#238 – What is happening with The Bell Jar?


[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you level-up your craft as a writer. My name is Tim Grahl, and I am a writer and the behind the scenes guy here at Story Grid. This podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid’s certified editor Kimberly Kessler, alongside Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years of experience. In this episode, they are discussing the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. 

Before we jump in I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First, I recommend you pick up a copy of the Story Grid publishing title The Writer’s Daily Practice: A Guide to Becoming a Lifelong Storyteller. To write a story that captivates readers and stands the test of time, you need a daily practice and professional tools. In this guide, fantasy author and editor, Danielle Kiowski, rolls out an elegant blueprint for building your practice using Story Grid tools. You can get 20% off The Writer’s Daily Practice and all of our books at storygrid.com/books with the coupon code podcast. Lastly, the next Story Grid’s Certified Editor Training is coming up this February. If you are interested in starting or growing your business as an editor, this training is perfect for you. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification. 

Okay, that’s all on the announcement. So let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn. 


[00:01:29] KK: Okay, Shawn. So last week, I poked you about global internal genres. And I’m really trying to get to the bottom of how we’re applying the trinity principles to global internal stories, because that’s my favorite thing. That’s what I write. And that’s what my clients are writing for the most part. And so I want to come at you this week with a specific case study that I didn’t tell you about and you’re not prepared. But I believe in you. So I think that you’re going to be able to rise to the challenge. 

So I want to ask you about The Bell Jar. I just remember, we did one of the scenes in the second editor training certification. And, I mean, I read the book in high school and I am looking at it again recently. And it’s one of those ones that I feel like is a milestone in a young woman’s life or in a person’s life like to read that story. It’s a pillar, right? I always call it, like it’s a pillar of my youth, or whatever. 

And so I want to talk about that story and if you can kind of just walk us through a little bit about how you see that story playing out. What the sort of the global story is, the sort of companion genre? And then I want to get into some of the trinity layers of kind of how that’s put together and how that’s working.

[00:02:43] SC: I have to confess, it’s been years since I’ve read it. But I’ll give it a shot. The first thing that I would say about is you have to establish what kind of thing is it. Obviously, the thing that it is it’s a memoir. So memoirs, you get a lot more play, because the reader and the audience, when you come to a memoir, you’re very much open to episodic stuff.

[00:03:13] KK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s the fictionalized version of a memoir, whether roman à clef kind of thing? 

[00:03:19] SC: That’s correct. 

[00:03:20] KK: Okay. Okay. I think it is a novel, but obviously there’s a lot – She took a lot from her own life and poured it into that thing. So it’s hard to separate the two. But anyway, I guess I’m just curious if there’s a difference between when you’re fictionalizing a memoir-esque experience versus telling a straight memoir. So anyway, just as fodder for whatever you’re unloading for us.

[00:03:44] SC: Okay. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. It was positioned and marketed as a novel and sold as a novel. But when you learn a little bit about Sylvia Plath you’re like, “Oh my god! This is exactly right out of her life.” 

[00:03:56] KK: Right. Right. Okay. Yes. Okay. 

[00:03:58] SC: So I always look at it as a memoir. It’s sort of like – I don’t know if I want to bring this up, but there was a book years ago called A Million Little Pieces, and it was a novel but they decided that it was probably better sold as a memoir. And being an old grumpy publisher, I sense that this was a memoir and then they said let’s call it a novel because it’s a little bit too disturbing. I think that was a marketing choice to call it a novel more than – 

Anyway, so it’s a story of a young woman in a particular time. It has historical, very deep historical significance to it. The collective cultural grammar of the storytelling is very specific. So even when we’re reading it today, we have a feeling like everybody’s wearing very tight suits and very pressed. And they’re wearing white gloves. So as I recall, it’s one of the greatest first sentences of anything. I think, “I came to New York this summer. They executed the Rosenbergs,” or something like that. Yeah. 

Anyway, just remind me of what the question is again.

[00:05:14] KK: No. It’s fine. Like I said, I’m just dropping all this on you. It feels like a global internal genre to me, right? It feels like it’s about her transformation. It’s about what – 

[00:05:26] SC: It’s a performance story in my estimation. 

