1 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.
2 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.
3 Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
4 Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
5 Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and “provocative” – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic “big” words.
6 Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
7 Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.
from The Guardian
Elsewhere in Literature
On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one. It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now. Then, it positively looms. It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced. By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing. On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover. Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness, a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.
Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)
The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres. After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow. Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him. He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect. He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.
The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)
Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all. The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry. What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.
Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,
Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)
Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.
Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852
The exquisite Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style. Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)
Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored. While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away. His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.
ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)
a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon
(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)
my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;
i am a shape that can but eat and turd
ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,
a coward waiting clumsily to cease
whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;
a hand’s impression in an empty glove,
a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.
I have never loved you dear as now i love…
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927
Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished. He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square. The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.
Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973
Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.
Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.
Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube video, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.
As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.
It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.
Emotions are contagious
Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.
But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.
Introvert v Extrovert
While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.
The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of quiet reflection.
Offices without borders
The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.
There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.
Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:
There is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.
The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.
This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.
A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.
With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.
Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.
Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.
“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.
“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”
As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?
The creative process
In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that
successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.
Micallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.
Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:
- The true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
- A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
- The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.
Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.
Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.
This article first appeared in June 2013 in Brainwaves for Leaders.
What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
He: This isn’t going to turn into one of your rants, is it?
She: The need to rant comes from the feeling of not being heard.
In 2007, Germaine Greer published the spirited Shakespeare’s Wife, a book about Ann Hathaway and the life she might have led. The word ‘might’ is important in this context, because next to nothing is known about her. There are a few documents that offer a detail or two about her family. There are Mr Shakespeare’s poems and plays, of course, which must not be read as being too heavily autobiographical. And there are the successive, generally negative views of scholars and historians. That’s all.
Greer wades though everything. Everything. At the heart of her investigation is the simplest question: Why, when so little is known, should nearly every reference to this woman be negative?
For example, for four centuries Ann Hathaway has been considered an illiterate, unattractive older woman who slyly set about to lead astray and then entrap the naïve, teenage Will, future Bard of England. And yet, only a badly preserved pencil sketch remains to hint at whether she was lovely or plain or downright ugly, hardly enough to inspire such vitriol.
The only thing known for certain is that Ann Hathaway was 26 to his 18 years. That’s it. Nothing about their courtship is known, though Greer draws context from songs and ballads of the time as well as some of Shakespeare’s early poems, which are surprisingly positive about relationships between slightly older women and younger men. Greer makes a case for the Hathaways being better established in the world than the Shakespeares, who were heavily in debt. Indeed, it might even be surmised that Ann was a good catch for the talented young man without an income, whose skills as a poet and playwright remained largely untested. No one could possibly have imagined at the time they were married that Will Shakespeare would go on to be the most celebrated writer in the English language.
What, then, have these scholars to gain by being unceasingly unkind to someone they know nothing about? Greer invokes the long line of so-called “rhapsodists of bardolatry”, of whom Thomas De Quincey was first of many. Shakespeare had become a national treasure and, as such, the facts of his life as the basis of an ‘image’ were considered public property.
Greer intends to set the record straight, questioning each document, every reference, and each individual assumption at a breakneck pace, exposing in the process a long tradition of scholarly chauvinism and misogyny. “The Shakespeare wallahs,” she writes, “have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women.” Ann Hathaway has existed too long as another silenced woman: Greer seeks to restore her reputation, the barest facts of her life, her face, her voice.
Reading Germaine Greer has always had the effect of opening the floodgates of suppressed indignation in me. I’ve traveled the world and know for certain that sexism may be encountered— overtly, covertly, or otherwise—on every street corner. But to have it documented so thoroughly and by one so unblinking has got me thinking.
Soon after I arrived in Australia, I needed to get an Australian drivers license. With opposite-side drive, roundabouts, and unfamiliar road rules, it was a prospect that filled me with anxiety. On he appointed day, however, I never had the chance to get behind the wheel. The examiner determined that the car—less than a year old—was “unroadworthy”. Without another word, he failed me.
“Hold on,” I confronted him. “Please explain how the car could be unroadworthy today when it was perfectly roadworthy only two days ago during my husband’s driving test?”
The man answered my question by turning his back and returning to the building. I was effectively silenced and dismissed.
Later that day, I expressed my indignation about this to one of my first Australian friends, an intelligent, well-educated woman.
“That’d be right.” She shrugged. No protest, no outrage, no need to rant. She discouraged me from writing a letter of complaint. “They’ll just laugh at the letter over a pint at the pub.”
