Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

Breaking the silence

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On Saturday, I participated in an event at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside). It went fine—I signed books, met some interesting people, and had the chance to speak to librarians about Astounding, which is why I was there in the first place. I had also been told that I should talk about a book that I had recently read, but because of a miscommunication, the other writers on the panel never got the message, so the idea was quietly dropped. This wasn’t a serious problem, but it deprived me of the chance to recommend the title that I’d selected, which I feel comfortable describing as the most interesting book that I’ve read in at least two or three years. It isn’t about science fiction, but about the art of biography, which can be a form of speculative fiction in itself. As regular readers of this blog know, I stumbled into the role of a biographer almost by accident, and ever since, I’ve been seeking advice on the subject wherever I can find it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that biographers are eager to speak about their art and struggles, and that they’ll sometimes overshare at moments when they should be fading into the background. (I have a sneaking fondness for books like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry and Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, in which the biographer smuggles himself into the life of his subject, even if I can’t defend it. And James Atlas recently published an entire book, The Shadow in the Garden, mostly as an excuse to air his grievances about the reception of his biography of Saul Bellow.) But it wasn’t until recently that I found a book that captured everything that I had been feeling and thinking, along with so much else.

The book is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which was originally published in 1994. I think it’s a masterpiece—it’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve ever read of any kind—and it instantly elevated Malcolm, whom I’ve long respected, into the pantheon of my intellectual heroes. I’ve read a lot of her work in The New Yorker, of course, and I greatly admired her books Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives. (The former includes a passage about the history of psychoanalysis that I find so insightful that I’ve quoted it here no fewer than three times.) But The Silent Woman is on another level entirely. On the surface, it’s a close reading of all the biographies that have been written by others about Plath and Hughes, but as you read it, it unfolds into a work of fiendish complexity that operates on multiple planes at once. It’s a fascinating—and gossipy—consideration of Plath and Hughes themselves; an account of Malcolm’s own investigation of some of the figures on the sidelines; a meditation on biographical truth; and a fantastically involving reading experience. Malcolm has a knack for crafting a phrase or analogy that can change the way you think about a subject forever. Writing about the appearance of the first collection of Plath’s letters, for instance, she uses an image that reminds me of the moment in certain movies when the screen suddenly widens into Cinemascope size:

Before the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms…Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes.

The result is as twisty as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but even better, I think, because it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. Instead, it subtly ensnares you, and you end up feeling—or at least I did—that you’re somehow implicated in the story yourself. I read the first half online, in the archive of The New Yorker, and as soon as I realized how special it was, I checked out the hardcover from the library. Once I was done, I knew that this was a book that I had to own, so I picked up a used copy of the paperback at Open Books in Chicago. I leafed through it occasionally afterward, and I even lent it to my wife to read, but I didn’t look at it too closely. As a result, it wasn’t until I brought it last weekend to New Orleans that I realized that it included a new afterword. Unlike many books, it didn’t advertise the presence of any additional material, and it isn’t mentioned on the copyright page, which made it seem like a secret message straight out of Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a confession. In the original edition, Malcolm states that Ted Hughes decided to posthumously release Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in America because he needed money to buy a second home. After the book was published, Malcolm reveals in the afterword, Hughes wrote to her to say that this was incorrect:

One part of your narrative is not quite right…You quote my letter to [Plath’s mother] Aurelia in which I ask her how she feels about our publishing The Bell Jar in the U.S. That was early 1970; I wanted cash to buy a house…When Aurelia wrote back and made her feelings clear, even though she said the decision to publish or not rested with me, I dropped my idea of buying the house. My letter reassuring her is evidently not in the archive you saw (or obviously your account would be different).

Before I get to Malcolm’s response to Hughes, who is politely but firmly pointing out a possible mistake, I should mention my own situation. Yesterday, I delivered the final set of corrections to Astounding. In the process, I’ve checked as much of the book as I can against my primary sources, and I’ve found a few small mistakes—mistyped dates, minor transcription errors—that I’m glad to have caught at this stage. But it means that I’m very conscious of how it feels to be a writer who learns that something in his or her book might be wrong. As for Malcolm, she wrote back to Hughes, saying that she checked her notes from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington:

In 1971, Aurelia made an annotation on your letter of March 24, 1970. She wrote, in tiny handwriting, “’71—children said this was a horrible house’ and they didn’t want to live there. Ted did send me $10,000 from the royalties (I protested the publication, which Sylvia would not have allowed) and deposited [illegible] in accounts for Frieda and Nick—Ted [illegible] bought the property!!!” Not knowing anything to the contrary, I took Aurelia at her word.

