In one of my teenage notebooks I wrote the phrase delicious doom just over a hundred times, filling the unlined page with black 0.5mm Pilot Rollerball ink. I later dubbed this particular notebook the Anxiety Notebook, though I hadn’t intended to theme it when I first unwrapped the paper from its plastic and etched my landline number in the inner cover’s top left corner.
I can’t remember for certain, but the consistency of the ink and spacing makes me think I’d completed the dense, unpunctuated litany in one sitting:
D E L I C I O U S d o o m
Delicious doom remains the pet name I first gave in high school to the startling, awareness-granting electricity that extends from my feet to my brain when my anxiety flares—worse during an attack but crackling even on a good day. The jolt arrives without warning, the way I imagine the Talmudic God once spoke to men: thunderous and certain, nobody else able to hear a word.
When the speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Poppies in October,” a poem of hers I first read as a teenager, cries out “Oh my god, what am I / that these late mouths should cry open / in a forest of frosts”—this I embodies the delicious doom feeling. The I feels the anxious panic of a certain but unseeable death. The I also marvels at the stunningly real body who must greet it. Despite my frequent desire to reject it, the body—the delicious doom body—is singular, perhaps even perfectly so: “a gift, a love gift / utterly unasked for / by a sky.”
I remember reading Plath for the first time, but I don’t remember how I learned that she killed herself. I considered her suicide as, in 10th grade, I read each page of Ariel, then her Unabridged Journals immediately next. My distinction, back then, between Plath’s life and her poetry was as thin as a sheet of paper.
That same academic year, visiting Boston University on a campus tour, I stood in the brownstone on Bay State Road that houses the English Department and its creative writing program. “Here,” the tour guide told us, “in this very classroom, Robert Lowell taught Anne Sexton.” I stared down at the thick carpet shagging underneath my sneakers, its rusted reds and mossy greens echoing the fall leaves changing outside, the grassy hill beside the Charles River that churned just outside the classroom’s trifold windows.
As Sexton wrote in her poem “Just Once”: “I knew what life was for. / In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood.” I filled out the application and scholarship paperwork after taking the train back home to the Philadelphia suburbs. I matriculated the following year.
Little about the way I came to love Plath distinguishes me from her other readers. I hail from a broad-based, devout legion of her fans: those readers who saw themselves in her life before, or alongside, encountering her craft. I saw in her poetry—or I thought I did, when I was younger—the confessional poet’s willingness to share her life, not just her art, with her reader. As an anxious teenager questioning my sexuality and filling page after page with my unrevised fears, I thought back then that writing about my life might somehow liberate me from it. I thought Plath the platonic ideal of this fraught version of liberation.
Before Plath—before poetry—I’d already devoted myself to music. My friends and I idolized together, the CD-RW our talisman. Tim kept a tower of them in his basement next to his family’s boxy PC. We’d head to his mother’s house after saving up our after-school jobs money, a pile of jewel-cased CDs sandwiched between us, and we’d burn one album after another. I drove around the suburbs in my mom’s green Dodge Ram 1500 van with a fat shared-disc library perched on my lap, half of which bore Tim’s loopy, hurried scrawl: Young Liars. This Island. Pinkerton. The book’s plastic cover would stick to my legs when I changed CDs fast at a red light, tugging the shining disc from its deliberately ordered sleeve, careful not to disrupt the album-cover ephemera organized behind.
Brian took me to my first concerts in Philadelphia (Sonic Youth! The Decemberists!). He belted bars from The Mikado in a deep bass vibrato on command and introduced me to Nina Simone; his sister, like me, often played guitar as he sang. One night in 2003 six of us took the van to see The Dismemberment Plan play at Haverford College in some large common university space. Halfway through the show, I hopped onto the platform where they played inches from the college-kid crowd and danced to each track from A Life of Possibilities and screamed lyrics—“THE CITY’S BEEN DEAD/SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE”—as loud as a 17-year-old girl can scream (louder, I’d thought, than the guitars, louder than the drums). My banged-up calves the next morning served as proof I’d weathered the tiny leap onto the stage.
Musician and writer Carrie Brownstein—like Plath, a centerpiece of both my adolescent and adult fandom—notes that fandom is both “contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened,” she writes in her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, “it’s that you were there.” Today I repeat the speaker’s not the poet in my classrooms, in workshops, to my students—to myself, bent over my desk in the labor of making—but for those of us writing poetry in confessional modes, this instruction inadequately considers what we complicate directly: that we were there. Our bruises. Our liner notes.
As a confessional poet, I appear and leave over and over in my poems. I never tell you—because I do not have to—where the biographical I enters into a poem, or where the I disappears. And the I, too, wears slippery faces. You might see I as a different creature than I see I, or my next reader sees I, or the beloved or feared you in a particular poem, recognizing (she thinks) herself there, might see I. The confessional poet Toi Derricotte captures this slim, necessary separation in her poem “Speculations about ‘I’”: “I am not the ‘I’ /in my poems,” she writes. “‘I’ / is the net I try to pull me in with.” I becomes a writerly construction, not documentary footage. Brownstein considers this fraught distinction an inevitable byproduct of fandom: that the self loses possession of herself, of that I, when she steps onto the stage. The I now belongs to those fans in front of whom the self stands—those who already know, in Brownstein’s case, all of the words to her songs.
When the confessional poet appears before their readers, then, they must reckon with an audience who elides within that I—to varying degrees and with varying accuracy—their self and their persona. The poet becomes, as Plath once became for me, both author and speaker at once. Yet while confessional poets may write deliberately from truth, or while readers and critics may constrain confessional poets’ art within their biographies, it is nevertheless not a truth or biography owed. We take no oaths of journalism; like a singer on a stage, we put a single face on a hundred different I’s, or a hundred different faces on just one.
And if fans claim possession of the confessional I, they must steward this (understandable, necessary) belonging responsibly. As recounted by Paula M. Salvio in her book Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance, Sexton once noted, in response to a critic who called her poetry “clearly related intimately and painfully to the author’s biography,” that she encouraged her readers to think her work was autobiographical even if this perception wasn’t consistently accurate. “It is true that I am an autobiographical poet most of the time,” she said, “or at least so I lead my readers to believe. However, many times I use the personal when I am applying a mask to my face.” I see Sexton’s “mask” as one that grants her both concealment—wishing for privacy in the midst of so much personal—and artistry—changing or shifting the biographical truth (its “face”) to fit the story of the poem, which may or may not be the story of the poet. Engaging with confessional poetry therefore requires a fan’s understanding of the confessional mode’s contract: a fan’s assumption about the truth of a poet’s life, as gleaned from their poetry, remain just that—an assumption. Only the poet can remove their poems’ masks.