Apparently, I had a few things against me: I was an American and a woman; I scored 100% on the written exam and all my documents were in order, which made me a ‘tall poppy‘ (another new concept). In the end, I did write a letter, not to his boss but to the head of Queensland Transport. They eventually investigated the matter and added my complaint to thirty others in the file of this particular examiner. Twenty-nine women and one gay man had already spoken up.
Anticipating justice would be served, I asked the investigator what they were going to do.
“There isn’t much we can do,” she replied. “We aren’t allowed to fire him or demote him.”
“But he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!” I cried. “It’s egregious! It’s unconscionable! It’s obviously sexist! With so many complaints on record, that man shouldn’t be allowed to deal with the public.”
“I’m sorry. The only way we can get him out of his position is to promote him.”
“In what kind or world is that okay?” I asked pointedly.
The investigator shrugged. This was my first encounter with sexism as it is manifested in some Australian institutions.
Culturally determined ‘mates’
This was also my first look at the idea of ‘mateship’ and the stoicism with which Australian women respond to it. Mateship is a concept of friendship endemic to Australian identity, so powerful that, in 1999, Prime Minister John Howard pushed to have the term enshrined in the Australian constitution. There have also been attempts to have it part of the Australian citizenship test.
The only problem is that it can and often does exclude half the population, something even more apparent lately as the shadow of Tony Abbott and his cocky opinions loom ever larger in the political sphere.
In fact, it’s been my observation that women are frequently accused of coming between ‘mates’, something I believe has conditioned their silence about it.
As the Australian poet Judith Wright observed in 1965:
The ‘mateship’ ingredient of the Australian tradition … left out of account the whole relationship with women.
There are many good things to be said about strong bonds between men. However, while such bonds are crucial perhaps in establishing a colony, on the battlefield, and even on the playing field, there is a shadow side to mateship. It can be both predatory and bullying, a state of being in which women are excluded, not respected and, in essence, stripped of humanity.
Men behaving badly on the town…
On my daughter’s 18th birthday, we celebrated with a small dinner party, after which she planned to go out ‘clubbing’, something that has become a rite of passage among young Australians.
That day there was a news item about Dianne Brimble, the Brisbane woman who had died aboard a P&O cruise ship. I remember thinking with some alarm, “Hasn’t that been resolved yet? It was so many years ago already.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, Dianne Brimble embarked on a nine-day cruise in 2002. On the second day, her lifeless body was found naked on the floor of a cabin occupied by four unknown men. The coroner’s investigation, which shockingly began only four years after the event, uncovered a number of dreadful circumstances surrounding her death. She died of an overdose of the date-rape drug GHB. She had been sexually abused. Awful, disrespectful photographs surfaced. At least four and possibly as many as eight men were involved.
Sadly, in all these years, there has been no justice for Brimble. Despite the inquest and the investigation of eight men considered to be implicated in her death, the criminal trial that followed almost eight years after the 42-year-old’s death resulted in a hung jury. The plea deal entered into with Mark Wilhelm, the man who supplied the GHB, was subsequently dropped. None of the men involved has been punished or expressed remorse for what happened to this woman. They seem to believe they were entitled to behave the way they did that tragic night and the way they’ve behaved since. In fact, as recently as September 2010, investigators caught them on tape discussing how the case could make them millionaires.
With this story fresh in my mind, I kissed my daughter goodbye as she left with her friends, Eddo, the designated driver and self-appointed body guard, and Julie, an exchange student from France. They met up with others they knew, danced, shouted to each other over the noise, shared jokes. Then something happened.
As my daughter related to me when she returned home, Julie had gone out to the courtyard for a cigarette. She was joined by a group of four young men who flirted with her and offered to buy her a drink. She demurred. One of the men handed her a bottle of water, and she took a sip. That’s the last thing she remembers.
Luckily, at that moment my daughter and Eddo were looking for her and happened to see her fall. They rushed toward her, shouted for security. Julie was limp, in some kind of twilight state, speaking nonsense, eyes opened but not really ‘there’. Eddo left with security to look for the men she’d been speaking with, but they had already fled the club.
…and at home
It’s after dinner with the dishes cleared away and the last glass of wine poured. As frequently happens, one of my husband’s friends is over, a man I consider to be my dear friend too.
We’re on the patio, surrounded by the lime trees, the palms and the lillypillys I’ve lovingly planted. There’s a cool breeze, the buzz of cicadas, a rising moon. If there is any place and any moment I should feel safe, this is it.