Malcolm and Hughes spoke on the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding, and everything seemed fine. But on the very last page of the book, Malcolm slips in the literary equivalent of a post-credits scene that changes everything that we thought we knew:

The next morning I awoke with one of those inklings by which detective fiction is regularly fueled. I telephoned the Lilly Library again and asked the librarian if she would read me Aurelia Plath’s annotation of Hughes’s letter of March 24, 1970—I was especially interested in a word that I had found illegible when I took notes at the library in 1991. Perhaps she could make it out? She said she would try. When she reached the relevant sentence, she paused for a suspenseful moment of effort. Then she read—as I felt certain she would—“Ted never bought the property.”

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

The jig is up

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Staircase jig

Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about spending our lives crafting such intangible objects, but I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have a way of talking like carpenters. “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry,” Gabriel García Márquez writes, and José Saramago adds: “If I can produce a great chair, even better. But above all I have to make sure it has four stable feet.” Speaking of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes says: “If she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” And if I’ve often called an outline a blueprint, an even better metaphor might be that of a jig. A jig is basically a tool used to control other tools, a way of guiding movement and placement to ensure accuracy and repeatability. Many are standardized, but they’re also often whipped up on the fly, cobbled together from whatever happens to be at hand in order to solve a particular problem—like this homemade jig a woodworker made from scrap to drill pocket holes for a big display case. And the more you look at what creative professionals do for a living, the more jigs you find. (I owe this idea to one of my wife’s coworkers, who used the jig as an analogy for creating shortcuts while writing and testing software.)

There are many kinds of jigs, but my favorite may be the simple staircase jig, pictured above, which is used to make stringers, or supports for a staircase’s treads and risers. It’s just a lightweight, convenient template used to cut the pieces more precisely, and it will generally be seen only by the woodworker. Yet it’s a pleasing, elegant object in itself, a perfect marriage of form and function. And I’m especially tickled by the fact that with its two legs meeting at right angles, with a slight overhang, it looks a bit like the Greek letter lambda. In Lisp and similar programming languages, lambda is used as a keyword to introduce anonymous functions, or short, specific procedures created for a particular purpose. You could always write a formal named function to do the same thing, but in some cases, when you only need it for a little while, it’s more efficient to create a one-off tool. In other words, it’s a lot like a jig itself—anonymous, convenient, and made for a specific task. And the staircase jig stands both as a useful implement and as an emblem for the idea of making and using small, disposable, but thoughtfully designed instruments in service of a larger enterprise.

Pocket hole jig

I like the metaphor of the jig both because it hints at the intimate, handcrafted nature of these invisible tools and because it’s inherently recursive. If a jig is a tool for making other tools, in theory, you could have a jig that only exists to make other jigs, and you often do. The craft of writing, to give just one example, offers many examples of nested processes, in which each stage is shaped by the ones that came before. An outline, for instance, can be seen as a kind of jig: it’s cobbled together in private to shape the visible result—the story itself—and it both guides and frees the author’s hand when it comes to putting words down on paper. The outline, in turn, is shaped by countless tiny rules and templates that the writer has developed over time: to think in threes, to structure each scene as a series of objectives, and so on. And those templates, in turn, are determined by another layer even further down, which shades into what we think of as the basic syntax of storytelling. “Show, don’t tell” may not seem like a jig, but it’s really a tool that helps the author decide between the range of choices available. It’s less a value judgment than a guide that encourages us to make those cuts precisely.

And just because jigs are standardized doesn’t mean that the result will always look the same. A staircase jig can be used to make staircases of different dimensions and styles; all they have in common is the fact that their bones are sound, with each tread fitting tightly into each stringer. The rest is a matter of interior design, or decoration, although it’s often most beautiful when the underlying forms are allowed to show through. I often see the same process at work in my own writing. All of my chapter outlines tend to look the same: they fall into three parts, they have roughly the same number of story beats, and they fit within a comfortable template. If I follow this structure closely in the outline stage, though, it’s less because I think it reflects how the story will ultimately look than as a kind of sanity check. When the outline looks more or less like the ones I’ve made in the past, I know that I’m done. In practice, the result is reworked to a point where that underlying structure is no longer visible; a scene that fell neatly into three parts in the outline may be revised until it’s all buildup or all denouement, or I might follow my favorite writing rule and cut the beginning and the end. But I needed that jig to make sure that all the parts were there—and in the right places.

