Mar 21 2011

Rock Painting Interpretation

Melissa Crytzer Fry

What does it all mean? It’s a universal question – one uttered in countless works of literature, rendered in paintings, the topic of many a teenage journal, the theme of Hollywood blockbusters. But for me, as I lay spine-in-the dirt, I was asking the question from quite a literal perspective.

Above me were suns, moons, animals, rattlesnakes and geometric shapes in reds, turquoises, yellows, blacks. They were painted pictographs – part of an ancient Apache shrine.

This is the first piece of colorful artwork we encountered under the massive rock ledge. Click to enlarge, then click forward button for additional photos.

Not far from my home and painted on the ceiling of a protected limestone shelter, the images are fading away as sunlight/erosion takes its toll. But worse: vandals have scrawled their ugly names on top of this once sacred site. Despite this outright display of disrespect and ignorance, I still found wonder in what I saw. What does it all mean?

Our neighbor, Mark, believes the keyhole-looking symbol below might be a comet. If you look closely, you’ll see there are actually two celestial/solar drawings to the left of it.

Some archaeologists believe this type of rock art tells of astronomical incidents, or that they served as a part of hunting rituals. Perhaps they served an aesthetic, historical or magical purpose … Or a combination of all of the above.

Closer inspection as I lay in my supine position, camera lens titled upward, revealed that one scene was, indeed, a death scene. I found this haunting and exhilarating – almost a sign – since my current work in progress explores life-death themes. More than anything, I was totally energized after seeing this wondrous display of storytelling from civilizations dating back to the 1500s (tour guide-friend-neighbor Mark’s guess is that this site might have cropped up later in the 1700s).

Full view of the death scene and the vandals’ disregard for history and culture. Click to enlarge.

How do you interpret these painted pictures? Do you see the double-rattled snake striking its victim? Does it depict some kind of  biologic anomaly? Or a vision brought on by a hallucination? What do the crosses, circles and squiggles mean? What do you see?

The death scene up close. Is that a lizard? A larger animal? Click to enlarge.

For Writers: Speaking of interpretation …  As writers, we often must interpret criticism of our work – from critique groups, writing coaches, contest submissions, and agents who have requested our partials and fulls (many of whom ultimately turn them down).

Many of us hope to learn more about our novels from the agent responses we receive. But should we, really? Agents are ultra busy – reading through a lot of good queries and manuscripts – and a lot of crap. And really … it’s not their job to critique our work for free, pointing out our errors (even if they did have time). But somehow, I think most of us still hope they will offer some morsel of insight, even if they pass on our work.

Fellow writers – and agents – how should we interpret our rejections? When they’re confusing and appear to be deliberately ambiguous, do we just stash them away and move on? When they seem to vaguely say the same thing but are difficult to interpret, do we ask our writing partners for their analysis? Do we continue editing in the hopes that we’ve guessed correctly at ‘what might be wrong.’ Or …  do we altogether just let it go? Move on to the next novel?

MISSED MY PHOTO CONTEST? Pick your favorite from the Top 5 (and leave a comment) this week to win prizes: Therese Walsh’s The Last Will of Moira Leahy, Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You, or a print from photographer Damien Franco!


16 Responses to “Rock Painting Interpretation”

  • avatar Pam Asberry Says:

    Cool pictures and a delightful analogy! It is hard to know just what to do with those rejections. Sometimes it is a combination of all of your suggestions. I am happy to “meet” you and look forward to reading more of your work!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    So happy to meet you, too, Pam.

    [Reply]

  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    It’s definitely tricky to know how to handle rejections. Some are dead-on and give me something to work with, and some seem like the vandalism in your photos.

    Your pictures have captivated me again.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Melissa, I cannot imagine how thrilling it must be to look upon these renderings, and revel in the possibilities of interpretation. Thank you for sharing them.

    It is SO hard not to hope for some glimmer of review when we hear back from agents–and you are so right that they are so busy, which is why when an agent does give that time to critique, encourage, advise, etc. it is such a gift. I is also so hard to know when to fish or cut bait with a project, especially when we’re not getting much feedback on it. But I always think about a piece of advice I read once on an agent’s website where they suggested it’s always a good idea to move on to a new project and not hold too tightly (or indefinitely) to a project–no matter how much we love it; agents would like to know we have more than one project in us–and I believe we all do!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    So absolutely profound and so absolutely the path I chose to take, and actually pretty early-on in the query process (12 requests/rejections). I knew I wanted to continue writing, which was a great move, as I’m wrapped totally in my WIP. My first novel was a hard sell by anyone’s standards, and agents told me that much – simply by virtue of the topic: abuse… But I know there is always room for improvement and can already feel it in my current WIP. So, moving on with no regrets. Thank you so much for weighing in.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    I absolutely LOVE these photos! It is so amazing to see things drawn so long ago and think of who drew them and what stories they were trying to tell or were they simply drawing for pleasure? (For the same reason I often think of the lineage of people who have lived in my 120+ year old house.) So fascinating to imagine their lives and thoughts!