The embodied danger in bringing those private relationships and assumptions into public view, of snaring the poet unpermitted in the net of their I, recalls an incident retold to me by the confessional poet Robin Becker—or, as the fliers plastered all over Penn State’s campus in 1993 announcing her reading stated, “Jewish Lesbian Poet Robin Becker.” In ’93, Becker (my mentor) taught at PSU as a newly appointed, untenured faculty member who was “out on her job application” but not to the broader community beyond the subject matter of her poems. The flier-making students had sourced her biography from her poetry and not her actual biography. “I felt suddenly exposed and outed on several fronts,” she remembers. “I felt stunned to see the [poster’s] words representing the ‘person’ behind the poems.” This flier’s messaging illustrates a peril of conflating confessional poet and speaker—not because the students got it wrong, per se, about Becker herself (who is Jewish, lesbian, and a poet), but because they could not imagine Becker’s oeuvre beyond the selves to which her poems confess or invoke, and enclosed her poetry by her identity as a result. And the risks of this conflation, for Becker, were real: as a result of being outed, “I feared homophobia” she recounted, “on the part of colleagues and administration.”
If the search for biographical truth, however slippery or risky, often shapes a reader’s experience of the confessional, the search for necessary connection drives fandom. Back in high school, when I’d get out of the car, I always took the pleather CD folio with me into the house and slid it in its designated shelf-space next to the volumes of art notebooks I kept in my bedroom. In these pages lived my first commonplace books, built from photocopied scraps of poetry chapbooks and anthologies, literary magazine clippings, junk mail and newspapers, and rubber cement. I remember the glue’s fumed-out grit when I rubbed it dry against the paper. Scissors at the ready, I committed other early errors of confessional elision beyond just my frequent re-readings of Plath—errors that I fostered like crushes. Obsessed with the poet Allen Ginsberg, I repeatedly cross-checked his collections with the writing of Kerouac and Burroughs to determine, Tiger Beat-style, if they “were friends in real life.” (Soon, my curiosity evolving, that question became if they “fucked in real life.”)
Almost a decade later, I wrote my first book of confessional poems, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. I began my research by messaging Tim, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.
“Can you make me a playlist from our high-school stuff?” I asked, and at 1:33 that morning, a hundred songs arrived in my Spotify inbox. “Hey Rach,” he wrote. “I hope this gets you where you’re going. I only put one song by each band as a ‘seed’; I’m eager to see what I missed. Sure was fun time traveling all evening.”
As I listened and wrote, I built a commonplace book—just like I did in my childhood anxiety notebooks, this time on the computer. In particular, I read and saved poems from Ginsberg, Plath, Derricotte, and Sharon Olds iteratively. These poets, besides being writers I revered, also engaged with (differing) subjects of the book directly: immigrant Judaism; mental illness; and a young woman’s fraught, bodied sexuality. They also wielded I in ways I wished to learn from: sometimes as a lamp in a dark room, other times as a shield. That all four write in confessional modes shows me my fandom-driven hunger for connection leaps indiscriminately between poetry and music. It’s my need to bear witness that draws me both to Sharon Olds and Sleater-Kinney.
Rachel, my I, appeared before me often as I worked on this manuscript, with more to say each time I thought I’d finished speaking to her. I longed for her and I apologized to her. I sang about her, sometimes loudly, like I used to sing in the car. I also kept her—and others in my family who appear in the collection—partially to myself. Like Sexton, I “use[d] the personal”: I cut specific, discrete shapes from my life with my own hands, revealing from them the art I wished to show to my theoretical readers and obscuring or secreting away the rest. And yet: even when I return to Ariel today, I still see Plath’s face hovering over each disparate, shifting I. I choose to keep seeing her, or my idea of her. I imagine the poet sanctioning me like I used to, even as I know what I long for collapses her biography messily into her poetry. I return, slippery and yearning and misreading, as her fan: seeking catharsis, needing to know someone else was there.
The summer of 2014, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards newly published, I stood on the bimah at Temple Keneseth Israel in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, my book open before me. Next to the rabbi sat my grandmother, who’d organized the reading and signing as a member of the congregation. She’d dressed up for the event in what I think of as her uniform: a gray long-sleeved tunic and pressed black trousers, black patent loafers, and large, round glasses. I watched her eyes move and shift through those glasses as I shared poems about her, and as I shared poems about me, before her gathered community. “Practical,” I read, “we take the names of our dead / because the dead are sturdy.” In that same poem, “For Rose,” I list names of our family’s living—our “Rachels, Rivkas, Renates, Richards, Ronalds”—and that day, seated near my grandmother, many of them were present too, and they nodded along.
Returning to my childhood bedroom that night as an overnight guest, I again opened the book, this time in repentance. I read to myself the poems I’d been too cowardly, or too kind, to read in that echoing synagogue sanctuary, because the I (and, importantly, also the you) felt too powerful to wield in front of those who partially or entirely embodied it. “I can tell no more,” a line from the collection ends, “because the truth stops here, rests only / with our God, the / collector of stories / and bodies.”
Today, I answer some questions about the collection’s “truths” for readers, and other requests I don’t—or won’t—respond to. And sometimes I simply cannot answer them, either emotionally or to the degree of accuracy required of the petitioner. “It is true,” as Sexton said, “that I am an autobiographical poet most of the time.” But I do not begrudge the questioning, with the exception of questions that direct harm (“does your spouse like you to read him your sex poems before bedtime?” an older man once asked me at an event). I enjoy most of the questions because I recognize myself in the petitioner.
When I asked Becker what else she remembered about that flier, she noted that, as years passed from the initial incident, her feelings about the billing shifted from fear to pride. “I came to embrace that poster,” she told me, “and all it stood for: educating a sheltered group of college students and standing in solidarity with others.” The students who outed her also created, for Becker, an opportunity to communicate with a reader like her, one who needed her: “I understood,” she told me, “that the innocence, inexperience, and sheltered lives of those sponsoring the event needed me to be PROUD and OUT [emphasis hers]! My guess is that a Jewish lesbian was a total rarity at Penn State in 1993.”
