Write What You Mean: A Lesson from Ancient Petroglyphs


While traveling in the American Southwest the other day, my family went on a guided tour of a rocky park where we were able to view ancient petroglyphs dating to Pueblo tribes from the 1400s. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. If you’ve never seen petroglyphs, I recommend that you try to do so sometime.

My favorite part of viewing them, however, was when I learned from our guide—an archaeologist—that even today, we don’t understand the meanings of these ancient rock drawings. The ones we saw were carved into what is known as desert varnish on basalt, and although some of the images were clearly of animals, others were much more ambiguous. There were spirals, concentric circles, squiggly lines, and other images open to interpretation. Apparently, there are many theories about their meanings, but even the tribe elders, who know more about them than most people, have been ambiguous about what they symbolize.

And yet, these petroglyphs are incredibly beautiful. And they took a very long time to carve into the rocks where they exist. In addition, some of them are in areas that were dangerous to access. Whatever they mean, they were very important to whomever carved them.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since I saw the petroglyphs. As I edit and re-edit my third novel, I’ve been agonizing over word choice and sentence structure, trying not only to get the story right, but to make sure it has meaning to potential readers. And some days, as I rip a chapter apart—trying to get it to sound better, trying to make sure potential readers understand exactly what I’m trying to say—I wonder if I’m overworking it. Maybe it’d be better to just make sure the story works for me.

After all, I have no idea if this new novel will appeal to a wide audience. Certainly, it doesn’t fit into any neat category. It’s a love story without much romance, and a non-graphic story about violence. Also, in many ways, it falls into the genre of women’s fiction, and yet, one of the two main characters is a sixty-year-old male ham radio operator. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a chance nobody but me will “get” why I wrote it.

But it’s important to me. It’s held my attention for the better part of the last three years. It’s a story I want to write.

Now, in no way would I ever equate this new novel with the breathtaking petroglyphs of New Mexico. But the idea of taking time to create art that means something to the artist and not necessarily everyone else is hitting home with me right now. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think people will enjoy the new novel. Of course, I hope they do! But really, when a writer is at this phase—this stressful place in which he or she is about to hand a manuscript over to an editor—there’s no telling what the reaction will be. However, rather than get my stomach in knots about the possibility of rejection, I’d rather think about those Pueblos who bravely carved their ideas into basalt, knowing that what they had to say meant something to them.

About Mary Rowen

My three published novels, LEAVING THE BEACH (a 2016 IPPY Award winner), LIVING BY EAR, and IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY focus on women figuring out who they are and what they want from life. Music and musicians have a way of finding their way into the stories. I live in the Boston area with my family and pets.
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11 Responses to Write What You Mean: A Lesson from Ancient Petroglyphs

  1. I love this idea, Mary!! And sometimes I feel like it would be easier to chisel a picture out of stone than rewrite yet again! I’m at the point where I’m so sick of my story I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it and I’m not even that diligent! But I’m so excited to read your newest-sounds intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Aw, thanks, Carrie! And I agree with you about the rewriting. The hardest part for me is when I rewrite something one day, then decide it was better the previous way the next. So frustrating. Are you rewriting Grief, Inc.? If so, I hope you know what a terrific and unique story that is. I’m happy to read and critique any revisions, if that’s helpful.


  2. Reblogged this on Grief, Inc and commented:
    What a cool concept!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. judithworks says:

    Very nicely put.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jan says:

    Petroglyphs are haunting, aren’t they? One theory is that they were messages to the next tribe of Indians moving through the area, about where to find the best hunting, a water hole, etc. Try not to over-think your writing from a marketing perspective. Just write – I’m sure your muse will guide you in the direction you need to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. whatvaleriewrites says:

    What a thoughtful post – I really enjoyed it. The last 2 sentences really packed a punch for me, “Try not to over-think your writing from a marketing perspective. Just write – I’m sure your muse will guide you in the direction you need to go.” Thanks for this, Mary!


  6. mhannon2@verizon.net says:

    Hi Mary.

    If you want to, I would be happy to read your third book!

    I discovered two more writers, Anita Diamant and Jeannette Walls, through the new reading club I joined. Meg


    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you, Meg! You are so great! I’d love it if you’d read it. It’s my goal to send it to my editor in a few days, and whenever he’s done with it and I get the revisions done, perhaps you could read it then? I’d give it to you now, but think it still needs a good deal of work.

      Anita Diamant is one of my faves. I don’t know Jeannette Walls, but will check her out.
      Thanks again!


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