This year marks the 50th anniversary of poet Sylvia Plath’s classic novel The Bell Jar. If you missed reading it as an angsty teen, the bildungsroman lightly fictionalizes Plath’s summer as a guest editor at the women’s magazine Mademoiselle in 1953, after which she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. There have been several biographies of Plath—the 50th anniversary of her death from sticking her head in an oven is also this year—but Elizabeth Winder’s new book, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, is the first to focus completely on that heady first breakdown period in Plath’s life.
Though she was only 30 when she died, Plath left a very large body of work: two award-winning books of poetry (The Colossus and Ariel,) The Bell Jar, reams of journal entries, and many other poems, stories, and half-finished novels. Because of those meticulously kept journals and the many letters she wrote to her mother and others, we have a very good idea of how Plath worked. According to Diane Middlebrook, who wrote the Plath biography Her Husband,, about Plath’s relationship with the British poet Ted Hughes, Sylvia had a lot of physical energy, which she channeled into intellectual productivity. "All in all, Plath was a decidedly unrelaxing person to be around," Middlebrook says.
Plath battled the depression that would ultimately fell her throughout her entire working life, but she still managed to be highly productive, even during the period when she was a single mother of two young children after separating from Hughes. Work was so important to her sense of self that Plath’s suicide attempt during that summer of ’53 was in part because her depression rendered her unable to write.
Despite Plath’s tragic end, both Winder’s new biography and the primary sources Plath left behind give good lessons—not just for fellow writers, but for anyone who wants to accomplish creative pursuits while trying to juggle an otherwise full schedule.
As noted, Plath was a dedicated journal keeper. Even when she had a hangover or was exhausted, she’d write entries. She never wrote poems in the journal; she used it to sketch out ideas from daily life. "The journal of a writer is often more like the barre of the ballerina: she works out in front of a mirror, watching an ideal version of herself attempting difficult moves, trying to get them right," Middlebrook wrote of Plath’s journal keeping.
She used these notes for The Bell Jar, but also for an unpublished novel about her relationship with Ted Hughes and her years in London. Without such a consistent dedication to keeping track of these stray thoughts, Plath would not have been able to create so many completed short stories and longer narratives.
Plath was a highly organized person, and both she and husband Hughes wrote in a regimented fashion. Here’s Middlebrook again:
"Daily routines were the kind of thing Plath liked to describe in letters to her mother, so we know that [she and Hughes] planned to write for four to six hours a day, 8:30-12:00 in the morning, 4:00-6:00 in the afternoon. In later years, after they had children, they split the day into two parts: Plath took the hours after breakfast, and she aimed to be at work by 9:00; Hughes had the hours between lunch and tea. Despite the evident differences in their dispositions, routines suited both of them, and what they considered good work flowed from Hughes’s pen and Plath’s keyboard for the whole of their first two months of married life."
Even in the frenzied final months of Plath’s life, during which she was plagued by anxiety, depression, and insomnia, she would write from 4 a.m., when her sleeping pills wore off, until 8 a.m., when her son and daughter woke up and needed her. She wrote much of the heralded poetry collection Ariel in this fashion.
It’s also worth noting that despite all of Ted Hughes’ faults as a husband (he cheated on Plath, and some believe the breakdown of her marriage was what led to her suicide), the pair had a very modern child rearing and domestic arrangement. Both of them cooked and took care of the children, and they alternated writing time. Plath took a page from Sheryl Sandberg’s playbook for ambitious working women—about making "your partner a real partner"—before Sandberg was even a glint in her mother’s eye.
Among Plath’s many interests was a real love of fashion. During her junior year at Smith, she reported on college trends for Mademoiselle, took a full course load, kept a social life, and continued to write poetry and stories. According to Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work, Plath blew off steam by shopping. "French pumps, red cashmere sweaters, white skirts, and tight black pullovers—-clothes more suited to voguish amusements than studying." These shopping trips were a great joy to Plath, and she was very meticulous about the way she dressed. It made her feel confident and glamorous, which helped her focus on the work we’re still reading today.