As fans, what sanctions us should never come at the expense of an artist’s safety, and these students pushed Becker’s sexuality across the art-life threshold entirely without her consent. She owes her readers none of her changed feelings. In the 25-year wake of this incident, though, I remain moved by the shift in how Becker approaches it, and part of what moves me feels admittedly selfish: I know firsthand that what she’s survived, and what she’s written, has made my own survival both possible and easier. “I am preparing my teenage escape from Philadelphia,” she writes in the poem “A History of Sexual Preference”: a poem that I once had photocopied and tacked to my bedroom wall.
I didn’t meet Becker until 2008, when I matriculated to Penn State as her graduate student, but I know that if the “Jewish Lesbian Poet” flier had hung on the bulletin board at my high school five years before that, I’d have sat in the front row of her reading. I’d have brought my friends along in the big green van, and we’d have purchased copies of her book ahead of time and discussed the poems heatedly late into the night, and we’d have asked her to sign our dog-eared copies, even if it meant waiting in a long line (a skill every fan hones early on).
Afterwards, I’d have used the empowered, anxious electricity collecting at the base of my spine to return to my childhood bedroom, open a notebook, and uncap a pen.
“You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe…” The poet’s voice is strong, piercing. Her tone arch, sly. A few lines later, as she proclaims, “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” she sounds like she’s about to burble into a mean, delicious laugh.
The poem is Sylvia Plath’s patricidal “Daddy” and the voice her own, recorded for the BBC in October 1962, less than five months before her death at age 30. That day, she read aloud more than a dozen of the poems that would help make up Ariel, the posthumous collection that would make her name, as she herself foretold.
Writing about these same recordings in the New York Review of Books in 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick describes how “taken aback” she was by them. “Clearly, perfectly, staring you down,” she writes, describing Plath’s delivery. “She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, ‘Uncover, dogs, and lap!’”
I still remember my surprise at hearing these recordings on my tinny cassette recorder in my freshman dorm room more than 25 years ago. I suppose I expected something more ethereal, a doomy Ophelia floating down the river. There was, instead, something ferocious about them. First, it unsettled me; then it excited me.
Like many women, I saw myself in Plath: a diligent, high-achieving young woman, a striver privately bristling against social conventions and punishing gender roles. (“A living doll, everywhere you look,” she writes in “The Applicant.” “It can sew, it can cook…will you marry it, marry it, marry it?”) But Plath more than bristled; she burned. In so many of her poems and in her mordant, acid-tongued novel The Bell Jar, you can feel the rage rippling off the pages.
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I was a hard worker, a straight-A student, a people-pleaser, disciplined and dutiful. A Tracy Flick without the swagger. But when I first read “Daddy,” its incantational rhythm, its audacious analogies (the speaker likens herself to a concentration camp victim, her father to a Nazi, her husband to a vampire), it unleashed something inside me. I wanted to write like that. Bold, risk-taking, confrontational. “The work of a mad woman on fire”: That’s how my creative writing professor charitably classified the deeply derivative poems I wrote under Plath’s spell. But it didn’t matter that they were derivative. What mattered was that I—this well-behaved, compliant young woman—was writing from deeper, darker places, reservoirs of anger and frustration I’d always denied were there.
Even back then, it felt to me like Plath was writing from this secret, shared subterranean place—a place where girls and women let loose all their “unacceptable” feelings: bald ambition, aggression, frustration, resentment, rage. But now, in 2018, that place no longer feels so subterranean. “The anger window is open,” Rebecca Traister wrote last November. “For decades, centuries, it was closed: Something bad happened to you, you shoved it down, you maybe told someone but probably didn’t get much satisfaction—emotional or practical—from the confession.” In the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, the inauguration, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that’s followed, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the lid’s been torn off. The subterranean is no longer subterranean. Instead, it’s terra not-so-firma. Everything’s different now.
There’s always been a drumbeat of disapproval of Plath’s work, and it often comes down to: She’s just too much. A 1966 Time review of Ariel refers to “Daddy” as that “strange and terrible poem” Plath composed during her “last sick slide toward suicide,” adding that its style is as “brutal as a truncheon.” M.L. Rosenthal’s 1965 review of Ariel in The Spectator finds several of the poems “hard to penetrate in their morbid secretiveness” and puzzles uncomfortably over the way they seem to “make a weirdly incantatory black magic against unspecified persons and situations.” Years later, in the New Criterion, Bruce Bawer would refer to Plath’s “shrill, deranged” voice in the Ariel poems. She’s too much, too loud, too hysterical; she’s taking up too much space. It’s fascinating to read this criticism today, when political and cultural rhetoric runs searingly hot, when the standards for hyperbole have dramatically shifted, and when charges of female shrillness resonate more deeply than ever.
That’s why I’ve found myself returning to Plath so much in the last two years. Her recordings became the de facto soundtrack to my latest novel, Give Me Your Hand, begun in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and completed just after the inauguration. It’s the story of three brilliant, ambitious women seeking a cure for premenstrual dysphoric disorder, otherwise known as “extreme PMS.” There was something deeply unsettling about trying to bring to life the creeping misogyny within the male-dominated world of scientific research as the headlines blared. One day, it was candidate Donald Trump dismissing Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions by seemingly referencing her menstrual period; the next, it was “Grab them by the pussy.” Amid the cries of “Lock her up” and “Bern the Witch,” I listened to Plath over and over, but it was different now. Hearing her firm, authoritative voice, I couldn’t help thinking of the incessant criticism of Hillary Clinton’s voice as “shrill” and her laugh a cackle. I imagined what those critics might think of Plath’s voice: ruthless, relentless, witchy. Suddenly, the recordings seemed to take on an even greater strength. They felt bracing, invigorating. They felt like a battle cry.
There’s a long tradition of playing connect the dots between Plath’s biography and her writing. I, too, used to indulge in this line of thinking, titillated by the details of Plath’s life: her struggles with depression, her tumultuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, her suicide. But this approach to her work feels different now too. It’s a way to diminish her writing as “personal” and thus small, even narcissistic. The argument is familiar. It’s the same one that pigeonholes fiction by and about women as “domestic novels” or movies about women as “chick flicks.” But as with those novels and movies, the issues with which Plath wrestles are the ones now consuming us: fear of female ambition, fear of the female body and the female voice, and perhaps most of all, fear of female power. The subterranean space Plath gave voice to for decades has become our daily landscape, and she serves as our sage, our guide. “I know the bottom,” she writes in “Elm.” “I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Plath seems more omnipresent than ever: Kirsten Dunst is developing The Bell Jar for the screen, a recent auction of Plath’s belongings garnered $551,862, and an exhibit of her belongings at the National Portrait Gallery featured everything from a ribboned ponytail of her to her Girl Scout uniform. But there’s something particularly exhilarating about young women responding to her with the same fervency I did a quarter century ago. As I listened to that cassette of Plath reading, millennial women tattoo The Bell Jar’s “I am I am I am” on their forearms, or fill their Tumblr and Instagram feeds with Plath quotes, excerpts and stanzas transformed into cris de coeur. The hands-down favorite is from “Lady Lazarus.” “Beware,” the speaker warns. “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air.”