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2014 at 10:08 am

Bricolage and the working writer

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Ad hoc chair

Yesterday, I posted an extended passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss on the concept of bricolage, or the art of using whatever happens to be at hand. I stumbled across it while browsing through a book that has fascinated me for a long time, Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, which is essentially an extended love letter to the art of creative improvisation. The more I think about that quote, the more it resonates with me, although the reasons might not seem obvious. As regular readers know, I’m an innately left-brained author: I love planning, research, and outlining, and I rarely sit down for a day’s work without a detailed idea of how the end result will look. On a deeper level, though, just about everything I’ve ever written has been an act of bricolage. I’m only really happy when I’m working on some kind of project, so in the early stages, I’ll often assemble a few promising scraps that look like they might lead to a story and see where they take me after a few days of noodling. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how random these building blocks can be—a few magazine articles, a book I want to read, an idea for a scene or character, a world I feel like exploring—and while I don’t always know how these components will eventually come together, that’s part of the fun.

And while I’ve previously emphasized the random nature of the pieces, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that randomness is less important in itself than a natural side effect of the way in which the parts are acquired. This isn’t to say that randomness isn’t inherently valuable: I still believe that creativity is primarily about connections, and I’ve gotten many of my best ideas by juxtaposing ideas that might as well have been drawn out of a hat. But this is only a more systematic, or more artificial, version of a process that would probably take place on its own even if I didn’t make a point of it. The assortment of ideas competing for our attention at any one time is likely to be inherently random; as writers, we’re exposed to countless stray influences and oddments of material, whether we seek them out deliberately or come across them by chance, so the result will naturally resemble a kind of lucky bag. And this is all the more true to the extent that the process is a continuous one. A writer, if he or she is lucky, will stumble onto a coherent network of previously unexplored material maybe once every few years, which isn’t often enough to make a living at it. In order to achieve the level of productivity required to sustain a career in art, a writer needs to become very good at making use of whatever happens to be at hand right now.

Sylvia Plath

Which gets at what I think is a surprisingly powerful concept. Becoming comfortable with randomness—or being able to see affinities between the pieces that the universe happens to give us at any given time—isn’t just a necessary part of the creative process, but a survival tactic that keeps the whole machine running. When an artist like Gerhard Richter tells us that we need actively to go out and find an idea, he’s really talking about seeing what’s right in front of our eyes, which rarely falls into an order that is evident at first glance. More often, it’s a hodgepodge that we’ve gathered unconsciously or according to intuitions that aren’t easily explained, and it’s the willingness to follow through on those instincts, even if we aren’t sure if they’re right, that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional. Someone who dithers between ideas, picks up and drops projects, or agonizes endlessly over where to begin isn’t likely to invest a lot of time into a set of components with no clear payoff—the opportunity cost is just too great. A working writer with sufficient confidence in his or her ability to see things through, by contrast, is more likely just to jump in and see where it goes. And while that sort of security in one’s own talents is only earned through practice, some version of it, however irrational, is probably required from the beginning.

This isn’t to say that every intuition a writer has is correct, or that everything we assemble through bricolage will result in a great, or even publishable, story. Every writer knows what it’s like to spend weeks or months on a project that turns out to be a dead end, and the garages and workshops of every bricoleur are filled with the remnants of unfinished conceptions. More often than not, though, if we push past our doubts and proceed under the assumption that the outcome will be worth it, we’ll end up with something that at least advances our understanding of the craft and teaches us a few tricks that we can put to use elsewhere. The result may not be a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as it keeps us in the game. As Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath, who rarely left a poem unfinished: “Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” A working artist is someone whose threshold level of engagement is set just low enough so that he or she is making toys all the time, even if they occasionally turn out to be the size of a house. And if I were giving advice to someone who wanted to be a writer but wasn’t sure where to start, I’d say that the best thing you can do is assemble a few pieces, trusting both to chance and to your own intuition about what parts will fit, and get to work.

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

“She was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy…”

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Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.

Ted Hughes, in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2013 at 9:00 am

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