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Wednesday: Lesson Zero

It really started with Sylvia.

You know that I collect trainwrecks. Among them, I keep a small stack of confessional autobiographies, diaries, essays, and collected correspondence by batshit insane twentieth-century writers. Theoretically, I keep them around as insight into process. They're more useful than writing guides. In many cases, though, they're also more fascinating than whatever the writers are actually known for.

They're also, all too often, case studies in What Not To Do, or Why Not To Take Yourself So God Damned Seriously. They're cautionary tales. Warnings. From the sophomoric Spiral Galaxies and New Words of Mary Daly's Outercourse to the addiction-as-failed-career-salvage of Elizabeth Wurtzel's More Now Again, the stack tracks where experimental phases just shouldn't turn into ongoing lifestyle choices. Or, for that matter, creative ones.

(And some are just hilariously bad, like Wurtzel's stuff. But I digress.)

This started when I was thirteen. I'd just finished reading four suicide prevention books in a row, all of which which devoted chapters to Sylvia Plath's purpoted thrall over depressed teenagers, particularly the girls. This fascinated me. No one had told me there was a thrall-holder! My life as a depressed teenaged girl clearly lacked the mandated literature. I obviously wasn't doing this properly.

(Also, I was sick of seeing that one passage of Anne Sexton's "Wanting to Die" quoted over and over. Perfectly good shamanic cannibalism imagery there, and we keep getting the special language?! Even when the logical progression from suicidal ideation to  self-execution typically stems from "why build"? God. But I digress.)

Unfortunately, when I ransacked the local library for such as Ariel and The Bell Jar, all I could find was Plath's Letters Home. I don't know whether this was down to demand or the lack thereof. Later, in America, I'd find the expurgated journals in all of their nosepicking glory. I'd even find the poetry and prose, which was now utterly secondary.

But, for two years, all that I had was a bunch of self-censored letters from Plath to (mostly) her mother. Many of them were redolent with the turgid ghost of future publication's potential, as I'd later find with her unabridged early adult diaries. Further, Plath maintained some sense of autonomy from her mother by maintaining the pretense of happiness in spite of whatever. As an overview of Plath's life, the letters weren't particularly useful on their own, and left a weak first impression: this woman holds sway over legions of depressed young girls?

The overview of her childhood and adolescence, now, that was the gold. There were the underpinnings of a particularly vain self-definition as writer.  If I'd had half a brain growing up, I would have gleaned lesson zero from them:

Just because someone tells you you have potential doesn't mean that you're any good yet. Have a sense of perspective.

Selections from juvenile diaries and poetry demonstrated that she plainly wasn't There yet, whatever There meant. Young Plath's progression indicated the presence of a gift, but not of skill -- nor, for that matter, was the gift particularly well demonstrated. For example, she was still mistaking personal experience for the universally resonant:

"And so there comes a time in your senior year at high school when, because you love the ocean and the wind and sand, someone drins and drives you down to the sea; and because you like poetry, someone gives you a poetry anthology for graduation; and because that someone is collegiate and quite lovely, you invite him to your senior prom and write to him every day for a whole summer long fat letters with little coloured pictures in the margins. And no matter how you change in your life, there was a time when someone was really important."

She was also blowing things out of proportion. Of her first tragic poem, her English teacher observed, "Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating." And, in fact, Plath had lost her father to post-surgical embolism and a bout with severe diabetes some years prior. So you could assume that "I Thought That I Could Not Be Hurt" stemmed from those issues:

[...]Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to
destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firmament

(How frail the human heart must be-
a mirrored pool of thought. So deep
and tremulous an instrument
of glass that it can either sing,
or weep).

Fourteen-year-old's lament. Unfortunately, it was written shortly after Plath's grandmother accidentally smudged one of Sylvia's pastel drawings with an apron.

Out of context, one might read the English teacher's praise as sarcasm. However, it wasn't. Plath went home and squeed to her diary about the praise lavished upon her in class, the "lyric gift above the ordinary" attributed to her. (Mind, the whole world was likely not meant to have read that particular bit of her journals, but it didn't help first impressions.)

Worse, at some point in 1948, she'd fallen into the trap of Writing Poetry About Writing:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? . . .