Lately, whenever I talk with a young woman about Plath or teach “Daddy” to undergrads, I think about the first critique of Plath I ever heard. It was a movie scene: a man visiting a woman’s apartment for the first time plucks a copy of Ariel from her book shelf. “Interesting poetess,” he says, “whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.” The woman fumbles shyly and replies, self-effacingly, “Oh, yeah, right. I don’t know. Some of her poems seem neat.” Watching this exchange, I felt the burn of recognition. Because at the time, I was that “college girl” in thrall to Plath. I’m a cliché, I thought. But on a deeper level, I felt dismissed, diminished. The movie, of course, was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Now, when I watch that scene—the man’s casual dismissal, the woman’s abashed response, the laughter in the audience—it looks so different. Everything looks different now.
When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.
One of the most celebrated and terrifying poems of the second half of the 20th century — and one of poetry’s great treatments of insomnia — is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” The 1977 poem describes an experience all of us have at some point, that of waking up much earlier than we’d intended and, unable to get back to sleep, lying in a hazy torment in which all our life’s anxieties are amplified tenfold. The anxiety that hounds Larkin turns out to be the prospect of his own death:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Larkin wants us to see that these states prefigure death itself: death too will be an affair of “soundless dark” in which “all thought [is] impossible” and the individual — supine, rigid, gaping at nothing in particular — is quite alone. We are all speeding toward the endless acreage of death, and it’s a paradox of life that we only fully glimpse that fact against the clarifying backdrop of night and darkness. Insomniac poets glimpse it with particular sharpness, and often seem proud of this: afflicted by a crippling illness, they yet occupy a place of lonely, privileged insight, gazing out from an observatory of solitude and sleeplessness at a misguided humanity, lost in a hypnosis of daily tasks that divert it from its destiny.
If the rest of his oeuvre is any indication, Larkin had a devilish time with sleep. Poems like “Sad Steps” (which begins, “Groping back to bed after a piss”) testify to the woes he encountered falling and remaining asleep; another, “Love Again,” which starts off, “Wanking at ten past three,” provides a glimpse into one of his time-tested remedies. But in this he is hardly an anomaly: poets are notoriously wretched sleepers, hopeless insomniacs who’ve developed bizarre rituals around bedtime and sleep. The Internet loves a good story about the sleeping habits of geniuses, particularly great writers — witness the BrainPickings article, “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” which probably wafted across your Facebook feed back in 2013 when it was published. Of the 37 writers featured in that piece, though, only around three were poets.
And yet poets occupy the most special relationship to sleep. Partly this is because poetry is itself a form of sleep: it beckons readers — aloud into altered breathing patterns, and its rhythms, as W.B. Yeats once observed, serve “to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” In other words, poetry’s repeated beats can exert a narcoleptic force that seduces the mind into a state of heightened receptivity, an openness to the dreamlike succession of images the poem initiates.
But it’s also because poets have historically developed so many sleep-related idiosyncrasies, so many WTF-caliber bedtime tics, that one begins to wonder whether nighttime anxieties are part and parcel with the trade. Take Lord Byron, who went to bed at dawn and rose at 2 p.m. Prior to sleep, Byron punctually swallowed a single egg yolk whole while standing, then retired to his chambers, where he slept with two loaded pistols at his bedside and a dagger under his pillow. The weaponry served two purposes: to arm him against cuckolded husbands who might invade his bedroom in search of revenge (we’re talking about someone who, during his first two years living in Venice, slept with around 200 women, to say nothing of men and boys); and to offer him a shortcut to oblivion in case he decided to off himself while in bed. An aggressive teeth-grinder during sleep, Byron habitually awoke from nightmares that left him awash in suicidal gloom. “I awoke from a dream!” he recorded in his journal in November 1813, “but she” — his dead mother, we think — “did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled,–and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!” An animal-lover and vegetarian, Byron also kept a pet bear, Bruin, while a student at Cambridge, and according to some accounts the bear lived with him in his lodgings, a sentry while he slept.
Vita Sackville-West — a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and a poet herself — combated her insomnia by collecting as many dogs as possible and inviting them into bed with her. Amy Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, would check into a hotel and rent out her own room as well as those above, below, and on either side of it. William Wordsworth had younger sister Dorothy read aloud to him; Dante Alighieri, his contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio tells us, kept “vigils” late into the night, frustrating for his wife and children, during which he read, and may have suffered from narcolepsy. Sylvia Plath, during the febrile, end-of-life stretch of creativity that yielded the poems in Ariel (including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”), began her nightly routine by swallowing one sleeping pill after another, lying back and waiting for them to take hold. Then, “Every morning, when my sleeping pills wear off,” she wrote her mother, “I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad — have managed a poem a day before breakfast.”
Other poets have turned to nocturnal walking: Emily Brontë walked around and around her dining room table for hours until sleepiness overtook her; Walt Whitman, in “Hours Continuing Long,” tells of a sickening unrequited love that brings him “Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries.”
Still others have used drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, suffered nightmares as a child so frightful and overmastering he woke entire households with his screaming. He attempted to stave these off by repeating a rhyming prayer before sleep: “Four Angels round me spread, Two at my foot & two at my head.” As an adult, notoriously, he used opium, initially to ease the pain from various physical ailments, and later simply as a nighttime relaxant. This fueled additional nightmares that still have the power to harrow, certain of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Byron’s nightmare mentioned above. His notebooks relate one of these, which reads today like a thinly veiled drama of castration anxiety: “A most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out — I caught hold of her arm fast — a horrid feel — Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream — [ . . . ] When I awoke, my right eyelid swelled.”
Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials. Quite literally: stanza is Italian for room, station, stopping-place — and many of the most formally masterful poems possess the structural elegance of floor plans. “Language,” wrote the modernist poet Hart Crane, “has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.” He might’ve added that it builds houses, too, complete with rooms we readers traverse, stanzaic stations we might think of as thought-progressions, sequences of emotion, attics of memories, spatially realized. We dwell for a time in this stanza and then that, breathing the air it stores through its particular respiratory patterns, thinking and feeling in time with the poet.