[00:05:28] KK: Okay. So that’s interesting. Yeah. Look, what is the external that it’s paired with? And I kind of want to – And I’m speaking for myself and clients and things that you hear around town in the Story Grid universe that we’ve got people that really want to tell internal stories. And it’s like wanting to figure out how am I applying some of these when sometimes if the examples are external and overt in that way? And then when they go to try to apply them, then they end up so internal that they don’t have enough on the surface, right? They’re not getting that through. So it’s like, “Well, I wanted to like – Let’s look at an example that we love.” 

[00:06:08] SC: Oh! Well, this is a great choice, because in my estimation, this is a story of a person going to an alien land. It’s a performance story, because she is going into a world in which it’s minimally acceptable for women with a certain brain capacity at this time to be able to go into the professional world, but it’s still super frowned upon. 

So she’s going to New York to work at – It’s almost like the Devil Wears Prada. She’s going to work at a major – Condé Nast, I believe. And I think that was what she did in real life. And I believe she stayed at the Barbizon Hotel, which was a woman’s hotel that was only for young women. 

So the story to me is so juicy from the beginning because she’s talking about life and death in the very first sentence. So here we have a memoir, which is very internalized about somebody who’s losing their grip on reality, literally, and she is beginning with a life and death scenario. So that she’s not saying, “When I went to New York, I really wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to kill myself or not.” No. She doesn’t do that. What she says is, “I went to New York this summer they executed the Rosenbergs.” 

So what she does, she frames the history of the story with one of the most controversial, painful, extraordinarily, shiny, salient moments in American history. And so what it says to the reader is, “Oh my gosh! This is important.” 

And then what does she do? A lot of this story is about the really clumsy male, female interplay of that era. And the women had to wear all these garments. And she was worried about her clothes. And she wasn’t sure what she was doing. And it was very performative about playing a role of a young woman in the big city doing an internship. What the appropriate amount of intimacy with a man is. How to handle themselves in a cab? What is that? That’s all external social movement. It’s performance. It’s the performance of our external public face. 

[00:08:41] KK: Right. So it’s still on that – Like you’re saying, it’s on that respect and shame spectrum. Even in those small moments of like am I upholding what – Am I performing as what it means to be a lady, right? Like a lady at this time in New York City. Or am I going to have the respect? Or am I going to be shamed by my behavior? Okay, yeah.

[00:09:02] SC: So she’s getting lots of external stimulus is my point. 

[00:09:06] KK: Okay.

[00:09:06] SC: So it’s not her sitting in her dorm room worrying about her mental health. It’s her in the big city getting lots of external stimulus at work in the street at the place where she lives. Her roommate is kind of sexy and saucy, as I recall. 

[00:09:25] KK: Aha! Doreen, I think.

[00:09:27] SC: Yeah. She’s kind of like, “Wow! She’s really cool.” And another part was like, “She’s really dangerous.” So there’s all this wonderful external stimuli coming at the character. And she’s describing what’s happening in very active ways. And so when she’s unsure of what to do, she has these moments of passivity. Where, in the story, we’re not really sure what she’s going to do about it. And she doesn’t tell us. So it sort of sits like this little sliver of wood in the mind of the reader. Like they’re not sure what she’s doing or why she’s doing it. Or is she going to get that report in on time, or all that sort of stuff? 

So this is an incredible story about someone losing their grip on reality and losing their mind. And The Bell Jar is all about sort of the way women are driven crazy by our society. So she doesn’t write like, “Women today have no choices. They are either a slut the egghead woman.” No. 

[00:10:36] KK: Right, right, right, right.

[00:10:37] SC: But she literally tells the story of a person losing their mind under the constraints, the selective constraints of the collective cultural grammar of the time. What is a woman to do? What is a person to do when there is such surveillance of behavior that anyone who does not maintain that perfectly balanced way of navigating the world is considered asocial, anti-social, unladylike, not proper, not doing the right thing? 

