Booking is open for the next Kent Festival of Writing. Stella Duffy is the keynote speaker, with workshops from writers including Emma Darwin, Julie Cohen, Andy Miller – and me! Why not join us for a great day of writing?
Today, Brain Pickings reminded me it was the death-a-versary of one of my favourite writers. I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath a lot. In a workshop last week, I played a recording of her reading “Daddy”. It landed in the room like something foul, something rotten. Faces were made, awkward shiftings in fold-down chairs in the lecture hall. Not a one of the students liked it and I wondered why. Perhaps there is something about her voice, arch and brittle, distinctly New England, that put them off? Maybe they’d already had too much of her at A-level or maybe, I thought with horror, they couldn’t relate her anymore, that time had eroded her power or interest, that she was dated, passe’, irrelevant. Could it be so – for them?
Sylvia Plath died before I was born and I cannot get enough of her. We all have triggers, things that will make us pick up a book faster than seems humanly possible. I tell myself I know everything there is to know about Sylvia Plath – poetess and cuckold, doomed wife and mother, misunderstood teen-woman with her oven and her milk and cookies and her tragic rolls of tape – but she is my trigger. Any reference to her on a jacket, in a blurb, and the book is at the till with my debit card out faster than you can say Lady Lazarus – but why? Why does she have such a hold on me, still?
Ariel set me on the road to feminism. A budding playwright, I was a Ted-hater way back, in emotional solidarity with those who repeatedly scratched the Hughes from her tombstone. I have long since repented of this vandalism; I do adore Ted Hughes, though not nearly with the passion I reserve for Sylvia. On a recent residency at Yaddo, whose bedroom did I need to see first? Whose books did I search for at the library? Reader, it was I. At Yaddo, Plath wrote poems for The Colossos, for Ariel was still many dark winters ahead of her, and spent eleven weeks working alongside Hughes in what seems to be a happy time for both of them; she writes often of their stay in Letters Home, the collection of her correspondence from 1950 – 1963. The knowledge that she had stood in the library, running her fingers along the spines, was thrilling. Reading my work aloud in the room where I knew she had nearly undid me.
Many come to Sylvia through The Bell Jar, which seems to have become a YA book since I was a young adult. Were I one now, I might have found my way to Plath through Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, where traumatised teens in a New England boarding school find peace and connection though Special Topics in English and a journal they must fill. Of course, the journal affords them magical adventures of memory, time travel, and redemption, and I loved it. There isn’t a huge amount of Plath in this Belzhar, but I think she’s there in that teenage passion, the wounds that cut and refuse to heal, memories that feel as if the world has ended, before we outgrow such wonderfully painful things.
Recently, I found a young Sylvia in Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Elizabeth Winder painstakingly reconstructs four weeks in Plath’s life as a guest editor for the Mademoiselle magazine’s annual college issue, inspecting and illuminating events from her point of view, through her journals and letters, as well as interviewing fellow guest editors, some of whom would end up, often only slightly rewritten, in The Bell Jar. There are wonderful photographs, sidebars on period culture and fashion, and kernels of the work to come, as well as a thorough examination of what seems to have been expected of women at the time and how Plath was already balking.
Of course, there are a kabillion biographies of Sylvia Plath, and they’re all good, in their various ways, combing over the wealth of materials and journals and diaries that she produced. Leaving those to one side, I admire works that are inspired by her, that strive to feel like her. Kate Moses’ Wintering is a “novel of Sylvia Plath”, set during the last few months of her life. Chapters are arranged in the order of the Ariel poems as Plath intended, not in the order of the collection as Hughes saw fit to publish after her death. You probably do have to be a hardcore Plath-fan to love Wintering, but there is much to admire. It isn’t easy. The terrain and the language are rich, dense, and evocative. Here and there, Moses does slip under the poet’s skin, right where we want to be.
Often, Sylvia is only a ghost and no more so than in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just months prior to his death. A collection of poems that he seems to have written over his long life, they show how he was haunted by her actions and his own. They show him trying to pin her down, to understand what happened and how he was, and was not, responsible. They are love letters and question marks, elegies to who she was and who he was. In last week’s workshop, I also shared a few poem by Ted Hughes – Pike and The Thought Fox – and told them the story of their marriage and its demise, and I thought again, as the students finally sat up with interest, how dogged the two were, and always will be, by the drama of their lives.
