Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (Photo credit: MariamMAM)

I just finished a second read of Wintering, a novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses. Wintering is written in a Plath-like voice, about a Plath-like character going through Plath-like tragedy. The protagonist is even named Sylvia Plath, and the characters she interacts with bear the names of other real people, but Wintering is not presented as a biography. It is copyrighted as a fiction that portrays real people. Wintering is beautifully written, and has a symbolic form that serves to emphasize the imbalance of emotions experienced by the Sylvia character. Yet I don’t love it. In fact, Wintering leaves me – well, cold. There is a lot of Plath by Plath, and her journals are a mainline into her consciousness at the time of the events fictionalized by Moses. There is no need for a secondary source:  Plath speaks for herself.

Wintering reminded me of a craft exercise I completed early in my writing career. My exercise was inspired by an event rumored to have occurred Plath’s life, and emulated the plot structure used in a short story by Rick DeMarinis. Is my craft exercise an example of inspiration, or a case of appropriating from not one, but two sources?

Everything I have written is influenced by all that I’ve read, watched, or experienced. Stolen Climates owes its existence to my exposure to Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and the B-movie, Food of the Gods. I leveraged Calvino’s theme of a family faced with a seemingly innocuous yet unconquerable natural enemy. I deliberately chose to pay homage to Jackson’s wonderfully neurotic character who, like Prentice Feyerback of Stolen Climates, starts the journey into darkness with nothing except hope and a car. I certainly took the B-movie idea of Nature growing out of control and put that to use. I like to think of these things as being “inspired by” rather than “appropriated from,” but how different is what I did than what Moses did with Wintering? Where is the boundary between inspiration and appropriation?

Perhaps the boundary has less to do with subject than with impact. I believe Wintering could have gone farther in the examination of a damaged woman trying to repair herself if it were pure fiction. In a fiction, Moses could have taken us right up to the moment when the character took her last breath. As a fictionalization of real events, though, doing so would have been crass. Moses didn’t cross that line, but in a sense, that’s one of the things that bothers me: as a story teller, Moses didn’t deliver the hard truths. She couldn’t, because she was writing a fictionalized reality, not writing fiction.

I want the books I read to have guts. I want them to go into the hidden recesses of humanity’s darkest secrets and root around for the element of truth. I want to see the darkness in order to guard myself from it. I expect a skilled author to make me understand true desperation, and do so with a steady hand and lack of sentimentality. No one with a conscience can do that when writing about a real person, and perhaps that is the marker of appropriation. When a life story is appropriated, there are certain things that will be off limits. Fiction can reveal truths, but only if the writer is willing to press beyond the boundaries of reality and into the realm of inspiration – no matter how dark the path.


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Posthumous Voyeurism

I’ve read someone else’s diary.

I read it from beginning to end. I underlined sentences I liked, put stars next to thoughts that I could relate to, and exclamations next to anything shocking. In some cases, I even went so far as to write comments or questions, for example “Are you sure, Syl?” I didn’t skim any of the embarrassing or deeply personal entries; in fact, I heavily annotated those sections, leaving my ink stains on her privacy.

I read a woman’s diary without her permission. I read it all, cover to cover. I sucked in every word, drawing them in through my eyes and giving them renewed immediacy in my mind.

I did all this in full knowledge that she would not want an audience to her heart break, her self-doubt, her catalog of times she’s violently puked (including location and reason for the sickness). I felt a giddy rush of justification when she revealed that she, too, was guilty of was reading someone else’s diary. When she confessed to “feel[ing] my life linked to her, somehow. I love her,” I put two stars, a blue underline, and a red box around the those sentences. To read the most private thoughts of another woman, to experience life and interpret the world through her words, is as intimate as friendship, but without any of the niceties, obligations, or safety of white lies. When she “richochet[s] between certainties and doubt” there is no spoonful of sugar, no winking and nudging, no sudden rain shower to break the mood. This is dangerous. It is a violation and a trespass.

The words we share with one another go a long way towards shaping reality. We build relationships with our words, we build nations with our words,  we determine the future survival of our species with our words. These aren’t little plastic swords for bandying about in practice. These are the real, fucking sharp-as-hell deal, and they can kill. When you steal into someone else’s diary, be prepared! It’s not like a novel or a movie; with those, you can simply look away and remind yourself that “this isn’t real.” A diary is the distilled reality of an emotional landscape frozen in time. Like most things that are distilled, diaries are quite strong. They can make you feel woozy with omniscience, but they can send you spiraling into sickness.

I read Sylvia Plath’s diary. I read it from cover to cover. I read it around 2008, devouring her days with my breakfast for nearly three months. Her perceptions seeped into me through her words. Beautiful and terrible, Sylvia’s words are lyrics fit for a Siren. They are pure and undiluted, lacking any redirection or editing for public consumption. They are a little like vodka, a little like strychnine, and a lot like magic.

