analogies

Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm, I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone. In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands, and does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.

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The Garden in September

Ah, September — maybe my favourite month. Some years, the best weather comes in September — warm but not hot, with just enough rain to start the “fall spring,” when some spring blooming plants put out a few last flowers, when leaves start to turn colour and the garden prepares to withdraw into the relative quiet of winter.

The last few days, instead of thinking up stuff like this, I have been busting my butt in said garden. Predictions of a major rain- and windstorm motivated me to mow, clip and rake, cut down stuff and get the compost heaps into shape. That means doing something with the finished compost to make room for the millions of leaves that I will rake up in October. Out come the wheelbarrow and spade. I shovel compost into the wheelbarrow and then re-shovel it out, spreading it among perennials and under shrubs. I’m most generous in spots beneath trees, where plants have to compete with tree roots.

While the body labours, the mind wanders, and throws out some fanciful notions — such as that the garden is like a world, with peoples and nations ebbing and flowing. What happened to that patch of Irish moss (Sagina subulata)? It was crowded out by colonizing Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and is now only a memory. And these asters became refugees, fleeing the onslaught of sweet violets and snow-in-summer (Cerastium). Do plants tremble at the coming of the almighty gardener, in size 9 “duck shoes,” bearing a spade in one hand and secateurs in the other? Plants live or die by my will on this 50 x 120 foot patch (except for bindweed, that is). Legions of wood lice and centipedes flee when I come to destroy their compost heap empire. Ha!

In the end, the garden looks pretty good and the compost area is neat and tidy, ready for all those leaves. Bring on the rain and wind!

September 26, 2013

Aster frikartii "Monch"

Aster frikartii “Monch”