inspiration

Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #7: Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], 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 [between gardening and writing]?

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 [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] 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.

Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.

And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.

While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.

For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

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Writing While Old

I had another birthday recently and celebrated two years of retirement a couple of days ago. I’m starting to think of myself as “older,” if not actually old. It seems most of the writers in my corner of the blogosphere are middle-aged or older. Younger writers must hang out somewhere else.

I knew all my life I wanted to write. Scenes and dialogue snippets would materialize in my mind, no doubt inspired by all the reading I did at the time. I kept a journal for decades, starting at age 13. I wrote poetry in my teens (who doesn’t?) and a little novel as a school project. I wrote essays and assigned papers in college, and memos and reports for my job. But I thought the only way to become a real writer was to make it a career choice at an early age, get a creative writing degree, live in a garret, and do nothing but write and hobnob with other writers. I missed my chance to do any of those things, so would never be a writer.

Until November 2000, when I finally thought, “Why not? Who’s going to stop me?” I had been nursing an idea for a novel for a couple of years. One day I started writing and haven’t stopped. The thrill of creation helped me finish that novel and write four more while I was still working full time. After diligent attempts to get published traditionally, I decided the only way that would happen was posthumously. The self-pub option came along just in time, as did blogging.

Am I a real writer? You bet. Am I a professional writer? No. I am lucky enough to have an adequate pension, so I have no need to make a living from my writing. (A good thing, too.) I have the freedom to decide what I write, and how I promote my writing. With time at my disposal, I can draw upon the experience, insights and wisdom of a lifetime to explore relationships and situations and spin them into stories.

Like most writers, old and not so old, self- or otherwise published, I write for the love of it. Some of the benefits are:

Learning stuff. I’ve learned how to create plots and characters, do research, rewrite and edit. I’ve learned how to wrestle Word documents into forms that can be turned into ebooks and printed books. I’ve put together some half-decent cover images. And I’ve maintained this blog for several years.

Personal connections. I’ve been a member of my local writers’ society since 2003, and several critique groups. That gets me out of the house and face to face with other writers and gives me the opportunity to read some of their writing and offer (I hope) helpful suggestions. I’ve also met some wonderful people through their blogs. (You know who you are).

An Active Mind. To keep my aging brain active, writing beats watching television, doing crossword puzzles, or working “brain gym” games. See “Learning stuff” above.

Books. Written, rewritten, edited, published, and available to readers. Unlike my younger self, thinking how I would never be a writer, now I am one.

Spark the imagination! Light that fire!

 

Fire adj2

Writerly Pursuits

 

Looking at my current Things To Do list — specifically Writerly Things To Do (I also have such lists for the house, the garden and my day job) — got me thinking about activities that characterize the writing life. In no particular order, here is the list:

  1. Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
  2. Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
  3. Look through my file of stories that have never seen the light of day and select a couple to post on the blog. Then post them.
  4. Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
  5. Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
  6. Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
  7. Prepare to write another novel — a sequel to the Herbert West Series — set in Egypt, specifically at an archaeological excavation in the 1960s. “Prepare to write?” You know — research, brooding, making notes, visualizing scenes, making more notes, etc.
  8. Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
  9. Post to my blog at least once a week.
  10. Come to grips with the idea of marketing.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the real stuff of Being A Writer (except the marketing bit, maybe). It’s the 21st century analogue of what writers used to do in pre-computer days — getting together in cafes and bars, gossiping and arguing about the meaning of it all, writing letters, taking walks in the country and thinking about what to write next, mingling in literary salons, scraping away with their quill pens or pounding their typewriters. Nowadays much of the connection and exchange of ideas is done through social media, of course, but the dynamic is the same.

And, of course, there’s #10 on my list — marketing. Now as in the past, there are businesslike writers and those to whom that is an alien notion. Today’s indie authors don’t have to look far for reminders that to succeed, they must regard their writing and publishing as a business. Any who do not do this must resign themselves to failure.

As with the writing rules that also abound on the internet, the real situation is more complex — a compound of financial realities, creative impulses, expectations and motivations. Many self-published writers display a truly businesslike attitude, with (I assume) varying degrees of financial success and personal satisfaction. Many others do not. (Guess which of these groups I belong to. Just guess).

That’s really a side issue, though, the “marketing” aspect of being a writer. The core of it is whatever leads to new creations — writing. Whether the ferment of ideas and inspiration comes from face-to-face conversations with fellow writers, or electronically around the world, it must lead to sitting down and stringing words together. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.

Filling Up The Well

Long before I became a writer, I was an avid reader. All that reading inspired me to write. Now it occurs to me that I have depleted my well of ideas and words. I no longer have a plot, a theme, a set of characters that compel me to write.  Maybe I need to read some more, and not  just so I can then write comments about the books, nor to check out what “the competition” is doing (laughable thought!), but simply for the pleasure of experiencing mind movies created by the word-constructions of other writers.

Brain research has revealed a great deal about our issued-at-birth CPUs, but brain function is still largely a mystery. I’ve lived long enough to have made long-term observations about how my brain works, and I suspect that it needs a lot of input before it can produce anything exciting. I do not have a formula for the input — this much Great Literature, a certain amount of contemporary award-winners, a bit of CanLit, a few mysteries, a touch of romance — no, it’s not like that at all. Everything read, heard, overheard, and observed goes into the mix, and the brain sorts, files, matches and links until one day in the shower, or taking a walk, or washing dishes, I get an Idea, thrown up by the ever-busy brain, a Really Good Idea that must be written down asap, because such ideas are as fleeting as hummingbirds. One second they are present in jeweled magnificence, the next they are gone, leaving only a husk of “Didn’t I just have a really good idea about… Oh shit!”

Once captured, an idea needs to grow and mature, by a process rather like that of star formation — more ideas added until the whole thing heats up and starts to spin. The process can’t be induced by force; it just happens, but it needs a lot of raw material. So over the upcoming holidays and for the rest of the winter I’m going to read for the sake of reading, like I used to before the writing bug came along. Even if it doesn’t inspire another novel, or at least a few stories, it will be a vacation for my brain.