It’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.
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.
TIME: 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.
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.