A Session with Suzan Still
When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it. —Meister Eckhart
All good literature has at least one thing in common: there is more to it than meets the eye. Coiling beneath the plot line, running like a subterranean river under the feet of even the most compelling characters, and underpinning settings like bedrock, is something subtle that teases the mind. It flits, ghostly, through the narrative, as a strange fascination. It never shows its face frontally, nor is it seen in its entirety, but only in briefly glimpsed, diaphanous bits. Sometimes it is so subtle that the writer him- or herself may not know that it is breeding in the underworld of a novel, short story or poem.
I am speaking here of the symbolic level of a given work. Take, for example, a well-known poem like Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Whose woods these are I think I know, the poem’s wonderful cadence begins. On the literal level, we imagine a sturdy New Englander in his sleigh, pausing in the bitter dusk, perhaps wondering if his grumpy or overtly hostile neighbor who owns the land would be affronted by his even passing through, let alone stopping there momentarily. His house is in the village though, he muses, reassuring himself. He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow. Perhaps he puts an ironic emphasis on his, to indicate that he thinks enjoyment of the land should be free of such claims to ownership. This interpretation of the poem would be rich enough, in itself. We are as entranced by the pensive music of the words as we are by the sweeping images of easy wind and downy flake.
If, however, we alter our focus to the metaphoric or symbolic level, then like shifting shards of glass in a kaleidoscope, an entirely new pattern of understanding crystalizes. What if our sleigh driver believes the woods actually belong to God, whose house of worship can be found in the village? Suddenly we are reading at a far deeper level, as if our feet had broken through the crusted snow, into a dreaming world of dormant seeds and hibernating animals beneath. From this perspective, when we come to the final line, and miles to go before I sleep, we are no longer in the presence of a weary man chilled by wind and snow and gathering his energy to proceed with his journey. Rather, we enter the depths of his psyche, where thoughts of death, its sweet repose that is dark and deep, are being pushed aside in favor of mundane obligation, of promises to keep.
A basic understanding of metaphor is a starting point for achieving this powerful hidden dimension. Metaphor is basically a comparison, showing how two dissimilar things are yet alike. Often, a metaphor makes an implicit or hidden comparison, and not an explicit one. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, “All figures of speech that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance, figures like antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, simile are all species of metaphor.”
In my novel Commune of Women, I use the situation of six women trapped in a small staff room during a terrorist attack as a metaphor for the state of captivity of the Palestinian nation, from whence two of their captors originate. This comparison is never explicitly stated in the novel. The dilemma of the captive women rests inside the larger catastrophe of a captive people, a microcosm within a macrocosm—which is itself a microcosm of still greater, world-shaping decisions and events on the part of powerful governments.
The above is an example of a metaphor operating on the every day, mundane level. One way to deepen the meaning of a metaphor, giving it philosophical or spiritual significance, is to invest it with symbolism. Symbols express a dimension of human experience that cannot otherwise be expressed. Carl Jung has written, “Symbols…are tendencies which pursue a definite but not yet recognizable goal and consequently can express themselves only in analogies.” Frequently, these psychological tendencies express themselves either in images or in symbolic actions (think of Lady Macbeth’s obsessive hand-washing, for example). Symbols stand-in for much more complex, and generally more abstract or ineffable, ideas, and can constitute major thematic material in literature.
In my novel Fiesta of Smoke, for example, the hero Javier Carteña is imprisoned and tortured, becoming a symbol for the suffering of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, just as his acts of civil disobedience become their voice:
“My friends and comrades,” Javier’s voice crackled over the primitive sound system, echoing from the stone buildings. Several hundred men stood in the compound in a loose mass, their faces turned attentively toward the porch of the ruin. “We have come a long way together. To the world we are without faces. We are nameless. We are forgotten, like weeds in a field. We are abused like animals. But last night’s defense of the village shows the world that we are men. Men of our word, who will fight to the death for our homeland, our families and our livelihood.
“Now, we are faced with a greater enemy. The Mexican Army is at our gates—if we had gates.”
The men shuffled their feet, elbowing one another uneasily.
“The PRI has refused our requisition for gates.”
The men chuckled appreciatively.
“Also our requisition for schools and for medical clinics.”
A shout of “Yes!” went up from the men.
“And for the right to our own lands. And justice, when our villages are burned and our families are murdered.”
The shouting took longer to die down, this time.
“You are men of the south. You are men of the selva and of the mountains. Your bones are made of the same minerals that make the stones beneath our feet. Your blood runs with the waters of these rivers. And yet, we know that big landowners and transnational corporations are trying to take this land from us. We know they want the oil and uranium that lie beneath our feet. We know they want to cut down the rare trees of the selva for lumber. And we know this is wrong!
“To defend our right to live on the land of our ancestors, our right to liberty and dignity and justice, we have become an army. And we are showing the world the face of men who will not back down!
