“Dickinson” creator and showrunner Alena Smith has always worked from home, but during the COVID-19 pandemic she spent more time in that space than ever before, even going so far as to turn it into a part-time yoga studio.
In order for it to be a place where she can both unwind and work, she keeps it “obsessively neat,” she says. “I’m an anti-hoarder. If there is something in my space, I’ve definitely considered it and decided to keep it there.”
She looks forward to resuming a writers’ room and post-production sessions in person not only for the camaraderie they offer, but also because “lately it’s been like the whole entire world got collapsed into this room, and I would like this to go back to being my retreat.”
By Her Hand
Since Smith likes to keep her workspace clutter free, the majority of her journals, which she has kept since she was in her early 20s, are in boxes in storage. But she always keeps one on hand for problem-solving. “There are parts of my process that I can only do by hand,” she says. “I feel like I’m allowed to make more mistakes in the journal than I am on a computer.” All of her earliest ideas for “Dickinson” were worked out this way, and now that she is writing the third season, she is using this current book to “figure out the final episode,” she says. “I’m making a list of the different characters, stories, the themes, some of the questions on Emily’s mind.”
The Art of Zen
After practicing yoga for two decades — and even training others — Smith had to bring the studio inside her home during the pandemic, which resulted in her purchasing “a lot of props” for her Zoom workouts. “It’s very slow and gentle and about connecting with your own anatomy, but you’re using balls to roll out and self-massage and stuff like that,” she says. When she’s not meeting with her Minneapolis-based yoga instructor for sessions, she tries to keep every – thing tucked away, but she admits her kids often “come in, take all my yoga stuff out, build something and say that they’re captains sailing on a boat made of yoga stuff.”
Icons and Inspiration
Almost every writers’ room features a white board, on which staffers jot down ideas as they are working on scripts, but in Smith’s home office, she keeps a bulletin board full of eclectic but “treasured” images that speak to her. One that has a prime spot is an image of what Smith thinks is twin girls that “Dickinson” set decorator Marina Parker found during her research period. “It never made it into the show, but it hung in my office for Season 2 because I thought it was such a cool picture — and I also have twins,” Smith says. As new moods hit, Smith will switch out images — a recent addition is a basketball card of Michael Jordan she found “when I was stuck at my parents’ house at the beginning part of COVID,” she says with a laugh.
Keeping the Past Present
Although in many instances Smith says she likes to fill her workspace with things that help her “focus on what’s at hand,” that doesn’t mean she doesn’t pay homage to her previous projects. A special spot on her wall features framed posters of two of her plays: “Plucker” and “The Bad Guys.” The former is a farce that centers on commitment issues and counts a parrot as a main character, while the latter is a buddy drama about betrayal that was also adapted into a feature film. “Even when I’m writing the most emotionally truthful stories, I think there’s a touch of surrealism to them,” Smith reflects on her work.
On prominent display in Smith’s home office is a shelf of books by and about Emily Dickinson and the time period in which she lived. These are “the books I made the show out of,” Smith says, noting she still returns to these books to check facts or “to get in the zone” to write about the famed poet. In addition to Dickinson’s book of poems and biographies about her, she keeps ones featuring “surrealist collages made by women” and “some pretty intense theory books” in order to provide additional ideas, both for the visuals of her series, as well as to aid in themes, such as “how people dealt with grief in the 19th century.” Organized by subject, they are heavy with bookmarks, flags and underlining that mark Smith’s continued use through the years.