Yesterday, Pat (thanks Pat) commented that until I did some ‘splainin’, she was lost on understanding the meaning of that painting. And if Pat gets lost, you know you’re in big trouble. She writes a wonderful blog about traveling the nation in the motor home with her dog, Maggie. As someone who from time to time really needs to run away for a bit, I can highly recommend it. Checking in with Pat and Maggie while I have my morning coffee is a wonderful way to start the day. Go take a look–I’ve linked her name to her blog.
Anyhow, back to symbols. Pat’s comment illustrates an important point–context. Context is particularly important when you’re writing (or painting) about something that’s not generally known by the wider population. By telling a bit of my story, I provided a context in which the images made sense. It turned them from marks on the page to symbols. And if you were to look at my book Secret History, understanding those symbols would allow you a way in–a way to begin understanding the other paintings.
What’s more, understanding how I used the symbols in Ties would give you a key to understanding the other paintings in the collection, not because they all use the same symbols, but because in the same way that we have a speaking voice and a writing voice, we also have a symbolic voice, and that voice grows out of our experience. We write because we have something to say–but while we’re saying it, the symbols we use are telling a different story: They are revealing how we feel–and how our minds work.
For instance, you’re not likely to find me using imagery based on Tibetan philosophy, not because it might not be apt, but because it’s not part of my symbolic language. What you’re likely to find is me using imagery about mechanics, animals, farming, mothering, and repairing things. Building Something Better was the first book I wrote. It’s just a simple children’s story about a woman whose car breaks down. And yet, as the back story reveals, it’s also a powerful metaphor for dealing with life’s disasters.
Which brings us to another point–or, rather, a restatement of a point I touched on yesterday–it’s perfectly possible for book or painting to have a subtext of which the creator is herself unaware. It took me years to really understand Building Something Better. The story–and the personal symbols it holds–is so deeply rooted in my own personal history and symbolism that I told a story I didn’t even realize I was telling. Personal symbols take on a life of their own. Sometimes what they say is very different from what their user is meaning to say–and that disjoint can be both confusing and revealing.
But there’s more. There’s also the larger symbolic language that people like Joseph Campbell and Jung talk about–the deep symbolic language that seems to span the globe. These symbols reflect something vast and old, something rooted so deeply in our common past that most of us don’t even think about them–or we consider them literal realities.
Those symbols shift, morph, and take on new meanings as cultures change–Joseph Campbell notes that such changes often occur when one nation conquers another. When a nation falls, so do its gods–and the myths surrounding that god change. That’s the idea that fuels much of the plot in Redeeming Stanley.
So why does any of this matter? Because anything worth writing–or reading–relies upon the effective use of symbols. Understanding them and using them effectively can spell the difference between success, confusion–or laughter.