Poets plot paths through these dwelling spaces, and the paths often lead us to, or at least through, bedrooms. John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising,” spoken from within a bedroom, indeed under the covers, is an extended complaint addressed to the sun, which Donne chides for interrupting his all-night lovemaking with its intrusive beams. In the end he brags to the sun that its journey round the earth is redundant, since his own bedroom, rightly seen, is a microcosm in which all the truth and goodness and riches in the world are concentrated: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.” Our love nest, he insists, is the real sun, that other one the merest satellite in its orbit.
In “The Canonization,” Donne explicitly plays on the conceit of stanzas as rooms, imagining his own poetry as a verbal mausoleum replete with chambers that house — immortalize — the memories of his relationship with his lover. “And if unfit for chronicle we prove,” he writes — he and his love are no conventional saints, after all, and so aren’t fit for hagiography — “we’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” These are the chambers through which we wander as readers, marveling at relics of a love shared by two people long since claimed by death and granting them, in reading the poem aloud, a secular sainthood: through their bedroom ecstasies they’ve martyred themselves to Eros.
Over the top? Absolutely. But then, a penchant for the dramatic gesture does come with the poetic territory. Thomas Hardy, who wrote novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles but considered himself foremost a poet, lost his long-estranged wife to heart failure and impacted gallstones in 1912, and had her body placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed for the three days and nights leading up to the funeral. “I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he vowed in “At Castle Boterel” some months later. (He remarried the following year.) Hardy’s work may be the quintessential example of poetry as an architectural construct. A trained architect, Hardy brought a formal rigor to poetic making that drew heavily on the Gothic aesthetic he’d been taught as an apprentice draftsman. In the hewn angularity and symmetry of his stanzas one sees the imprint of an obsessive designer; here are verse-rooms adorned with complexly irregular stress patterns that embellish like molding, tracery, or cornice — meticulous masonry.
Hardy’s morbid, beyond-emo vigils with his wife’s freshly coffined body reinforce how, again and again, poets’ imaginations return to a vision of the bedroom as a sepulcher, a prefiguration of endings — and of sleep as a forerunner of that vaster slumber toward which we’re all hurtling. Larkin lying in bed at 4 a.m. broods on eternity; Mark Strand writes in Dark Harbor, “The end / Is enacted again and again. And we feel it / In the temptations of sleep”; Edgar Allan Poe is said to have remarked, “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I abhor them.” Poe’s comment makes explicit a darkly fascinating possibility: that the desperate, thwarted desire of insomniacs to fall asleep is really a cover for a deep-down fear of sleep, itself at bottom a fear of death. “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death,” Franz Kafka (not a poet but a kindred spirit to these other writers) once speculated. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul — which in sleep leaves me — will never return.”
Insomniacs, in other words, may harbor a fear of sleep that amounts to a fear of self-loss and an abandonment of control — a resistance against self-unraveling, both the one that will eventually happen for keeps, and the one that nightly happens and asks each of us at bedtime to do a dry run for death. What if you aren’t quite the same when you wake? And to what alien terrains, what modes of being and desiring that run counter to whoever you thought you were, will sleep waft you? Resisting such self-dissolution, such loss of control, the insomniac hangs on, clinging to consciousness that is the binding agent of identity and our way of retaining our hold on the world.
It may be true that, as Greg Johnson has suggested, this holding fast to consciousness — a clutching at cognizance that fends off self-loss — is most pronounced in writers. Insomnia for Johnson is the very symbol of the writer’s condition, the “image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes.” Johnson points to Emily Dickinson as his prime example of an insomniac poet whose stoical resistance to sleep stemmed from her unwillingness to relinquish consciousness. In one poem Johnson spotlights, Dickinson muses on a gift “given to me by the Gods” — her poetic genius — and remarks that she refuses even to sleep “for fear it would be gone.” So she stayed awake (“I would not stop for night,” she boasts in one poem) writing late into the night, the very icon, with Kafka maybe, of nocturnal industry among writers, in a bedroom where she lived a sort of death-in-life — she seldom left it — and a burial place where she interred her (largely unpublished) poems, her sole progeny: here, after her death, Dickinson’s family discovered some 1,800 poems written on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers, and collected in hand-sewn books she herself had made.
What insomniac poets like Dickinson have held onto, though, isn’t just a vigilant watch over reality but a coherence of self. They’ve jealously safeguarded the intactness of their identities — and in this they are proxies for the rest of us abysmal sleepers. I suspect it’s not coincidental that Coleridge — that great romantic evangelist of the imagination who defined poetry — writing as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” — had such a horrendous time with sleep. During creativity, Coleridge thought, the poet ascends to godlike stature, refashioning reality so that it accords with his own unique vision — a brash imposition of ego onto the surrounding world that mimics God’s creation of the cosmos in Genesis. But proximity to sleep carries us to the brink of our own psychic disintegration, and, contrary to Coleridge’s formulation, forces us to look forward to a moment in the future when we aren’t.
Of course, beds aren’t simply sites of sleep; they’re sites of sex. That numerous poets have approached the business of sex with a trepidation to match their fear of sleep is practically proverbial. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who doubled as a poet during his youth and struggled with insomnia, legendarily refused to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because, as she wrote in a letter, “he was disgusted with my person” — a comment historians have interpreted to mean that she had body odor, or was menstruating, or, most interestingly, that he was scandalized to discover she had pubic hair. Yeats and T.S. Eliot remained virgins till 30 and 26, respectively; Christina Rossetti, gorgeous and much sought-after as a young woman, never married, and in Goblin Market imagines fleshly pleasure as an addictive, otherworldly fruit capable of depleting and devouring the soul.
It’s hard not to speculate that the two anxieties are intertwined. Sleep is an occasion for self-loss, but so is sex. It’s well known that during the Renaissance people began referring to orgasm as a “death” of sorts; to ejaculate was to “expen[d]” a portion of one’s “spirit,” as William Shakespeare memorably phrases it in his Sonnet 129 — a figure that elegantly gets at the notion of sexual climax as self-departure, an instant in which some of the pith of one’s inner being flees one. To reach bodily bliss was to “expire,” according to one way of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73; orgasm was “death’s second self,” an interval of perfect oblivion wherein pleasure eclipsed the exigencies of the here and now, blotted out self and world.
Here then is the crux of the matter: beds drive home an abstract coupling — of which many of us are at least dimly aware, whether we can articulate it or not — of death and sex. Beds are where we go to lose ourselves. Most of us will die in a bed — the phase just prior to dying is, of course, called one’s deathbed — and sleep, as so many poets have recognized, is a nightly rehearsal for death. But sex too entails a kind of dying: as one of the surest ways to break the boundaries that normally delineate you, sex like sleep can bring out anti-selves, identities, and impulses you may not have known you harbored. And it can lead to intervals of self-annihilation and a communing with otherness that few other pastimes can.
