Monday, 20 June 2011

Plath at Mademoiselle Magazine, 1953.

My friend Katie left a link to a Plath photo on Facebook today. I thought it was too nice not to share the picture on my blog!

For those of you who own Sylvia Plath's Unabridged Journals, this picture of Plath and Elizabeth Bowen will be familiar, as it is included in the photographs section of the book. Plath interviewed Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, the summer that would later become the inspiration for "The Bell Jar."



When I look at this photograph, my gaze always falls on the clothes Plath is wearing. Esther Greenwood felt trapped and confined in the clothes bought for her during her summer interning in New York, finally throwing them from the top of the Amazon Hotel roof at the end of her stay in the city.

"Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one's ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York."

I look at the photograph of Sylvia and Bowen and wonder to what extent Plath's personal feelings mirrored that of Esther's. Did Plath feel as trapped and frustrated as Esther Greenwood behind the smiles of this photograph?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Picking up the pieces and moving on.

Well I am officially post-Viva now and what better day to start blogging again than Bloomsday! This day is not only important to literature because of its Joyce connection but Bloomsday 1956 was the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes married! And what a contribution to literature that match made!


It was also on Bloomsday last year that I found out I had received funding for the three years of my PhD, so this day has a special place in my heart personally, too. On that note.. I really want this blog to be a reflection not only of my study of Plath but the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD. So I want to be honest, even though it's sometimes difficult! I wish I could be an unflawed being, and an unfailing student but life does not always work out that way. So here goes...

My Viva did not go in any way as well as I had expected. One could liken my experience to being thrown into a small pool filled with pirhana fish, and the more I struggled, the more vicious the attacks became. In fact, I am quite sure that one of the panel members is still fervently gnawing on my leg! Jokes aside, the Viva was very tough. I feel the main problem was that I had given the panel an incorrect type of submission. I wrote a long chapter detailing what I was going to do with my study, rather than actually doing it. For this reason, they asked me to take until August and write them a chapter where I employ my theories, rather than talk about them.

To be honest, I was devestated. But, as I want this blog to document both the highs and lows of graduate student life, I feel I need to write this. I'll spare you all the gory details of my weeping publicly while shoving as many Galaxy Bubble chocolate bars as possible into my mouth on the train home from the Viva and try and explain where I went wrong and what I learned and the advice I would offer to fellow grad students or those thinking of entering this profession. I've highlighted the main weaknesses I displayed in my viva and thought of ways to combat these situations in the future.

I believe my main problem was a misunderstanding of what was required of me at this milestone. Prior to my viva, my supervisor and I met and he thought everything I had written was fine. From now on, the important thing for both of us to do is to ensure we communicate with the Graduate School, to specifically realise what is required. This translates generally into: it is the responsibility of the graduate student (i.e. me) to keep tabs on the supervisor and ensure that they make the relevant calls and understand that University bureaucracy, while annoying, must be adhered to. After my viva experience, I have taken away the sure knowledge that I need to motivate my supervisor to make sure we are both aware of all boxes that need to be ticked.

The second important point I've learned as a result of this process is - try and keep cool under examination. When it began to dawn on me that the work I had slaved over for weeks wasn't what the panel were looking for, my brain froze. I found it difficult to answer questions I knew the answers to correctly and don't feel I came across as well as I should have. For graduate students, academic peer-review is part and parcel of the process. It's something we all need to get used to. To combat ever freezing again in a viva scenario, I am going to practive calming breathing techniques and set up a mock viva/review with a supervisor or fellow PhD student in order to be prepared for a barrage of questions.

Finally (and this is the part I'm struggling with at the moment), a positive mental attitude is vital. No-one likes to hear they've caught the wrong end of the stick and no-one really appreciates criticism (constructive though it may be)!! In the three days since my viva I have worried about my job prospects should I not be good enough for the course, worried about my finances, worried that I didn't deserve to be going to the USA on the research trip - that I'm a waste of resources. Because of the solitary nature of PhDs, there's no-one to tell you that criticism happens to everyone and re-writes are a minor blip and part of a process that will have highs and lows throughout. I have never been one to have the utmost confidence in myself (except for when I have a glass of whiskey in my hand!) but right now, I'm trying to pull all my inner strength together and tell myself I can do this. That I will complete this. That I have the intelligence and drive to get over this bump and use it to my advantage. Time spent wallowing is time wasted.

Sometimes it is comforting to know that Sylvia Plath felt that a PhD was not a route she would like to go down academically. Life as a graduate student can be isolating, frightening, confusing and downright depressing. But it can also be intensely rewarding, liberating and interesting. We all have our peaks and troughs. I wanted to be honest with this blog to prove that not everyone sails through academia easily. I work hard, I have a real interest and passion for Sylvia Plath and the work she produced. But sometimes even with the best will in the world, and weeks spent pouring over books and endless late nights, you don't hit the correct target. So while I now go back to the drawing board, it's not a completely blank page. I know my question, I know now what the Graduate School require by way of a chapter and now I'm going to try and take my own advice and the advice of the panel members and try to do myself and Sylvia justice, and fingers crossed, I'll be a better researcher for it.

Over and out! :)