Sylvia Plath’s journals taught me how to fall in love with writing again
Through pain and pleasure, the craft is the thing that keeps us anchored.
TW: discussion of suicide, ideations and mental illness.
It feels like the most unspeakable thing for me to admit that the main reason I knew who Sylvia Plath was in the first place is because of her mental illness and suicide. When I was knee-deep in studies for my English Literature exams at sixth-form, her name was banded about the classroom as an example for possible subjects for an essay we had to write.
“The Bell Jar would be a good book to use if you’re focusing on the themes and portrayal of mental illness,” my teacher had said. Looking back now, I’m both surprised (and a little thankful) I didn’t opt for it. This was in the months just before I experienced real, deep and terribly sticky depression for the first time as a result of my Dad’s death, and everything before that event was a blur of itchy, buzzing anxiety which had fuelled my existence since I was very little. I remember that this particular assignment had set my nerves off badly.
My then-boyfriend had picked Plath. For his essay, he compared it to the depiction of depression in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club — which he much preferred over The Bell Jar. It was then in class that it was briefly mentioned that Plath eventually killed herself later in life, which solidified the unsettling stigma that had already clouded around the book further. We all shared a few raised eyebrows (the universal sign for yikes) because we were young, a little ignorant and blissfully unaware of that sort of thing.
There was something morbidly fascinating about the subject when I was an outsider looking in, wondering just how far you’d have to go to take those steps to end it all. It felt a little like prodding at a human life with a stick.
Nobody else picked The Bell Jar to study.
Sylvia didn’t come back into my life until I deserved her, I think. The next time I came across her name it was in a google search for “writer’s block” — which had been plaguing me throughout my second year of university. I’d gone on to escape my hometown and set up shop somewhere entirely different in order to study Journalism, and had vaguely hoped to escape the deep grief that had bubbled out of the space that used to hold my Dad. It hadn’t worked.
I didn’t realise back then just how deeply sadness can run and how much it can rot your insides. It cored me like an apple, letting everything that used to be “me” run out the sides and allowed my body to shrink and curl up in on itself. Within months, a fog had descended and sucked out any motivation I had for my life in all its previous technicolour glory, which had now faded to ugly yellowing photopaper. My shelf groaned with books unread and the annoying blink blink blink of the cursor on an empty Word Document screamed at me.
Everything ached with the unfairness of it all — only the previous year I was this young, unstoppable thing who was going to do Big Stuff at University and change the world with a pen. Then suddenly I was this paper-thin nothing and was struggling to see the point of getting out of bed. Everything I experienced was either too much or not enough, always frustratingly out of reach, like I was seeing the world through the wrong-end of a pair of binoculars.
At one point I became so very close to taking those steps, ones similar to those that Plath had taken on February 11th 1963 — ones that I simply couldn’t comprehend making just a few years prior. I eyed up the bathtub and the porcelain smiled back. It was a deeply unsettling headspace.
The clincher was that I couldn’t even get all of this new mental poison out of myself. In the past, therapists had advised that writing was the best cathartic action for me — “with how good you are with words, you’ll find you might be able to understand yourself better on paper” — but now it felt futile.
I was a writer who couldn’t write. What was the point of any of it?
So, feeling limp and useless, I did the thing I’d avoided for a while. I took to the internet.
Making sure to steer away from the “clinical” side of things (I’d already had a torrent of people helpfully and unhelpfully try to dose me up on recommendations for my ailment: yoga, acupuncture, whirling around a birch branch in a clearing) so I looked for advice on what was hurting me the most: my inability to write. After all, surely other writers have had spells of depression? At least one them would have experienced this block — didn’t Douglas Adams famously take long baths every time he hit that irritating brick wall of Absolutely Nothing?
I quickly came across a selection of quotes and some of them touched on this painful side of writing. Maya Angelou spoke of the agony that comes from “bearing an untold story inside you”, Jack Kerouac lamented that one day he’d “find the right words and they would be simple.”
And then there was Sylvia Plath:
“Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down and either you over dramatise it, or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to.”