“Now the government has sent its army to silence us. But. We. Will. Not. Be. Silenced!”
A roar went up. The men began to stamp their feet, raising dust, shaking the ground. It took a long time for the furor to die down.
In the above passage, the hero makes extensive use of metaphor based in symbols: bones are likened to stone, blood to rivers. Because he has deep knowledge of indigenous cultures, he knows that these images are part of the structure of the deepest sense of the sacred shared by his listeners. He is touching them on the profoundest symbolic level, calling up that which is immortal in both human and earth, and uniting them metaphorically.
In my novel Well In Time, I use the symbol of the cave and the underworld extensively. As the heroine Calypso Searcy and her friend Hill make a hair-raising transit of a cave system, they reenact symbolically what Joseph Campbell has called the Hero’s Journey, that transition from unknowing to knowing, from disempowerment to empowerment, made by all who choose spiritual and psychological growth.
Calypso stopped before a low, black opening in the cavern wall and turned toward Hill, who still was navigating a series of rough, rounded boulders with difficulty.
“It’s like climbing around where old Volkswagens go to die,” he huffed. As he approached she held him in a solemn stare that alarmed him. “What?” he asked defensively. “Am I slowing you down?”
“No, Walter. It’s just that…I have to tell you about the next part.”
“What do I have to do now? Swing hand over hand across a bottomless chasm filled with sightless albino snakes?”
Calypso took her time answering, choosing her words carefully.
“The next part is…well, honestly, the hardest. Once we’re through it, everything else is a piece of cake. But this part is…” She let out a little sigh. “Is hard.”
“Well, that was enlightening.”
“I’m sorry. It’s not easy to describe it. It’s going to be harder for you because you’re bigger. And its hard enough for me. But!” she held up her hand, to stop his exasperation. “Javier can make it through, so I know you can, too.”
“Through what?” Hill’s voice was laden with his growing suspicion.
“The next part is very…very small.”
Calypso’s eyes held a particular kind of pleading that made him distinctly uncomfortable.
“At first, you can crawl. But then, very quickly, you have to…well, I would call it slither. The tube gets very…close. I like to do it face down, because I can’t stand to see the ceiling so close to me. But Javier likes to go face up, because in the narrowest part he says there are handholds in the ceiling that he uses to pull himself along.”
She stopped and stood staring at her feet. “So, that’s it. Any questions?”
“This sounds like swell fun! And how long does this passage go on?”
“I’m not sure. It seems like forever but I’m thinking it’s probably no more than a couple of hundred yards.”
“A couple of hundred yards. I see.”
“It’s not wonderful, Walter. I’ve done it many times and I never really get used to it. The first time is the hardest though. So you’ve got to believe me when I say that it is possible to get through. When you think you can’t, that’s when you’re closest to it getting better. Does that make sense?”
“Perfect. And I suppose it’s not an option to just sit and wait for a demolition team to come and blast me out of here?”
Her smile was meager and it told Hill everything he needed to know. If even Calypso’s courage was daunted, then the party was about to get rough.
“Let’s get this over. We don’t have helmets, so watch your head.” She inserted her head into the hole, then withdrew it and sat down, looking up at Hill. “Two things, Walter. Be like water: flow, don’t fight. And remember that there really is enough room for you to get through. It’s not your body that will have the most trouble. It will be your mind.”
While the above extract speaks only in terms of physical passage through a narrow obstacle, it it replete with deeper significance. In it and what follows, the trauma of the birth canal is evoked, and the terror of facing one’s mortality and ultimate death. The narrow passage becomes a symbol of the major transition points in every human life, and is therefore redolent with an almost unbearable tension and primal fear.
Anyone wanting to write literature that evokes deep emotional response in the reader needs to become conversant with symbols. To this end, I highly recommend two books: The Book of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images (Taschen), and The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin). Both give in-depth and fascinating discussions of hundreds of symbols, and even random reading of the various entries is likely to lead to profound inspiration.
Discovering the metaphoric and symbolic level of a work of fiction is one of the great treats afforded to a reader. For the writer, too, increased inspiration can come from considering what lies beneath.
Exercise 1 Identify as many metaphors as possible in the two excerpts above. Are they explicit or implicit? Which ones contain a symbol?
Exercise 2 Identify five symbols that might become thematic material for your own writing.
Exercise 3 Write metaphors for each symbol, one explicit and one implicit.
About the Author…
Suzan Still holds a masters in art and writing, and a doctorate in depth psychology. This unique combination of poetic vision and deep insight into the human condition informs her fiction and infuses it with its remarkable colors. Because of this, she inspires inventive descriptions of her work. Of her first novel, Commune of Women, Single Titles suggested that readers prepare to “laugh, cry, and gasp,” while noted author Alexander Stuart compared her second novel, Fiesta of Smoke, to a combination of Love in the Time of Cholera and Breaking Bad. We suggest you sample her yourself here and make your own comparisons. http://suzanstill.com