I was first introduced to the poetry of Sylvia Plath a few years ago. In the most millennial way possible, of course - through her posthumous Twitter account.
When the account first appeared on my timeline, it was recommended alongside “book quotes” and “daily inspiration!!” which tends to be the part of the internet I avoid like plague. That day, I don’t know what it was, but somehow I had the compulsion to follow her anyway, and that’s how @itssylviaplath entered my life.
Now that I think about it, there’s very little I know about the account owner. Besides the fact that they’re not Sylvia Plath herself (she’s been dead since the 20th century), I don’t even know whether they’re directly quoting her writing or just roleplaying as her. (I haven’t read enough of Plath’s work to be able to tell, but I can’t help but think a modern day Sylvia Plath would definitely be a popular Twitter poet.)
But what’s for certain is that the more I learn about Plath, the more I feel like I’m slipping into her skin and walking around in her shoes. Not because her life mirrors mine, oh no that’s not it at all, but because her writing seems to perfectly frame the moments of intense emotion that everybody goes through at some points in their lives. Here’s an example:
“And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter— they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.”
Plath was well-known to write "confessional" styles of poetry; some call it the most "honest" style of poetry. To read her work is to know her life, and if you're unacquainted, the first thing you should know is that she suffered from both depression and bipolar disorder. In many ways, those ailments were what made her such a dynamic poet.
Her writing was known to be intensely autobiographical and, because of her illnesses, always existed on extreme ends of the spectrum. They expressed her most primal desires, most of all death, but also lust, despair, happiness, salvage; the more tragic, the better. After her death at age 30, her writing went on to become a great source of controversy, but underlying it all was also an undeniable truth.
Her poetry threw open the curtains, the niceties and norms that society hid behind, revealing the conflicting emotions that can make up human life. To quote Denis Donoghue, she “spoke the hectic, uncontrolled things our conscience needed, or thought it needed.” It is impossible to read her poetry and not find an inch in it that resembles ourselves.
About love and expectations:
“There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of a man who would love me passionately the minute he met me, and all out of a few prosy nothings.”
“I must get my soul back from you; I am killing my flesh without it.”
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
“The trouble about jumping was that if you didn't pick the right number of storeys, you might still be alive when you hit bottom.”
Plath over-romanticised her life so much, the desire for perfection ate away at her. I know that feeling well; of wanting to be special and wanting special things to happen to you, and then the intense disappointment that follows when life does not deliver. I think about this line she’s written that expresses this: “Kiss me, and you will see how important I am.” It is both a demand and a desperate plea. It is a longing for validation.
Former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky described Plath as someone who “suffered the airless egocentrism of one in love with an ideal self.” I think with social media, more and more people suffer from this everyday. I myself feel sometimes that I am unworthy of what I own, as if the talent that I have is not talent simply because it isn’t enough, or the good looks that I have aren’t good enough simply because there is someone who is better.
I’ve had days when I’m like Sylvia Plath, so obsessed with ideals that reality pales in comparison. Some days were like this:
“I do not love; I do not love anybody except myself. That is a rather shocking thing to admit. I have none of the selfless love of my mother. I have none of the plodding, practical love. . . . . I am, to be blunt and concise, in love only with myself, my puny being with its small inadequate breasts and meager, thin talents. I am capable of affection for those who reflect my own world.”
Sylvia Plath is not a role model by any means. The same mental illness and self-destructive personality that drove her to become so renowned was the same that claimed her life so early in her days. As Donoghue put it, “she showed what self-absorption makes possible in art, and the price that must be paid for it, in the art as clearly as in the death.”
Ultimately, there may be a glory, a warped kind of glory, in living a tragic life, but it saps away the opportunity you could be using to live a better one. Her poetry has accompanied me in times when I felt when nobody understood me, but a life of over-romanticised torment is never one that I want to live forever. After this, I think I’ll just stick to reading my Sylvia Plath, thanks.
Last weekend, in the crowded halls of Sunway Resort Hotel, amidst the flower peddlers and camera flashes, laughter and smiling family members, I went through one of the most important experiences in my early-twenties life. I finally, finally graduated from university! After four years of gruelling undergraduate studies, you won't believe how glad I am to be done with it. No more clashing assignment deadlines, no more cramming for final exams, no more early morning lectures - hallelujah!
But having a 4-month gap in between my actual end of semester and my graduation means I'd already experienced most of my joy months ago. When faced with my actual graduation ceremony, I was less gleeful and mostly anxious. And oh boy, did I worry. I fretted whether my dress would match my robe, whether I would trip in my heels on stage, if I would be seated next to classmate I knew but didn't really talk to, et cetera et cetera.