But this might be a thing to embrace rather than fear. The capacity of sleep and sex both to catalyze a death-like self-abandonment has been, historically, what certain poets have most cherished about these phenomena. “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” said Mahatma Gandhi, himself an unsung poet. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Sleep for Gandhi represented a welcome interment from which he might rise at daylight, transfigured if only slightly. For John Keats, meanwhile, the bedroom came to seem, as it had for Larkin and Hardy, a “sepulchre” into which he retired each evening — yet it was precisely the sepulchral aspect of the bedroom and the deathlike dimension of what happened there that Keats excitedly seized on. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Keats dreamed of a concentrated instant that joined mortality and sexual activity, the twin components of human experience that promised to liberate one from the constraints of individual identity.
The perspective of Keats and Gandhi — which looks enthusiastically on the nightly metamorphoses of self that happen under the covers — may be an altogether healthier one than dread. It may be, too, a perspective consistent with recent advances in microbiology. That is, those who dread self-loss would do well to ask themselves what it is they are holding onto, and whether their endeavor to retain it might not have been doomed from the get-go. We now know, as microbiologist Ed Yong has shown in his gripping I Contain Multitudes, that our bodies play host to trillions of immigrant microbes and quadrillions of viruses that momently multiply on our faces, hands, and in our guts, making up roughly half our being and forcing us to reconsider what we even think of as a self. For that matter, the majority of our own bodies’ cells have a lifespan of just seven to 10 years, and though you might like to think of yours as a permanent construct, the better part of it exists in a state of constant flux. Most of what you think of as “you” gets completely renewed as often as your passport.
Yet insomniac writers have been grappling with how to make sense of this fact since at least the Victorian era. Walter Pater, like Ruskin a Victorian essayist who wrote poetry as a young man — and, when struggling to write, suffered “grey hours of lassitude and insomnia” — brooded over the prospect that human beings were merely confluences of particles in time and space, continuously in motion. “Such thoughts,” wrote Pater, “seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them. They bring the image of one washed out beyond the bar in a sea at an ebb, losing even his personality, as the elements of which he is composed pass into new combinations. Struggling, as he must, to save himself, it is himself that he loses at every moment.”
If for Pater this thought was desolate at first, in the most famous paragraphs he wrote — the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance — he imagined a new perspective, one that likewise looked on life as a billion discrete instants in which the physical world and human identity itself were in ceaseless unrest; where individuals were subject to a “strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” — but saw this condition as liberating and galvanizing. Only by recognizing the uniqueness and immediate decay of each moment could we position ourselves to relish it, make it gravid with effort and enjoyment, and so attain “a quickened sense of life.”
Death is a moment-to-moment phenomenon; the self shivers with all the ephemerality of a drop of dew, shifting and altering with each instant. Lying awake at night and contemplating our eventual demise, we fret over an event that is already behind us, that has played out unendingly since we came into being and will repeat itself innumerable times in the future. Accepting this, we might more cheerfully brave the windows of self-loss that lie in wait for us in bedrooms: the manifold deaths, the transfigurations these make possible.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
The final scene of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying takes place in the bath. Heroine Isadora soaks in the tub and contemplates herself in the water: “The pink V of my thighs, the triangle of curly hair, the Tampax string fishing the water like a Hemingway hero, the white belly, the breasts half floating, the nipples flushed and rosy from the steamy water.” She’s waiting for her estranged husband, but when he enters the scene, it suddenly cuts short — the novel’s final sentences are, “I hummed and rinsed my hair. As I was soaping it again, Bennett walked in.”
It’s a distinctly abrupt note to end the novel, but appropriate for a book that takes place largely inside the protagonist’s head. Isadora is an authorial avatar to whom the term “thinly veiled” hardly applies. Her biography mirrors Jong’s almost exactly, and there are moments when the book reads as more memoir than novel. Isadora’s narration is highly introspective, rarely stepping beyond the boundaries of the self. (One chapter is literally written as a movie in which she is the star.) A 1973 review in the New York Times saw this as grounds for critique: “There is some great humor…but often Isadora’s condescension and self-consciousness reduce the experience for the reader.” Too much self; not enough other.
Nonetheless, Jong’s personal writing has political roots. It’s possible to situate Fear of Flying within a tradition of women’s “self-centered” writing, arguably beginning with postwar writers who recast the domestic sphere as the site of of violence, ennui, and dark beauty. “What is so real as the cry of a child?” asked Sylvia Plath in her poem “Kindness,” featured in Ariel. “A rabbit’s cry may be wilder/But it has no soul.” A generation later Fear of Flying focused similarly on the intimacy of inner life, but infused it with an unapologetic, cheerfully bawdy tone that broke new ground for women writers to explore this intimacy in their own work.
While Fear of Flying rode the crest of a second wave of feminism explicitly focused on politicizing the fabric of the everyday, the genre of self-reflective writing that it helped to spawn still endures, if remaining largely specific to white women of the middle class and above. (Reflecting on the inner self is a luxury afforded to those whose outer shells are relatively secure: those who do not struggle to earn enough to eat; who do not bring up children on meagre incomes; who do not occupy bodies that are sites of increasingly explicit warfare.) Even from my vantage point onto the relatively small Australian literary scene, women’s “confessional writing” is the subject of much attention, meriting a recent piece in Overland, and critiques from writers Kath Kenny and Helen Razer. It’s the familiar battleground: is the personal always political? Does a protagonist that reflects the author’s image signify a novel that is little more than a mirror? Does this kind of writing give the reader too much self, and not enough other? But in the act of reading, distinctions between self and other are rarely so clear-cut, and self-centered writing can blur these boundaries in strange and surprising ways. Taking the question of the self seriously can, in fact, open the way to a reflective reading experience far broader in scope than generally first assumed. Here, Fear of Flying still has radical lessons to offer.
Although there is a tendency to focus on the inherent literary merits (or lack thereof) of self-centered writing, we might do better to begin with the words on paper. What does it sound like, the voice of the self speaking back to the self? Isadora’s narrative style is distinctively frank and unpretentious. Sentences in Fear of Flying are noticeably short, and often connected by dashes, as if the writer simply needed to get words on paper. And indeed, this may be close to the truth: Erica Jong recalls writing her debut novel in “a mad rush, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, wanting to tell the truth about women whatever it cost me”.
