Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In every generation of writers, artists, and musicians, there are one or two who go on to reshape the public consciousness through their identities and legacies. I’m thinking, for example, of how Percy Shelley has been the foppish, sensitive face of poetry in the popular imagination for centuries; how, thanks to Vincent van Gogh, all passionate artists are wild-eyed and one-eared; and how, thanks to Sylvia Plath, female poets are doomed to be pictured as waiflike, desperately troubled, and wildly intelligent brief candles.
While these alluring images and archetypes are ultimately unhelpful, they do hint at the power of the writers and artists who inspire them. Plath was one of the greatest English-speaking poets of the twentieth century, and her seminal collections of dark confessional poetry – the most remarkable being The Colossus and Ariel – along with her much-loved novel, The Bell Jar, mark her as one to pay serious attention to.
While Plath rarely spoke about her own craft publicly, she was incredibly self-analytical, and kept a journal for much of her life. On top of that, she was an avid letter-writer, and her works have been dissected by several generations of ever-keen scholars and readers. The lessons she’s left behind are myriad, so let’s take a look at some of the best.
Keep a journal
Plath published her first poem at age eight, and continued writing rhymes and poems all through her childhood and adolescence. Arguably more important to her development as a writer, however, was her decision to start a journal during her adolescence. Plath would obsessively journal for the rest of her short life, and these records of her thoughts, feelings, and actions helped her not only structure and populate her more autobiographical works (The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, and many of her poems are deeply confessional) but also ensured that thought and the written word became closely, almost intrinsically linked – as such, Plath’s writing is startlingly lucid, expressive, and fluent. Practice makes perfect, after all!Many writers – including Sylvia Plath – keep journals to kindle inspiration and hone craft.Click To Tweet
Keeping a journal is an easy practice to integrate into your own life. Even if you don’t have luxury of government grants and scholarships and empty days as Plath did, try waking up or going to bed an hour later than normal, and dedicate that time to reflective journaling.
Observe and analyze
Writers, argues David Foster Wallace in his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’, ‘as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and stare.’ Plath, exemplifying this tendency, recognized the value of watching people act within the world, and she watched no one as intently as herself.
Inspired since childhood by the natural world, Plath was attuned to the slow, minute changes of every passing moment. A hermetic woman, she spent much of her adolescence and adulthood simply watching and thinking, a practice that helped her cram as much depth as possible into her short, poignant poems. She writes, rather coldly:
I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.
– Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
While in the end Plath’s extreme self-consciousness deepened her lasting depression, the act of watching and thinking is a valuable one, and it has been sidelined somewhat in our own information age. So next time you’re bored, don’t reach for your phone – instead, simply watch the outside world (or your own internal world) and think. Ask questions. Propose answers. And, if you’re ready, write – to, as Plath said of her and Ted Hughes’ own writing habit, ‘consolidate our outstretched selves’.
You are not enough
Time for a little tough love. If Plath can teach the incisive reader anything, it’s that you – that is, the writer – are not intrinsically interesting to anyone but yourself. It’s easy to read Plath’s gorgeous, terrifying poems and reach the false conclusion that all you need to do to produce similar work is to write honestly and prettily about your own feelings. Sorry, but this is not enough. As Plath said in a 1962 interview with Peter Orr:
I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific – like madness, being tortured, that sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box or mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.
– Sylvia Plath
This is one of my favorite Plath quotes as it really helps counter the popular image of Plath, and of poets more generally, as spirit-haunted depressives who, through strange fits of passion, conjure darkly confessional, resonant works. Writing well, Plath is saying here, means tempering yourself – it means recognizing that your experiences are interesting to others only insofar as they are relevant to larger questions, to human issues that stretch way beyond the boundaries of your own self.Tough love: your thoughts and experiences are relevant to the reader only insofar as they address larger questions.Click To Tweet
To scoop endlessly through the detritus of your own skull is to covet self-obsession, and it’ll produce only self-indulgent, mirror-looking writing. Avoid the urge – take your experiences, evaluate them, and use them thoughtfully. Complement them by reading and learning; while Plath may be most famous for her ability to express her own dark emotions, she was also an excellent scholar, a voracious reader, and an active and much-loved contemporary to many poets, writers, and artists working at the same time.
Treat writing as work
Like many writers, artists, and musicians, Plath found the best way for her to produce reliably and consistently was to treat writing like work. Indeed, before she and Ted Hughes had their children, they would schedule in six hours of writing per day. Of course, not all of us have the luxury of otherwise empty days, but the message is clear: if you’re serious about writing, you have to treat it seriously.
This doesn’t simply mean scheduling time. Instead, think of all of the trappings of a work day: having a dedicated space, a routine, scheduled breaks, etc. Try to secure as many of these as you can; write, for example, in the same place each day (a study is ideal if you’re lucky enough to have one), and try hard to fall into a routine. You’ll be surprised by how your creative output swells.When it comes to writing, commitment breeds creativity.Click To Tweet
When even Sylvia Plath – one of the great poets of the twentieth century, a woman with an IQ of 160, a virtual prodigy and serial award-winner – struggles with self-doubt, you’ve got to wonder what hope there is for the rest of us. But struggle she did, and her journals reveal that self-doubt and the despair that accompanies it were the biggest obstacles between her and writing.
Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it, or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to.
– Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
But self-doubt can be overcome, and Plath was a vocal advocate for bravery in such conflicts. ‘By the way,’ she wrote in her journals, ‘everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’
Words to live by if ever there were any.
What a thrill
Plath is a complex figure: on the one hand, a troubled writer sometimes paralyzed by her own solipsism and her fight with depression, and, on the other, a startlingly original and expressive poet who single-handedly redefined confessional poetry.
As you’d expect from such a woman, there’s a lot we can learn from her – but, as with every self-destructive artist, there’s a lot to ignore too! Misery isn’t necessary for art, so don’t go coveting it. Instead, read, think, and work hard – or, as Plath herself said, ‘Live, love, and say it well in good sentences.’
What are your favorite works by Sylvia Plath? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 3 Ways Ursula K. Le Guin Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more great advice.