One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is “The Spider Holds a Silver Ball.” I’ve had some good discussions with students over the years about the poem’s meaning, most of which stem from a disagreement about the character of the spider who creates a web, something substantial, if ephemeral, from what appears to be nothing.
Is the spider devious in his design, enlightened as to its inevitability, or neutral to his art? Does he delight in surpassing our human incapacity for such meticulous and mysterious beauty, or is he oblivious to us, even after we destroy his work?
Dickinson often used nature to get at larger issues, such as in this case the issue of authorship, and what control, if any, an author has over his or her work. Dani Shapiro captures this issue beautifully in Still Writing, when she says, “writing… is an act of faith.” Like the spider, “we writers spend our days making something out of nothing.”
My students felt this acutely over the past month as they wrote their own dystopian short stories. As is often the case, I found that the simplest advice was the most resonant. I said, choose something small that, if different, would fundamentally change life as we know it. In Shapiro’s words, “build a corner.”
Or, in Dickinson’s, start with a single thread.
The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands –
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl – unwinds –
He plies from Nought to Nought –
In unsubstantial Trade –
Supplants our Tapestries with His –
In half the period –
An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light –
Then dangle from the Housewife’s Broom –
His Boundaries – forgot –