Back to My Teens: Sylvia Plath

I was looking for cheerful, inspiring author memoirs or diaries to tempt me back into writing, but at my local library I found the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath instead. It might not be cheerful, but in fact I can think of few writers who were more committed to their writing, who persevered despite all difficulties and kept submitting, kept revising, kept going. So she is a good role model (minus the end bit). I was extremely smitten by her in my teens, and had read all her journals and letters, so a lot of this book was familiar to me already. The difference being that this time the names are spelled out, rather than just initials, and, of course, there are some additional, never-before published materials.

What was that nonsense about there not being enough ‘smiley’ pictures of Sylvia Plath, to justify the bikini-clad cover to her volume of letters?

One of the quotes that has haunted me all my life (and especially now, when I feel so stuck in my writing) is the following:

Finishing the next year here, enjoying the pressure of reading, thinking, while at my back is always the mocking tick: A Life is Passing. My Life…. And I waste my youth and days of radiance on barren ground.

She wrote that just before meeting Ted Hughes, while she was still pining after Richard Sassoon, and you can feel she was ready to submit anyone who seemed bigger, stronger, who promised to open worlds (and share a family life) with her. But it’s the ‘Time’s winged chariot’ bit that I fear and that always tick-tocks for me in the background.

Here are some more relatable quotes:

What to do with anger?… Yes, I want the world’s praise, money and love, and am furious with anyone, especially with anyone I know or has had a similar experience, getting ahead of me… What to do when this surges up over and over? Last night I knew that mother didn’t matter – – she is all for me, but I have dissipated her image and she becomes all editors and publishers and critics and the World, and I want acceptance there, and to feel my work good and well-taken. Which ironically freezes me at my work, corrupts my nunnnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.

Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing… I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness… Caught between the hope and promise of my work – the one or two stories that seem to catch something, the one or two poems that build a little colored island of words – and the hopeless gap between that promise, and the real world of other peoples’ poems and stories and novels. My shaping spirit of imagination is far from me.

Paralysis again. How I waste my days. I feel a terrific blocking and chilling go through me like anesthesia. I wonder, will I ever be rid of Johnny Panic? Ten years from my successful seventeen, and a cold voice says: What have you done, what have you done? When I take an equally cold look, I see that I have studied, thought, and somehow not done anything more than teach a year: my mind lies fallow.

I do wish I could give that young woman a hug and say: ‘You’ve done so much. Relax now! Hush!’ It’s amazing how she doesn’t see that herself. Even more amazing, of course, how I can say that to her but berate myself for wasting time, for not writing etc. etc.

9 thoughts on “Back to My Teens: Sylvia Plath”

  1. Plath certainly was passionate about her writing, Marina Sofia. She worked very hard and, as you say, kept going despite it all. That, to me, is definitely admirable. And I always liked her bravery about what she wrote, if that makes sense.

    1. She was very honest with herself in her diaries, no endless excuses or self-justification – and that takes quite a lot of self-awareness and courage.

  2. I’ve never really got on with Plath but I can certainly relate to that feeling of wasting time, and time being relentless in its passing! I may hunt out her journals, she writes so clearly and evocatively.

    1. I started off by reading her letters, which are much more upbeat (the image she wanted to project to people, I suppose), but they really suited me as a teenager. Then I read the diaries, which suited me as an aspiring writer and a bit of a drama queen. The poetry and prose only came after that.

  3. I think Plath *is* a fairly decent role model in that she fought her demons as best she could and produced a marvellous body of work. Plus as you say she was fiercely honest with herself at times, which is perhaps rare. I had an obsession with her for years – well, I still have really. Love all of her writings.

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