What Sylvia Plath Taught Me About Perfection

I find it difficult to get started on a new writing project. Not necessarily because I lack inspiration, but I often can’t bring myself to make that first step out of fear I will be dissatisfied with the results.

I procrastinate giving out my work to friends or others for critiquing. I have this undying need for perfection. Every adjective has to paint the perfect picture, the pacing has to be exact, the reader must think exactly what I want them to. But, more importantly, I must be perceived as a literary genius. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Don’t answer that.

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With this in mind, none of my drafts are ever perfect enough to send out. I spend hours languishing over what makes a sentence work, whether or not my protagonist is likable, etc. This is what an artist is suppose to do, but as a result of my concerns, I often keep my writing hidden under a bushel and never allow anyone to see it. I pass up opportunities to enter writing contests and publishing in magazines, all for fear that it’s not good enough yet.

The other day I was researching depression in the library and came across a biography about Sylvia Plath called Rough Magic. I didn’t know much about this poet prior to reading this book except what Plath is, unfortunately, most known for: sticking her head in the oven and killing herself.

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A character I’m currently writing suffers from a similar mental affliction, so I thought reading about Plath would help me gain a better understanding of the condition.However, not only did learning about her help me with my research,  it also assisted me on a more personal level.

Plath was a well-accomplished person for much of her young life. She was a scholarship student at Smith (a very prestigious school at the time) as well as a published author of many poems and short stories. She was also very attractive and laid claim to so many hearts I would need at least three pages to list all of her conquests. Her teachers adored her, boys loved her, she was relatively popular and had a successful life. 

It was never enough for her.

Not only was she susceptible to bouts of depression, she frequently made herself physically ill with stress over her studies and writing projects. She was going to fail her history class (she made an A), her talent for writing was gone (she published hundreds more poems), and if she could not obtain perfection, then her life was over.

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Her lack of faith in her abilities haunted her throughout her life. Each victory only granted her temporary relief from her crippling self-doubt. It didn’t matter how many magazines accepted her work, or how much money she earned. There would always be one or two that would turn her down, and this was what she focused her mental energies on.

 On occasion, she would even experience long dry spells brought on by her negativity, a feeling I’m familiar with (although not to the same extreme). One lead to her first suicide attempt.

While her extreme behaviors were a result of her mental instability, her feelings of inadequacy aren’t unique to sufferers of depression. Most of us feel the need to achieve perfection and seek validation from others. After all, if we’re not the best no one will pay attention to us, right? And if no one pays attention to us, then we’re not important.

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Not necessarily.

We writers need to let our babies out into the world and create as much as we can. Not so people will pat us on the head and tell us we’re a good girl/boy, but so we can become better authors. If someone doesn’t like our work, it isn’t the end of the world. It just means that, perhaps, there is room for growth.

Moreover, we don’t have to be this century’s greatest author and we shouldn’t strive to be. All we need to do is aim to be the best that we can be individually, not compared to the greats or even our colleagues.

So let people see your work in all its prickly glory.

And remember:

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3 thoughts on “What Sylvia Plath Taught Me About Perfection

  1. I like the perceptive in this post. It rings true, I think, with lots of talents. It’s really hard to put yourself (any self) out there. At least for me, I just want people to tell me I’m great, but am scared they will have a different opinion. Keep up your good work. I enjoy reading it. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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