So Fear of Flying was written as a crazed dash across an empty sky, the author the sole pilot of a plane with no destination. In this, the medium reflects the message — the plot of the novel revolves around a zigzagging existentialist road trip through Europe, where the only plan is to keep going. Present on this doomed trip: Isadora and flirtatious Langian Adrian Goodlove (Jong’s winking appreciation of the eighteenth-century novel is clear) whom she met at a psychoanalytic conference in Vienna. Not present: Isadora’s “perfectly nice husband” Bennett, a stable but emotionally stunted Freudian, left behind in Vienna. The love triangle acts as the book’s driving narrative force, but it’s an illusion, a flimsy paper backdrop to a much deeper drama. Adrian and Bennett are only convenient puppets fighting out the familiar conflict at Isadora’s core: security versus adventure. Death-drive versus life-force. Fear versus flying. Five years into her increasingly distant marriage, Isadora eventually finds it too hard to resist Adrian’s proposal to take off together in his battered Triumph: “I’ll discover Europe,” he tells her. “You’ll discover yourself.”
If Adrian does discover Europe, we don’t see it. Very little of the actual trip is featured in the novel; rather, their hours of driving serve for endless introspection on Isadora’s part. We travel deep down into Isadora’s childhood, her adolescence, her family history, her marriages, her struggles with writing, with Jewishness, with her husband, with herself. What sort of woman does she want to be? Her mother and sisters pressure her to “stop writing and have a baby,” but as she asks:
Why did they have to keep rushing me and trying to cram me into the same molds that had made them so unhappy?…I had published a book which even I could still stand to read. Six years of writing and discarding, writing and changing, trying to get deeper and deeper into myself…But to my family I was a failure because I had no children.
To have a child is to split and release the self in strange and terrifying ways, a prospect toward which Isadora is ambivalent. (“If I have a baby I want it to be all mine,” she says, surely recognizing the impossibility of this wish even as she gives voice to it. “A girl like me, but better.”) For now, she chooses self-containment, self-knowledge: a quest to go ever deeper. Through her work, she reproduces herself on her own terms. But she’s consumed by the hypocrisy of writing fearlessly while living cowed — hence her strange, compulsive attraction toward disastrous (but adventurous) Adrian. “No bored housewife, I,” she tells herself in that first glorious moment when the Triumph roars off and leaves Bennett behind. “I was flying.”
But liberation at the hands of someone else can only take you so far. The contradiction comes to a head when Isadora — abandoned by Adrian in Paris — is forced for the first time to cultivate survival on her own. It’s tempting to read the process of her transformation as rather too neat: gripped by anxiety in a seedy Paris hotel room, Isadora finds her journal and begins to read. “I am going to figure out how I got here,” she says to herself. Reading through the record of her life, she grows calm and philosophical. She loses her fear — and without fear, flying doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. It lacks the adrenaline of disaster, the danger that Isadora courts as an answer to “the restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up…” By the final pages, she’s confident in her assertion that “whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I’d go on working …”
After hundreds of pages of neurotic dithering, Isadora’s sudden flipped switch into maturity is jarring. That’s it? Just read an old journal and you’re cured? It was the one part of the book that always felt unsatisfying — perhaps because, in a novel otherwise wedged so tightly into its own time and space, the use of metaphor was at first unrecognizable. The reality of the scene was probably not a journal, and it was probably not a night in a hotel room in Paris — but the essence remains the same: to know oneself is to free oneself. We think of being “self-centered” as a different quality to being centered in oneself, but Isadora — staring into her handwritten mirror in a hotel room on the Rue de la Harpe — invites us to question the distinction.
The metaphor can be taken further – Jong hints at it when she writes that Isadora, reading her notebook, “began to be drawn into it as into a novel”. After the book’s publication, women wrote to Erica Jong to tell her that they were just like Isadora, or that Isadora was just like them. In How to Save Your Own Life, the 1977 sequel to Fear of Flying, Isadora (coincidentally now the best-selling author of a famously racy novel) receives fan letters along the lines of:
Youre Main Character (which is also you I believe) is exactly like me in all respects although Jewish … The problem is I have three children (they are loveley kids 3, 6 and 8) my husband is very jealouse and there is no way for me to go away like you did and get Adventure or Sex or even have time to think about my Development as a Human Being and Woman … My husband told me I better not read [your book] or else he would beat the shit out of me but I read it anyway!!
Isadora could not solve her readers’ problems, but she nonetheless changed their lives — not (necessarily) by inspiring them to have ill-considered affairs, but by encouraging them to reach past the bulky cushioning of domestic life and probe the contours of their own souls. A radical task in 1973, and even today — as the continuing furore over women’s self-reflective writing demonstrates. If selfishness is a literary crime, it’s also a social one – and women, especially, are vulnerable to accusation. Private lives are ‘women’s business’, but the minutiae of these inner lives — the joys and frustrations, the strangeness, the struggles, the fantasies, and the fears — are deemed unserious, selfish, when brought out into the light. Isadora’s fundamental crime in life, as in literature, is to look too much inward, and to regard this introspection as insight.
But insight works in mysterious ways. It’s not necessarily a lightning-bolt of pure knowledge from the author to the reader. I was a teenager when I first read Fear of Flying, and much of it went over my head, but I remember the feeling of relief, of grasping a hand in the darkness: Here is someone. My copy of the book had been my mother’s, but by the time I chanced across it, she was already three years dead and I was unpacking boxes in a country she’d never set foot in. I was lonely then in a drifting, aimless way; later, when I started school, my loneliness magnified and grew teeth. Perhaps more than many adolescents, I felt ill at ease inside myself, bumping into the awkward contours of my new life.
It was no coincidence that the book which became a shield against all this — the book that I read obsessively and carried around with me everywhere — was Fear of Flying. I came across it when I most needed myself, because I had no one else. The self is, after all, a tricky thing: looking too hard in the mirror might reveal things we’d rather not see. “I want to teach you not to be afraid of what’s inside you,” Adrian tells Isadora. But really it was Isadora — self-obsessed, unliterary Isadora — who offered her readers that gift. “You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul,” she reflects near the end of the book. “When all was said and done, it was all you had.” Fear of Flying made space for the self, took the self seriously, and this allowed many readers an experience that went far beyond the myopic contemplation of Isadora. It’s a lesson worth considering, as the debate over so-called ‘selfish’ writing continues: introspection can be a strength all its own, and reading has the power to place you within your own life as well as within another’s. As Isadora showed me, along with countless other readers: the self can be a lifeline, a raft, a wing to fly on.
Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is the sort of book that you attempt to put down partway, only to wander around your apartment, disoriented, picking up random objects and placing them elsewhere for no reason, before finally relenting and returning to read. The premise, like the pace, is catchy, almost irresistible: Steinberg, former yeshiva student, Harvard graduate, freelance obituary writer, and (perhaps needless to add) self-proclaimed “loner and romantic,” takes a job running a Boston prison library and serving as the resident creative writing teacher.
There is a voyeuristic thrill to peering inside a prison, not merely at the incarcerated, an isolated community of sinister and curious social outcasts, but at the entire mini-civilization – the guards, staff, rules, rituals – which all seem so foreign and exotic compared to our own. Television shows like Oz and Prison Break in particular capitalized on the dark glamour that prison holds for the outside, and did their part in shrouding it with as much urban mystique as The Sopranos did for mob life. We want to look in; we just don’t want to go in.
But it’s through the eyes of a fellow outsider that we get to observe in Running the Books. With his orthodox Jewish upbringing and witty, literary reference-laden commentary, Steinberg, like many of his readers, clearly does not belong in a prison – on either side of the law – as much as he doubts this at times. Or as one inmate remarks, “You’re an undercover playa – I like that.” But this is exactly what renders the reading experience so much more honest: the book doesn’t force its readers to adopt a false attitude of worldliness and blasé to accommodate it; we’re afforded our natural reactions because they are more often than not Steinberg’s reactions. As a narrator, he is infinitely relatable. He likewise has naive and uselessly emotional responses to what amount to commonplace injustices. He is just as prone to passing superficial (though bitingly funny) judgments, as in the case of his first five creative writing students who remind him of the famous line from Leviathan, with which Thomas Hobbes envisions life without a central sovereign as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Writes Steinberg: “Here they were, reunited in one room, sitting in front of me: Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.”
Prison is not short for characters, and like Steinberg, you’ll find it impossible to remained detached. There is the female inmate who sees through the prison yard window that the son she abandoned as a child is incarcerated in the same walls; the convict who dreams of hosting his own hood cooking show “Thug Sizzle”; the gang of prison guard union buddies who call themselves the “Angry Seven”; the charismatic pimp whose memoirs Steinburg edits until learning the hideous truth about his past.
As the prison librarian, the “Bookie,” Steinberg’s memoir is as much about the inmates’ interactions with literature as with himself. He assembles a Sylvia Plath shelf in the library at the request of her ardent (and depressed) female fans, which causes him no small amount of concern: “Ariel would never arouse the suspicions of myopic prison censors, who reserved the right to remove books of incitement and violence. But just because Ariel was art didn’t make it less dangerous — in fact, it made it potentially far more so.” Shakespeare month for the prison film group begins badly (“I can’t say I wasn’t warned. There was plenty of Shakespearian foreshadowing,”) until Othello (the Laurence Fishburne version) and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are explosive hits. One inmate tells Steinberg he will refuse to speak to him until he reads The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois. When he argues that he’s already read it, the inmate scolds: “Read it again…Cause you missed the whole point.”
But literature is not merely interacted with in Running the Books; it is alive. In prison, as in literature, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated, often even grotesque. Violence is as inescapable and inherent a mechanism of justice as it is in Icelandic blood feud literature like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga. More than once Steinberg finds himself a victim of the Kafkaesque arbitrary and impenetrable bureaucracy that governs both inmates and staff alike. (Coincidentally, you might recall Steinburg’s name from Elif Batuman’s recent piece “Kafka’s Last Trial” for the New York Times Magazine, in which she and Steinberg visit the house of Eva Hoffe, longtime custodian of Kafka’s last manuscripts.)
Nonetheless, it’s the words of the inmates themselves – whether in “kites,” secret notes that prisoners hide for one another in library books, and through “skywriting,” words spelled out backwards by male prisoners in the yard toward female prisoners’ windows – that are most affecting. We know prison to be something of a “Civil Death,” that the political (and to a great extent legal) voices of inmates go unheard. But Steinberg, who retains a reverence for the written word from his years studying the Torah, is consumed by how often the words of prisoners go unread. Kites must be unearthed and confiscated: “Books are not mailboxes,” a sign fastened to the library walls grimly declares. Skywriting, where it’s never quite clear who is signaling to whom, let alone what words they are spelling, is as predestined for misinterpretation, confusion, and jealousy as the communications in a French farce. And words from the inside out are equally unfortunate: it is not easy to write letters home from prison (in fact, one inmate runs a successful freelance poetry business designed to ease this burden), and prisoners often end up shredding or abandoning letters to loved ones.
Why do people write, knowing they might ultimately be writing to no one? And what is the worth of all of these words that are doomed to go unread?
For days I kept imaging the fate of the world’s misplaced letters. I started noticing them everywhere. All the right letters sitting on desks and dressers, slipped into purses, abandoned in email Draft folders, forever sealed and unsent…And the wrong letters, placed in someone’s hands – which, once delivered, may never be taken back. Emailed and immediately regretted. When I looked around the world, I couldn’t see these letters. But I became aware of their indirect presence. They contained life’s great subtexts… bound to a person by an almost invisible string. Even the unsent ones are very much present. Especially the unsent ones.
On one level, Running the Books is effortlessly readable. The stories weave in and out of each other, and through this the narrative turns compulsive: you need only become invested in one power struggle, one absurd operation, one hopeless endeavor to become invested altogether. But there is a profound weight to the memoir, too. Steinberg is not merely relatable as a narrator; he relates – his frustration, his ego, his susceptibility – and as my endless stretches of page-turning inevitably gave way to wandering about my apartment, I realized it was Steinburg’s own disorientation that I was feeling.
In the moral ambiguities of prison, the comforting ideals of “good” and “right” are luxuries that have no place. They provide useless road maps. And yet, Steinberg must still aim for something. He must still retain some grace. Even then, his efforts often amount to nothing, or worse. You might not agree with all of his decisions, but you spare him censure because he is a far harsher critic of himself. And you cannot deny that he is trying really, desperately hard.
For all of its vivid characters, Running the Books is thus ultimately a book about character, a virtue most notable for the constant (and often wasted) effort it requires to be maintained. In literature, as in prison, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated. But, however muted, the flaws here are the same. Life on the outside is just as rife with vulnerability, doomed optimism, moral ambiguity, and unsatisfactory compromise. And with this insight, when you re-enter society from the haze of a book, you orient yourself once more.