it appropriate to think of selling them or at least, to think only of selling them?

Harvard fellow and teacher at Kenyon College, Lewis Hyde, whose hypothesis this is, says, “…works of art exist simultaneously in two ‘economies,’ a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”

When readers read something that informs them or moves them or even entertains them, they too are receiving a gift. And Hyde believes that an artist’s gift needs to be re-gifted in this way in order to remain a gift. If so, the more appropriate question for writers to ask is, how can my work inform, move, entertain. Publication may or may not follow.

Dickinson’s poems fit none of the conventions of 19th century poetry. They were too short; their punctuation was odd. The ones published during her lifetime were heavily edited. No wonder she had such a dim view of publication:

Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man —
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly — but We — would rather
From Our Garret go
White — Unto the White Creator —
Than invest — Our Snow —

Thought belong to Him who gave it —
Then — to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration — Sell
The Royal Air —

In the Parcel — Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace —
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price —