It’s a story that has such personally deep resonance for anyone who has experienced alienation, A. And B, it starts to move and extrapolate outside of that singular thing into what kind of culture does this? What’s up with this? And why are people behaving like this? What’s the point of this anyway? All the things that you begin to think about when you start breaking your world view. 

The Bell Jar was just literally – We’re constraining 50% of our population into a place that will drive them mad and want to kill themselves. To me, here’s an incredible internal story that’s extraordinarily external too. And the thing that keeps you reading is you want to know what’s going on with Doreen. What’s going to happen with that new date? What’s going to happen with you know too many gin fizzes that at Chumley’s or wherever they go? And it’s very sexy, and it’s very appealing, and it’s got so many external pieces of candy around it. So it makes the internal dissolution, right? 

So the character is trying to integrate herself, and she’s getting no help. In fact, she’s just she’s just being continually fragmented. Now, writing, I felt like I was not getting help and I was internally fragmenting. Isn’t as amazing as what she does. So when you’re writing an internal story, I think people – I mean, if you just want to sort of pull the camera back and think about it as an artist. If you are drawn to internal stories, worldview transformation stories, what does that mean? Well, it probably means that you’re kind of you, the artist, are not sure of your own worldview yourself. 

So one of the things that makes you attracted to those kinds of stories and why you want to write them is that you want to undergo that process yourself. So the trick when you are – So it’s very salient to you. And so when things are very shiny and salient and they stand out to you and that’s what you want to do, it’s often times to look through them instead of look directly at them. 

So this is called the opacity, the transparency shift in cognitive science. So when something is super salient, you want to say, “Well, I wonder why that is shining so much for me.” What you can do is say, “I wonder how I could go the other way. How could I externalize all this internal stuff that I would like to express on the page? If I had to come up with a scene that would show that it’s a life and death situation, this transformational process of going to the city, how would I use some exposition to do that without saying that? Oh! I could talk about how hot it is, the pressure in the office, the deadlines that,” all of those things that we associate with internal pressure you would externalize in sort of a story about somebody performing at a job or something. 

So I think that was the real genius of Sylvia Plath, that she was really amazing at taking her internal stuff and externalizing it with her language, her style, and her plot, and her story skills. It’s a lot harder to see somebody lose their grip on reality if you don’t see them under the stresses that break their reality.

[00:15:11] KK: Right, right.

[00:15:12] SC: And she gave it all. By the time she’s getting her electroshock therapy, we’re like, “Oh my god! Oh! Did it really come to it? Oh I guess it did.” So it’s not a super easy question to answer, “How do you write world view internal stories that are interesting to the reader?” So I can only give you a heuristic, and that is steer clear of free and direct style where we go in their head. So put those handcuffs on yourself and don’t allow yourself to say what the person is thinking. The only way you can express what the person is thinking is by their actions or their inactions. So their active beats or they’re passive beats. 

And the exposition needs to be extraordinarily specific using sort of very – You know what a Russell Conjugation is? It’s sort of like when you use a very harsh judgmental word to describe someone. So the strong-armed politician, right? Or the benevolent politician. So you’re just saying, well, it’s a politician. But the way you use the adjective to describe that noun lets the audience know very clearly whether this is a positively or negatively ordered system ascribed to that now. 

So a lot of times people would say the politician, instead of putting some Russell Conjugation on there, or that’s an exposition trick. If you take a look at the line by line writing of Sylvia Plath, there is no freaking uncertainty about anything. You get – If somebody were to put a gun to your head and say, “Is that sentence trying to get a positive feeling or a negative feeling from the audience?” You’ll be able to nail it. 

[00:17:04] KK: That’s great. This something that I personally have struggled with, is like I can plot forever and outline, and I’ve got all the beats, and I could tell you the whole story and all these stuff. And then when it’s like it’s time to put it into prose now, and write it line by line, sentence by sentence. And it’s like, “But how do I choose? There’s so many sentences.” It’s like the combinatorially explosive problem gets so awful for me on the line level, right? 

