Filed under: Joy's Work — joy at 7:17 am on Wednesday, May 1, 2013
I am a fan of Mental Floss, so I’m thrilled that they are running an article I wrote … about stilts!
In France in the 19th century, an entire town lived on stilts. Stilt jousting is a real thing—an entire tournament in Belgium is devoted to fighting on stilts. Then there’s powerbocking, an extreme sport that has popped up (pun intended) around spring-loaded stilts. Other people work on stilts, and it’s so dramatic. I mean, check out these stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka.
Filed under: Inspiration — Administrator at 7:32 am on Monday, April 22, 2013
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.–Herman Melville
I am three-fourth of the way through Moby Dick, and I am shocked to find that I’m really enjoying it.
Every year at this time, I get obsessed with gardening. I have a wonderful God-like moment in early spring where I feel like my yard is under control and I know what I’m doing, but experience had taught me that this is hubris. The more complacent I get about the yard, the sneakier nature will be in undermining me, all in quest—it feels, anyway—to humble me.
Being humbled by bugs and voles is a particularly spectacular kind of humbling. I am smarter (I’m pretty sure that’s true), but there are so many of them. Anyway, we have put in raised beds this year in an attempt to stop the voles and gophers from eating everything I plant. It’s a lot like a king building a fortress to stop invading forces. I understand these kings now, the ancient ones who built castles on hilltops surrounded with moats and pointy sticks. How anxious they must have been all the time—and how angry. Fortresses are well worth the price of a more peaceful state of mind.
Has motherhood made you feel differently about yourself?
There was a period in my early career that was determined by the images of women writers I was exposed to—women writers as genius suicides like Virginia Woolf. Or genius reclusives like Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. Or doomed people of some sort, like the Brontës, who both died young. You could fall back on Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mrs. Gaskell; they both led reasonable lives. But then George Eliot didn’t have any children; neither did Jane Austen. Looking back over these women writers, it seemed difficult as a writer and a woman to have children and a domestic relationship. For a while I thought I had to choose between the two things I wanted: children and to be a writer. I took a chance.
Filed under: Inspiration — joy at 8:29 am on Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I went mushroom hunting. It was fancy mushroom hunting at a winery on top of a hill, and afterwards a chef made us a 3-course meal featuring local mushrooms.
It has been a hot, dry spring, so there weren’t many mushrooms to be found. I found this one. It was covered in tiny spiders. We didn’t try to eat it.
I learned a lot about mushrooms. I learned, for example, about candy cap mushrooms, which only grow in Northern California. They made us ice cream made out of this candy cap mushroom. It had a slightly spicy maple syrup flavor that stayed in my mouth for hours afterwards. I didn’t know a mushroom could have a flavor like that.
Mushroom season is over now, even though there are some growing in my yard. In the fall, I’m going to go hunting again.
A thing that amazes me: there are millions of mushrooms that have not been identified. No one has bothered to figure out what they are and what they are capable of.
We think we know how the universe formed and what the past was like and how we got here. The truth is, we don’t even know all the mushrooms yet.
Side note: two dogs lying on the sidewalk this way. Oh dogs…
When I knew her, it was during her most writing-for-Mademoiselle-ish days, and she had bobby socks and totally artificial bright red lips and totally artificial bright blond hair, and I remember her as a made-up creature with no central reality to her at all, always uttering advice like a woman’s magazine advice column. She wrote beautiful words, but there wasn’t anybody inside there.
I have read that last part—“there wasn’t anybody inside there”—over and over and I still don’t know what it means. I have thought people were fake or shallow, but I have never looked at someone and thought, “He has no central reality to him.” Maybe I should. It seems like a good way to dismiss people who annoy you.
To be fair, Plath said similar things about herself. She seemed to feel untethered within herself, as if she could be everything and nothing at the same time. Maybe that’s why we’re all so eager to put interpretation on her life, to make her into a feminist martyr or a case study for mental health. Still, whenever I read her work, all I see is one huge “I” there.
Ted Hughes said: “I never saw her show her real self to anybody–except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.” This rings true for me. I understand hiding behind social expectations to disguise the ugliness of the self, or to protect what’s precious and complicated.
Or maybe I don’t understand Plath anymore than anyone else.
SEVEN. I have a reoccurring dream where I go back in time to save Sylvia Plath from suicide.
I’m not kidding—I have the most literary-nerdish dreams ever. Someday I should tell you about the one where Jack London drives a double-decker bus.
In the Plath dream, I’m always in the hallway of the apartment building where she died, and I have to knock on the door to get her to answer. Sometimes she doesn’t open the door. Sometimes she does, and she’s this banshee-like, half-ghost thing already, one second away from a shrieking fit, very hard to reason with. Several times, I have explained to her that she’s going to be a major poet and that it’s all going to be okay. “Just six more years and there will be feminism!” I say. But Plath is always like, “Who are you? Go away. You are going to wake my kids.” and forces me back into the hallway.
I wonder what would have happened if Plath hadn’t killed herself. She would have been a great poet, but she wouldn’t have had the same kind of fame. Plath is the literary equivalent of a painter whose paintings quadruple in price after she dies. Her last poems are most powerful seen as the work of someone moving toward self-destruction. As the work of a living poet, I can understand why some editors rejected the last poems. Those editors were idiots, of course, because those poems are wonderful, but I can also understand being put off by them. Imagine getting “Lady Lazarus” in your inbox: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Yeah, that would scare editors even today.
