Write like a … tree?

A post at Writer Unboxed that caught my eye because of the title of the post, and also because it was written by Juliet Marillier: Write Like a Tree

I’ve loved the books of Marillier’s that I’ve read, beginning with Daughter of the Forest. Her writing is absolutely lovely.

This is the cover I have, a lovely cover.

The new cover, not bad, but I don’t think it captures the tone of the story

“We all accepted that this land was a gate to that other world, the realm of spirits and dreams and the Fair Folk, without any question. The place we grew up in was so full of magic that it was almost a part of everyday life – not to say you’d meet one of them every time you went out to pick berries, or draw water from your well, but everyone we knew had a friend of a friend who’d strayed too far into the forest, and disappeared; or ventured inside a ring of mushrooms, and gone away for a while, and come back subtly changed. Strange things could happen in those places. Gone for maybe fifty years you could be, and come back still a young girl; or away for no more than an instant by moral reckoning, and return wrinkled and bent with age. These tales fascinated us, but failed to make us careful. If it was going to happen to you, it would happen, whether you liked it or not.”

You see? Lovely writing. I grant, I didn’t particularly like her 12 Dancing Princesses retelling, Wildwood Dancing. That’s because of protagonist ineffectuality, nothing else. I haven’t read anything by Marillier for a long time. No doubt I should. Harp of Kings, maybe. Heart’s Blood. Have any of you read either of those?

But, back to the post about writing like a tree. What can that mean? Start with the trunk — the theme, maybe? — and then branch out? Or maybe start with the roots deep in the soil — the author’s experience and vision — and let the story grow from that? or something else? Let’s take a look …

‘There were trees here once, in another age,’ Mother Rowan said. ‘Great, wonderful trees something like the one you called the Ancestor. Such things they witnessed in their long lives: the fall of kings, the deeds of heroes, the passing away of tribes and the grief of survivors. Courage and cowardice; justice and tyranny; love and hate. No wonder old trees are so full of wisdom.’

That’s a tidbit from Marillier’s current WIP. Then the post, with this conclusion:

Writing can be more powerful, more thought-provoking, perhaps also more comforting, if it comes from deep roots, long memories, storm and calm, the passing of seasons. Writer, imagine yourself as a tree, whether it’s a towering larch, a stately oak or a compact hawthorn. Think about your roots: family, tribe, culture. Place of birth and growing up; places that are important in your life; place of the ancestors. Think about your branches, your leaves, your bark: experiences, growth, change; give and take. 

So it’s the latter. Let your writing grow from your own roots, your own experience — your own voice. That’s probably unavoidable. But perhaps it’s not bad advice, even if it’s also unavoidable. It could be heard this way: Don’t try to write to the market. Don’t try to write something you don’t like yourself. Don’t try to write a story that you yourself find unbelievable at its heart. I think that’s all good advice.


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9 thoughts on “Write like a … tree?”

  1. I thought of this blog post as I finished reading Dragonfruit by Makiia Lucier (yes, your fault – recommend).

    In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Lucier, (who is from Guam) refers to an article “how we “Island” our writing: A deep Dive in to Pacific Islander SFF” by Manuia Heinrich Sue in Apex Magazine. the direct quote is “cultivate the little things that feel like ‘home’ in your stories; embrace the oral myth that reminds you of your childhood and let it flow through your writing;……find the balance between marketability and culture, and make room for your Oceanic roots…” and it goes on.

    Dragonfruit does this, and I loved it.

    My takeaway from reading the acknowledgement is that many writers from Oceania automatically erase all this stuff in their story-telling cortex as they make up stories, or somehow it’s erased before they make the stories up in their heads.

    Many of us do this in Australia. There are plenty of SF&F authors that I didn’t realise were Australian until after I finished their books. It’s not quite analogous as Australia is a European colonialist society.

  2. Nanette, any author with an inclination to erase their roots as they develop stories should DEFINITELY read The Hands of the Emperor by Goddard. That should push back hard against that inclination.

    I suppose you’ve read the Touchstone trilogy? And also And All the Stars? Because Australia is definitely the setting of the latter — and the backstory setting of the former — and also, they’re both great stories. I can also recommend the audio versiond of both Touchstone and And All the Stars.

  3. I remember a couple comments the Teen has made about things she’s read or played – you can tell the writer/creator is from Australia because everything is out to kill you. Hollow Knight the game being one such example. And Emily Rodda’s Deltora series – a really good juvenile/middle-grade, I think – series. And while the world has an evil wizard ninety percent of the hazards are natural. I’ve read them, they are quite good.

    ooops, she just came through and corrects me: it’s not that everything is trying to kill you, it’s how hostile (or at least dangerous) the environment is. Characters don’t have to walk very far to find yet another hazard, and all the hazards are different and link up together in a coherent ecosystem. For example: tempting grove of fruit trees growing in shallow water; bitter peel, sweet pulp. the peel is a stimulant, the pulp a sedative. Eat fruit, fall into drugged stupor. Have throat slit by giant carnivorous water bird with razor sharp beak which uses the skulls of its victims to pave the smooth cobbled (they thought) path and the pool itself. This is a random natural hazard in Deltora. In this specific series you can tell when you’re up against a thing created by the evil wizard because it doesn’t fit the eco-system.

  4. Posted too soon – conclusion: Australia (or whereever) may well sneak anyway, just not in the way you are looking for it.

  5. Elaine, that’s pretty much what the Australian countryside is like one you are a couple of hours in from the coast.

  6. Rachel, I adore the hands of the emperor and the sequel. As for Andrea Höst, is her stuff grimdark? I’m galloping about happily in noblebright, but grimdark is too much for me right now.

  7. Good lord no. Complete opposite of grimdark. Touchstone is a total comfort read for me. I reread it twice in 2020, when avoiding high tension stories was a priority for me.

  8. I remember enjoying Heart’s Blood, but I don’t remember the details at all. Vaguely Beauty and the Beast?

    I also enjoyed Blackthorn and Grim (starts with Dreamer’s Pool), which has a mystery vibe in a setting similar to Sevenwaters. I had thought it might be a revenge story because of the way it starts, but it’s not. Thematically, it’s more about living after tragedy and moving past vengeance. Not that it’s dark, I would say it’s hopeful, but the grief is strong. Blackthorn and Grim are fantastic characters. I would have liked to see more of them.

    Marillier’s works definitely have deep roots. And yes, lovely writing. Atmospheric and engrossing.

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