Wednesday Works in Progress: Witch Burning

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What a pleasure it is, after nearly two weeks away from the work, to have a short story again finding its shape in imaginative space, unexpected details looming into view. Today, in the short story I’m drafting, which goes by various names, Sylvia Plath showed up.

This is the tale of a woman in her thirties facing a difficult diagnosis who forms a relationship with an elusive teenager; it takes place in a little pocket park in Prescott, Arizona. Today, for the first time, the protagonist finds a note that the girl has left in that park, amid a disturbing art installation that may be a cry for help.

At first I thought this note might contain some of the girl’s poetry–I thought, in fact, it might contain one of my own overwrought adolescent poems. But then I remembered a recent podcast, a conversation between my grad school friend Angela Ledgerwood and Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, in which the author recalled a time when she had bought into a certain narrative about love, a rather tragic narrative supplied by the poet Sylvia Plath, and that it had been detrimental to her outlook on life.

I thought, wow, isn’t Sylvia Plath the poet all teenage girls turn to when their emotions feel too big, too tragic? I certainly did during my senior year of high school, when I discovered her work. To an adult like the one I am now–one who has faced down her own difficult diagnosis–such tragic preoccupations from so young a person cannot help but seem a bit twee.

But I think this poem of Plath’s I found in my trusty dog-eared Contemporary American Poetry perfectly carries the counterpoint, the young girl’s point of view, which is about how it feels to be kept, captive, to have your identity twisted and your voice stuffed back in your throat–how ultimately intolerable it is to be cast in such a role: “Witch Burning”, the first stanza of which I included in today’s draft.

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