Monday, October 27, 2014

Sylvia Plath on Writing

...writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world through the small ordered word-patterns I make.

Sylvia Plath understood that secret inner pleasure all writers must feel as creators. I've always been amazed at those "small ordered word-patterns" she threw together.

She wrote a lot about writing—and not writing. Observation. Description. It's been a wonderful opportunity reading her journals. More than any other author I've focused on yet, it feels like lifting the lid and seeing how it all works. The following quotes are from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, and they provide a unique glimpse into the mind of a writer and poet.

Observation and Description

Some of her journals were devoted only to descriptions of her travels. Rooms where her and Ted Hughes stayed. Views of the towns and cities, word-paintings of people, fragments of conversations. Pieces of ideas and plot outlines of potential stories and poems. And such vulnerability and insecurity. She cracks my mind open.

One of the best things I've learned from her journals is to always keep a notebook with you. How else can you capture your observations?

It’s hopeless to “get life” if you don’t keep notebooks.

Of course, capturing details is only a part of the work. Recording descriptions is pointless unless you can use them as foundational material. Create plots, understand your characters' motives, and accurately capture dialog—these all have to work together in telling your story.

...if one has not the imagination to create characters, to knit plots, it does no good to jot down fragments of life and conversation, for alone they are disjointed and meaningless. It is only when these bits are woven into an artistic whole, with a frame of reference, that they become meaning-ful...

Writing From Experience

Again, as always, writers should draw from their own experience.

Perhaps some day I'll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.

Yeah, that's easy to say, write from your experience. It's likely to be a painful process, but you have to get it out of you and onto the paper. Don't worry about presentation or who might read it. You can clean it up and organize it later.

And now, aching, but surer and surer, I feel the wells of experience and thought spurting up, welling quietly, with little clear sounds of juiciness. How the phrases come to me... I am sitting in the heart of it, pouring it out, untidily, all right, but it comes, and the ordering and shaping of it will come.

Sylvia grew up in Massachusettes and attended Smith College and Cambridge on scholarships and traveled around Europe. Her journals are full of luscious descriptions of the picturesque places she visited. But just because your life isn't as exciting, don't let that discourage you from writing.

If I can’t dream up plots in my own room and backyard, I won’t be able to dream them up anywhere...

Self Doubt

You know how people with no talent seem to have all the confidence? And those with startling ability seem humble and unsure of themselves? That was never more true than with Sylvia Plath. Her journals are filled with crippling fear and self doubt. She could see it for what it was—“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”—but knowing it didn't make it go away. She battled her self doubt all her life.

And when I read, God, when I read the taut, spare, lucid prose of...poet after poet, I feel stifled, weak, pallid; mealy mouthed and utterly absurd. Some pale, hueless flicker of sensitivity is in me.
Can I write? Will I write if I practice enough? How much should I sacrifice to writing anyway, before I find out if I’m any good? Above all, CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGITIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTH WHILE?

So much of her early journals were consumed with getting and losing boys, the yearning and impossibility of finding her other half. And once she found and married the poet, Ted Hughes, she seemed more grounded and focused. Of course she had also just graduated from Cambridge and her writing was devoted to her own creative ideas instead of papers. Well, then I kept reading her journals and saw it was always a struggle for her to find and make the time to write. There is no gift. You have to fucking work for it.

Every day, writing. No matter how bad. Something will come. I have been spoiled to think it will come too soon: without work & sweat.

Reading her journals has given me hope and a little perspective. I don't know where my writing will take me, but I share her awe of the writer's possibilities:

To be god: to be every life before we die: a dream to drive men mad. But to be one person, one woman—to live, suffer, bear children & learn others lives & make them into print worlds spinning like planets in the minds of other men.

Here is a poster of Sylvia Plath with an inspirational quote on writing.

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