There has been one scene replaying in my mind all week. It is the pivotal scene in The Bell Jar where Esther is riding in the backseat of her mother's station wagon, defeated and small after her ego-crushing adventures in the gloss and lies of Manhattan, watching the telephone poles of the suburbs drift by which remind her of the dread and monotony of an unfree life, and then her mother drops what she doesn't realize is a bomb, that she did not gain access to the writing seminar at Harvard that she had pinned all of her hopes on for escape that summer. That sense of stuckness. This is based on an event in Sylvia Plath's own life - whose writing seminar was it that Plath did not gain access to? I don't remember. But that was always what I found so real and poignant about The Bell Jar - that the breakdown was catalyzed by a crushing creative rejection. That Esther felt she would never write again. When I too had my glossy magazine internship my senior year, when I buried myself in my all-girl's boarding house at night to work on an incomprehensible play on madness, going mad in the process, then returning to Northwestern feeling so sure that I could not be a journalist, I needed to be a playwright or a novelist, I didn't know how, this is too what catalyzed my fall - the fall and the call and the pills and the parents and the taxicabs to shrinks out of the telephone book and the hallucinations at 4am and the cocktails of drugs licit and illicit and the water bed I hacked to pieces - the surreal certainty that I was a character, not a writer, I would never be a writer. Why did this disturb so a girl of not yet 21, who had only written a bad incomprehensible play and a few short stories and boxes of unfinished journals and articles of magazine journalism and theater reviews? That I would not be a writer? And why do we as women (is it gendered, I don't know) take rejections of our writing as rejections of our persons? Of our interiority? Of our value as subjects, not just as objects? Perhaps it's because, as I wrote in the recent lengthy rant of a non-text that's since be almost-erased, because we are born with everyone being critical of us, we must be proper, well-behaved, pretty, and we internalize this decimating gaze, so a criticism of one's work, if one's work draws from one's life, becomes in some way a criticism of one's life lived at one time prettily and banally and recklessly.
I am actually not alluding to the negative review of O Fallen Angel. I actually experienced another rejection yesterday, I don't want to be too specific about the rejection, because this is not about calling forth it like a demonic vomit but looking at it critically, at the hurt underneath all of it. Oh but I guess I lack the ability to be subtle or nuanced. Let's just say that a woman writer, who I admire, and is very very well-feted and admired, wrote me a well-meaning but pretty decimating critique of a book that I have coming out, because I had approached her to read it and if possible write a blurb for it, and when I read this said email I felt destroyed, I was sitting in our car outside the building on campus in Pittsburgh where my graduate students were doing their final reading, I was supposed to bring wine and be composed and teacherly and supportive, and instead up until the minutes where I had to be in class I sat in the car and put my head between my legs and heaved and heaved and sobbed, surprising myself, because I usually try to control myself before experiencing emotions that intense, fearful of being destroyed, and retched without being able to vomit, really the most abject girl at that moment, while John stroked my back and murmured nothings like a mother. Although afterwards I was fairly composed on the outside despite the shiny redness of my face and glassy eyes, that become so green when I cry like this, I was able to exist for my students and respond to their reading and be teacher, however, difficult that was, this sent me in a bit of a spin last night, I was again all flailing and green, I hate that familiar sense of chaos, and I forwarded this email to four women writers who had read the novel, and I thought, loved it, or at least liked it, and then I hated myself for wanting this sort of validation from the outside when I know I have to be strong and skinned and all of that. Sometimes lately I have felt so exquisitively unskinned and open, raw and wounded, and that is how I have been going about the world. But I think I rallied - I rallied myself, some words from these other women rallied me as well - but I thought though riding home the two hours to Akron in snow that was like one imagined it, I thought while trying not to think, trying to benumb myself, I thought about Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's essay "Infection in the Sentence," that I have quoted here, often, that's in their treatise on Victorian women writers, Madwomen in the Attic. These diseases women writers suffered, perhaps they still do. The anxiety not only of influence but of authorship - the right to write one's own story at all. But also of influence - to create new traditions, even when older traditions reject you. But also made me think about the female literary tradition that Gilbert/Gubar say that Victorian women writers lacked, excluded from the oedipal father-son tradition of destroying one's masters that Harold Bloom wrote about in his theories of an anxiety of influence - but perhaps we are not excluded from that anymore. Perhaps we still let our masters destroy us. And perhaps we must, in order to be born as authors, learn from and then discard them in order to carve out new territory. But why must this all be so destructive? Or: why does it have to be nurturing? I have these ambiguous, inexact questions, circling in my mind.