And so I love this direction of free and direct style in those moments – Like there’re moments to use it, but not to overly rely on it like. You’re saying, like to really focus on stimulus response and how they’re above the surface level. Like what are they doing? What are they thinking? But you don’t have to tell us what they’re thinking, but you show us what they’re doing, which therefore tells us what they’re thinking.

[00:17:52] SC: Yeah, and you have to remember, every avatar in every scene, every unit of story, they’re operating under a predictive processing system. They’re trying to get to a goal state. 

So at the beginning of stories, the goal stated the avatar protagonist, let’s say, it’s a heroic story where the protagonist opens up their frame. And at the end of the story they have a better grip on reality. Let’s just say that. 

All right. So at the beginning of a story you want to show like where they are. And the way they’re framing the world is purely on want. And one is an external desire. So it’s very objective and very easy to determine whether or not they’re getting what they want. So if I want a car, and that’s my goal state, I’m going to do a sequence of scenes about whether or not I get the car. Then each scene is going to be directed towards that goal state at the end of the sequence. And so the avatar is going to make their choices based upon what’s going to increase the probability of them getting the car. 

So at the beginning of a story, your avatar protagonist is really concerned about what they want. They think if I get the car, I’m going to feel better. Then what happens is that in about the middle build one they start to realize like either they get the car and it’s meaningless, or they don’t get the car and it’s not bothering them so much. So then they have to sort of move into the transition of, “Well, what do I need?” And the need is a much larger idea. It’s moving from sort of the childlike behavior, like, “Give me, give me, give me,” to “What do I really need?”

And then lastly is what’s really desirable in all of the eternity, right? So you’ve got the nowness of want, “I want it now.” And then you have the sort of durational need, “What do I need in in my lifetime? What would be something that would be very good for me as a need? Or what should I steer clear of? What do I don’t need? I like to have some – A connection with another human being and maybe for a longer period of time.” So that becomes more interesting than a car, right? Your character has to transition into the movement away from want to starting to think about what they need. 

Now at the end of the third quadrant, the middle build two, they discover, “Oh! What I need is really important. Yes, it is.” But what’s really important is the desire of what would be good in general, right? So the desire of the eternal universe, or numinous, or whatever you want to call it, that’s the transitional moment when the avatar moves from the individuation process of discovering their need and actualizing how to get what they need to a movement towards expanding – Like in the Queen’s Gambit that we talked about some time ago. In the Queen’s Gambit, she starts to understand what the real point of chess is. The real point of chess is not being the champion. It’s an infinite game. Not a finite game. The end of the story is really about the desire of what would be good in the eternal, right? 

So if you become a symbolic representation of someone who understands want, need and desire, and shares that knowledge through your actions, that would be eternally good. If you become a representative of someone who plays a damn good chess game, win, lose or draw, and more and more people see you as that kind of person, then that can sort of increase the desire of the communion between people. Want, need and desire are the three main things. And guess what? They map onto the want of on the surface, the need of above the surface, and the desire of beyond the surface. 

So the trinity isn’t just like this kind of neat thing that Shawn came up with in order to help storytellers. It’s a deep metaphysical structure that moves through many, many kinds of domains of analysis. So many that we could never even begin to exhaust them. So they’re all super, super important. Why? Because they solve – If we can get in tune with on the surface, above the surface and beyond the surface, we can start to investigate and help solve our perennial problems of how do we survive? How do we thrive? And how do we derive the meaning of our lives and the lives of our species? 

[00:22:47] KK: So if we shift over back to The Bell Jar, and I’m thinking about what’s going on you know with Esther in the story. So her on the surface want, she’s accepted this, her scholarship or whatever. She’s in an internship. She’s doing this thing. She wants to fit in and be successful. And she’s struggling with it. So I guess can you walk me through kind of what your interpretation would be as far as like want, need and desire within her transformation? 

[00:23:19] SC: Well, again, I’m extrapolating from memory. Forgive me. 

[00:23:21] KK: Yeah, yeah. It’s great. No, it’s fine. 

