nature

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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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.

Blasted, Battered and Bothered

Southern Vancouver Island enjoyed a couple of perfect late summer days early this week — high temperatures around 25 degrees C (about 75 F), nice calm evenings — nothing to complain about (except the continuing drought, but never mind that). Then on Thursday we got a “marine push.”  That’s a term used by meteorologists in this part of the world to describe a phenomenon where the overall flow of air shifts from offshore to onshore as something called a “thermal trough” exits the area. Warm (or hot) air from the interior of British Columbia is replaced by cool marine air from the Pacific Ocean. This time, unfortunately, the pressure gradient was such that we had strong winds all day and most of the night.

I admit it — I hate strong winds. I know some people find them bracing and energizing. People who engage in sports such as sailing, windsurfing and hang gliding live for windy days, and we definitely get our share here in Victoria, as those onshore winds are funneled up the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But I, being a gardener, mutter and curse when the wind gets up into the strong category and persists, battering plants, ripping Clematis armandii from the eaves of the garage, and sucking up what little precious moisture remains in the soil.

The effects of wind are especially annoying now, at the dry and rattling end of Hell Month (see my July 18 post), when the garden already looks wretched.  Leaves are pulled from the maples, not the yellow and orange ones that will brighten the ground in October, but green leaves — a peculiar, sickly, dead-looking green. They give the garden a depressing air as they lie on the lawn and lodge among the equally tired-looking foliage in the perennial borders. The pond is scummed with algae and a generous sprinkling of those ugly leaves. There are twigs everywhere, and plants that were listing only slightly before have acquired a definite lean — an eastward one, of course.

This illustrates one of the central facts of gardening — crucial factors that determine success or failure are beyond the gardener’s control. Unlike indoor hobbyists and creative types (knitters, painters, woodworkers, potters), we gardeners work with the stuff of the earth and the natural world. Rain and wind, heat and frost, the depredations of insects and disease — all are elements about which we can do little or nothing. We water our gardens in dry weather, we stake tall plants, we race around with dusts and sprays intended to kill bugs or cure blights, we construct plastic tents, greenhouses or shade structures, but really, in the end we are at the mercy of nature.

Anyone who has gardened for more than a year or two knows this. And those of us who continue to garden in despite of this non-negotiable fact have come to embrace it. In our creative enterprise we are engaged with forces far greater than ourselves. We dance and wrestle with the Earth itself. Both our triumphs and our failures are the results of this partnership.

And all the complaining we do? We are entitled to it. It’s part of the package. Look at farmers, who are gardeners on a grand scale, with their livelihoods on the line. They complain all the time. But they are always looking ahead to Next Year.