Didactic Paint Smears
From the position of someone undergoing the process of “coming of age”, writing about “coming of age” presents several pitfalls that must be avoided if the work presented is to come across as anything less than pretentious (there is irony here that such a proposition may itself be a pitfall I am tumbling into blindly). The main difficulty for a younger writer when exploring the general coming of age theme is to refrain from writing about it in any semi-analytic, intelligent way. There is a reason that all the great coming of age novels (which are all as semi-analytic and intelligent as other classic fiction novels) are written by adults who are looking back on their youth. From the vantage point of having come of age, one’s “coming of age” years can be held in a more objective light, accessible to the general public. However, the raw emotion, generally unfiltered personality, and cruder style found in younger writing can still provide insight into universally relatable human emotion--into the human experience.
I can’t define what the human experience is. To do so would take something away from it. I can only understand and explain the human condition in the form of pictures. Snapshots. Vignettes of a collective human culture and collective emotion. These pictures can be found in old folk songs or stories your grandparents tell you. They make your stomach feel heavy. They make you feel alive.
I see a man alone in a smokey blues bar, sipping gin and staring into nothing. Click.
I see my great grandmother’s old maid: a hundred year old black lady named Ruthie who makes the meanest biscuits around and drives a red cadillac. Click.
I see a shuffling shrimp boat captain with his bible tucked away for whenever the rain lets up. Click.
I see myself waking early in the morning to hold someone I love, wrapping my arms around them, watching them wake. Click.
I want to live these pictures. Breathe them in like air. All the food, the music, the work, the heartbreak, and the love. I want to translate these experiences into words, paintings, songs. Before you know it, snapshots of the “human experience” are piled up in front of you like stacks of dirty dishes. Our brain is wired to filter a myriad of raw data and translate it into images and sensations that are easier to work with, but when confronted with the task of choosing a degree to study, a place to move to, a profession to learn, and a life to live, I freeze up. A lot of us do.
In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the narrator, Esther, uses a different metaphor to explain her idea of the “human experience”. She equates each experience--each snapshot--to a fig:
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. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. 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.
Esther’s indetermination is one of the defining characteristics of a “coming of age”. The dangers of not picking a path to walk down are more potent than the dangers of picking the wrong path.
I want to bite every fig; live every picture. But what happens if you do? Do you ever really taste any of the figs? I could work on an Australian cattle ranch for six months, study Italian in Milan for a year, and then spend a few months in Nigeria writing a novel or banging around on a drumset, Ginger Baker style. But at the end of it, would I have really lived any of those experiences? It seems fake. Like trying to understand a culture during a vacation. And writing about it seems even worse. You wouldn’t just be fake, but a sort of literary minstrel as well, pretending to be these people you aren’t, for the sake of your work. Showcasing their entire life in a poem or song, pretending that you understand them with a few months of their life under your belt.
But then what does that leave me to write about? What other choices are there but to grab onto a few figs and miss out on the rest, or to try to grab all of the figs and miss out on the substance of any of them?
Maybe it won’t seem fake in a few years. Or maybe it will seem impossible in a few years. But my feelings now are as real as my feelings then will be in the future. Not confronting the problems of coming of age--of finding happiness and meaning by exploring and adding to the human experience-- in the hope that things will make sense in the future when I develop a pre-frontal cortex and get a degree and a job (essentially randomly letting a few figs hit you in the head), is in itself a failure of the coming of age process.
We have to wrestle with these questions. Think about them, dream about them, and write about them. Then we can learn who we are, what we need, and where to go to find the figs that make us happy. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.