I mention my daughter’s experience at the nightclub. At first, we’re in agreement that it’s complicated, terrifying, harrowing, full of peril to raise a daughter nowadays. Before I’m aware of it happening, the conversation shifts. We’re now discussing all the ways women have hurt men – abandonment, deceit, betrayal.
“Wait a minute,” I protest. “It’s not at all the same. We’re talking about two different things here. Men do those same things to women, but there’s the risk of this other crime too.”
They don’t listen, insist the playing field is level, declare men and women are equal in the world, in Australia, in their minds. They assert that women have the same opportunities that men do and, in many cases, are even given preferential treatment, suggest that it’s men who are discriminated against.
Whatever I say remains unheard. The vapour of mateship has rolled down the hill and over the garden wall, enveloping these two men in an atmosphere from which I’m not only excluded but erased.
My only options: to ‘rant’ or to leave.
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I can’t resist re-posting in full an article from The Independent (6/1/13) by Suzi Feay. Mad Girl’s Love Song, a major new biography by Andrew Wilson, is scheduled to appear at the end of the month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s suicide this February.
What could be more thrilling than finally having your debut novel published after years of honing your craft? Especially if it has been your goal since childhood; and the book is set to become not merely a modern classic, but a rite-of-passage read for every morose, misunderstood and proto-feminist teenager for years to come.
But for one young writer, publication, respectful reviews and a growing reputation were not enough; which is why early 2013 sees both the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, The Bell Jar, and of its author’s suicide, which followed a few weeks later. Plath folded a cloth, placed it in her gas oven, and laid her head inside early in the morning of 11 February 1963, having first sealed the door of her children’s bedroom. She was 30. “A doctor put her on very heavy sedatives – and in the gap between one pill & the next she turned on the oven, and gassed herself,” her anguished, estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, wrote to a friend. “A Nurse was to arrive at 9am – couldn’t get in, & it was 11am before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm.”
To celebrate the happier anniversary, at least, there is a sparkling new edition of The Bell Jar, which has never been out of print, a series of events are planned for later in the year, and this month sees the publication of a major new biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson. In the past, Plath’s hotly contested life has been a minefield for those who attempted to interpret it. “I tried to be as objective as possible,” says Wilson. “I’ve got no agenda, I didn’t read the other biographies, I went to the archives completely fresh, trying to stand back and see what kind of evidence there was.”
He has conjured up a youthful, blonde and vibrant Plath, albeit one with a disturbing shadow side. But the dark fact of the suicide, on a bitter morning in one of the worst English winters on record, overshadows our understanding of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, and has cast something like a curse on the lives of those who survived her.
Hughes’s letters in the months before the tragedy show no foreboding. He was, it seems, taken in by Plath’s bright, capable manner, expressed in letters to her mother: “I am joyous, happier than I have been for ages,” she wrote in October 1962. Her husband had been unfaithful with another poet’s partner, Assia Wevill, and Plath had thrown him out with much drama and vituperation. Hughes was, if anything, relieved. “The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend, is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” he wrote to his elder brother, adding that she was “finally, impossible for me to live married to. Now we’re separated, we’re better friends…” However, he also wrote to his sister Olwyn: “[Plath]’s changed extraordinarily – become much more as she was when I first knew her, & much more like her mother, whom I detest. You’re right, she’ll have to grow up – it won’t do her any harm.”
Alas, Plath was never to “grow up”. “I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it,” Hughes wrote to Olwyn after his wife’s death. Crucially for the drama that was to unfold, the couple had only separated, not divorced. She was still Mrs Sylvia Hughes, and her literary estate was his to do with as he wished. He buried her in his native Yorkshire, under a slab that read “Sylvia Plath Hughes”, and began the laborious business of sorting out her unpublished writings.
So famous is Plath now that it is hard to remember that like another poet who died young, Keats, all her renown was posthumous. Now her celebrity fans include such diverse figures as Gwyneth Paltrow, who played her in the 2003 movie Sylvia, and David Walliams. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, prefaced her recent selection of Plath poems with a fan-girl introduction, she has been name-checked in a Manic Street Preachers song, and copies of The Bell Jar featured in Natural Born Killers and The Simpsons.
But back then she wasn’t an in-demand genius; the critic Al Alvarez was bemused to find that the dowdy, skinny American wife of the up-and-coming poet Ted Hughes was also a writer; he hadn’t associated the housewife “Sylvia Hughes” with the Sylvia Plath whose poems were beginning to cause a small stir after her debut collection The Colossus (1960). There is a famous picture of Ted Hughes with Auden, Eliot and Spender at a Faber and Faber party in 1960; Plath was at the same gathering, but she was not invited to join the great men. She has since arguably eclipsed them all, except Eliot.
