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Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter

Sunday 21 August 2016

“The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”

By Maria Popova

“Read good books, have good sentences in your ears,” the poet Jane Kenyon counseled in what remains some of the sagest advice to write and live by. But if literature is essential to our moral development, as Walt Whitman believed, and reading enlarges our humanity, as Neil Gaiman asserted, then attunement to good sentences is vital not only to our writing style but to our core sensibility of character. 

So suggests the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) in a wonderful letter of advice to his teenage daughter, Frieda, found in Letters of Ted Hughes (public library) — the same volume that gave us Hughes’s immensely moving letter to his son about nurturing the universal inner child. 

Frieda had been half-orphaned at the age of three when her mother, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide. Hughes was left to raise the couple’s two children, for whom Plath had written her only children’s books. Shortly after Frieda’s eighteenth birthday, as she stood on the precipice of her own literary career, her father shared with her the most important thing he had learned — from T.S. Eliot, no less — about what it takes to become a poet.

Hughes writes:
T.S. Eliot said to me “There’s only one way a poet can develop his actual writing — apart from self-criticism & continual practice. And that is by reading other poetry aloud — and it doesn’t matter whether he understands it or not (i.e. even if it is in another language.) What matters, above all, is educating the ear.”
What matters, is to connect your own voice within an infinite range of verbal cadences & sequences — and only endless actual experience of your ear can store all that is in your nervous system. The rest can be left to your life & your character.

In a lengthy letter penned three years later, discussing Plath’s posthumously published Ariel poems, Hughes revisits the subject of character as the wellspring of writing:
The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.

Frieda Hughes went on to become a celebrated poet, painter, and children’s book author herself. She later resurrected her mother’s little-known art and spent much of her adult life defending her father’s character against the hubristic pseudo-analysis of onlookers who have blamed him for Plath’s death. In fact, few private relationships have been the subject of more merciless and cynical public intrusion than Hughes and Plath’s, which began in a tempest of passion and ended in tragedy. Like the relationship between Albert Einstein and his first wife, the nuanced truth of which has been drowned out by a chorus of readily offered yet ill-informed judgments, the relationship between Hughes and Plath became the target of ceaseless malevolent speculation after Plath’s death. Hughes himself lamented how critics used her poetry as “a general licence for ransacking the lives of her family” with “malice & pseudo-psychologising.” Both critics and the so-called public seemed, and still seem, to forget that no one ever knows what goes on between two people, much less inside a person, and that any right to interpretation belongs solely to those who inhabit that intimate interiority. 

Complement this particular portion of the richly rewarding Letters of Ted Hughes with other great writers’ advice to their own daughters — Robert Frost on how to read intelligently and write a great essay and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing — then revisit this rare BBC recording of Hughes and Plath discussing literature, love, and life and these beautiful modern illustrations for Hughes’s 1968 classic The Iron Giant.

See online: Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter