If you’ve seen the movie Sylvia and you still don’t understand it, this may help. And if you haven’t seen the movie Sylvia, this will definitely help.
The Gilmore Girls Fanatic recently mentioned how much she is enjoying learning about Sylvia Plath, one of the most mentioned cultural figures on Gilmore Girls. I almost heard the Fanatic say she was ashamed to admire a giant so disturbed. But I imagined it.
Then writer Charles Deemer, at The Writing Life, asked, “Why do so many writers commit suicide?” There’s a long list, including Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and of course Sylvia Plath. It almost makes one think of writing as a dangerous occupation.
And then I fall head over heels for Sylvia, a film that may have generated more complaints than understanding.
The problem is that Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, like many artists, are so frequently misunderstood. The gift the artist has is a double-edged sword. It allows him to move others with nothing more than shapes on a canvas, or words on a page, or vibrations in the air. But artists are a special breed. They are passionate and temperamental. Their feelings flow into the work they create. And they love it when you identify with and appreciate what they’ve created, because by doing so you are identifying with and appreciating them. Artists can be impossible to get along with, or even to get to know. But if you can know one, he’ll become a most understanding and dedicated friend, more loving than an old dog. I know, because I’ve known enough artists. And I myself am one. I’ve been a musician since I was a little boy. And I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. And I understand what makes artists tick.
In The Heart of the Artist, Rory Noland tells the story of Dan, a twenty-year-old art student. Dan spends innumerable hours with his paintings and drawings. Sometimes, he forgets to eat and to sleep, because he’s so involved in a project. He’s eccentric and passionate. He wears his heart on his sleeve, but he socializes almost not at all. He allows himself only one activity besides his art.
Marshall stacks don’t know Christians from atheists.
Dan appreciates his spiritual side. There’s a part of art that is innately spiritual. In fact, in this age of pop secular humanism, I don’t think many people realize how important a healthy spiritual life is. Especially for an artist. Sometimes, it’s all that holds you together, all that connects you with who you are and with how you feel.
So once a week, Dan visits his friends Fred and Nancy at their home bible study. It’s the only time he spends with other people.
Fred is studying to be a pastor, and this week he asked each person to select a passage from the book of Psalms. But not just any passage. Each person should pick something that describes his life right now. Fred went first. He opened to the very first Psalm, a passage he had just been studying. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners.”
Nancy went next. She wanted to talk about how well she and Fred were doing financially. Her voice swelled as she read. “The Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”
Adele’s turn came next. Fred and Nancy have been trying to fix up Dan and Adele. She just started a new job, and she’s been having problems making it work. So she chose a passage about trusting God. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.”
As Adele finished and closed the book, everyone’s eyes turned to Dan.
Dan has been feeling a little depressed. No one knows why, not even Dan himself. Maybe it’s that he’s been having trouble getting started with his latest project. Or maybe it’s the fact that he just started a new semester at school, and he’s got all new classes, and he’s still adjusting. Maybe it’s because he has some money issues, as many students do. Or maybe it’s just because the cold, wet winter is dragging on, and the weather is getting him down.
The group stares at Dan as he begins to speak. He tries to explain, where his life is, why he chose the passage… But everything comes out in gibberish, pieces of half-understood, half-pieces of words and sentences, incoherent. How can Dan explain the way he feels when he doesn’t even understand it himself.
Suddenly, he stops. He stands up and reads:
I cry to you for help, O Lord;
In the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, O Lord, do you reject me
And hide your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered Your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
They have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
The darkness is my closest friend.
Dan sits back down.
The room is still.
Fred swallows, then clears his throat.
“Why, Dan,” he says, “with all the blessings God has given, I was hoping you would read something uplifting, like one of the praise psalms.”
Right about this point in the story, I feel like slapping Fred upside the head.
I unfortunately have known enough of these types, too busy to listen, too busy to care. I’ve known enough of these types to notice that each of us does this at least once in his life. We each have become one of them.
And they said Sylvia Plath was insane. I would be lucky to be so insane. And inspired. As it is, I only fall into depression with the coming of winter. This winter has been especially hard, with all of the sadness and little of the inspiration I have come to appreciate. Yet I would have it no other way. I enjoy being able to lose myself in a sad movie, and I enjoy being able to cry.
