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Inspired to write

Growing up I always enjoyed reading stories and poems by famous writers, but I never envisioned myself writing them. However, in eighth grade after I discovered poet and author Sylvia Plath, I wanted to be more than the reader—I wanted to be the writer.

It started when my eighth grade English teacher Mrs. Fennell introduced me to contemporary writers like Ted Kooser and Gary Soto, whose books I loved. Then I began reading poems, breaking them apart and writing comments in the margins next to my favorite lines. I couldn’t read without a pen in my hand.

One time I wrote a poem based on Soto’s “The Mariachi Suit.” Like Soto’s, my poem was about a lone guitarist and I tried to capture his themes of solitude and poverty. I was really starting to like writing, but it wasn’t until I read a Sylvia Plath poem first semester that I felt like I had to be a writer. The title of the poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” caught my eye.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I could hear the mad girl’s voice with each line I read. I was her, and it broke my heart to know my ill fate. However, I realized, No! I was not her! I am not her! I chuckled, because for a moment Plath had had this effect on me. She had broken my heart with just her words.

The poem was scary. The idea of blackness, I didn’t know exactly what that meant or how God topples from the sky. When I read, “I fancied you’d return the way you said, But I grow old and I forget your name,” I wondered, “What doesn’t come back?” Though the poem was confusing, I loved it. It was unlike anything I had read before.


Illustration by Shirley Loi, 17, Sierra Vista HS (Baldwin Park)

I connected with the girl in the poem

Like Plath’s mad girl, I wanted to escape stress and responsibility. At the time, I was applying to some private and magnet high schools. As a 13-year-old I was already feeling the pressure that I had to do well in middle school so I could get into a good high school so I could get into a good college and be successful.

After I read “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” I flipped through our book looking for more of Plath’s poems, but there weren’t any. There were a few lines about her. She was born in Boston in 1932 and committed suicide in 1963. She went to Smith College, married poet Ted Hughes and had two kids. She wrote a few poetry collections. But there was nothing about her personality.

I wanted to know what had happened to her to make her write something like “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” I went online and learned she had suffered from depression and stayed at a mental hospital. She also spent a lot of time with her mom, who was really supportive, and had lost her father at a young age. Like Plath, I could always count on my mother for help, and my dad hasn’t been a part of my life for many years. 

After reading “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” I wanted to pursue writing as a career. I wanted to write beautiful lines about sorrow, lust, despair, hope and faith. I didn’t talk much in class because I had a stutter. But as a writer I could communicate my ideas without feeling ashamed like I did when a teacher called on me and I stuttered the answer.

Mrs. Fennell gave me good advice, like “write what you know.” She always spoke to me like one writer to another. Her honesty and encouragement gave me hope that someday I could write as well as Plath.

Even so, getting started was difficult. Sitting at my computer, I would begin, “Mrs. Sommers’ travel to the lush gardens of China marked the beginning of her love of magnolias. In China, folk people told the story of a poisoned magnolia that could only be healed by the true love of two young teenagers (hmm … now what? Ugh! Writer’s block). But the reality was this magnolia was neglected because of the legends of the superstitious villagers. They feared being poisoned and dying, so the magnolias were avoided at all costs. Soon the magnolias’ leaves shriveled and wrinkled like shrimp and drooped. The leaves fell, and the species died altogether … The End.” 

Surely, this could never compete with Sylvia Plath. 

Some of my drafts were covered in scribbles of unintelligible words and others in spirals, stars and triangles born from my frustration. It became routine. Start again, crumple, throw away. It was like stuttering in my head. I just couldn’t get my ideas onto paper even if they seemed clear in my mind. My words could never compare with the powerful language of my idols: Plath, Soto, Maya Angelou, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Even when I thought my work was fine for an eighth grader, it was crap compared to Plath.

In spite of my frustration, I loved writing too much to give up. Writing was its own reward. And I remembered Mrs. Fennell’s advice, write what you know. Plath wrote about feeling, Soto about culture, Kooser about his home in Nebraska, and Angelou about her childhood. So I described a school day or how our physics teacher smelled like peanut butter. 