I even considered the possibility that I was going to puke from all the pent up nervous energy, but thankfully, everything went smoothly. As the way things usually work with me, it all turned out a lot less worse than I imagined. The only side effect is that I'm officially graduated from university now. How do I feel?
Admittedly, a little overwhelmed, regretful and anxious still, but also very grateful and mostly excited to tackle the rest of my life. I was surprised that I actually felt nostalgic, despite having made very few memories in this institution, and yet the emotions caught up to me. One shouldn't undermine the symbolism of a ceremony like this, I realise. Even though I'm already working some freelance projects, there was something about going on stage and shaking the chancellor's hand that screamed, "I'm not a freeloading child any longer, I'm now a rent-paying adult!"
I know my family is excited about that last part, at least. All things considered, I kept my graduation rather hush hush, but my grandfather, especially, made sure to take the liberty to announce it to the world. Eventually it wasn't just our family that came to know about it, it was his friends and old classmates, the uncle at the ba kut teh shop and the pharmacist at the shopping mall. "My eldest granddaughter is graduating!", he'd proclaim in his booming voice. Talk about the most Asian way of showing off possible. My mother even joked that he was more excited for it than I was. She was mostly right.
On the day of my graduation, my parents were the ones who wouldn't stop taking pictures and videos of me and sending it to all my family group chats. My phone buzzed with congratulations as I wrung my hands in anxiousness waiting for my turn to go onstage. It continued buzzing as I sighed in boredom waiting for the guest speaker to impart his last bits of wisdom. It buzzed in my pocket when some of my friends showed up with sunflowers and a teddy bear, and when I got swindled out of money by photographers, and when I was scarfing down curry puffs at the refreshments counter.
It only stopped later in the night, when my family bought me dinner to celebrate and invited all my closest relatives to join us. I see these people all the time, but having them all gathered in a place a little bit fancier than usual, dressed up a little bit nicer than usual, and all wanting to take pictures with and congratulate me (in person this time), that's when the emotions really hit me, and my heart felt extremely warm that night.
I woke up the next day to the sight of my graduation bouquets, arranged neatly in vases, sunflowers beaming at me and reminding me of the great day I had. It made me realise how many people love me and consider me an important person in their lives. Even though I made every effort to downplay my graduation celebrations (to soothe the anxiousness in my mind), there were still people who wanted to celebrate for me and with me. I'm really grateful that there's people like that in my life.
It also made me think about what a milestone graduating is, not just personally but also for my family. I really meant it when they were excited about me becoming a "rent-paying adult", and as they push me not-so-subtly towards good companies and positions and salaries, I know what exactly they're trying to imply. I know now, the decisions I make from here on out don't only affect me, it affects my family and loved ones too. That is something I still have to get used to, and maybe I'll blog about it sometime in the future.
For now, I'm just soaking in the post-graduate feelings while I still can. I don't have much of my break left, since in a few days, I'll officially begin working at this company... and well, life isn't slowing down for anyone, especially me.
Existential crises are like whirlpools, the longer you hang around them, the further it drags you down. For the last few weeks, I've been dwelling in between; washed around by the swirling waters, but not yet at the calm of the ocean floor. This inactive state of mine has led me into despair and loneliness, but now I'm glad to report that I am finally, slowly but surely, breaking my way out.
I've realised over the past week that it's difficult to do anything without an anchor in your life. As for me, I'm blessed enough to have gone through most of my life with something, or someone, to hold onto. For most of the time that was music and books, and as cliche as it sounds (cringey flashback to a billion teens around the globe saying their favourite hobby is "listening to music"), I really threw myself into it and that's what kept me passionate and happy for many, many years.
It makes a lot of sense then, that the years that I stopped reading, especially, were some of the most miserable times of my life. From reading a book a day, it became two books a week, to two books a month, and then for a long period of time, reading none at all. You can't imagine the ways this drove me insane.
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
I tried many times in the past to explain my relationship with books to people, but it was as difficult as explaining to a rich person what it's like to live a poor man's lifestyle; their reactions were pretense layered on top of good intentions, because those born in privilege will never be able to understand the nuances of not having enough money to spend.
Similarly, no one mirrored my absolute joy and fulfillment when it came to reading, and that caused me some anger for a period of time. While that rage might have been the face of it, however, I can tell you it was mostly disappointment, sadness, and a yearning for someone as equally excitable to talk to. Then one day, those worries disappeared, because I had to give them up.
As much as my inner drama queen would like to up the ante here, all I can say is that life - in its constant state of change - just moved forward, sweeping me up along its currents. And if you remember the Kenneth Koch poem from last week, I simply gave up things to gain others in return.
I traded my weekends for debate tournaments, gave up my personal blog to run a more commercial one, spent my free time volunteering for things like student councils and charity work. In return, I gained confidence and public speaking skills and new writing styles and learned how to manage teams of unique individuals... BUT, I also felt like I was constantly missing something from my life.
