Thursday, March 5, 2009

Iconic Status, Writing Styles, and Suicide

One of my best friends has a daughter who is in high school. My friend grew up in Germany, so occasionally she calls me up to ask me questions, especially when her daughter doesn't understand something that she's studying, and it's out of my German friend's frame of reference.

Yesterday she called to ask about Sylvia Plath, and we had a brief discussion about Plath, Sexton, and Confessional Poetry. She said she couldn't understand Plath's poetry, but she could understand mine. She assumed that meant mine was better.

I said, "Well, many people have said that my poetry is accessible. And they don't always mean that as a compliment."

We also talked about American icons who kill themselves. Is it because they kill themselves that they reach iconic status? I mentioned "the Edgar Allan Poe theory of creativity" (a phrase I first read in one of Julia Cameron's books), which says that you can't really be a good artist unless you're in misery, drug addicted, and eventually, dead in a gutter.

Then, as I drove across town for a Lenten Labyrinth service, I heard this story on NPR about David Foster Wallace. There was an interesting discussion about whether or not writers can change their writing style. D. T. Max, who wrote a New Yorker article, says that "style runs so deep, you think you can change how you write. But to change how you write, you really have to change how you think. ... What made [Wallace] an amazing conversationalist, an amazing thinker and a remarkable writer was that his mind was always going so fast."

It made me think about the last time I wrote a novel. When I started it in 2003, I declared, "No love stories. These characters will not fall in love." I had in mind a falling out of love story, which was what I wrote, but a new love interest turned out to be integral to the plot.

In her wonderful book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says we have about 10-16 characters for life. I would argue that the same is true with plot. Some of us are born to write (or our lives mold us to write) crime novels and some of us are born to write love stories.

And I suspect our poet lives are similar. We have certain subject matter that we gravitate towards and certain styles that are best for us. We can experiment, but I suspect that it's useful primarily as an intellectual exercise. I love to write in rhyming iambic pentameter to prove that I can do it, but I don't think my best poems emerge from these experiments.

I have noticed that my subject interests have emerged as I've grown older. It makes me wonder about Sylvia Plath and what she would have written, had she lived to be an old woman. That's a different type of intellectual game, and I do love to indulge. Still, I felt safe in assuring my German friend that I would not kill myself, even if it would gain me iconic status.

And there's a different question: does killing oneself, when one is a fairly unknown poet, lead to iconic status these days? I suspect not.

I'm lucky, I know. Even during my depressed days, life intrigues me. I want to stick around to see what happens.

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