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.

Obsession is the Wellspring

Last Wednesday evening, Victoria artist and writer Robert Amos spoke to members of the Victoria Writers’ Society about his joyful obsession with Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s mystifying novel which has flummoxed countless readers and spawned innumerable academic dissertations. An eloquent speaker, Mr. Amos described the beginnings of his preoccupation with Joyce’s novel and how it eventually flowered into a wealth of creative works, including a handwritten short-line transcription of Finnegan’s Wake, calligraphic quotations from it on painted paper, and wonderful calligraphy scrolls in the tradition of that art as practiced in Asia.

Robert Amos has also recorded himself reading Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety — twice. He emphasized that the work was really an enormously long poem, rooted in the oral tradition, and therefore best comprehended by listening rather than reading from a text. He recommended that writers try moving their words from one creative medium to another — from printed text to calligraphy, or to music. This deepens one’s appreciation of them and transforms them into new works.

Listening to Mr. Amos reading from Finnegan’s Wake and describing its incredible complexity, I kept thinking that if Joyce were a new author in the present day, he would have the devil of a time finding a publisher willing to take a chance on this work. I expressed this opinion during the question period following the talk, and no one disagreed.

So what did I take away from this informative and entertaining talk? Reinforcement for my belief that writers would do well to resist the compulsion to distort or truncate their works solely for the purpose of making them fit a formula or a set of rules propounded on behalf of the legendary tired, overworked editor who needs to get through the slush pile before night falls on the wicked.

I’m not advocating sloppy writing here. Prose must be honed, sharpened and polished like the best of Damocles’ swords. And if one wants to be published by a “real” publisher, it goes without saying that one must play by the rules set out for the willing and submissive author. But for those whose works don’t seem to fit any mold, there are other avenues now. It is no longer a choice between The Rules Writers Must Obey and the pile of manuscripts slowly turning into cellulose fragments in the fabled bottom drawer. Now there is self-publishing on the internet, including Smashwords, that great salon des refuses in the electronic ether. Making this project happen seems to be the obsession of its founder, Mark Coker, a tireless advocate for electronic self-publishing.

Obsession — that’s the other thing I was reminded of by Robert Amos — creative obsession, not the pathological kind (although who knows where one becomes the other). In my experience, almost any worthwhile creative work is fueled by some sort of irrational compulsion. Writing that is compelled in this way is far easier than that which is done under external pressures such as deadlines or obligations. Note that I don’t say that such writing is better, only that it flows more easily. At some point the writer has to go back and revise, again and again. But writing a first draft in a state of happy obsession produces raw material for revision far more readily than anything else. It’s the opposite of writer’s block — one can’t wait to get back to it, stealing time from work to scribble down snatches of dialogue, losing track of conversations while visualizing a new scene. Aside from anything else, this state is a deeply joyous one. It is, however, difficult to share with others. The experience of creative obsession is most often solitary. The thing to be shared, eventually, is the finished work, and in this I’ve always thought that visual artists and artisans have an advantage over us writers. It is far easier to ask someone to admire a painting or hand-knitted sweater than a 100,000 word novel. “Wow, that sure is a big pile of paper!” isn’t quite the reaction you want.