    As for the rejections, I always thought I handled them well until I had a closer-call-than-usual when asked by a publisher to revise a ms. After the eventual rejection of the rework, it was very hard to pick up and dust off. Honestly? Reading other writers’ experiences is quite helpful. Thank you!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Wonderful photos, Melissa! You are in a literary playground out there in AZ! Just as some people will lay “spine-in-dirt” such as yourself and revel in the beauty of the shrine, others will defame it and criticize it for not meeting certain standards. I believe this can be applied to the publishing world as well. Although we must hear suggestions given to us by readers (and agents if we are so lucky), we do not necessarily have to *adhere* to them. So many writers get bogged down by rejection before they have been technically “rejected” that they fail to finish a manuscript.

    Thanks for another beautiful, insightful post!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for the interesting perspective, Jolina. I agree that writers can feel defeated before they even make any forward progress … happened to me with an instructor. The goal is to keep plowing through it!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    That’s a tough one. It can be hard to tell the difference between honest, concise feedback and a form rejection. But when you do get some sincere feedback, I think it’s important to pay attention to the problems that keep getting mentioned repeatedly. Also, does the agent rep books that you feel your book is comparable to? Literary tastes play such a big role, so pay attention to the feedback that comes from people who are most like your target readers.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Leah Says:

    Again, great post with amazing photos to go with it. I love how you can see something and think “What does this mean?” and how it can so easily be related back to writing and rejection. Rejection is tough. But I really do try to think that everything happens for a reason, even rejection. Kind of along the lines of “That that does not kill you make you stronger.”

    [Reply]

  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Hi Melissa..I first see where the criticism is coming from. If its a vague abstract statement, it shows that the person has neither read it, nor bothered with the story. If the editor gives me few pointers that will make the story and plot better, then I certainly keep them in mind. For me it all depends on what is being said.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Sharon Bially Says:

    Wow – how eye-opening. For lack of time, I’ll skip right to your comments about agents. What a huge topic. After hundreds of rejections on three separate books, I’ve come to the conclusion that A) agents don’t necessarily know how to express what they’re trying to say about writing; and B) we writers need to develop some sort of coherent lexicon with which to be able to talk about it ourselves.

    For example, the word “loud” (as I explained it in this blog post: http://veronicas-nap.com/backstory/nobody-dies/). It’s really important in publishing today, yet I’ve had 7 agents use 7 different words to express it. One said “transformational.” In the comments section of following Writer Unboxed post, Donald Maas says, “strong” — only after I tried to pin him down on a word: http://writerunboxed.com/2010/12/01/the-rabbit-in-the-hat/

    There are many other words that create confusion between agents and writers — kind of like cats and dogs not knowing how to communicate. Doesn’t make anybody’s job any easier.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Thank you for the wonderful insight, Sharon. The most confusing comment I received was “… [the ms] is in need of a bit more depth beneath this action. Other readers are sure to better connect.”I wasn’t even sure ‘what’ action the agent was referring to. Obviously ‘something’ wasn’t right. Not enough depth of character, maybe? I simply opted to move on… and I’m happy to have done so.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Lorne Daniel Says:

    Thoughtful exploration of two ideas that also connect for me, Melissa. I wrote an essay on Writing-On-Stone park in southern Alberta (native pictographs) that I hope to share if it’s every picked up for publication. It’s one of those evocative pieces that doesn’t fit commercial publications but also “doesn’t seem to be quite right” for literary journals. So writing, ‘leaving our mark,’ and rejections have a strange connectivity.
    I know it’s very difficult for agents and editors to take the time to comment but I think most writers would like something rather than nothing. I would. It’s like playing darts blindfolded – we need some sense of whether we are pointed in the right direction at all, or whether we need to do a 180 and start all over again.
    Good post as usual Melissa. Love your work.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Lorne, for the support and understanding where I’m coming from. Interesting the connection you have to this post; would love it if your piece were published! I bet it is fabulous.

    The analogy of playing darts blindfolded is so appropriate. Appreciate the compliment. Have I missed some of your Life As A Human posts lately??

    [Reply]

  • avatar www.theskatespot.com Says:

    After looking over a handful of the blog articles on your web site,
    I seriously appreciate your way of writing a blog. I book-marked it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back in the near future.
    Please check out my web site too and let me know how you feel.

    [Reply]

Leave a Comment