Finding Your Muse: The Secrets of Trees

My mother has always been a bit of a mystic.

I remember summers spent in the Idaho mountains, reading a book by kerosene lamp in a one-room cabin in the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains. During the day, while my great grandfather would be herding cattle on more treacherous cliffs and rivers, my mother would stay behind with my sisters and me. I was content with the mountainous view and book in my hand, but I also knew she wouldn't abate until I followed her outside so I would often agree, albeit with a curled lip and frustrated whispers.

She wanted us to learn how to climb mountains and listen to trees. Every time, she'd remind us why.

"Sometimes in life you'll feel like you're climbing and hiking a huge mountain and there's no ending in sight," she would say.

I'd roll my eyes and whine about the dry valley heat and how if I'd seen one sagebrush, I'd seen them all.

"But look," she'd respond, pointing ahead. I'd follow her gaze and widen my eyes at the way the mountain peeks jutted up right there next to us — so close it seemed as if we could touch them. The air, once dusty and dry and heated, would begin to slowly carry the sweetness of melted snow dripping from nearby creek beds. We'd walk, I'd complain, she'd point out beauty.

And sometimes, she'd stop and close her eyes and a smile would play on her lips. "What are the trees saying to you, Elora?"

I'd bite a fingernail and raise an eyebrow. "What are the trees....saying?"

She'd nod.

I'd shrug, embarrassed. I'd kick at the dirt underneath my boots. 

"Trees don't talk, mom." 

"The trees will tell you secrets of God." She'd open her eyes and wink at me before walking away, my trailing behind her. "But you have to listen."

.::.

I listen to trees now. It's been over ten years since I've walked the red dirt of the Sawtooth Mountains or stood in the midst of a wooded meadow in the crisp air of sunrise, but trees and mountains and wind — they're all secret messages in their own right, carrying with them the Muse I so desperately need in order to get the words up and out of this soul.

"How do I share this story?" I'll ask the cloudless sky as I feel the summer heat radiating off my limbs and hear my dog rummaging through the dead leaves falling from the oaks surrounding me.

"Just tell the truth." The whisper is faint, but evident.

Just tell the truth.

And with that truth, a secret is unlocked and in its place rests my Muse, contented smile on her face while she listens to the songs of the branches swaying in the wind and the crash of the ocean wave. 

.::.

I was holding Jubal one day, the sun bright in the crystal blue sky. We walked around our back yard, his eyes always landing on the tree across the alleyway, leaves blowing in the wind. He'd blink fast, transfixed, his breath slowing.

I kissed his cheek.

"Here's a secret you should probably know, little lion. The trees will tell you things if you listen closely." I study the way he watches the leaves dance across the sky and I smile. 

Things to Consider:

Think back to moments in your life where your Muse began to introduce herself to you. For me, it is the summers spent between desert and mountain — crisp sunlit air and dusty-mid day heat. What about you? 

Grab My Book! 

This book is for the creative who knows you have a story to tell but you have no idea where to start.
Let me help you: you don't have to wait for the gatekeepers anymore. 

The time for your book is now. There is no excuse. You know this — you feel it in your bones. That's what this book is for — that's why I wrote it. 

Ready to begin?

Find it here on Amazon.

Posted on May 9, 2017 and filed under Building Your Craft, Soul Care, The Memoirs.

Specificity with Voice

And then he breaks.
Shaking violently, shattering in my arms, a million gasping, choking pieces I’m trying so hard to hold together. And I promise myself then, in that moment, that I will hold him forever, just like this, until all the pain and torture and suffering is gone, until he’s given a chance to live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply ever again.
And we are quotation marks, inverted and upside down, clinging to one another at the end of this life sentence. Trapped by lives we did not choose.
It’s time, I think, to break free.
— Tahereh Mafi, Ignite Me

When I think of authors who blow me away with their artistic voice, Mafi is always at the top of my list. I found her through a friend and opened the first book in the Shatter Me series a few days before 2013. I had already written a blog post with my favorite books of the year, and three pages into the novel I shut the cover and placed it on the shelf to crack open in the new year.

I knew it would be a favorite even then, and I didn't have time to edit the blog post waiting in the queue.

.::.

Look at the quote above. There are a few things that set Mafi's writing voice apart from others in her genre. First, you have variation of sentence structure. Not every sentence can be easily untangled through diagramming. Often, writers can hit a groove in their writing and before they know it, almost every single sentence has the exact same structure. I fall into this camp with the overuse of the em-dash. When I'm in a hurry, I rely on it too much and my voice suffers from it. Mafi's words reveal intention in everything: even the length of sentences.

She brings us in to this particular scene with the short and violent first sentence: and then he
breaks
. It pushes the reader to keep reading. If you're just taking a cursory glance at the amount of commas, the second (and much longer) sentence may seem like a run-on. However, if you're studying her structure, you'll notice the technique of making sure every single phrase can't be separated as its own sentence. She does this often. It's a rhythm that's unique to her writing.

Short sentence.
Long sentence with sweeping description and lots of commas. Shorter sentence with continuation and clarification of description. Short sentence.
Declaration.

Next, within that structure, she relies on higher syntax to build emotion.

The sentence And I promise myself then, in that moment, that I will hold him forever, just like this, until all the pain and torture and suffering is gone, until he's given a chance to live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply ever again includes the technique of polysyndeton — where you list multiple words back to back with a conjunction.

