Anne Sexton, "secret beatnik" in the suburbs

Plus: Advice on writing a book

It’s National Poetry Month! Last week, we looked at the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s “private preparatory rituals.” This week, Anne Sexton’s quest for just a little writing time.

Anne Sexton (1928–1974)

Last week’s announcement of the 2020 Guggenheim Fellows happened to come at the same time that I was reading Anne Sexton’s A Self-Portrait in Letters, an invaluable glimpse into the inner life of the brilliant and troubled American poet. In 1959, Sexton was hoping to win “a Guggy” herself, and her mentions of the fellowship provide a window into the circumstances of her writing life at the time, when she was just starting out as a poet while also spending most of the day with her two young daughters. Here she is in October 1959, writing to a fellow poet:

I also applied for a Guggy but won’t get it. I just did it in case. I really do need time—there are too many people in my island. I need to have one or two days a week when I can hole up somewhere and work. Here the phone jangles, the kids exist from my plate, my husband pats my fanny, and poemwise I haven’t enough left. A matter of energy. Dear Mr Guggy—I need money because I must pay someone to be a loving substitute while I write, an apron with arms would do. . . . I fear Guggy won’t care.

A week later, she added:

I don’t think I’ll get the Guggenheim but it would be good for me because I need the status in my family life. I need to hold up the money and say, “See. This has got to be for writing and I’ve got to have the time.” Then I can call in a babysitter and pay her with Gugg dollars and turn in peace to my desk. It’s that simple. Writing isn’t that simple (we know), but I have other problems that hinder it in this way.

Sexton was right to be pessimistic about her chances of getting the fellowship; she didn’t get a Guggenheim that year, nor the following year. (She finally won it in 1969, by which time she was a famous poet and commanded substantial speaking fees.) To afford the babysitting help she craved, Sexton took to selling cosmetics door to door. Without an office of her own, she set up her “desk” on the dining-room table, and, according to her eldest daughter and one of her closest friends—who together edited A Self-Portrait in Letters—“wrote in every spare minute she could steal from childtending and housewifely duties.” Here’s Sexton herself describing the situation in another letter from 1959:

My two children keep interrupting my train of thought for a cookie, girl scout variety. I have two girls, age 5 1/2 and 3 1/2, and a good husband who is not the least a poet, and very much a business man—but all in all a happy marriage in the suburbs. I have only been writing for a little over a year. But have really put great energy into it and would be no one at all without my tight little world of poet friends. I am kind of a secret beatnik hiding in the suburbs in my square house on a dull street.

As her poetry gradually gained prominence, Sexton had better luck carving out time to write; she eventually secured a proper home office and used the money she earned to hire domestic help. She wrote in 1966, “I have a cleaning woman once a week; I dare not fire her, for while she irons, I type.”

Anne Sexton, 1961. Photo © Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Rollie McKenna (link)


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

I have wanted to write a book for some time now; however, I am not sure what the subject matter would be. The issue could be that I have such a wide range of interests, and that I need to focus on one area such as history. I have written nonfiction articles and columns for local newspapers. My area of work is mental health counseling, but I have to be careful writing about that due to confidentiality of clients. The book could be a novel or nonfiction, and I would appreciate tips that go beyond the old “write what you know.” —Edward in Tampa

Dear Edward,

This is a difficult question! But I will offer you a few thoughts, which I hope you’ll find helpful even as they are somewhat contradictory:

Listen to Toni Morrison (and Austin Kleon)

“If there's a book you really want to read,” Morrison once said in a lecture, “but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” I think that’s a valuable way to think of any book project. You should feel in your bones that this is a book you would be dying to read if someone else had written it. The author Austin Kleon has his own version of this advice, which is more direct (and, I think, absolutely correct): “Write the book you want to read.”

Now, maybe you still don’t know what that book is. That’s fine, because to start you just need to plant the seed. Let this advice sit in the back of your mind, and maybe one day when you’re listening to the radio or aimlessly browsing the internet or talking with a friend, you’ll suddenly hit upon an idea where you think, Oh, man, that’s a book I would love to read. That’s your starting point.

Don’t think about your project as a book at all

At the same time, I think starting with the ambition to write (cue trumpet blare) A BOOK is a good way to create mental roadblocks for yourself. Instead, why not think about a story you want to tell or an idea you want to explore, and then brainstorm what would be the best vehicle for sharing that with other people? A lot of books started as something else—as a blog (in my case), a lecture, a magazine or newspaper article. Fortunately, we are living in an age when virtually anyone can start a blog, a newsletter, or a podcast, and these are great ways to give structure to your story and test the waters on how much of an audience there is for it.

But, also, this doesn’t have to be done publicly. The right vehicle for your fledgling project might be a private journal or a series of letters to a friend (or to yourself). A lot of authors’ books started as notes they made in the margins or other books while reading; if you make a lot of notes in a lot of books and then type them all up, there might be the seed of something there. Most books start with an obsession, or at least with an itch—what is yours?

Consider the possibility that the subject matter isn’t all that important.

I know I just said that you should focus on a story or idea that obsesses you, but here’s another possibility: that the pleasure of a good book is as much about inhabiting another person’s mind and thought process as it is the actual subject matter. I’m a fan of Molly Young’s Read Like the Wind column/newsletter, and in a recent post she touched on precisely this point. Recommending the book Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, Young wrote:

With certain writers, it doesn’t matter what the book is about, because the brain that created it is so euphoric, so wicked, so irascibly specific, that you want to clear out a corner of your own headspace and beckon the author inside as a permanent tenant. It is for this reason that I, a person who has never been pregnant and has little interest in reproduction, can recommend a book about a pregnant lady who watches trash TV and dreams that she’s going to give birth to a monkey.

I agree. There are some writers whom I’ll read on anything, no matter how little interest I have (or think I have) in the subject. Becoming that kind of writer is not easy—in fact it’s quite rare! But it’s a good ambition to have in mind as you think about what kind of writing you want to pursue going forward.

Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.


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