A recent addition to the Hughes/Plath canon is the novella/essay/fable/miracle by editor and writer Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, wherein a black crow comes to rescue a man unhinged by the death of his wife and his two motherless boys. Crow, Hughes’ talisman, is billed as “antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter”. He arrives at the door like a dark-winged Mary Poppins and says he will stay until they don’t need him anymore. Throughout the book, Crow teases, soothes, and torments them, inserts himself into poetry and history, and helps them remember how it feels to live. Reading it, having recently lost my own mother, I sobbed like a kitten. I can hardly bear to open the book now, but it went straight onto the shelf of favourite books in the Blue House and sits there now beside Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich and my battered copy of Ariel, all flanking a faded, curling picture of me as a child, head bent, examining my thumb with pain and wonder – a first splinter or graze, I think, the moment where I seem to understanding something about the world and deciding whether or not I will cry. There is something about pain and wonder in all of these books. Is it any wonder I keep going back to them, sharing them with students, and holding them so close?
Happy February. For the whole of January I barely wrote. No blog posts, no rewriting. Not a single morning page. This, in particular, felt odd for me. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I am a great fan of morning pages, Dorothea Brande’s suggestion that writers seek to work in a way that is uncensored, barely conscious – to begin the writing before the critic in our brain is awake. It’s why I am a morning writer and why I reach for 750words.com of a morning, before almost anything (this does not include tea, I hasten to add). But with the turning of a new year, I’d lost my mojo. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt my words had all dried up. I felt stuck in the past of what had been, frankly, a year of misery, and anxious to turn the calendar page and start again. But how?
My old ways weren’t working. There was no comfort to be found in writing – or reading. I didn’t know how to find the resilence to begin again – again – nor any idea of how to quit. Salvation came in an email from The Pigeonhole. Could I read Moby-Dick for the month of January, one Stave at a time? (Why this email? Why then? Why anything that calls to a ragged heart and bids it answer?) I had never been particularly interested in the idea of reading Moby-Dick. I’m more a Hawthorne girl: among the Concord clan, I thought Melville had little enough to say to me, a pagan vegetarian from the West. What could he teach me of life when he only solely interested in men, harpoons, and sperm? (Spoiler: there’s rather a lot of sperm in Moby-Dick: sperm oil, spermaceti, a good dollop of testosterone, and buckets of blood.) But I was desperate. I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and see how it felt.
Day 1, the Stave was rather dull. A preface, but easily enough digested with a bit of a day-after-night-champagne head. Day 2, with the introduction of “Call Me Ishmael” and his shameless love for the dashing cannibal, Queequeg, I was well and truly hooked.
Day by day, I succumbed to the pleasure of Melville’s language – a true delight. I could feel myself filling up with vocabulary – arcane, Nantucketian, whale-centric. Somehow, I thrilled to their chases and dazzling escapes – because, of course, it is wonderful writing. Playful, inventive, surprising – but also filled with great affection. Having fallen head-over-heels for Queequeg, my heart made room for Daggoo and Tashtego, the laugh-out-loud Stubb and Flask, the noble Starbuck. I found myself caring every bit as much for troubled Ahab as I did his great white whale. It is a rare thing (for me, now) to want a book to never end. (As a child, I wanted every book to be endless, and only recently have I felt this when reading The Crimson Petal and the White or Wolf Hall.) Nearing the end of Moby-Dick, I kept hoping Melville might continue to add chapters from the grave, so that his journey could go on and on. I would have kept on reading.
It didn’t, of course. It ended last night in its own watery grave, as did the month of January, a horrible month for so much of the world. One twelfth of a new year, done and drowned. But somehow, in the last week of January, I found myself able to return to a project that broke my heart. I know it will continue to break my heart a few more times before it’s done with me, but somehow, with the passing of time and the lifeblood of a leviathan, I feel able to get back on my boat, board my craft and try to sail it. (Too many metaphors? Too many parentheses? Blame Melville. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops up again for me, down the road, in another project that lies ahead, if I can get on the other side of the books I must write first. There is a quite a queue building.) “For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.” If Captain Ahab can give his whale three chases, I reckon I have another draft in me.
After all, this isn’t a battle of life and death. I have no boatload of whalers to defend. I have only this great white whale of a story, trying to run away from me, and the harpoon of my desire to catch it. If it doesn’t end well for Ahab – or the whale – I won’t dwell on that. In my mind, there is another life for the crew of the Pequod, Melville’s unwritten sequel. Of course, they escape defeat. Of course, they surface, once Ishmael has sailed away in his loneliness. Of course, Queequeg swims to a new island, bearing Stubb upon his back. Of course, Daggoo and Tashtego build the dug-out canoe that will take them all back to New England, where Ishmael awaits with a bowl of chowder. And Ahab? Of course, he will spend eternity circling his prize, which is as it should be, after all.