Month: July 2013

Back from the Rim

I didn’t post last weekend because I was in Tofino, walking endless beaches

Long Beach at low tide -- endless sands.

Long Beach at low tide — endless sands.

Watching waves break — again and again and again and again…

Waves at South Beach, Pacific Rim National Park

Waves at South Beach, Pacific Rim National Park

Finding interesting random patterns

Seagrass and Feather

Seagrass and Feather

Looking at plants without having to think about watering or weeding.

Ferns growing on underside of fallen tree's roots

Ferns growing on underside of fallen tree’s roots

Finding wave-polished stones

Stones polished by wave action at South Beach, Pacific Rim National Park

Stones polished by wave action at South Beach, Pacific Rim National Park

Watching people trying to surf (sorry, no pictures) and deciding that surfing must be hard work. And of course enjoying great meals, shopping for frivolous items and all the other good vacation stuff.  Tofino is only 300 km. (about 150 miles) from Victoria, but feels like a different planet.

And now back to work and the dessicated garden…

Ephemeral Treasures

Last night I listened to a ten-and-a-half minute TED talk about clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Think about that — a society whose purpose is to appreciate clouds. That’s definitely something I can relate to. I love clouds. Every day I make notes of the maximum and minimum temperatures at my place, and also the types of clouds, when there are any. (Lately they have been just about nonexistent here, with unbroken sunshine almost every day for the past three weeks). In the winter, clouds here are usually strato-cumulus or stratus. In summer we mostly see cumulus, which often form suggestive shapes, such as giant popcorn or fluffy white roast chickens. Alto-cumulus can look like flocks of sheep in formation, tinted orange or pink at sunset. Cirrus clouds are wispy and delicate, sometimes whipped into curlicues by upper atmosphere winds, making what I think of as a written sky.

I love fog, too, even while acknowledging that it makes driving difficult. (So many things make driving difficult, which suggests that maybe we should drive less). Fog simplifies the landscape, removing colour and detail. Foggy days (very rare where I live) are special, sort of like snow days without the snow. It feels as though regular life has been suspended and something tremendous is about to happen. Sadly, what happens is that the fog burns off and the ordinary resumes, which is why one must enjoy the mystery while it lasts.

Noticing and appreciating the ephemeral is an essential skill to enjoying life. Plants, birds, bugs, moss in sidewalk cracks, the way the air smells, the way things are lit up or shadowed in the course of the day — small things, tiny even, but always there to be noticed and absorbed. These details, once registered in the brain, are like a compost heap that enriches the mind. Maybe.

Musings on Writing as Art and Craft

I suspect that this post may turn out to be a bit random, disorganized and inconclusive. That’s why I’ve called it “musings,” which I think of as half-baked thoughts that dance around a subject without properly engaging with it.

Ever since I published my three novels, I’ve read a lot of discussions and blog posts about writing and publishing. An ever-present theme is whether self-published books are inferior to traditionally published ones. A few weeks ago, another blogger wrote about a negative critique of her self-published young adult science fiction romance by a professor of English. Last week I was working with library catalogue records for romance books, reading brief plot descriptions that began to blur together and sound increasingly inane, reiterating the various formulas for bringing together the distressed/spirited/shy/sultry heroines with the tough/wounded/dashing and of course always gorgeous dudes in order to create the necessary hot or happy endings.

I imagined a serious, literary critique or review of one of these books. In fact, I may write one myself some day, just for laughs. Because surely that would be a chuckleworthy thing. Surely no reader who likes romance would change their preferences because of such a review. Which is why the writer I mentioned earlier ultimately decided to put the professor’s comments in context and didn’t let them destroy her.

That brings us to something I keep bumping into when I think about writing and reading. Writing is an art. There are rules, certainly, but success is achieved by going past the rules, creating something despite the rules. It’s impossible to define, but readers know a “good” piece of writing when they encounter one, judging it by their own standards. They can’t stop reading, don’t want the book to end, but when it does, they want another one just like it. I think it’s impossible to create a good piece of writing simply by following rules, no more than one can produce a good painting by following exactly the outlines and colours specified in a paint-by-numbers set.

The reader’s experience results from expectations and their fulfillment or lack thereof, surprises pleasant and otherwise, and ultimately a kind of bonding with the book, or failure to do so. It’s a lot like becoming acquainted with another person. Sometimes you become friends, other times an irrational antipathy develops. There are so many inputs it’s impossible to come up with a formula for success — the cover, the jacket blurb, the paper (if a printed-on-paper book), the typeface and, of course, the subtleties of narrative voice. But the circumstances under which the reader meets the book — living room, bedroom, airport or hospital room —  have a huge impact on the reader’s reaction and are totally beyond the author’s control.

The controllable inputs — cover, blurb, writing style, etc. — are all signals, however they are processed by the reader’s (or the critic’s) mind. They label the book as to genre and type:  light, fluffy romance, sexy paranormal mystery, serious literary, quirky literary or… Yes, some fiction is impossible to categorize, and in the absence of a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on something out of the norm, these books often end up being published by their authors.

