Monday, April 29, 2013

At the writing desk

In 1957-1958, newly married to the writer Ted Hughes and newly graduated from Cambridge University, Sylvia Plath took a teaching job at Smith College. Hughes taught at another school. Plath's diary from that year is full of despair and frustration that teaching sapped her of time and energy; it's full of her yearning to be a full-time writer. If only she could just focus on her writing! She itched to get back to it. As Plath counted down to the end of the school year, she and Hughes planned to devote the following year to their writing. They had great plans for how productive they were going to be.

School ended in May, but Plath struggled at her writing desk that summer. On July 12, 1958, she recorded this in her journal: "... my life stood weighed & found wanting because it had no ready-made novel plot, because I couldn't simply sit down at the typewriter & by sheer genius & will power begin a novel dense & fascinating today & finish next month. Where, how, with what & for what to begin? No incident in my life seemed ready to stand up for even a 20 page story. I sat paralyzed ... I couldn't happily be anything but a writer & I couldn't be a writer: I couldn't even set down one sentence: I was paralyzed with fear, with deadly hysteria."

Plath roused herself by going into the next room to have a talk with her writer husband, who, one suspects, may have known whereof she spoke. She concluded the day by acknowledging how unrealistically high her expectations of herself were. She vowed to keep going, plugging away regularly, and to stop expecting she could write an instant novel.

What struck me about this entry is how familiar it all is. It's clear that Plath felt horribly alone at that moment. But not only do I recognize the thoughts and feelings she's describing, but thanks to the writer blogs of today, as well as the works of May Sarton and Anne Lamott and countless others, I realize how veeerrry common they are. Strangely normal. It's sort of comforting to see that the writers who came before us struggled in the same ways we do. It's always been hard work; writers have always doubted themselves.

And at that point in her life, even though Plath felt rather blocked, and washed up, and distant from her earlier publishing successes ... her best work was still ahead of her.

On another topic: Before signing off today, I want to encourage people to contribute however they can to this amazing book fair. Even if it's just one book. This school library has a book-to-student ratio of 5:1, well below the ALA recommendation of 11:1, and well below the ratio I have in my own house. I've contributed to this book fair every year, because I can't stand the thought of kids who want to read not having enough books. I hope you will be inspired to do the same. It does take a few minutes to click through the book list and fill out the ordering info, but it's so much fun to shop for book lovers!

(Plath quotes in this entry from The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil)

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