Perhaps, given the position he found himself in, there is nothing Hughes could have done to forestall the criticism that was to trickle, then flood, in his direction. But giving his sister Olwyn the job of running the Plath estate on behalf of the two motherless children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, was not one of his smarter notions, given that the sisters-in-law had heartily disliked one another.
Literary estates are frequently contentious, as family members, sometimes not all that close to the deceased, attempt to control or even stifle biographers, critics and academics. Those who handle estates, and therefore permissions, are feared, needed and despised by biographers unless everything is handled with the greatest impartiality and transparency. The Plath estate was to generate huge revenues for the family. The Bell Jar alone has sold 400,000 copies worldwide over the past decade, and even today, Plath’s publishers get five requests a week for permission to quote from her writing.
Hughes set to work. Instead of promptly compiling a Collected Poems, he constructed a new, slim volume of poems entitled Ariel, published in 1965. It was a masterpiece; but it did not exactly resemble the collection of the same name that Plath left behind. Understandably, Hughes removed several poems that were vengeful and critical about himself, and reordered the poems to suggest a narrative that made the suicide seem inevitable. (Plath’s own ordering began with the word “Love” and ended with “Spring”, giving a rather more optimistic flavour to the book.) Meanwhile, Plath became a heroine, or martyr, for the nascent feminist movement. Her gravestone was attacked, the offending “Hughes” hacked off more than once. Hughes, it was angrily put about, had as good as murdered St Sylvia.
Nevertheless, more material was appearing. Gradual revelation was also canny monetising. Uneasy about the autobiographical elements of The Bell Jar, Plath had published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. In 1965, it came out in the UK under her own name. In 1971, it came out in America, and in 1975, Plath’s mother Aurelia brought out Letters Home, partly to counteract the harsh portrait of the mother in the novel. In 1977 came a selection of uneven but revealing short stories and prose pieces, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Hughes brought out another slender selection of poems, Crossing the Water, and it was 1981 before the Collected Poems finally appeared, winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Hughes also allowed the publication of Plath’s Journals in 2000, although they do not cover her final breakdown. He confessed to having destroyed one journal and having “lost” another. Hughes did not want her children to have to read the last journal, he said. He retained the habit of talking about “the children” when they were well into their thirties, as though they remained frozen in time, forever crying in their upstairs room while below, the gas seeped out.
The biographers also set to work. The first, Edward Butscher, offended the family with unseemly speculations and revelations in Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), followed by Linda Wagner-Martin’s feminist account, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987). In a preface, Wagner-Martin related how Olwyn Hughes, acting for Ted, demanded cuts of 15,000 words in exchange for permission to quote from Plath’s poems. Wagner-Martin ditched the quotations rather than have her book gutted. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic (1991) was seen as even more objectionable.
The estate commissioned its own biography, authorised and overseen by Olwyn Hughes. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989) was harshly debunking, hostile to Plath and favourable to Hughes in all questions of the marriage. It was an extraordinary document to emerge from an estate that handled Plath’s revenues. Bizarrely, three negative personal testimonies were added in appendices, one by Dido Merwin, a bitchy ex-friend eager to relate decades-old tittle-tattle. Reviewers howled and Stevenson confessed she had lost control of her own book, although the feminist critic Lorna Sage described Bitter Fame as “a good revisionist biography”.
In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), literary critic Jacqueline Rose also recounted textual horror stories. Ted Hughes informed Rose that her speculation about the sexual subtexts of some of the poems would not only upset the children (again), but in some cultures, be “grounds for homicide”, a shock tactic that, he later claimed, was not intended to threaten but to awaken.
As a result of all this, Janet Malcolm was moved to write a fascinating book-length essay on Plath, Hughes and biography, The Silent Woman (1994), landing broadly on the side of the Hugheses (although Olwyn comes across as a very strange person). Stevenson told Malcolm a tale of woe: Olwyn’s constant revisions and comments had scuppered Bitter Fame. “Please respect my wish to be left in peace,” Stevenson pleaded with Olwyn during the writing of the book. “No letters, no phone calls. You have brought me to the edge of breakdown many times in the past year.” Another letter read: “A person can take just so much of being … kicked, insulted, threatened, bulldozed into submission…”
It’s not surprising that people talked in terms of a Plath curse, and not just on biographers. No one suffered more than Assia Wevill, the beautiful and gifted woman for whom Hughes had left Plath. Fay Weldon, a friend of Wevill’s, recounted in her autobiography, Auto da Fay: “Ted took up with Assia and made her pregnant, and Sylvia killed herself, and five years later Assia was to kill herself and her child, out of guilt from which Ted declined to save her.” Appallingly, Assia also gassed her young daughter, Shura Hughes. The “Ted-Sylvia-Assia saga”, Weldon wrote, “was I think one of those seminal events which brought forth the fruit of 1970s feminism. That such talented women should die for what – for love? Because that’s what they died of, not depression, let alone ‘born to suicide’ as is so often said of Sylvia.”
