You Don’t Need a Degree to Find Your Voice

Rumors of Water

The following excerpt is from Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing by L.L. Barkat.

I am opening a jar of green tea from Granada, Spain. It’s an old salsa jar, without its label. The tea is silvery and reminds me of those pictures I’ve seen of the mountain mist in China. There are curls of lavender flowers. Bits of orange peel. I am not surprised about the peels. When we went to Granada, we were told that a nearby city, Sevilla, blooms with orange-scented flowers so strong you can almost smell them in your dreams. When the flowers fall, the oranges come. On every tree-lined street, there is citrus for the taking.

This morning, I am making Te Granada, sharing it with Sara. This is the kind of sharing I feel I could do forever.

“We should do a tea pilgrimage,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe we read everything we can find about tea. Maybe we try new teas from around the world. You could keep a journal. We could write poems. We could go to Kathleen’s Tea House, for scones and Crème Earl Grey.”

She agrees, and finds a pink journal with green flowers. She makes a declaration page, for those who want to say yes to the journey. She makes lines for signatures. I sign mine “Mommy.”

I open the computer, go to our local library’s site, and type in tea. A book comes up, Tea With Jane Austen, and I order it. Over the next month, after dinner with my girls, I share the words of this book. We read of tea in England, how Jane would have made toast with an iron contraption, and how she held the key to the tea cabinet. Tea was so expensive in Jane’s time that servants would steal it to resell. A servant not inclined to steal might save the used leaves and peddle them. Charlatans made tea from poisonous tree leaves, added coloring and sometimes dung, and put it up for sale. The British became so enamored with tea that they went into national debt over it. The plan for extrication from this dilemma? Sell opium to their tea trader, China.

The girls and I try new teas. We place our orders with daddy-the-world-traveler. He brings home Christmas Tea and Bagatelle, from Betjeman and Barton, located in Paris. I become so enamored with these teas that I trade in my standing order for chocolate and make it tea. The girls steal away with cups of Christmas Tea, regardless of the season. I discover that Betjeman and Barton do not distribute through channels in the U.S., so my new habit will, of necessity, take me to their online French catalog, where every tea sounds like heaven, with roses and sunflowers or orange peels and cherries.

To have a voice, a writer must have passions and a sense of place. These passions and places infuse the writing with silvery leaves and orange peels, versus, say, ocotillo and pequins. The words of a region, a philosophy, a passion for French or French tea, come with their own sounds and rhythms and fragrances. If we read the Palestinian poet Darwish, for instance, we will find ourselves mouthing jasmine, doves, olives, veils, whereas if we read a poet like Marcus Goodyear, we will find ourselves breathing to the staccato of cactus, cattle, tree poker.

Sometimes aspiring writers ask me if they should get a degree in writing, or go to a lot of writer’s conferences. A writing degree and a conference will help us make valuable professional connections. They might inspire (or require) us to write. Which is a good thing. But we don’t need either of these experiences to find and use our voice. Our voice will be better developed if we spend time with our passions. Learn the difference between a tangerine and a tangelo. Consider the variation in their blooms, and the place where their nectar beads.

I pour a tea called Polka into two cups, one for Sara, one for me. It is dotted with sunflower petals. If this tea could smile and speak, it would tell us of its home, first in the mountains of China or India, then somewhere in the sun-kissed countryside of France.

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