[00:23:24] SC: Okay. So as I recall in the story, it’s sort of like – And she does this so brilliantly. By the time you get in like 50 pages in there so you, you come to the understanding that she wasn’t really so excited about doing this internship, but it’s kind of like if she didn’t do it the consequences were going to be too much for her. So she goes to the city to do this thing. And as I recall, she starts to fragment and doesn’t show up for work, or gets in trouble, or something of that sort. So her want at the beginning of the story is to do what she’s told. She wants to achieve. She wants to be the straight A student with the star and that perfect GPA, all that stuff, which is it’s an external want. 

Then she comes to the realization that what she really needs is to have a better grip on reality. And she needs to discover just what the hell is going on. So it moves from sort of like trying to figure out the city and her internship, to coming to grips with her internal dissolution. So she’s trying to figure out why she’s not fitting in. And that degrades to the point where she sort of hits in all is lost moment. And I don’t recall the ending, but I believe she goes to a mental institute and has electroshock therapy. Is that correct? 

[00:24:56] KK: Yeah. Yeah. And she went to a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, for a while, and he was a man and all these things. And then later she connects with a female psychiatrist. And I think that’s a really interesting shift, right? The help that she needs and someone who can see her. And just like when you need someone to be on your level with you in order to really help you. And the system that broke her can’t be the system that fixes her, right? So like she needs to be something else. So, yeah, I think that was instrumental.

I mean, it’s so interesting just the – She opens with the Rosenbergs, right? And she’s talking about like, “Ugh! The idea of being electrocuted. Woo!” And then like the setup and payoff of that is like just chilling, right? 

[00:25:46] SC: Just to follow up on – So the transition. She’s trying to get a grip on reality. She realizes that the old thing isn’t going to work for her so she needs to get a female therapist. So that is her movement from the want of doing what is necessary to get along, to recognizing, “I can’t go after that. I’m losing it. So I’m going to use my internal processing system to find the best probable solution to my problem, which would mean transitioning away from someone who doesn’t have the same body as I do to somebody who does. And then maybe that person can help me discover who I am and why the hell I’m here.” And then she’s betrayed in the end by that system too. And so she sort of has to just succumb to the collective cultural grammar. 

And she ends up being identified as “crazy” and then given electroshock therapy to temper her individuality, because it’s anti-social in that she cannot conform to the society, which the beauty of the story is that, “Oh my gosh! If a person like this can’t handle society and is considered crazy, what does that mean for me?” At least that’s what I walked away from it thinking like what do you do when the people who are determining who’s sane are insane? It’s very much the Joseph Heller dilemma of post-World War II and the emergence of psychotherapy based upon things that were not fully delineated that came from the hypotheses from a wide array of people that were never integrated and still aren’t integrated today. I mean, you can’t even really get a clear answer of what psychology is. They’ll say, “Well, it’s mental behavior and the mind.” But they don’t really have a gestalt and an overall ethic. Like what would be eternally good? What would be an eternally good system to help people in their mental processing so that they can get along with themselves and get along with other people such that everyone working together can make a better world? Now it’s more like are they “socializing”? Are they integrating in the culture the way it is? Because the way it is is right, and we must attune to the way it is, or we are crazy.

So I don’t mean to go off on psychology, but it is an unresolved metaphysical dilemma. There’s not really a global paradigm for – Like evolution has a paradigm. And psychology is many different really interesting schools of thought, but there’s no integrative thing that pulls them together. Like whenever you see a therapist, you’re like, “Well, what kind of therapist are you?” “Well, I’m a little of the Jungian and a little of cognitive behavioral therapy. And I just sort of juggle them.” 

[00:29:05] KK: It feels like editors.

[00:29:07] SC: Yeah. 

[00:29:08] KK: “What kind of editor are you?” “Well, I don’t really do line editing. I’m more on developmental.” “What does developmental mean?” 

[00:29:15] SC: It’s kind of true.