Says the poet and translator Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes’s friend and biographer: “I think [Sylvia] and Ted were incredibly happy together, funnily enough, until she had her second child, and then she got rather tired and worn down. It doesn’t help to have someone like Assia cross the path.” The novelist Alan Sillitoe, a friend of the couple, once said vehemently to me: “I think Ted was a saint!”
I asked Andrew Wilson, Plath’s latest biographer, whether time is finally healing all these wounds. After all, Plath’s contemporaries are now in their eighties. Ted Hughes died in 1998, loaded with honours, finally redeemed by his heartfelt collection Birthday Letters – poems of love and contrition, addressed to Plath.
“I think it’s still very, very raw actually,” Wilson contends. “Understandably so. The latest thing is that Nicholas Hughes died.” Tragically, in 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the baby Plath left behind on that freezing morning, killed himself in Alaska, aged 47.
“Anybody who’s writing on Plath knows there are potential problems and difficulties. You have to be very careful,” Wilson goes on. Although he encountered no problems with Olwyn Hughes. “She wrote me some wonderfully spiky letters,” he laughs. “Obviously, she’s one of the figures you come across many, many times in Plath studies, but I found her really easy to deal with. Very straightforward.” Yes, I think Anne Stevenson would agree she’s certainly straightforward…
Wilson focuses on Plath before she ever met Hughes, using vast archives held in the States. Wilson has noticed an odd thing: Hughes firmly insisted that everything she wrote before 1956 counts as juvenilia. “And it’s when they first met! Nothing existed before in his eyes. I came across 200 poems that she wrote before then that have never been published, and lots of other items of archival material that have never been seen, and I’ve talked to friends and lovers who’ve never talked before, so it is an opportunity for a new, fresh approach.”
His quest was urgent. A couple of his interviewees died shortly after he met them. “[Sylvia’s friends] have reached an age when they think, actually, I would like to say something before I die. So it is a key moment, I think.”
The cover of Wilson’s book shows another side to a writer more often seen as death-struck than glamorous. “There’s a huge archive of colour pictures that I discovered, taken by one of her boyfriends,” he relates. “We picture her in black and white, don’t we? We haven’t really seen her in colour. We’re used to seeing her with lank hair looking miserable! There are lovely pictures of her with blonde hair looking very vibrant.”
Wilson found that he liked Plath and could empathise with her. “I know she was probably a very difficult person to be around but she had great charm, a great sense of fun. A lot of people who just read Ariel, which is terribly bleak, miss out on that. She was a very, very tortured individual and that’s the source of her creativity, but I did grow to like her and I hope that comes across in the book.”
Plath also reminded him of Patricia Highsmith, the subject of his previous biography. “Highsmith had similar symptoms to Plath – I don’t know how you want to categorise it, but some sort of personality disorder or mental illness. Both of them were alive before people talked about those things, before anybody could classify exactly what they had. They both went through a great deal of soul-searching, both had therapy, which they wrote about in their journals, so it’s fascinating to compare them. They both had very dark visions. But a crazy sense of humour at the same time.”
One thing is certain: fascination with Plath’s tortured life and magnificent poetry will continue, even as time heals the wounds left by a tragedy that has reverberated down half a century. “You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ted, because he wasn’t the only man in London to commit adultery,” says Elaine Feinstein wryly. “It’s a great mistake to betray a poet.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is published on 31 January by Simon & Schuster.
“Witty, wise and wonderful”
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters
Try as I might, I just couldn’t read this book cover to cover. It’s designed to be dipped into, and this is but one of the many joys Sincerely has to offer. Sincerely is the second collection by Women of Letters, a literary salon with the aim of celebrating the lost art of letter writing while also raising funds for the Victorian animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission.
