The Commune of Women, Suzan Still

Of Chaos and the Ethics of Writing: An Introduction

‘Chaos demands to be recognized and experienced before letting itself be converted into a new order.’
–Hermann Hesse

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Suzan Still and I’m a writer and, I’m delighted and honored to say, I’ve just become one of A Celebration of Women’s newest Women of Action. What’s more, this column will a regular feature on A Celebration of Women’s website and I think we’re going to have some real fun with it!

I’ve been writing and publishing much of my life – essays, short stories, poetry. In 2011, my debut novel, Commune of Women, was published by Fiction Studio Books. I’m pleased to say that it’s doing really well and has been on both Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s Top 100 Bestseller lists for e-books. I’m titling my column The Commune of Women in part because of my novel, but more because it expresses my true feelings about how women communicate: we commune with one another, with the natural world, with the Divine. This kind of communication is deep and heartfelt. It’s my hope that you will find these posts to be just that kind of communication, woman to woman.

One of the things that excites me about being a writer is that it requires a long view of the human condition. All those required university Humanities and science courses — history, philosophy, literature, languages, psychology, sociology, ecology, biology, etc, etc, etc — have converged in my brain and reveal themselves to have actual relevance to the real life process of writing. I stand at the confluence of these separate streams, where they mingle and merge, and dip up the result in my cupped hands and a character is born, or a scene is set, or a tragic narrative trajectory is launched.

We are living in interesting times. My neighbors, husband and wife, just got back from Tennessee, where, as volunteers, they were helping to clean up the devastation of a tornado. They described how brick houses were simply torn asunder and a trail of loose bricks was laid out for a quarter mile beyond the house sites. This has become, for me, a metaphor for the larger chaos that seems to be ripping the world apart.

It doesn’t really matter what you investigate. Stand outside, turn yourself to any point in the compass, walk less than a mile, and you are likely to find a problem: a polluted creek, potholes in the road, a skulking teenager, or trash thrown from a car window. Multiply these minor problems by the infinitude of their fellows, add large dollops of government corruption, corporate greed, ecological cataclysm, religious intolerance and incessant warfare, throw in a few solar flares for good measure, and you have a recipe for a world consumed in chaos. In a way, it’s a writer’s paradise. One need never want for a topic, a plot, an archetypal Bad Guy or an opportunity for dark humor.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of that antique persuasion that writers have certain obligations that might be called didactic. The entertainment value of writing is always going to be a primary factor, of course. That’s why readers gobble up The Da Vinci Code and eschew The Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms. Nevertheless, it behooves the writer to consider whether the reader will put down the latest read as a human being expanded by knowledge and fortified by a higher spiritual vision, or as a troglodytic brute that craves more violence, sexual dysfunction or racial and gender divisiveness, or, almost worse, a passive, apathetic citizen overwhelmed and undone by literary pessimism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating censorship here, just a demonstration of what it means to be truly and deeply human in the best and highest sense. Perhaps no one has expressed this better than writer William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he sums up his “life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” He advocates for “the old verities and truths of the heart…love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” and warns against writing “not of the heart but of the glands.”

Let us return to the metaphoric brick house of human culture. Surely, we are witness to a time when our old sense of the world is being torn asunder and strewn across the landscape in terrifying and life-threatening chaos. Yet, with Faulkner, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal…because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” It is our job to find those scattered bricks, collecting them from the fields where they lie not just fallow but damaged and useless, and to build, brick by brick, word by word, a new edifice to serve the greater good and to demonstrate to future generations that we were not just people of the glands, but people of the heart.

Perhaps this chaos to which we are all witness may be a necessary leveling; a drawing back in order to better leap forward. In any case, the mess has to be cleaned up, just as my neighbors have demonstrated. So we writers must decide at the outset, before the rebuilding starts, if we are mere sensationalists, leaning up slipshod shelters that will not withstand the first storm, or honest masons, stacking and mortaring our used bricks just and true, not for the sake of enlightened self-interest, only, but for future generations to shelter in, as well.

We are not simple beings. We have all drunk at the confluence and have carnal knowledge of life in its infinite variety, horror and beauty. We cannot claim ignorance. If we fail in our task, it will be a failure of choice: a failure to imagine what is best and brightest; an embracing of sloth, that deadly sin that involves emotional and spiritual apathy. We can’t alter the fact that we live in a time of hurling bricks and stormy chaos. But the building of a new order from the remnants of the old is all ours and a task worthy of contemplating, every single time we sit to bond one word to another. It will be my great pleasure to share those carefully stacked and mortared words with you, on a regular basis.


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Here are some links that may be of interest to you:

To order Commune of Women from Amazon, and read my biography:

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