ON WRITING AND GARDENING

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WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.

spring

And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.

 

But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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16 Responses to ON WRITING AND GARDENING

  1. Peter Pollak says:

    You separated the weeds from the … oh, well. I can’t make that analogy turn out better than “hit the nail on the head.” Writing is hard work. So many people look for short-cuts and unfortunately self-publishing technology allows them to go to press having done only half the job. Writers don’t have to publish raw stories. Beta readers, writers groups, and critique partners abound. Editors with experience and skill are begging for clients. I tell people if you aren’t willing to pay an editor to go through your work, you’re not ready to publish. Stay warm until spring, I for one am heading south for some r&r.

  2. SPBowers says:

    “spring is just around the corner”

    Balm to my soul. I love gardening and truly enjoyed this post. Thanks.

  3. Rose says:

    Barbara,
    While the analogy resonates poignantly in and of itself, the “Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden” sings celebration. I am a romantic enamoured by the warmth of such love. I also admire your realistic approach to one of life’s challenges and your fortitude in facing it, not to mention your sense of humour.

  4. Sam O'Day says:

    Wonderful post! Beautiful comparison and truly inspiring. I recognize parallels in music here too. Spring is around the corner and just down the street. Almost there. Turn left.

  5. D C Hubbard says:

    Beautiful metaphor, Barbara! I have a rather large garden to nurture, too. Over the years it has had its ups and downs in the amount of attention I’ve given it. That shows!

    When the children were young and strenuous, I loved rooting out the weeds and trimming the scrubs. A least they didn’t talk back.

    As my children, garden and I have matured, writing has taken over my need to nurture. I am certain that the lessons assimilated from those earlier efforts now help me grow my stories.

    Roll on spring!

  6. Marta Weeks says:

    I love this article! I just posted on my blog one on my procrastination.

  7. Patience… I’ve never had a lot of that yet here I am writing and playing with worms, seedlings, and dirt. Love your flowers, so pretty!

  8. deniz says:

    Such a great analogy. Love your garden, thanks for sharing the photos! Someday I’d like to change my black thumb to a green one…

  9. Deniz says:

    So *that’s* what I’ve been doing wrong! Time to start over…

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