There are love letters, complaints, apologies, letters to treasured possessions, to songs, to white lies and to good decisions, to lives that could have been lived— themes that are diverse and intriguing, that give readers an intimate look into the hearts of some of Australia’s finest literary, political, and theatrical figures. Helen Garner writes to a primary school teacher she misjudged, looking back on childhood experience with adult eyes. Alice Pung’s exploration of cross-cultural misunderstanding in online dating had me laughing out loud.
Sincerely also includes letters from men writing to the woman who changed their lives, with a range of offerings from Julian Burnside, Shaun Micallef, David Williamson, and Robert Manne, to name only a few.
Though the entries in this collection were first performed at the Women of Letters salon events, nothing is lost in the written word. In fact, the individual voices of the authors shine through, sometimes lighthearted and whimsical, sometimes poignant and nostalgic. Sincerely is a potent tribute to an art that is shown to be not only a lot of fun but also very much alive.
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of
correspondence from Women of Letters
curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in November 2012.
In odd ways my life ran parallel to that of David Foster Wallace. And to that of DT Max, the author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the first biography of a man many have named the voice of his (our) generation. Like Wallace, I had the midwestern childhood, the years in New York, and a consuming passion for language and literature.
Early in Wallace’s career, I attended a reading in New York, compelled by friends to tag along, having no idea who the shaggy, unconventional writer on stage was. But I was impressed. He was clearly brilliant. And earnest–deadly earnest. He spoke of wanting to find a new language to express an ever shifting, fast paced, increasingly fragmented experience.
My head was full of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, and James. Narrative continuity. At that time, contemporary writing was ‘not my thing’. At bookstores, I dipped into Wallace’s books, but never purchased one. They were too cartoonish for my taste, too clever and recursive, too ironic. Having never been seduced by postmodernism (though I read my share of theory in grad school), Wallace’s ‘maximalist’ response to it was like reading a foreign language. And there were too many other wonderful books in towers around me.
Still, Wallace remained in the corner of my consciousness. Now and then, I read something about him. Occasionally, I’d stumble across one of his books in a used bookstore. I knew he resided in the literary firmament, the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, friends with DeLillo and Franzen and many others, but that he eschewed fame, something he referred to as the ‘red eye of Sauron’*. I respected that. And maybe because he managed to maintain humility and earnestness and a scathing work ethic in spite of his success, when I heard about his suicide in 2008, I felt as though I lost someone I knew.
Max’s biography of Wallace does credit to his subject. He never met Wallace. Like me, the closest he got was a literary party in New York in the ’90s. But one senses he knew Wallace the way I felt I knew him. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is a tightly packed, straightforward account of one writer’s life, but it has something to say to all writers. Max exhaustively details the depressions, the battle with substance abuse, the hospitalisations, antidepressants, and electroconvulsive therapy. He recounts the affairs, the recoveries, Wallace’s insecurities, rages, even his murderous thoughts. We learn about his dogs, the TV shows he liked, and his penchant for wallpapering his bathroom with pages from his manuscripts.
And yet, this is a biography not only of the writer but of the writing. We are given an intimate view of the creative process in all its highs and lows. When Wallace was working well, he was prolific. He claimed to have written 750,000 words on Infinite Jest alone. Wallace’s energy and the constant whirring in his brain jump off the page. In fallow periods, when Wallace produced nothing, he worried about his lack of output through every drawn out, painful moment of the day. Max details Wallace’s commitment to the writing process in such a way that it becomes a masterclass for writers of all kinds.
There is something unnerving about Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, an ever-present note of sadness that hangs over the biography from the first page, from the title itself, looming like the red eye of Sauron, in this case not Wallace’s growing fame but the chilling fact of his suicide. This makes for a painful life to read. To his credit, Max resists sensationalising Wallace’s fate. Even in the final pages, when we know the act is not far off, Max recounts Wallace’s last days and moments in a hushed, understated way.
The tragedy is a heavy one. After years of sobriety and meditation, after finding happiness with Karen Green, a woman to whom he was singularly well-suited, Wallace felt emboldened to get off the antidepressants he’d been taking for two decades. Nardil is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that has problematic interactions with certain foods. But this wasn’t the only reason Wallace wanted to try life without it. He was struggling to write The Pale King, the novel he’d been battling for years, and wondered if he would be more inspired and energetic off his meds.
It was an act of hope rather than desperation. Finally calm, mellowed, contented, believing his demons were behind him, Wallace wondered if another way of being was possible. Sadly, it proved not to be.
* From Tolkien.
D.T. Max is a graduate of Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, was published by Viking Penguin on August 30, 2012. He is also the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle who came to them named Max.