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

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

“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.


Life on a Möbius Strip: The Greatest Moth Story Ever Told, About the Unlikely Paths That Lead Us Back to Ourselves

“…a living testament to the incredibly improbable trip that we’re on.”

Life on a Möbius Strip: The Greatest Moth Story Ever Told, About the Unlikely Paths That Lead Us Back to Ourselves

Our lives are shaped by an inescapable confluence of choice and chance. “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful inquiry into how we find ourselves by getting lost. But the truth is that most of the time we don’t know or only think we know what is on this side of any transformative experience — we live much of our lives opaque to ourselves, lost within our own psyches, confused and conflicted about what we really want. Milan Kundera considers this the central ambivalence of love and life.

We tend to make sense of it all by deft mental acrobatics, deducing what we want from what we get, only to realize — and it is never quite clear whether this is a deep truth or a deep delusion — that the strange and unpredictable outcomes of life were what we desired in the first place.

That’s what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin explores in what remains, in my book, the greatest story ever told on The Moth. It was later published under the title “Life on a Möbius Strip” as the opening piece in the beloved storytelling show’s inaugural anthology, The Moth: 50 True Stories (public library).

In this storytelling masterpiece, a testament to poet Mark Strand’s notion that life is “such a lucky accident … that we’re almost obliged to pay attention,” Levin uses her scientific research into whether the universe is infinite or finite as a springboard for leaping into the infinitely complex, infinitely messy mysteries of the human heart — those largely arbitrary events we spend our lives arranging into a mosaic of meaning.

Einstein famously said, “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.” Then he added, “And I’m not so sure about the universe.” And it’s true, there’s a realistic possibility that the entire universe is finite; it’s mathematically and physically possible.

There was a period of time in my research when I was obsessed with this idea. I was fixated on the implication that you could leave the Earth and travel in a straight line to a planet in a distant galaxy on the edge of the observable universe and realize the galaxy was the Milky Way that you had left behind you, and the planet you had landed on was the Earth. There were also weirder possibilities that the Earth was reconnected like a Möbius strip — if you took a left-handed glove on that same trip, it would come back right-handed.

The hazard for a scientist working on something so esoteric is the possibility that it just might not be true or it might not be answerable. I felt myself kind of navigating this precipice between discovery on the one side and obscurity on the other side. At the time I was working at Berkeley, living in San Francisco. I would spend a lot of time in the coffee shop across the street from my apartment. I was trying to find some kind of tangible connection to a more earthbound reality. And it was there that I met this guy named Warren.

Warren came charging past me the first day I saw him and pinned me with his blue eyes and said, “You’re the astrophysicist.” Which I knew. And then he had so much momentum after having built up the nerve to say this to me that he kept walking; he didn’t wait for my response. He went right out of the coffee shop and down the street.

And so it begins.

Warren is just everything I would never want in a man. He can’t drive, he’s never had his name on a lease, he’s by his own confession completely uneducated, he’s a self-professed obsessive-compulsive. He comes from a really tough part of working-class Manchester. He writes songs like

Daddy was a drunk,
daddy was a singer,
daddy was a drunken singer.
Murdered in a flophouse, broke and drunk…

You get the idea. It’s not good. So naturally I’m completely smitten. And he is mesmerizing. He has all this intensity, all this energy. He’s full of opinions. He was going to start his own music station called Shut the Folk Up.

I said, the gag is going to be that nobody’s going to understand his accent. Nobody will understand a word he says! He’ll just rant. It was a Manchester accent, but it did seem even more tangled than one would expect. It was quite a brogue. He would talk so fast that the words would just slam together — it was really undecipherable. But when he sang, this big, beautiful, warm tone just lifted out of him; it was like this old-timey crooner, this rare crisp and clear sound. So I used to tell him, “If there’s anything that’s really urgent that you need me to understand, just, like, sing it to me, OK?”

So, Warren and I started seeing each other, and he never asked me about my work, which was quite a relief from my own sort of mental world. And it’s like we were both in exile. Warren was in exile from his actual country, and I was in a kind of mental exile. And he would obsess all day about music and melody, and I would obsess all day about mathematics and numbers. And it was like we were pulling so hard in such opposite directions that the tension kept both of us from floating away.

After a few weeks of seeing each other, Warren decides we should live together, and he’s going to convince me that I should let him move in. So he gives me this argument — some fairly inventive logic, which I’m a little suspicious of, and laden with all kinds of Manchester slang I don’t really follow. But Warren can convince me of anything, just anything, so I relent, and he says, “I’ll be right back!” He’s so excited; he comes back in less than an hour, and he’s moved in. He’s carrying his guitar and whatever he can carry on his back, because he has this philosophy, “If you can’t carry it, you can’t own it.” Right? So he moves in with me.