It came from her journals. This entry was one of the earlier ones, slotted in between memories filled with strawberry fields, wisdom teeth and the syrupy warmth of a summer that happened in 1950-something. But she drew me in. Sylvia understood.
I went online and bought the “Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962” and a copy of her poetry anthology, Ariel. When they both arrived, I set on devouring both with a fierce animosity, with an appetite for reading that I hadn’t felt in years. Her writing (and in turn, herself) leaps off the page with such unforgiving realness, that I often had to look around to double-check I was still in my dark, high-ceilinged student room and not with her.
Now, it’s important to remember that these journals were never intended to be shared with us. They were the private musings and experiences of a woman going through college, navigating relationships with herself, her family and lovers. All of Sylvia’s hopes and fears are in her journals, and they’re all beautifully raw and gorgeously written.
It was when I came back to myself after an avid night of getting ready for a date with Miss Plath, having watched her choose between slacks or a dress and happily think herself pretty — that I realised that all of this was what made her a writer. Not because any of her works, including the journals, got published (the original published versions of her diaries were posthumously abridged and controversially shared by her husband, Ted Hughes in 1982) — but because she wrote in the first place.
Almost religiously she scribbled her life down in those pages. She wrote for no other reason but herself. At times, her writing seems to be both pain and pleasure, with Sylvia writing out the “desires that will destroy me in the end” and “perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.” Reading Sylvia Plath beat on against her frustrations, grapple with the ache to be bigger and different and deal with life and all its tribulations resonated with me.
At first, it felt a little like I was intruding on her memory. After all, I already knew how her story ended and, once again, it brought me back to that strange and palpable feeling of peering at someone’s life through a fishbowl and tapping on the glass.
But this time I was sandwiched in the strange space between outsider and insider. I’d only started to make sense of her in print because it was me, the reader, who had changed.
I was older, somewhat wiser and had experienced life in multiple shades of shadows and light, now having visited a similar mental precipice to the one that had been whispered about in a classroom by my peers years ago.
And like Sylvia I had already decided deep down that I wanted nothing more to than to write. But the revelation that I could really do it came from reading her journals, where she coaxed it out of me. For many years Plath’s work had either been tucked away in a corner for being too dark and heavy, or put on a pedestal in some sort of tribute to the patron saint of Tortured Artists.
Of course, shades of Sylvia shines through her work. Her own experiences with depression influenced The Bell Jar (which I did get around to reading eventually) and Ariel undulates with its themes of power, death, and transformation. But they become fully-fleshed when you read passages from her life, straight from Sylvia’s brain and lips — beyond the glorified sadness that clouded her personal life and the now almost urban-mythic way it ended.
Admittedly, I still haven’t finished her journals. I save my meetings with Sylvia for train journeys before going to do something grown up like applying for a job or pitching an article. Her writing is a balm for my own depressive episodes, reminding me that I am still worthy in all my frustrations and still allowed to rail against everything when things get particularly difficult.
But she also reminds me to tap into small delights. The joy of having that first tart bite of strawberry. That ripple of nerves before you go on a date. How it is to be in a moment and how wondrous it is to be able to write it down and capture it.
Sylvia Plath was, in all her being, a writer. She showed me that it is not something you need to prove by churning out copy or articles or even being published, which were things I would frequently use to beat myself with at my lowest.
How can you call yourself a writer when you don’t have all these things? When you can’t even lift a pen, some days?
Sylvia did. Sylvia wrote. And sometimes, as shown in her journals, she simply didn’t write for weeks on end — but she was still a writer.
Shortly after starting her journal, I began writing in a diary that had long been collecting dust. I try to write every day, even if it’s nothing noteworthy. But it gets my brain moving out of the slog. I am slowly trying to teach myself that I am still worthy of calling myself a writer even if it sometimes doesn’t happen. Instead I’m attempting to live a life that would be beautiful if it was written by Sylvia Plath, in all its many forms.
Put into her words: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.”
I’ll take the risk and ricochet, Sylvia.