[00:29:16] KK: It is kind of true. Okay, so I think the final thing I want to ask you here, and specifically about this, is I guess with what the character of Esther goes through in the story. It’s interesting, like that there’s something about it like you’re saying it’s like she gets “better”. She gets better. She gets to leave at the end. We understand that she goes home and eventually she has a baby. And she seems to be thriving. But again, it’s so interesting, to take it in context of Sylvia Plath’s life, right? And maybe that’s part of what it is. It’s like there’s such a bittersweetness to that story because of the fact that it is so memoir, right? And we know like how she ends up. So like I’m just wondering like what is the beyond the surface? What is the beyond the surface desire for agency creating that’s happening in that story? And I guess I’m wrestling with it. Like what do you think the reader needs to take away from that story or a story like that? Like what is that meaning that the author is trying to portray to the reader? 

[00:30:26] SC: Well, I don’t know that Sylvia Plath would agree with this, but I think one of the things that we have to understand about artists is that they are human beings. It’s been my experience that a lot of the people I’ve worked with over the years, when I sort of sat down with them and walked them through what I took away from their story in terms of global principles, a lot of times they’re in great shock. And it’s not that they don’t agree with me. They’re like, “Wow! Geez! I really had no intention of doing anything.” 

With that said, I think that there are universal patterns of story that we intuit and are implicitly available to us as artists as we level-up our crafts. So Sylvia Plath at this time, I can’t speak to what her intention was. But what I took away from The Bell Jar was, “It’s not going to end well.” 

[00:31:29] KK: Right. Right. I felt the same way when I read it, and where it was like it’s not quite happy. You’re like, “Okay. So she made it, but –” Yeah, it doesn’t. It feels foreboding, right? It feels like, “Oh, I hope her and this baby are going to be all right.” Like you just don’t – You don’t really know how you feel about it.

[00:31:46] SC: I do want to address your question about agency though, because one of the things I always talk about is that the heroic figure, they wish to expand agency. And the anti-heroic figure wish to constrain and capture agency. So the way I would use that lens of analysis on The Bell Jar is to call the bell jar a cautionary tale of what happens when we constrain agency brilliant people. We might be able to slam them into the box that we want them to live inside of. But when you try to destroy someone’s potential and actuality to such a degree that they must play the game, it’s not going to end well, because you destroyed the spirit and soul of an individual person, and it can have second third fourth order effects that are devastating. 

I mean, I would certainly not want to be Sylvia Platt’s child. It’s got to be very difficult. We don’t know, nor should we know the difficulties in her marriage. Anyway, I think the end of the story is it conforms, is convergent with my general idea that a story is about teaching us the necessity of expanding people’s agency, expanding their potential so that they can expand the actual. So if we can all sort of generally expand our internal potential of who we are and actualize it, that’s good. And if we can help other people expand their potential and their actuality, that’s good too. 

And guess what happens when we do that, when we integrate ourselves and we expand our potential and actuality and then we take that to the next level and we do that for other people? That’s Jungian individuation on the self, and then Tillich participation for the other. Then guess what happens? As a byproduct, meaning is generated. And numinous, the great unknown arena in which we find ourselves, guess what? The potentiality and the actuality of the numinous expands. 

So it’s a process by which we want to increase agency. Now, this doesn’t mean that sometimes we have to hand over some agency to authority figures, because maybe they might have real authority that can help us, right? So that’s the trick, is figuring out does this authority figure, are they working to expand my potential and actualize me and what I can do? Or are they trying to constrain my potential and get me to do something as like an algorithmic expression, “Oh, we all wear black hats in this group. Where’s your black hat?” “I didn’t feel like wearing a black hat today.” “You’re expelled.” I wish it were that simple. But authority, proper authority is about mentoring and trying to expand potential of the people associated, the mentees, so that they can actualize themselves. And that’s a good thing. Evil is that which does not further. And so that’s a good heuristic to remember when you’re talking about the capturing of agency or the expansion of agency. The Bell Jar is the story of the capture of agency at a level that is very, very constraining and will come out foreboding. It will bite us in the ass. And Sylvia Plath, after The Bell Jar, we didn’t hear the end of her after that. 

[00:35:39] KK: Right. 


[00:35:40] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story but is struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s K-I-M-B-E-R-K-E-S-S-L-E-R.com. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com and make sure to pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com books to see all the titles that we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. And lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.



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