EIGHT. Despite all the articles and books written about Plath, people rarely focus on the poems themselves. If the poems are mentioned, they are mentioned as something she was doing right before she died. The details get lost in the Plath shuffle.
I wish I could explain what it feels like for me to listen to this recording of “Tulips,” the way it slides masterfully from metaphor to metaphor while circling around the bigger metaphors of life and death. The last stanza:
The tulips should be behind bars, like dangerous animals;
They’re opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And come from a country far away as health.
When I read that, I get the shiver I get when confronted with something I think of a complete work of art.
NINE. The real tragedy is that Plath killed herself right as she was coming into her matures powers as a writer. All the skills she had been single-mindedly working toward her entire life were finally starting to emerge. She cut them off just as they were getting started.
TEN. I still read Plath’s journals. I like reading toward the beginning of her relationship with Hughes, where she was really starting to write and was still happy in her marriage. I like Plath. She was bitchy and witty and disciplined. She was funny. She complained about her period and got nervous about dinner parties and had dreams about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. She was always making beautiful visions of how she wanted her life to be—her kitchen full of like-minded artists, her yard full of life-sustaining plants, a “book shelf” published between Ted and her—and setting out to make these things happen. I agree with her about a lot of things. Child rearing, for example. Hard work.
And also, this:
For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time—the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms—children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places.
Ironically, considering the source, this isn’t a bad way to live.
Filed under: Inspiration — joy at 9:30 am on Wednesday, March 20, 2013
ONE. I was in my high school library when I first picked up Sylvia Plath’s Diary. I was immediately obsessed. This girl was passionate and bookish, like me. She was ambitious to be a writer, like me. She made statements about life and emotions and boys that seemed relevant to my state of being. I felt I understood her.
Even though I’ve never been suicidal, I felt I understood that part of Plath’s story as well. After all, I was having many VeryBigFeelings, some of them sad. It seemed, if not exactly the same, similar enough not to disturb my sense of connection to Plath. This was even more the case when I read The Bell Jar two years later.
I’ve since learned that this is a pretty typical introduction to Plath.
TWO. For some women, reading Plath is like discovering a band you love. Somehow this band expresses a shade of your emotional experience that you thought no one else knew, and it’s all very private and fulfilling until you discover that the band has blown up while you weren’t looking and is opening for Taylor Swift and everyone is putting covers of their songs on YouTube. This pisses you off because no one understands the band the way you do. After all, if other fans understand the band like you understand the band, then your special emotional connection is not, in fact, special, but common. You loved the band first. You loved them for their music.
Part of this phenomenon is because Plath’s story is so dramatic. This brilliant, mentally unstable poet, abandoned by her husband (otherwise known as the center of her universe) for another woman, writes a book of world-class poetry before killing herself by sticking her head in an oven. Plath is so eloquent about her life that you can’t help but sympathize. Trapped in an apartment during a record-cold English winter, alone with two babies, you would certainly be distraught too.
THREE. The weird thing is that while everyone tries to write the one Plath book that truly encompasses her—there are two biographies coming out this year alone—no one really does. That’s the thing about Plath. She eludes full description. I’ve read most of the biographies, fictionalizations, and critical responses to her life, and while some are intelligent, none capture the full woman that was Sylvia Plath.
This is remarkable since Plath’s entire body of work is devoted to the study of herself. It’s not as if there isn’t any source material.
FOUR. The indie-band-love of Plath leads to some unfortunate comparisons. Recently, Lena Dunham told The Guardian that she studied Plath as an undergrad and that “my final paper in my 20th-century Poetics class compared her work to that of Alanis Morissette (“Angry Girls: Alanis and Sylvia face off”).”
To compare one of the best poets of the 20th century to a singer who famously misused the word “ironic” throughout a song is a perfect example of the crappy misunderstandings that abound about Plath, namely that she and all women who write about their “feelings” are doing the same thing. Never mind that Plath was doing a great deal more than write about her feelings. She struggled for years to develop the technical skills that allowed her to so quickly distill her psychic landscape into a complicated and original metaphorical language. And she did it elegantly, building her work on an extensive knowledge of English literature. She wasn’t dashing off half-formed thoughts about her mood swings. Plath was hardcore.
FIVE. But this happens all the time. In an NPR review of Fiona Apple’s newest album, Ken Tucker said, “Apple is working in the literary tradition of ‘the difficult woman,’ closing in on Virginia Woolf and already superior to Sylvia Plath.” Apple is an excellent lyricist, but come on, superior to Plath? The women who wrote “Daddy”? (Not to mention comparing Apple to a master of the modernist novel like Woolf… I mean, what?)
No one does this to self-destructive male artists. No one says Kurt Cobain is superior to Robert Lowell and approaching Ernest Hemingway. Is it because male artists tend to write about stereotypically “big” issues, like war, in addition to their own personal demons? (Although Woolf wrote about war, as well as history and time and the meaning of life.) Or is it that some people still go to old ideas about female hysteria and shrillness whenever a woman speaks about the tough side of life?
You’ll notice there’s no genre of the “difficult man.”