• Lelia

Writing About Writing: Muriel Spark, Elena Ferrante and Sylvia Plath


It occurs to me that writers write about writing a lot more than I realized. Take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. According to an article in The Guardian, Muriel Spark has “a preoccupation in her fiction with the role of the creator/creative artist.” I had only noticed that Miss Jean Brodie has a preoccupation with organizing and ordering other people’s lives. “She’s a born fascist,” as Sandy says of Jean Brodie — not politically, but because of her desire to define and control others, in particular her students. Miss Brodie’s a puppet master, labeling her students to confine and manipulate them (Mary is “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame,” while “Rose Stanley was famous for her sex.”).


Manipulating Perception


Having only read the book once, I can’t decide if Miss Brodie is really in her prime or not. The mantra is repeated often enough, and her students certainly believe it. But so do the two male characters in the book, Mr. Lowther and Mr. Lloyd. Like a good author (or advertising executive), Jean Brodie captures their imagination and controls their perception (except when she doesn’t). And, as an author does, she sends surrogates out to live her experiences —Joyce Emily to Spain and Rose to Mr.Lloyd’s bed —rather than entangle herself. Sandy watches the way Miss Brodie pulls everyone’s strings. She and Jenny experiment with writing their own narrative version of events (as in the very funny correspondence she and Jenny invent between Miss Brodie and Mr. Lowther: “Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse.”) But Sandy also, with “her small, almost nonexistent eyes,” watches for ways to disrupt the story line Miss Brodie has plotted.


Patching Together a Content


Reading Elena Ferrante’s In the Margins (which is overtly about writing), I realized that Sylvia Plath’s "Black Rook in Rainy Weather" is (at least as far as I can tell) about writing, too. I'd been reading the poem daily for days (having recently been inspired by Elliott Holt to choose a poem and read it every day for a month) and was on my 15th or so reading of Plath’s poem before I had this realization. I had been thinking of the poem as a description of the lovely little miracles that occur when we pay attention, “thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent.”


Previously, on about day 7 of my re-reading, I’d begun to wonder if Plath was numbering herself among the “obtuse objects” that “a celestial burning took/ Possession of.” But it was on day 15 that I realized when Plath writes of trying to “patch together a content,” she’s speaking of trying to write poems. (It seems obvious now, but I was delayed by the number of days I spent debating whether Plath meant content as in “a state of peaceful happiness” or content as in “ideas contained in a piece of writing.”)


Then a line in Elena Ferrante’s book made me realize Plath’s whole poem is about the struggle to be receptive to inspiration and then convey the transverbal inspiration into words. Ferrante writes that you


“Either find the magical coordination that leads to the joy of writing or you have to be content to fiddle around with words, waiting for another dazzling occasion that will catch you more prepared, less distracted.”

Fiddling around with words like “a wet black rook/ Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.”

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