“Living apart from Ted is wonderful—I am no longer hiding in his shadow.”
Sylvia Plath—teacher, friend, lover, wife, mother, child, poet, forgotten in the shadow of her husband.
Ted Hughes—teacher, friend, lover, husband, father, child, poet, unaware of the shadow he casts over his wife.
These two shared a world where only their words existed, where there were only Ted’s Sylvia and Sylvia’s Ted. All occupations and obligations were void, except their commitment to words as poets. Writing was their secret language, their joint life. It was all they knew and it was all they needed to understand each other—the silent words of the heart filling the mind. However, their world followed the rule of temporality and soon it began to disintegrate, beginning with Ted’s numerous achievements in writing and Sylvia’s decreasing tolerance to her growing inability to write. Having a lot of her poems published in her college years, Sylvia was an experienced, competent poet, and a perfectionist at that, so one can imagine how much frustration she had held back throughout the years she had been married, as Ted won prizes for his literary works while she merited nothing but criticisms, rejections, and negative reviews. She attributed the disappearance of her ability to a lot of things—her lack of a subject matter, her need for more time, her busy schedule due to her teaching job, and the uninspiring environment in America. She blamed almost everything and everyone, doubting her talent and the loyalty of those around her, but what she possibly failed to see was that her husband’s achievements brought her down, reminding her of her own failures every step of the way. There were two things in this world that she wanted more than anything: to be loved by Ted and to write for herself. But one couldn’t coexist with the other. It was as if her wants were on both extremes, forever quarrelling inside of her, battling and clashing. As long as she was with Ted, loving him and being loved by him, she could never write. She chose to stay with him, picking up what was left at the wake of his achievements. Ted wasn’t aware of how he affected her, how he made her think she wasn’t a real poet. All he wanted was for her to write, for he saw her potential, her extraordinary mind. But he chose someone else when he chose to have an affair, resulting to their separation. Free of him, Sylvia was left alone in their disappearing world of shared words, realizing that poetry was all she had. And to poetry she did return, the loneliness and hardships of her life increasing her need to write. Her literary pieces became more direct, more intense, more meaningful, more united, and more beautiful, capturing the interest and praises of many. Sylvia found her writing when she lost Ted, but she never had her peace, never had silence from her conflicting mind, and her options kept narrowing down until death was all she had left.
There was a correlation between the breakdown of her relationship with Ted and the success of her writing great poems. But how can a relationship with a fellow writer damage one’s writing? I should know. It happened to me.
Before I wrote “Keeping Her in the Light,” I had looked up to a friend of mine so eloquent in her words that her every word of encouragement to me, instead of sending me off to the road to perseverance, only directed me down the road to exasperation. I wanted to write as well as she did; I wanted my words to have the same melody her words always seemed to have. The way she wrote reminded me of waves, the push and pull of the ocean, gentle and calm at first and ending with a glorious crash on the shore, echoing and making an impact. I wanted waves and crashes on my words, wanted them to spill on the margins of my paper which, at that time, was always blank if not crumpled. Finally, I abandoned the thought of writing, thinking a published work was too big a dream. She was an extraordinary writer, and I thought that if I could never measure up to her, I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer. We no longer communicate now. The day we had an argument that led to silence on one end was the day I began to write again, free from the shadow she had cast over me. It began with poems, and when poems weren’t enough to fill paper with anger, prose entered the picture. Sentences became paragraphs; paragraphs filled pages; pages stacked up to form chapters; and before I knew it, I had a published story.
It is quite difficult not to have friends who are great writers. Writers, like birds, flock together and, like Sylvia and Ted, understand each other in ways no other pair of people can. Just yesterday, I received an award and was on the stage for quite some time, waiting for the other writers to join me. After five minutes of being on the stage, waiting, talking, and having photographs taken, I knew what kind of a person and writer—rarely are these two aspects of man separated—the guy beside me was, more or less. These people cannot be avoided. And so it isn’t easy to stay away from thoughts in which talent is doubted as well as the self.
As of now, I have a friend who is amazing when it comes to the plot of a story—a weakness of mine. As expected, the closer I got to him, the more I began to lose my ability to write. Like a shadow, writer’s block followed me in the places I visited, both physically and mentally. I’m trying to cut off the friendship now, trying to move away from it, and my writing is returning again as poems first. If the pattern proves to be true and accurate, I’ll be writing stories soon, as long as I don’t further form any kind of attachment with any type of writer.
There are times when I hesitate in choosing writing over friendship. It is usually said that when faced with a choice, one must pick the option containing long-term effects that aren’t temporal and of this world. The problem is, writing and friendship are in the same league when it comes to that. And so I ask myself, “Do I choose a life of the self-fulfilment, self-expression, thrill, and introspection I get from writing? Or do I choose a life of company with fellow writers who can understand me better than the rest?” I have to pick one; I can’t have both.
The road to insanity, where does it lie? For Sylvia Plath, it was in wanting two things she couldn’t have simultaneously: her husband and her writing. For me, it is the same. We all have our own Teds—people in our lives whom we look up to and whose competency intimidates us and hinders us, causing us to falter in what we love doing, may it be writing, composing, painting, or even cooking. The determining factor of whether or not I end up like Sylvia now depends on my decision and the action I take to materialize my choice. But first I have to be able to tell where the road to insanity lies in order to stay as far away from it as I can. What I’m sure of is that I have to keep writing, one way or the other. I must overcome my fear of facing a blank page while being surrounded with writers far better than me—having both wants coexist harmoniously. The solution is inside, the medicine mortified by the poison that lurks within, unsatisfied. I have the solution, I have the medicine, but I cannot yet tell what needs to be cured.