Month: November 2011

I Need to Move to a Different Planet

OK, this isn’t about gardening, and not really about writing either, but… I knew this would happen — eventually a post like this would show up in this pure and simple blog. Oh well, here goes…

The past few weeks I have several times found myself thinking that I need to move to a different planet. I am obviously not suited to this one. To tell the truth, I have suspected this for decades, but now there’s no more doubt. When I hear something called “music” that to me sounds like a rhythmic riot, or someone yelling with bashing noises in the background called “a really great song,” I know I’m an alien here.  Am I the only one who thinks it’s not OK for there to be 7 billion humans on Earth, but only a few thousand bears, cougars, tigers and other large predators in ever-shrinking wilderness enclaves? And what about the prevalence of thick-necked, bullet-headed creatures driving huge black pickup trucks? Those types need their own planet, totally paved in asphalt. Sometimes I think it’s the one we all live on, the way things are going. Which is why there are days I want to get out.

So where would I like to live instead of this beleaguered Earth? That’s the problem; I don’t think the place has been discovered yet. It would have to be an earth-like planet, of course, with a temperate climate rather like that of Vancouver Island, except with reliable rain in the summer, because I would want to be a gardener in my new home. The human population would be relatively small and not dominant. There would be great forests and savage beasts to counteract hubris. There would be blank spots on the edges of maps, labelled “unexplored regions.” Cities would be small and ancient. Introverts would outnumber extroverts about two to one. Change would be leisurely and everyone would be vegetarian. There would, of course, be hot and cold running water and reliable plumbing, but transportation would be by bicycle and other human-powered vehicles within towns and by rail between them. There would be cats. Loud noises would be discouraged, but good conversation highly esteemed. There would be coffee shops with resident string quartets.

Government? Economic system? Aargh, don’t make me deal with that stuff. Is there anything about the economy of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings? Magic — that’s the thing, and happy hobbit farmers and millers, an idealized medieval England. But yes, this business of creating a real, functioning world is more complicated than it seems in the first flush of enthusiasm. It’s a good thing that most fictional worlds are just that — fictional — and so not required actually to function. (Hmm, this seems to be turning into a Writing post after all).

So if I don’t want to build my own planet — then what? I know — I need a one-way ticket to H.P. Lovecraft’s dreamworld, so delightfully described in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” Ulthar, that would be the place.  Listen to this: …the sea of red tiled roofs and cobbled ways and the pleasant fields beyond, all mellow and magical in the slanted light… Then twilight fell, and the pink walls of the plastered gables turned violet and mystic, and little yellow lights floated up one by one from old lattice windows. And sweet bells pealed in the temple tower above, and the first star winked softly above the meadows across the Skai. With the night came song, and Carter nodded as the lutanists praised ancient days from beyond the filigreed balconies and tesselated courts of simple Ulthar. Sounds like my kind of place (as long as the plumbing is adequate). The trouble is, I have no idea how to get there. Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s master-dreamer, has disappeared. He was last seen climbing into a weird coffin-shaped clock, having first morphed into something unspeakable…

So I guess I’m stuck here on Earth, with all its faults and marvels. There are cats and coffee within reach, and last time I checked, the plumbing was OK.

Look! See! Now!

There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory.  All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.

Smoke bush in glowing autumn colour

I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.

Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.

But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.

This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.

Moss between stones

Why Do You Write?

The other evening, poet and creativity mentor Ahava Shira, speaking to the Victoria Writers’ Society about writing and performing poetry, mentioned that one of her clients needed advice on what to do with her poems. She also spoke of her own experiences with self-publishing a collection of her poems and producing a recording of herself performing her works.

Last week, out of curiosity, I peered into a book by Mike Nappa with the rather cumbersome title 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected {and how to be sure it won’t happen again!}. Mr. Nappa, as we are informed on the cover of his book, is the “founder and chief literary agent of Nappaland Literary,” and knows a good deal about rejections.

These encounters, one with a self-published poet, the other with a book of advice for writers, led me to today’s topic. Many writers are driven to write by an irresistible impulse, even obsession. Once that first act of creation is completed and the chaotic and glorious adventure is over, the writer has to decide what to do with the results. Many writers think they must get their works published by a “real” publishing company. Then they will go on a book tour, do readings and signings and be interviewed by the CBC. If they can’t accomplish this, they will be failed writers. The thing that was a source of joy becomes a burden and a source of disappointment, shame and bitterness.

Mike Nappa’s book lays out the facts about what a writer needs to do in order to have a chance at being published by a large corporate publisher, or represented by the agents who work with these publishers. The writer who really wants a shot at this would benefit by reading the book and jumping through the hoops so thoroughly described by Mike Nappa. (Hint: take a marketing course or become a celebrity).

Financial planners ask their clients about their risk tolerance when presenting investment options; writers should honestly assess their rejection tolerance. Perfectionists and people who have a tendency to beat themselves up have a hard time with rejections.

So what about the writer who has no interest in jumping the hoops? Or the one who has given their best shot at the submission process, received rejections and doesn’t know what to do next? It used to be the case that there were only two categories of writers: published and not published, with the self-published in an unmentionable category labelled “vanity.”

Things have changed. Any writer can now be published, and is free to market their work as much or as little as they please — or not at all. The crucial thing is to adjust expectations accordingly.

Don’t consider yourself a failed writer if you don’t meet the criteria of the industrial publishing machine. As Mr. Nappa emphasizes in 77 Reasons…  there is only one reason a book gets published — profit. If an author measures success or failure only by that criterion, fine. But there are so many more possibilities.

First, learn to write well. This is an absolute requirement, no matter how, or even whether, you publish. Take courses if you find them helpful. Read books about how to write, or (even better) just read. Read as much as you can and pay attention to how it’s done. Then write, write, write.

Find a group of writers who will read your stuff and offer good criticism. By good criticism I don’t mean unconditional admiration, but sincere suggestions that may help to improve your work. Aside from actual criticism, such readers will reflect your work back to you, helping you to see it from unexpected angles.

Find congenial opportunities to bring your work out into the world, however limited their scope. Self-publish in e-book form, in print or both, depending on how much money you want to commit to the project. Read to friends, family members, fellow writers or the general public. Record your book and turn it into a podcast. Make a video of yourself (or someone else) reading from your book and post it online. Create your own book trailer. Make a video of a friend or fellow writer interviewing you about your book, and post that online. All of this is doable at low or no cost, and without a degree in marketing.

Above all, write. The only failed writers are those who give up and kill the creative part of themselves because its creations did not meet the harsh criterion of profit.