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

("Wow," I thought. "I'm not going to even touch that subject until such time as I'm confident that I can put it better than that."

I didn't always succeed. Not having learned lesson zero, I wrote piles of dreck for years and thought it shone. Some of it was probably about writing, and much of it revolved around insight I'd convinced myself was genuine. I had a bad case of Dead Poets Society syndrome in places.

I also hadn't figured out one of lesson zero's corollaries: there's little external value to making pronouncements about your creative drive if you can't then whittle your statement down to something prosaic and functional. You can pose for effect all you want, but all the bollockry you care to pull out about voices or muses or Really Living Life or whatever is meaningless if you can't -- or won't -- convey the drive without dazzle, yet or ever. If your goal is less to communicate the compulsion and more to impress others with your depth and profundity, I tell you, you've likely already received your reward.

So, by backing away from the subject until I could handle it more eloquently, I was somewhat missing the point: I needed to be able to do this in a way which wasn't at all about the chrome.

Ergo, the mere act of writing this demonstrates an ongoing failure to grasp lesson zero.)

Much of her juvenile work is just flawed in the ways that much starting work is flawed. And she never asked -- probably quite the opposite -- for her mother to run her adolescence through the Sunny Optimist filter for public consumption; her work for the teen girls' magazines would take care of that for her a little later on.

Still, I was thirteen, and a bit short on context. I had a book of letters displaying Sylvia Plath as a bright, chatty, generally happy sort of person. The suicide attempt and prior events which informed The Bell Jar were rendered as a learning experience, in a "but I'm all better now!" tone. It didn't tell me much about what the suicide prevention books were asserting. That said, the early material, including letters from when Plath felt more comfortable discussing her process in correspondence, did lay the groundwork for understanding a dysfunctional relationship with writer's compulsion. (Arguably, it also gave instructions for creating one of my own, but that's another show.) 

Plath's self-absorption and warped worldview remained in stunning force throughout her life. Her skill at chroming the purpose increases, and she does become more aware of her mechanisms, but the chrome remains essential. All throughout the journals, she often writes in private as if for the public ("as if an eye were upon me"), or with the conviction that her experience bears disproportionate weight of truth. ("[Y]ou have seen a lot, felt deeply & your problems are universal enough to be made meaningful -- WRITE --"; "How much of life I have known: love, disillusion, madness, hatred, murderous passions[...] I will write mad stories. But honest. I know the horror of primal feelings, obsessions"). She had trained herself not only to respond to the writer's compulsion, but to seek affirmation through publication and acclaim.

Over time, it became clearer to me what was going on. When she built herself up, it was to tell herself that her personal experience was unusually valuable. The next round of positive attention was the only one that mattered, because it was the only one that could confirm her ongoing personal worth, or that her depth and conveyance of insight was as she claimed.  Without getting into the reasons (beyond the scope of this essay, and better handled in numerous biographies), so much seems to spring from the basic premise, "I am a good writer. I am a gifted writer." The qualifiers are essential components of her identity; specialness is as much a factor as art or craft.

Later, she was good. She may have believed this too soon.

When the first crushing disappointments came -- rejection from a prestigious short story class, among others -- she learned to retroactively loathe her published work. Coupled with exhaustion from her stint at Mademoiselle, she developed a block which precipitated her first self-mutilation and suicide attempts. This would revisit her in several forms over her life: I am not really a good writer. I therefore have no purpose. Thus, when she asserts that the root of herself is the compulsion, the unstilled voice, that rings false. The compulsion doesn't define her; it's a means to an end. Rejection, invisibility, and unpublished work are challenges to the self-concept.

Lesson zero never really takes, and that informs her practice.

So, there's a danger in poorly balanced praise, and accepting saidsame out of turn. There's a danger in establishing internal purpose and definition too early, and/or from a point of weakness.

It's yellow lights like these which leave me more interested in exploring trainwrecks than not, to some extent. It's not that I see myself as authoritative in any way; I don't. I do find it preferable to work from the ground up when sorting something out for myself, and writing is one way to accomplish that.

I need to know, and understand, what doesn't work, in order to better grasp what does.

I need to know, and understand, what not to do.

Posted by Wednesday Burns-White at January 26, 2006 1:00 AM