I probably wouldn't be alone in saying that I once had a slightly morbid obsession with Sylvia Plath. Who wouldn't want to be brilliant, gaunt, and tragically resistant to death? Oblique references to doomed romances? Count me in. When I took a poetry class in college and wrote appropriately morbid poetry, the instructor touted me as a Ms. Plath in the making. I took it as a compliment.
I thought I was over it until I rented Sylvia, which chronicles her relationship with Ted Hughes. Doomed romance, yes. Brilliant, gaunt (at least Gwyneth Paltrow is), and tragically resistant. Check. Not resistant enough. How painful it was to see kindred spirits fueling and consuming each other, the spark that brought them together the same spark that eventually extinguished her life and altered his permanently. It was romantic, but not in the way I had thought when I pored over The Bell Jar. To write poetry was to live poetry. Brilliance could only come from extreme loss.
I'm not so sure I feel differently now. My friend Tina's first novel (Nothing But The Truth and a Few White Lies - read it!) just came out, and it's quite simply fabulous. Hilarious and heartwarming. And clearly, despite the comedy, it flows out of a real sense of displacement, a trueness that is nearly heartbreaking. If you talk with her, she will tell you that her writing didn't step into that realm of trueness until she began to write from the heart. Her writing has always been amazing to me. But it's true - the work from her heart is extraordinary.
My own work flows out of loss - the loss of my daughter, the loss of a very close friend's sister. I hope I can do them justice, and sometimes I worry that I'm exploiting their lives by spinning them into a story. But then the story has taken on a life of its own, separate from me or my friend or my daughter or her sister. The particulars couldn't be more disparate, even if the emotions are true. Maybe not so much in the case of my daughter, whose life was so brief and vivid that I can't help but remember every detail. I feel a bit like Lady Lazarus, too - back from the dead, arisen from a year of grieving and another year spent with our second daughter. Survival seems like a gift too precious to waste.