But I digress. My point is simple. Don’t look at Sylvia as a tragic case of a woman troubled by depression, unable to escape, until finally it took her life. Yes, her story does kind of give that impression. Even Sylvia may have thought of herself in those terms. The Bell Jar she wrote during the last part of her life. She based it on her own experiences. The main character is a reflection of Sylvia herself. Except that in The Bell Jar, Esther gets help and escapes the bell jar. Or at least we can imagine that she did.
Even the ending to the story parallels how Sylvia must have felt writing it. We never actually find out whether Esther makes it out of the insane asylum. This was Sylvia’s cry to escape the suffocating confines of the bell jar. And would she succeed? Even she did not know the ending to the story.
Writers often write of the worst experiences in their own lives. Except in the story, the hero conquers the challenges. Sometimes, there has to be a happy ending. A story is a wish.
They say Sylvia gives short shrift to the real Sylvia Plath’s life. Of course it does. How can you sum up a person in 110 minutes? They say it is inaccurate. Yes, it is, to an extent. But I still believe it captures a part of the person that makes her worth admiring.
Sylvia papers her walls with rejection slips. Real writers actually used to do this back in the day of typewriters and carbon paper. They’d send out an inquiry letter and manuscript, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. And when the publisher sent back their manuscript with a rejection slip, they’d immediately send it out again to another publisher. And then they’d pin the rejection slip up on the wall. Why would they do that? To show progress. In writing, 95% of success is just showing up. And so the more publishers you can send your manuscript to, the better your chances of getting published. Now, writers print out the rejection emails and paper their walls with them. Sylvia sends out manuscripts for her husband and never misses a beat. Still, when someone rejects her own work, it gets her down. Sometimes, I guess, it’s good to have someone to lean on.
Sylvia struggles with writer’s block. And instead of struggling with writing, she fills her time with… stuff. She finds excuses not to write. And she needs someone to put her back on the right track. Again, this is a challenge every writer faces. Every writer will have times when she needs to write, and she can’t. Nothing she tries comes out right. Those are the times when she is most vulnerable, when it’s easiest to focus on how much housework needs to be done, or how relaxing it would be to watch TV, or even how much more research she needs to do before she can finish her book. And thank God for those in our lives who get us back on track, focus us on our work, and remind us what makes our writing worthwhile.
Want to know who Sylvia was? Read her books. Sylvia’s subject is herself. Her father’s death devastated her and became her theme. Her own attempted suicides are her topic. Her depression is her inspiration. They say beginning writers lean more on their own lives as subject matter. But that’s a myth. Experienced writers do, too. But they disguise it better. They combine myriad experiences into an exciting, new whole, and then they pepper it with variations. It looks like something new and different. But really, it’s all happened before. The best writers know how to draw on their own history, feelings, and passions. These things, sometimes the good ones, but especially the bad, center of the best works ever written.
Sylvia’s life is bound together with that of her husband. Some think that caring about what other people think of you makes you weak. Some think that the movie’s portrayal of Sylvia, becoming lost in her husband, makes her an unworthy heroine. The opposite is true. Because this is part of her passion, and part of what gives her character. Their relationship brings meaning and fulfillment to her life. So when he stays out late, it upsets her. When she suspects he’s cheating on her, it devastates her. The ability to sympathize and identify with others is a strength all artists have and something we should foster. It’s the strength that allows us to love the stories we read, the music we hear, the art we see. And it’s the strength that allows us to reflect that love in our own art, to carry on the tradition. This is surely a part of the real Sylvia Plath’s personality that made her the great poet she was.
And they say Sylvia Plath was insane. But don’t look at Sylvia as a tragic figure so overcome by depression that it killed her. Rather, see in her a heroine, a Christ-figure even. Because Sylvia gave her life for us, those who now understand her through her art. The passions that tore her apart were also what enabled her to create:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through…
Please, make me cry
I love stories of all sorts. A character doesn’t have to have any particular characteristic in order for me to sympathize with him. Usually, attempts to build a character out of interesting, as it were, characteristics, these attempts just come out gimmicky. But Sylvia is one of those stories that affects me in a special, very personal way. Because she’s not just a compelling character. Sylvia reflects part of who I am, making the bittersweet denouement all the more intense.
But I would have it no other way. I like losing myself in a sad movie. And I want it to make me cry.