And my parents are thrilled. Their recently Ph.D.-confirmed daughter — I have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT — is living with an illegal immigrant who can’t spell words like “nonviable,” “unfeasible.” Even our friends are full of doubt. Our good friend, the musician Sean Hayes, is writing lyrics like

We’ll just play this one out until it explodes
Into a thousand tiny pieces
What’s your story universe
You are melody, you are numbers
You are shapes, and you are rhythms

Warren and I hear this, and we’re pretty sure it’s about us. And I’m filled with doubt too. I mean, this is a crazy situation; it’s totally improbable. And my fellowship’s coming to an end, and the only other offers I have are in England. And Warren hates England. He slumps when he describes the low-hanging skies and the black mark of his accent there, and the inescapability of his class, but he says, “Baby, you know, I’ll follow you anywhere. Even to England,” as though I’m bringing him to the acid marshes of hell.

But he makes himself feel better by convincing me we have to sell all our stuff, because you can’t own what you can’t carry. So we’re sitting on the steps of our apartment, and I watch stuff that I’ve been carting around my entire life just disappear.

People come in and out of the coffee shop and stop to talk to us and say, “So you’re the astrologer?”

And I say, “Well, no, I’m more of an astronomer.” And they ask me about how is it possible that the universe is finite. And I explain how Warren and I could go on this trip from San Francisco to London, and if we kept going in as straight a line as possible we’d eventually come back to San Francisco again, where we started. Because the Earth is compact and connected and finite, and maybe the whole universe is like that. And Warren and I make this leap, his left hand in my right hand, and we board a plane to the UK.

And it does suck. We have this very difficult wandering path, but finally I land a fantastic fellowship at Cambridge. It’s beautiful. But not before we spend a few weeks in a coin-operated bed-sit in Brighton. If you ran out of pound coins, your electricity went off and the lights went out. We often ran out of pound coins, and towards the end we were so despondent we would just sit in the dark. I could hear though not see Warren say things like “At least I don’t have to look at the wood-chipped wallpaper,” which for some reason really depressed him, this very English quality of the wood-chipped wallpaper.

But eventually we get to Cambridge, and my work takes a beautiful turn. I start working on black holes, these massive dead stars tens of kilometers across spinning hundreds of times a second ripping through space at the speed of light. This is very concrete compared to my previous research. So I’m excited about the direction my work’s turning in. I’m in Hawking’s group in Cambridge, which is very exciting, but he doesn’t pay me any attention at all. But I’m invited by Nobel laureates to Trinity College for dinner, and I get to watch this ceremony of dinner at this old, beautiful college from the privileged perch of high table.

Meanwhile Warren’s down the road in another college washing the dishes because it was the only job he could get. And as things go on, we both start to retreat into our mental worlds, me in my math and Warren in his melody, but it’s like we’re not really keeping each other from floating away so much anymore.

Eventually it starts to rain, and it rains forever. Woody Allen said, “Forever’s a very long time, especially the bit towards the end.” And a rainy winter in Cambridge is a very long time. Warren picks up a mandolin; he starts playing these Americana bluegrass tunes over and over again, you know, na na na na na na na. And it’s this manic soundtrack to our mounting insanity, and eventually we explode. It takes about six months of that relentless rain, but we explode, and it’s over. And all we see is how improbable we are; we see that we’re nonviable and unfeasible. Which are words, by the way, that Warren can spell by then.

We both leave. We pack up everything we have, each of us just what we can carry. We end up in a bus terminal in London, clutching each other. I’m waiting for Warren to convince me, because he can always convince me, that we can do the impossible. But it’s like the light’s gone out in his eyes, and I disappear into London and he just… disappears. And the silence is total.

A graduate student of mine recently said to me, “The emotional dimension is the least interesting part of the human experience.” And I know scientists are odd, but I agree. I was like, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” So it’s difficult for me to recount how dark those nights were. Even in my worst moments I knew that my despair was just sort of not interesting. I needed to get back to mathematics and the universe and this connection because in its sheer magnitude it would diminish the importance of my personal trials.

I searched all over London until I found a perfect warehouse to move into, because I wanted to connect with a more earthbound reality while I was doing my research. I found the perfect place. It had broken windows and shutters. It was dead empty — no bathroom, nothing. I had the windows replaced, and I had a bathroom installed, and my unit became a part of this artists’ community building on the east end of London, along the canals.

So I had a great community around me, and I started a new life there, and I started to write. I got a book deal. It was a book about whether or not the universe was finite, and it was a diary about the terror of a scientist working on that really frightening divide between discovery and total oblivion. And it became a parallel story about Warren, about the unraveling of an obsessive-compulsive mind. I think if I’m honest it was also a way of still hanging on to him. This book kind of came out of me fully formed; it took one year.

When the book was finished, I delivered it to my publisher, and in part fueled by the London gloom and in part fueled by nostalgia, I decided I wanted to go back to San Francisco just to recuperate. To go back to where the book actually starts, when we sell all of our stuff on the steps in San Francisco.

I go back to California, and I take these beautiful walks in the city. San Francisco is so beautiful. And I find myself, despite myself — because I tell myself not to do it — walking past my old neighborhood. I end up going past my old coffee shop, and I’m going like three miles an hour, you know, there are like five thousand feet in a mile, and there’s like three thousand, six hundred seconds in an hour, so I’m going about four and a half feet, I figure, per second. It takes me about two seconds to go past this coffee shop window.

