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.