“I’m chock-full of ideas for new poems. I can’t wait to get time to write them down. I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”
— Sylvia Plath
They say every writer who wants to improve their craft has to be a reader first. While I haven’t always followed the advice to a tee—I haven’t always been a writer, or a reader, or both at once—I have found that when I have, reading only makes me feel more worthless, impotent, and my efforts futile. And now these feelings seem to have come to a head, and I have come to my wit’s end, now that I have had my first taste of Shakespeare.
Growing up my teachers tried to get me to appreciate his rich wordplay, lively relatable characters, and imaginative plots, but I struggled with the language and never got very far or very much out of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. I gave him another try this month with Twelfth Night, and now I know I should never have tried to be a writer at all.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I try to read and learn from many of the greats, but each one only highlighted my ignorance more and more. I’ll never have even half the talent of these authors. I will never write anything so moving, and I will never be known or remembered, so I should just give up, and sometimes I do.
Still, no matter how discouraged I get I still love writing and can’t seem to quit her entirely. So, I’m here again, lost and exhausted of my own faults but looking to try something new.
I’m far from being chock full of ideas though. I once was, and I hope to be again someday, but self-doubt is a hell of a drug, and I don’t know how to kick the nasty habit. Even when the words come slow, they still come, just never the ones I want. Never the ones I had always wanted to write. I gave up on all my dreams because I know I can never tell the story the way it appears to my mind’s eye and I can never teach the people what I know is right in my heart.
Where have all my ideas and ambitions gone? I have a feeling they are still there floating in the shadow of my self-consciousness. I suppose courage is what will get them back into the light. I suppose when you believe you can do things, or at least when you don’t know that the things you might do could be ugly, or stupid, or that you might one day lose interest or fail to finish things, there is no end to what you might do. But, it’s nearly impossible to unsee what is now painfully obvious.
And even if I was all wrong about my own ability and it was all just a matter of learning, of cracking the code and finding my voice and a good muse, I’m still far too far behind to ever catch up. I’m too old to learn new tricks. I’m too old to race the young, the strong, the flexible but maybe I’m looking at the race all wrong.
They say that practice makes perfect, but my practice rarely results in progress, let alone perfection. I’ve read that in order to get better you have to fail more and fail better, and that sounds a little more up my alley. That is how I can catch up to Plath, and Woolf, and Austen, and maybe even Shakespeare himself one day. I will embrace my fear and run by failure instead. I know I have enough failure in me to fuel a lifetime of work and more. I will stop trying to be as good as everyone else and fail the very best that I can instead.
And once you have set your heart on spectacular failure suddenly the ideas come by the dozen, and the words flow free as rivers. If I’m going to fail anyway, I can at least make it look good. If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well express myself, and tell the absolute truth. If I am going to fail anyway I might as well fail every single day and make it big, and bold, and bright! If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well make it my own and share every catastrophe with you.
I might as well be a proud failure considering failing is better than never trying at all and if I am so sure I’ll never be successful I should work to collect the same weight in flops and defeats, yes?
So, I have a new mission it seems, to fail more and better than anyone else. To earn even the possibility of my name among those greats by a paying in rejections, criticisms, and loss.
I’ll need a list, notebooks long with no two items the same, of ways I want to fail is what I want to work on now. I want each line to be a bigger and more impressive way to fail than then the last, and I have to start with them straight away!
It won’t be a hard task I’m sure. There are infinite ways to write failures out of short stories, essays, poems, hell, there are whole books I feel floating around inside my head I can fail at too. No, Shakespeare won’t get too far ahead of me now, nor Plath, nor Woolf, nor Austen or any of the rest.
I have them in my sights now as none of them could dream to fail like me!
Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.
Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.
Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honors in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.
In 1960, shortly after Plath and Hughes returned to England from America, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. She also gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca. Hughes’ and Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in 1962.
Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on.
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