....all the pain and torture and suffering

This technique is highly useful in emotional scenes when you're needing to speed up or slow down the pace of the reader. If you look closely, you'll hear the rhythm of that sentence flow faster at the beginning because of the syntax of the previous sentence moving so quickly. When you get to the polysyndeton, something happens with our brains and we slow down — sometimes imperceptibly — but we breathe. We pause. We notice the scene. This is particularly useful in a scene such as this, because I don't know about you, but as I was reading I felt my breath begin to quicken. My heart rate increased. I was rush-rush-rush and then suddenly, a brief pause and I literally took a breath.

And did you notice her use of beginning the sentences with and? This is another technique: anaphora. When you use anaphora, you begin sentences with the same word. Often, you see this back to back. It builds rhythm. It builds consistency. It forces us to notice. Mafi flips the script just a bit with this passage and includes a sentence in the middle of her flow that doesn't begin with and, but in a passage of six sentences, half of them begin with this word. That's worthy of note, and it builds the anticipation of this particular couple and what they're facing.

Finally, her poetics and imagery. Earlier I mentioned that every word is intentional. This reminds me of poetry. The first sentence in this passage is and then he breaks. The last one? It's time, I think, to break free.
Sandwiched in between these two images of breaking — and breaking free, is the shift.

- I promise myself I will hold him forever
- live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply again
- we are quotation marks, inverted and upside down
- clinging to one another at the end of this life sentence (did you catch this play on words?) - trapped

It's in this development and clarification that the characters are able to see their next move. And I want to be clear: this isn't Mafi's voice transitioning over a character's. It's her poetic voice shining through syntax and structure and imagery that allows the characters to develop so beautifully. In this particular series, it's the character Juliette — one who's touch used to kill, but is learning the strength and power she possesses. Her characterization from beginning to end is beautiful and empowering.

So it's Mafi's style + structure + syntax + knowledge of development that reveals this voice that only she can accurately produce. Others can try to imitate her, but it won't work because they don't have the memories and stories and creativity that Mafi holds.

It's the same for you.

We all have style. A few years ago, my agent always addresed her emails to me with my poetic one, and while she represented me she spoke of my description and attention to detail as particular strengths. There are other poetic writers out there. Katja Millay. Laini Taylor. Rainbow Rowell. John Steinbeck. Flannery O'Connor.

None of these write (or wrote) like me. All of them had stories within them that only their voice could speak. Style and development and syntax are important for building voice, sure. It's what will set you apart. But what will make your words sing? Writing what you know you're meant to write. Writing the words that just won't leave you alone at night. Writing the story you are meant to tell.

Thoughts to consider: 

1. Do you know how your words work?

2. Do you know what sets you apart from the rest of the crowd?

3. Make a list of your own quirks and style within writing. Celebrate these things. 

Grab My Book! 

This book is for the creative who knows you have a story to tell but you have no idea where to start.
Let me help you: you don't have to wait for the gatekeepers anymore. 

The time for your book is now. There is no excuse. You know this — you feel it in your bones. That's what this book is for — that's why I wrote it. 

Ready to begin?

Find it here on Amazon.

Posted on May 2, 2017 and filed under Indie Publishing, Building Your Craft.

On Voice: The Hidden Nerve

Don't all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics? - Andre Acimen
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I believe we know when we're being true to our voice.

For me, it's the way my heart rate escalates as I find the words to articulate something I've been trying to say forever. Or the ease I feel as my fingers fly over the keys while I type. There's no hitch — no question — no doubt. It's the rhythm and flow of my art and whenever I feel this, I know I've hit a nerve. I know I'm writing well. Even more important: I know I'm listening well.

Hit a nerve and you're going to feel it. Despite the attempts at hiding or our own fear of speaking out, when we crash into our voice we know. It's like finding an old friend. The nostalgia kicks in and we remember.

.::.

A few years ago, I was on Skype with one of my mentors. We were talking over a site she created and my participation in the collaboration. Was I still in it to write? Did I have the energy to invest?

"I think I do," I said. "I've gained a lot of clarity these past few weeks. I know what it is I'm supposed to focus on in my writing, and so I believe it'll show."

She smiled.

"Good. Because I can tell something's been missing from your writing. Your post about peonies and business? It was the shift. That's when you found yourself again."

I nodded.

"That's when I stopped caring about other people's assumptions."

We got off the call and I walked outside with my dog. Standing there in the dried up dirt of our dog park, I thought of this post. I went inside, sat at my desk, and wrote it — crying the entire time.

Writing is visceral for me. It takes up every space and if it doesn't, I feel the lack.

And so does my voice.

.::.

To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. - Terry Tempest Williams

Do you know when you’re being true to your voice?

We all make different connections. Today, think about your life spent writing. What are some touching-stones revealing to you the process of knowing when you've listened to your voice? Name them below.

What were you writing about that got you so keyed-up and excited? 

Grab My Book! 

This book is for the creative who knows you have a story to tell but you have no idea where to start.

Let me help you: you don't have to wait for the gatekeepers anymore. 

The time for your book is now. There is no excuse. You know this — you feel it in your bones. That's what this book is for — that's why I wrote it.

Ready to begin?

Find it here on Amazon.

Posted on April 27, 2017 and filed under Indie Publishing, Building Your Craft.