“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.”
I consider myself lucky because, at the very least, I knew what I was missing. Most people don't even know that for themselves, but I've always known that this would be a constant; something that would anchor me no matter where I went or what I did with my time here. Those things were literature, storytelling, the spoken word, musical lyrics, and simply summarised, the transformative nature of art.
But more than just enjoying it, I wanted to create it myself. I found as much fascination with the stories themselves as the way they were constructed and put together by the creator. Through years of reading, I picked up techniques and pacing and even grammar. I learned all of the language through books until I was leaps and bounds ahead of everything school could possibly teach me.
And the same fascination followed through not only books and movies, but with folk tales, history, classical art, music, and every other thing that had a story behind it. But I wouldn't call it a love for history, it was more like a love for the human experience. I fell in love with the complexities of human nature, tales that fell under the radar, and I love the physical aura that emanated off places that celebrated them, like museums, libraries, and historical locations.
I've harboured a love for all these things ever since I was a kid, can you believe it? That's why working on this blog feels like I'm coming home, and that's why I do this. After years of pushing aside my love, partly in fear that nobody would be interested in reading any of it, I'm finally throwing my concerns aside and seeing it through.
Even through the chaos and calamity of contemplating existentialism, and the back and forth of emotions in that dreaded mental trap, this one thing always pulls through for me. For that, it doesn't matter how many slumps I have to face, I'm pushing forward.
Ever since I applied for graduation, my life has been - for lack of a more unique phrase - speeding by like a race car with no breaks. On the last day of finals was my 21st birthday, after which I was thrown into organising an event, attending job interviews, sorting out school paperwork, doing some freelance work... all the while trying to maintain a decent social life.
It was IMPOSSIBLE. The combined effort of maintaining it all was slowly wearing me down, and last week, I was almost ready to raise the white flag. Heck, I was already making plans for 72 hours of uninterrupted sleep. But for more practical reasons (like the fact that we already bought plane tickets), I went with my family on holiday instead; to our neighbour across the sea - Kuching, Sarawak.
I feel like I should preface: My parents are adventurous folk. My sister and I? Not so. I don't know how those two people's genes combined to create the sloths that my sister and I are, but their meaning of the word 'holiday' meant something entirely different from ours.
For those three days in Kuching, our schedule was packed to the brim. We went hiking, island hopping, pottery shopping, wild animal spotting, and did so so much eating, thinking about it is enough to give me a food coma. While I enjoyed the food, however, we also had to wake up at 7am for it, which is just blasphemous. I can't believe I made it through at all. Every given opportunity during the day, I was out like a light. It didn't matter if it was an hour long drive or 15 minutes down the road, that was my sacred nap time.
For that reason, and many others, the whole holiday almost felt like a fever dream. Every time I woke up, we were in some place new. Sometimes I stepped out to a speed boat ready to embark across the choppy seas, other times to needlessly elaborate cat exhibitions that only incorporated a minute amount of Sarawakian history.
No matter what it was, each time, I be forced to shake off the post-nap grogginess and step into something weird and fascinating. In a way, that was half of the experience.
Over those four days, I eventually picked up a few things about Kuching. Mostly, what made it different from Kuala Lumpur. For one, almost everyone there speaks Chinese or Hokkien. It is home to an incredibly diverse mix of aboriginal races. There is a huge tourism industry in that state, accompanied by an admirable pride for their wonders of nature. And if you choose right place to stay, you can wake up to the sight of the sea every morning.
I think that's what I loved the most. For four days, not living on the main road where roadworks assault you during the day and mat rempits wake you up at night. Instead, waking up to a seafront view where people are hired to make your beds and plump up your cushions, and the scent of good food in the morning doesn’t mingle with the smell of exhaust fumes.
Where daily activities involve crunching leaves and walking in the rain. The regret from waking up early washes away when after I smell that cool forest scent, hear the sfx of nondescript bugs and birds chirping, squirrels rustling leaves as they dart through the trees. Even as my eyes furrow at the silly looking cat statues, or when my knees wobble climbing down old wooden structures, I find a peace in me that the city would never provide.
Writing about it now, I miss it. Not really Kuching, the place, but just the feeling of escaping out of town. It's difficult to come back home knowing that there's piles of work waiting for you. Even worse when all that's there to greet you is the blazing KL heat and the four walls of your workspace.
Ah, well. Maybe my next holiday will be by nature again.
Page count: 319
Year of publication: 2001
Summary: Life of Pi is a Canadian fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel. The protagonist is Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry who explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Now, I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person. If a book claims to make me a believer in God, I am more inclined to scoff at it before turning it down. But Life of Pi came to me in such a way that I couldn’t refuse. It was a Christmas gift from a few years back.
