Nine Years Later, I Understand The Bell Jar

On this frigid day that marks the end of November, I’m watching coffee boil (only a bit more amusing than watching paint dry) and my mind is inundated with cluttered, pointless thoughts and equally inane ideas.

There are only four or five items in my dishwasher, but that wasteful, compulsive part of me wants to run it anyways so I can say all my dishes are clean. I vacuumed yesterday, but I could stand to do it again and kill another half an hour of my Friday night. Later, I might go out and buy some felt and some stuffing and finally sew together a video game plushie that I found a pattern for last weekend, despite the fact that I’ll probably be bored with the idea halfway through.

These are, of course, just a series of acts and plans that are as trivial as they are hell-bent on serving as a distraction from the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I’m truly aiming for.

The Paralysis of Choice

My debut article on this site was the result of being exposed to a new kind of toxicity on Twitter, which then led me to examine the doubts and frustrations of content creators who are not free to complain about their work. Once again, procrastination via Twitter — as if cleaning out my timeline will beef up my word count — has brought up another subject that I’d like to discuss: the topic of content creation, choice, and the subsequent paralysis that it brings.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.”

Back in May, I found myself mired in one of the worst writer’s blocks I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. Not only were the specific words not coming to me, but the ideas weren’t even swirling around half-formed in my head. To top it all off, I’d been doing fairly well on writing my third novel, until suddenly I went from writing a couple thousand words a day to… nothing. Coming together in a perfect storm of no inspiration and a good deal of frustration, it ended in this self-deprecating tweet featuring a line from The Bell Jar:

Remembering this oddly apt quote prompted me to reread the book in its entirety. The last time I’d delved into the story I’d been in high school, and while I appreciated the prose, few of the ideals presented in the book truly resonated with me at the time. I figured, since I was rereading the story almost a decade later, that the book might wind up better hitting the mark this time around. As it turns out I had, in those nine years, developed a much deeper understanding of the themes presented.

Plath’s insight into depression and the paralysis it can cause rings true with many — admittedly, some more than others. For me, the excerpt that strikes a chord more than almost any other is the fig analogy.

“One fig was . . . a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America . . . and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”

For all the many plans I’ve held in my life, I am no further advanced today than I was when I graduated high school, or when my stint in college came to an end. I am just as full of plans now as I was at each of those respective times in my life, but all that’s really changed is the nature of those plans. None of them have really propelled me forward, and I am still in the same circumstance I was several years ago. Without a doubt, I can blame the economics of my circumstance, but the much more difficult fact to face is that I also have to blame myself and the self-fulfilling prophecy of stagnation that I have created.

Choosing All or Choosing None

One of the things I keep noticing about those successful members of my generation is their constant drive and their unbridled passion for their craft, their single-minded focus, and their motivation that manages to open doors that seemingly did not exist before. From makeup gurus, to body painters, to streamers, to digital artists and bloggers and authors and every other conceivable type of content creator, the one common thread among all of them seems to be keeping an unwavering eye on the prize. Yet the polar opposite of this mindset belongs to those with perhaps one too many irons in the fire to give any single one its proper due.

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

The group I find myself in consists of those who cannot seem to get a foothold on any front. We function as jacks of all trades who try and fail to carve out a niche in any and all of the fields where we think we might, along with some art, create a little bit of sanity for ourselves despite all the odds saying that very few are destined to do what they love.

The risk we run — and the trap that many of us fall into — is that while we try to figure out how to learn to juggle all these overlapping pursuits, we get caught in the middle, swept away into a kind of frustrating purgatory where months and years can easily pass without any true results. We focus so little on each that we barely focus on any at all, and a successive string of static is all we’ve managed to really “create” while tens of different neglected ideas lie in wait, while tens of different neglected figs begin to shrivel at our feet.