In that time, because I’m looking at my building, my old apartment, full of sentiment, what I don’t realize is that on the other side of that window, inside the coffee shop, is Warren, who, after I left him in the London bus terminal, went back to California, came back to London, went to France, came back to London, and just recently returned to San Francisco, and got a job in the coffee shop, where he regaled the patrons with stories about his travels. He was so uprooted. But the light was back on in his eyes. And as he’s turning around to deliver a coffee, he lifts his head to see me, in those two seconds, walk past the frame of the window. And he shouts, “It’s self-service!”

He stumbles out of the coffee shop. People are grabbing muffins and coffees, they’re like, “Warren! What’s up?!” And he’s trying to get out of the coffee shop, trying to grab on to the handle of the door. He keeps banging his head. It’s like a bird trying to get out the window. And all of the sudden, the door swings open and deposits Warren in front of me.

You often think, What am I going to say when I bump into my ex? But, it’s just this electric moment between us. There’s this swell of warmth, and we laugh that we’re back where we started on this very spot in San Francisco.

I try to give him the essential data. I’m living in London Fields, and he tells me I’ve moved onto the block he lived on when he was nineteen and squatting in London. Out of the whole city of London. And he recognizes the names of all the locals I can rattle off. And by the end of the conversation he’s saying, “I’m coming with you back to London aren’t I?”

And I’m thinking, Are you out of your mind? I mean, what woman in her right mind is going to let this lunatic come back to London with her? There is no way.

About a year later, we’re married. Our rings, which were made by a friend of ours, are stamped with the lyrics “Melody and Number, Shapes and Rhythms” with no small dose of irony and defiance. About a year after that, we’re having a baby, and we’re laughing at how improbable this kid is.

We have no idea. When this kid is born, he is so beautiful, and afterwards a young medical resident comes charging into my hospital room, and he’s so excited he’s beaming. And I’m thinking, He sees how beautiful this boy is. But he’s carrying an X-ray, which he slaps on the window of my hospital room so the light can come through, and I can see it better. But I still don’t know what I’m looking at.

He says, “Your son’s heart is on the right side.” And he doesn’t mean the correct side, he doesn’t mean the left side. He means my son’s heart is on the right side.

And all I can think in this terrifying moment is Get Warren.

And the resident says, “Your son has dextrocardia with situs inversus; all his organs are on the opposite side.”

And I say, “Get Warren.”

And the resident tells me he’s so excited, because he never thought he’d ever see anything like this. To his knowledge, nobody else in the hospital’s seen it in real life. And he’s describing studies for me that are made up of only twelve cases because the numbers are so rare.

And then Warren’s there, and he’s saying in that rough, raw, beautiful accent what only he can convince me of, the totally impossible. He’s saying, “He’s perfect.”

And our now eight-year-old son is a perfectly formed mirror image of the more conventional human anatomy, a very rare and unlikely alignment. It’s as though Warren and I took our left-handed code on a Möbius strip around the universe and brought back this right-handed boy. And that boy, as intense and spirited as his father, is like a living testament to the incredibly improbable trip that we’re on.

Complement this exceptional installment in the altogether excellent The Moth, which features true stories by Adam Gopnik, Andrew Solomon, Sebastian Junger, Malcolm Gladwell, and Aimee Mullins, with Levin on madness and genius, free will, and the century-long quest to hear the sound of space-time.


Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word “Friend”

Exploring the concentric circles of human connection through the lens of our ideal and real selves.

Friendship, C.S. Lewis believed, “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” But the poetic beauty of this sentiment crumbles into untruth for anyone who has ever been buoyed from the pit of despair by the unrelenting kindness of a friend, or whose joys have been amplified by a friend’s warm willingness to bear witness.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

I often puzzle over the nature, structure, and function of friendship in human life — a function I have found to be indispensable to my own spiritual survival and, I suspect, to that of most human beings. But during a recent interview on Think Again, I found myself concerned with the commodification of the word “friend” in our culture. We call “friends” peers we barely know beyond the shallow roots of the professional connection, we mistake mere mutual admiration for friendship, we name-drop as “friends” acquaintances associating with whom we feel reflects favorably on us in the eyes of others, thus rendering true friendship vacant of Emerson’s exacting definition. We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.

In countering this conflation, I was reminded of philosopher Amelie Rorty’s fantastic 1976 taxonomy of the levels of personhood and wondered what a similar taxonomy of interpersonhood might look like. I envisioned a conception of friendship as concentric circles of human connection, intimacy, and emotional truthfulness, each larger circle a necessary but insufficient condition for the smaller circle it embraces. “I live my life in widening circles,” Rilke wrote.


Within the ether of strangers — all the humans who inhabit the world at the same time as we do, but whom we have not yet met — there exists a large outermost circle of acquaintances. Inside it resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like. These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

Even closer to the core is the kindred spirit — a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect, but we infer this resonance from one another’s polished public selves — our ideal selves — rather than from intimate knowledge of one another’s interior lives, personal struggles, inner contradictions, and most vulnerable crevices of character.

Some kindred spirits become friends in the fullest sense — people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy. A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.

It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are — even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.

For a complementary perspective, see poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend.”

Special thanks to my friend Wendy MacNaughton for the diagrammatic inspiration


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