Original ouija board

Original ouija board (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvia drank coffee with a lot of milk, had a station wagon that broke down, dreaded going to work, suffered violent cases of writer’s block, loved working in the garden, picked her boogers, and  played with the Ouija board. The illusion of Writer, In the Abstract is blasted away by her journal. The illusion of separation between her perceptions and my own was likewise obliterated. My trespassing intimacy was harmful to me. I crept into my own depression, my emotions at odd with the Spring all around me. When I closed the final pages, I put my annotated copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath away with the same reverence one would pay to a nuclear warhead or a gun without a safety and a light trigger. I keep the book in sight, just to the right of my writing desk, as a reminder of the power of words. Every so often, I pick it up and re-read a few of her entries at random. More often than not, the experience is disquieting.

I have come to think of her diary as a very extended, quite diffuse, but utterly terrifying piece of horror.

I wonder: should journals survive their creator? Do you journal? And if so, do you write with the self-conscious intent of allowing future generations to paw through your pages?

Sylvia, I love you. I fear for the you crystallized in those pages, and I’m sorry we met under these circumstances. I apologize for intruding where only your soul should have tread.


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Oh, The Tools We Will Use.

car repair toolkit

Image by Brenda Anderson via Flickr

“It’s not a challenge; it’s an opportunity!”  At a previous job, whenever the team encountered a technical obstacle, that phrase was part of the general call and response in meetings. The severity of the ‘opportunity’ determined whether the response would be groans or laughter.

Crises sneak up on us. Even the ones we expect are a surprise when they happen, if only in the sense that we didn’t know it would happen so soon, or when it was raining, or when we were about to leave for happy hour. The good thing about obstacles is that they give us stories to tell. For example, I used to drive an older model Chevy. It had a lot of personality, where by ‘personality,’ I mean quirks, and by quirks I mean things that would break at inopportune times. For one thing, the gas tank had a tiny crack in it. If I got too exuberant at the gas station, I’d fill it too high and gas vapor would escape and do fun things like get me kicked out of parking garages.

One rainy afternoon, a section of the tailpipe popped lose from the undercarriage and started dragging on the road.

If you’ve never experienced this, let me assure you that a tailpipe throws off a lot of sparks as it drags across pavement.  It also makes a lot of rattling, clanging noise.  Should this happen, I recommend turning down your music and taking a peek in the driver’s side mirror.

You’ll see what looks like a lot of pretty fireworks. Red and yellow sparklers! And then you will remember your gas tank issue.

When this happened to me, I was miles from home. I was alone and this was years before I gave in and got a mobile phone. I pulled over and got out of the car. The pavement was wet from the rain shower that had just started, and it was starting to get cold. The tailpipe was still held in place at the end of it closer to the middle of the car, but whatever held it up near the bumper was broken. It was clear I wouldn’t be driving with the car as it was. Even if I didn’t have to worry about spontaneous explosion, all the dragging wasn’t improving the tailpipe. How was I going to overcome this particular ‘opportunity’?

The tailpipe was much too hot to touch, so I decided I would walk to a payphone. The first payphone was out of order. The second pay phone was just one cross street away when I tripped over my shoe lace!  As I knelt to tie my shoe, I had an idea. I tied my shoe, called my husband to let him know what happened, and went back to the car. I used the shoe lace to tie the mostly cool and still dangling, tailpipe back up to the chassis.  It wasn’t pretty, and it probably wasn’t safe, but it worked.

Not only did the crisis give me this story to share, but it also illustrates that useful tools can come in unlikely forms. It is like going to a friend’s house, drinking a lot of red wine, and then discovering that the block of imported honey candy needs to be broken with a hammer before you can eat any of it. If car repair can be done with a shoelace and candy can be divided with a hammer, there is nothing to stop us from coming up with inventive solutions to literary ‘opportunities.’

A good way to learn new writing techniques is to read. Then read some more, and make sure at least some of what you read is not in your chosen genre because you may find a shoelace or two you can apply to horror writing in poetry, romance, or science fiction. Notice where you get the biggest payoff for your reading and then go back and try to figure out how the author did it.  When you have a guess, give yourself a writing exercise to apply that technique. My debut novel started as a writing exercise. Sylvia Plath wrote THE MOON AND THE YEW TREE as a writing exercise. Not every practice session will net a publishable work, and not every technique will work with your voice, but every exercise teaches you how to control a powerful craft that is difficult to wield effectively. Most of us start out as hammers smashing candy, but those who are diligent and dedicated gain finesse, confidence, and the ability to conjure miracles. How’s that for turning a challenge into an opportunity?