Elmer's English 304 Magazine
A Writer's Journal
Elmer G. Wiens
Pressed by demanding circumstances, I have often started a journal or diary. When I produced my play Critical Paths for the Vancouver Fringe Theatre Festival, I started a journal. When I was the President of the Victoria-Hillside Provincial Liberal Association and became aware I would likely be a candidate in the 1991 Provincial Election, I started a journal. Keeping a journal keeps me on track with a project, helping me to plan and complete my agenda. In addition, when things go askew, I can check through my diary to learn what I could have done to prevent the problems. Without a diary, I must rely on my memory, which is not bad, but not infallible. My five-year diary from 1959 to 1963, a prized possession, chronicles activities from grade eight to grade twelve. Although its entries are sparse, with it I can remember meeting Judy Hooge, the girl I took to my grade twelve-graduation party, at a skating party on January 7, 1963, and building our Vedder Mountain log-cabin with my friends. These memories are very precious. While these diaries record my activities, the journal I started on January 4, 2001, for my English 304 course focuses on the writing process, on my thoughts as I prepare to write.
In preparing my writer's journal, I checked the journals of Johann Goethe, Gunter Grass, and Sylvia Plath. A writer can learn a great deal from each author. However, I eventually focused on the journal and writing of Sylvia Plath, because she attacks directly her writing process and bores deeply into her feelings and reasons for writing. She spares no one, especially herself, in her brutal quest for her perception of the truth. Three periods of her life interest me: the winter of 1957-58 when she taught freshman English at Smith College, the spring of 1956 when she met Ted Hughes at Cambridge, and the summer of 1953, when, after working as a guest editor at Mademoiselle in New York City, she attempted suicide. While her journal does not cover her time in New York, her reactions to her experiences there are described in Letters Home (115-120). These were critical times in Plath's life. She gave up teaching at Smith to concentrate on her writing; meeting and marrying Ted Hughes propelled her career as a poet; and Plath's depression and confinement to a psychiatric hospital motivated her writing. From Sylvia Plath, I learned that to become an excellent writer, you must be dedicated, fortunate, and willing to mine life's experiences, however unpleasant or painful.
Writing, in my opinion, should make you feel better about yourself. In my persuasion paper, "Revel in Delight," I probed my experiences growing up in a single-parent family and coping after my wife, Lynn, and I separated. This exercise helped put these experiences into perspective. When my parents separated, divorce was unusual. Perhaps my insights into growing up in a single-parent family can help people who live in this common situation now. As well, a man can grow in maturity after a marriage fails and learn to develop more meaningful relationships with women. With my writer's journal, I was able to spread the process of self-examination over a few weeks, permitting me to obtain deeper insights and to correlate the influence of events at one stage of my life with my decisions at a later date. Furthermore, I am pleased to see that after faithfully keeping my writer's journal for three months, my writing appears more fluid and creative. In fact, during the last week I used the imitation exercise to write two of the poems that appear in the poetry section of this magazine.
By keeping my journal, I improved my writing and expanded my range of topics. In my journal, I wrote about whatever interested me that day. It contains entries from the authors I have already mentioned, plus many entries gleaned from the Vancouver Sun, the New Yorker, the Internet, and Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike. The fact that I was keeping a journal spurred me to read and write more. I took notes from the biographies of Plath and Hughes, and I entered some of their poems in my journal. In his last book of poems, Birthday Letters, Ted finally confronts his relationship with Sylvia, reveals his feelings about the time they shared, and defends himself against the feminist charges of his mal-treatment of Plath's estate. Sometimes it is vital to write about personal relationships, no matter how difficult.
Plath wrote to control her demons of depression. This strategy worked when she was younger, but even writing a poem each day could not tame her anguish and guilt in the days before she committed suicide. Even though she killed herself, I still believe that one can obtain greater control of one's life by describing one's feelings, to get at one's unconscious mind and to look for self-defeating patterns. Plath's writing is often called confessional writing, which, like evangelical religion, can make one feel re-born, a new and better person, perhaps even a perfect person. But these effects are transient: after a while one needs to get saved again or dig up another potato hill from the past. Updike encourages writers to look at the present (216). He is right. People and writers should inhabit the present, throbbing with life, where demons, like vampires in sunlight, cannot survive.
In his poem "Robbing Myself," Hughes writes of returning to the Devon place he had shared with Plath. He delights in harvesting the potatoes "almost warm in the straw," and breathing "the sweetness of the hopes I'd dug into them" (165, 15-16). Hughes' potatoes give him life and peace in death. Sylvia's potatoes, rotten with blight, poisoned her.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bradley, George. "A Scrap of Sky." New Yorker. 19 Mar. 2001: 146.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters. Ed. & Trans. T.J. Reed. Oxford: Oxford UP: 1999.
Graham, Josie. "Prayer ("From Behind Trees")." New Yorker. 21 Jan. 2001: 80.
Grass, Gunter. From the Diary of a Snail. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Harcourt, 1973.
Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. London: Faber, 1998.
Plath, Sylvia. Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.
Plath, Sylvia. Letters Home. Ed. Aurelia Plath. New York: Harper, 1975.
Plath, Sylvia. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen Kukil. London: Faber, 2000.
Updike, John. "Fairy Tales and Paradigms." New Yorker. 19 & 26 Feb. 2001: 216-222.
Updike, John. Rabbit Is Rich. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Wiens, E.G. Players ("Ted and Sylvia").