A while ago I decided not to use this blog to offer advice to writers — never do this,  always do that. Who am I to make up rules for writers? I can’t claim any but the most modest success, and I have a personal tendency to quibble with Rules. I resolved to confine my screeds here to my own experience. And it’s from this experience that I say this with confidence — if you want to write, above all, read. Read anything and everything — genre fiction, literary fiction, fan fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles, how-to-do-it and self-help books, biographies, collected letters, poetry, owners’ manuals, recipes, the Bible (or other sacred books). Read and absorb. Wallow in words.

Several years ago I was invited to give a talk to my local writers’ society on the topic of doing research. (I actually plan to write a blog post on this someday). One of the research techniques I recommended was to read widely on whatever topic was relevant to your writing, whether historical period, cultural phenomenon, place or technology. The objective isn’t to amass a bunch of facts, but to immerse yourself in the subject so that when you write, your writing will be subtly informed by this background reading and therefore display the necessary authenticity. Applying this to writing in general, I think that writers must do a ridiculous amount of reading before they ever begin to write. Those 10,000 hours we hear about as being necessary for success? I think 10,000 hours of reading are necessary to prepare a person to write. Then another 10,000 of actual writing.

Bellflowers, Peach-Leaf and Others

My somewhat cranky post on Peach-leaf Bellflower has to be one of the most visited in this blog’s archive. It seems a lot of gardeners are interested in bellflowers. Because that post was a diatribe against Campanula persicifolia, I thought I would take a more temperate look at them now, when their first flush of bloom is nearly over.

Peachleaf Bellflower

Peachleaf Bellflower

The genus Campanula, or bellflowers, is huge — more than 500 species. It includes perennials, biennials and annuals ranging from a few inches high to six feet, but most seem to be in the one to three foot range. They occur in a variety of temperate habitats, including woodlands, grasslands, alpine and arctic regions. Dozens of species have found their way into gardens and have attracted the attention of plant breeders, resulting in many horticultural varieties.

I personally have experience with only a few of the bellflowers. Only two, actually. I recall the biennial Canterbury bells called “Cup and Saucer” from childhood, but have never grown it myself. Someone once gave me a plant of a creeping type, possibly a cultivar of C. carpatica, but it did not last. The two that have, and will probably be here forever, are C. persicifolia, Peach-leaf Bellflower, and C. rapunculoides, whose common name — Creeping Bellflower — should give any gardener the creeps. The authors of Perennials for American Gardens warn that “it must never be introduced into gardens, except into the wildest areas.” Well, it somehow got introduced into my garden, although not by me. At present, there is a clump growing out of asphalt on the edge of the driveway and another at the base of a Norway maple. The latter appears to be spreading slowly. Every spring I dig up the outermost sprouts, but I suspect it’s gaining ground. I also see it over the fence near my shed, and have conducted a little herbicidal warfare to keep it out.

The interesting thing is that the rapacious C. rapunculoides is quite attractive — more so than C. persicifolia, whose flowers are wide open, outward facing cups, while those of the former are downward-facing in the true bell-like manner, with elegant pointed edges.

Creeping Bellflower

Creeping Bellflower

On my way to work by bicycle I admire a nice clump of this plant growing at the foot of a bus stop sign, in the crack between sidewalk and curb. It’s obviously never watered except by rain (nonexistent at this time of year) or cared for in any way, but puts on a show every summer.

But — and it’s a big “but” — these two bellflowers are inveterate spreaders. Rapunculoides spreads mostly by underground rhizomes, forming fat tuberous storage roots. Every bit of root is capable of forming a new plant, so careful digging and disposal (not in the compost heap) is needed to remove it. Mostly it’s impossible to get rid of it entirely which is why it needs to be watched carefully and extracted as much as possible every spring.

Peach-leaf bellflower distributes itself both by seeds and underground roots, but is generally a bit easier to remove, except when it becomes entrenched among other desirable plants, when digging it up means digging up the entire bed. Careful deadheading can prevent excessive seeding, but the more plants you have the harder it is to keep up with the spent flowers about to become seedheads. The purest deadheading technique is to snip each flower individually, allowing the new buds forming lower on the stem to develop. This is fine if you have only a few easily accessible plants, and more time and patience than I have. Cutting entire flowering stems once most of the blooms are over works quite well. My plants manage to rebloom once or twice after this treatment.

So do I still think of Peach-leaf Bellflower as a “garden enemy?” Not really, but I suggest that gardeners think carefully before introducing it, especially to neat and tidy gardens. It’s actually one of the tough plants that are valuable in adverse conditions (such as dry shade), but become a little too pushy in favourable ones. In such situations, I would advise a gardener who wants to try campanulas to visit a good garden centre and obtain some of the horticultural named varieties, which tend to be less aggressive.

And for those who already have these two bellflowers, all I can say is that they create an opportunity for the gardener to exercise some mental discipline. Fight or negotiate? Attack or maintain a watchful peace? Who says gardening is a genteel pastime?