During second semester in Mrs. Fennell’s class, we formed student book clubs and got to read whatever we wanted. My club was three friends and me. I made sure we read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

A semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar incorporates some of Plath’s real-life experiences. Like her protagonist Esther Greenwood, Plath felt a need to prove herself as a writer and overcome a stereotype that defined women as homemakers and pretty faces. Plath knew she was more than just a “pretty face” or a future mother. Like Plath, I knew I wanted to be appreciated for my talents, not my physical features. 

However, unlike Plath I never went through the depressions or suicide attempts. Even so, I felt sympathy. I wished I could have been there for her. I think what truly made me admire her was how thanks to her determination, she came back after a six-month stay at a psychiatric ward and still managed to earn high honors at Smith College.

I saw how writing could be like therapy

Through writing, Plath had overcome intense scrutiny, tragedy and even near-death experiences. Writing had been her therapy. Writing proved my savior when I felt anxious about starting at a new school (I had just been accepted at Notre Dame High School). Would I be judged? Would I feel different? I wondered, “What would Plath do?” 

I recalled a passage from The Bell Jar in which Esther remembers a story about a fig tree and thinks, “I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under the beautiful big green fig tree.” I wanted to crawl away and sleep too. I saw myself sitting in my own fig tree, waiting for something I couldn’t put a name to. Hope? I now understood why Plath’s writing truly became her saving grace. It would be mine too.

While I loved The Bell Jar, one of my friends in the group said, “This is really intense. It’s emo and suicidal. I don’t know how I feel about this book.”

In the middle of the book, Esther discusses how she was found by her mom in the basement with her hair missing and her eyes bloodshot and swollen. She was purple and her face was unrecognizable. I was mesmerized by the vivid description of her suicide attempt but while our group was talking about it during class, my friend didn’t want to participate in our discussion. She turned to the next table to start another conversation.

In one chapter, Esther, a writer, envisions talking to her boyfriend, a pre-med student, who says poems are just dust. She disagrees and says that poems are no more so dust than the cadavers he cuts up. Suddenly, she lashes out at her boyfriend, thinking he, like the people he “cures,” is just dust. She tells him, “A good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those [cadavers] put together.”

Not everyone likes Plath’s dark writing

This chapter was one of my favorites, and I wrote a journal entry about it. When I walked into class I was excited to share what I had written, which was a reflection about undervaluing the power of poetry. Even as I went on about how much I identified with Esther, my friend turned away from our group. I thought she was like Esther’s boyfriend, denying me a chance to voice my opinions even if we did not agree. Like Esther, I believed poems were much more than dust. My poems reflect my character, conviction and dreams of being a famous writer and supportive mother someday. They express my belief in God. My poems are not merely dust. 

After we finished the book, my friend said it was very depressing and that she didn’t like it. This upset me. She was my friend so I valued her opinion, but insulting Sylvia Plath felt like insulting me.

I raved about Plath’s poetry for the rest of the year and constantly talked with my friends about her, her passion and her literary honesty. I didn’t do this because I admired her for her suicide; I just loved her work.

But my friend wasn’t the only one who dismissed my “irrational” (in her opinion) admiration for Plath. By the end of eighth grade, a few of my classmates also found it eerie of me to admire a writer who had committed suicide. While writing goodbye comments in our yearbooks, they wrote: “Daisy, the best of luck, please don’t jump off a bridge” or “Daisy, good luck in high school, please love life.” 

As much as I understood that they were probably teasing me, I ignored their comments and have even scratched out a few of them. I will not be ashamed of loving a writer who was strong enough to announce her pain but who unfortunately committed suicide. 

So I keep writing and reading. I have faced rejection (from Teen Ink magazine and my school’s newspaper) and writer’s block. Even writing in school has proved no easy task as I barely scrape low As on my essays despite my best effort. I am by no means the student everyone thinks of as the “kid who rocks at writing.” Still, I long for the day when, like Plath, I will break the heart of a young, promising student and help him or her escape, if only for a few seconds.