The moment I unwrapped it, I could already tell I wasn’t its first owner. Its pages were slightly yellowed and the cover well worn (I would later find out that the cover art I got was not the common print), but it felt sturdy and weighted in my hands, like it carried not only the words that it held within its pages, but also the experiences of the people who read it.
It has since become my favourite novel, not just for its physical presence but, of course, its story. There's this line in the book that really stood out to me in my latest reread. “To choose doubt as as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” It appears in the novel after Piscine Patel (the main character) has an encounter with his atheist science teacher. Young Pi, who at the time was already a staunch believer in three religions, could not understand an existence that completely rejected religion.
Only later would he realise that it wasn’t the directionality of faith that mattered, but rather, the simple raw act of believing in something that did.
Life of Pi is a novel split into three parts: Before the shipwreck, during the shipwreck, and after the shipwreck. But to me, it is also split another three-way: Pi’s relationship with religion, his upbringing and interest in his family’s zoo, and finally, the events of the shipwreck. In order to understand what transpires during the shipwreck and after, you must first have a firm grasp of the first two parts which is where the beginning of the novel comes in.
Prior to publishing this website, its first home was in my head. For months I spent every ounce of my free time refining it, saving money for it, and against my better judgement, obsessing over it. I cradled this project like an overprotective mother to a newborn baby. In my mind, it was perfect and I wanted to bring it up right. But the longer I held on, the more of my heart I gave, the larger it began to grow. Inevitably, it became so heavy that I didn’t have enough power to support it. That’s when the fear began to kick in.
If you are a creative person, or wanting to pursue creative passions, don’t make the same mistakes I did. When I was putting together this blog, there were days when I would just spend hours agonising over one blog post, writing and rewriting until I had half a dozen different iterations but none that I liked. Paragraphs and sentences would get stuck in my head; ones that I wanted to use but had no place for, and others I hated but couldn’t think of anything better to replace. It haunted me so much I ended up scraping it all. My final version was something I threw together in one hour tops.
The thing is, I was always of the mind that writing was a job with occupational hazards; you pluck parts of your soul and sew them into your plots. You give yourself away to inject life into your creations. And so, I did just that. I gave and gave and gave until I had nothing left to give. People tell you to persevere in the face of trying times, and I did. They tell you that creativity is a skill that is honed over time, and so I invested in it. But nobody told me (although I will tell you now) that art in its beginning stages is a worthless chase for perfection. Your mind may hold the most grandiose ideals, but what you’re left with will always be sub-par.
It’s akin to getting attached to a boyfriend or girlfriend; the higher your standards are, the more your relationship means to you, the faster it eats away at you over time. If you aren’t careful, it will consume you entirely and there will be nothing left… except fear. You know, people always say that fear only exists in your mind. It’s supposed to help make you feel better, but how do you explain the twisting feeling in my stomach? This knot in my heart? Remind me how something so real can be a figment of my imagination?
It’s never easy to explain; you have fears of facing hate for something nobody has seen yet, you fear letting people down even though they don’t harbour expectations, you fear that you’re wasting your breath by not living up to your own potential, and you fear that death is coming for you when you haven’t achieved anything with your life yet. But perhaps what hurts the most is knowing that it is all in your mind, and the person you’re most afraid of letting down is yourself.
Being creative in the first place is fundamentally vulnerable. I won’t lie that I become more sensitive to things when I am writing, but it’s impossible to create anything good if all you have is pretense. I’ve always believed in that. Looking at the way this fear has affected me, however, I don’t think the way I’ve been going about this is right. It’s not enough to acknowledge that fear is there and persevere through it. Rather, if I let it whisper the poison into my ears, I have to learn to STOP believing in it.
I think there’s a point in every creator's life where they just have to start being stubborn about what they want. If you want to create a video, create the damn video. If you want to write a commentary piece, write the damn commentary piece. At that point it shouldn’t matter whether it was executed well or not. The point is that you did it, you got over the first hurdle, and now you can work on improving. This is a mindset I still struggle in adapting on a daily basis, so my pep talk may not mean much, but I thought (selfishly) that I would feel better about it if I shared this with you. And I do.
I’m still going to be facing a lot of these fears as I continue to create new content for you; writing this post doesn’t change that. But what it does solidify is my willingness to remain healthy, both physically and mentally, while pursuing this project. And so, I created something that I thought would help:
ONE: Creativity is a habitual act; partake in it regularly and frequently
TWO: The value of what I create is not equivalent to my value as a person
THREE: There is value in originality, but there is even more value in sincerity
FOUR: The only person I can compare myself to is the person I was in the past
FIVE: Dreaming is one thing, doing is another
SIX: When in doubt, read Ira Glass
As Ira Glass said so himself, “nobody tells this to people who are beginners; I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”