The Life of a Writer

Fifty years ago today Sylvia Plath took her own life. I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since I was twenty years old and came across a copy of  The Bell Jar. Twenty is a really good age to read this book; at the time her voice spoke to me in a way that nobody else could.

I went on, over the next two decades, to read everything by and about Sylvia Plath. I read her poems in grad school, I studied her short stories and her novel when I was learning to write fiction, and I devoured her diaries, letters, and biographies at each stage of my life that mirrored hers: writing, going away to college, finding love, teaching, becoming a mother, and grappling with trying to create a life that is both fulfilling and artistic.

I am not interested in how Sylvia Plath died. I try not to think about it because it only depresses me. I don’t care about her death; I care about her life. She was a fully formed, fascinating woman who worked tirelessly every day to balance her life as a mother and a writer. She craved domesticity, baking and sewing and relishing motherhood at the same time she wrote some of her darkest and most brilliant poetry.

When she was a single mother caring for two children under the age of three she woke between 4:00 and 5:00 every morning to get some writing done. In one month she put together an entire manuscript of poetry, Ariel, the book that would be published to great acclaim after she died. In the middle of this productive month, she wrote to her mother, “I am a writer…I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

One of the things I love about Sylvia Plath is that she considered motherhood to be just as important a vocation as writing, but she refused to give up either one. She wouldn’t give up motherhood to be a better writer and she wouldn’t give up writing to be a better mother. She felt that motherhood, despite its difficulties, made her a better writer. She also knew that without writing, she wouldn’t survive.

And despite her death, she did survive. She was alive on this earth for over thirty years, she was a mother, and she wrote books which are still in print. She loved cooking and eating and she loved the ocean and drawing pictures and painting and sewing dresses for her daughter. She took ten-mile hikes and long baths. She learned to ride a horse on her 30th birthday.  She became a bee-keeper and played the piano for her daughter.

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness and creativity, and about the death of Sylvia Plath. She was not a genius of a writer because she was mentally ill, she was a writer and a mother in spite of  her struggles with depression. She did not commit suicide because she was a writer, or because she was a mother, or because her husband left her. She took her life in the throes of a clinically diagnosed depressive episode, one in which she had experienced before several times in her life. In fact, her previous suicide attempts, and her hospitalization in a mental institute, occurred before she had children and before she met her husband.

I do not admire her writing and read about her life because I am morbid, or depressed, or suicidal. I read her words because they are some of the truest words I have ever read about life, parenting, and being an artist. Her words speak to the universal truth about what it means to live at the edge of art and life, what it means to be pulled in many directions, and what it means to turn all of it, the love and pain and laughter and sleep deprivation and hunger and fear and wisdom and the experience of the senses, into words. On the one hand, her words are like a stone statue or monument: timeless, beautiful, and a lasting legacy. On the other hand they are alive, breathing, and ephemeral, like the moments spent with a young child.

In one of my favorite poems, “Morning Song,” she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and shallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

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