We had the ash tree in our front yard pruned this week.
On Monday, as I was watching the tree guys at work, I found myself thinking that gardeners often make good writers. The two crafts have a lot in common. For my amusement – and yours, hopefully – I thought I’d talk about the four P’s that gardening and writing have in common.
Last Year’s Thriving Squash
Before I do, I want to clarify that I’m talking about gardeners in the literal sense of people who tend plants. Over the last couple of years, I became aware of a bit of writing jargon that classifies writers as either “Gardeners” or “Architects.” Gardeners are those who start writing and see how the story grows. Architects plan the story in advance, sometimes in great detail.
Other terms for these types of writers are “Pantsers” (as in writing “by the seat of the pants”) and “Planners.” I originally heard them defined as “Intuitive Plotters” and “Outliners.” And, no, the divisions are not absolute. Even the most intuitive of Gardeners has times she needs to plan something out in advance. Even the most ardent Outliner enthuses about when inspiration hits, and he realizes that his architectural design will be improved by reshaping the original plan.
So, what are the Four P’s that gardeners and writers have in common? Preparation, Patience, Pleasure, and Pruning.
Preparation is key to being a good gardener – and is one of the reasons that I think calling an intuitive plotter a “Gardener” is deceptive, because to non-gardeners this implies a story that “just grows” without any effort.
A real gardener knows that nothing “just grows” without preparation. Soil needs to be prepared before a single seed or plant goes into the ground. This isn’t as simple as tossing on fertilizer, either. The first step if figuring out what sort of soil you have – or if you even have soil at all.
When I moved into my current house, I did not have soil. I had sand. Pure sand. That’s great for drainage, but lousy for nutrients. I had to make my own soil, which I did by hauling a lot of horse manure, leaves, and other organic matter, then digging it in.
The writerly equivalent of this is soaking in lots of different material – both related and unrelated to any specific project. Read lots of stuff, not just within your comfort zone. Watch your favorite TV shows or movies – but not passively. Think hard about why these pieces touch you while others leave you cold. Watch people, places, things… Go do something new. Teach someone something you’re good at. All of these will enrich your personal soil.
Patience is necessary to real gardening – and by this I mean something other than going to your local big box and buying plants already in flower and popping them in the ground. That ain’t gardening. That’s decorating
Gardening patience involves staying involved. It’s remembering to water even though the seeds won’t germinate for two weeks. It’s replanting when seeds fail to germinate. It’s weeding, so that the plants you want aren’t choked out by the plants you don’t want.
Writing patience is very similar. Too many non-writers or beginning writers think that every moment is going to be full of great excitement or, at the very least, a rich, spiritual satisfaction in being creative. Nope. Sometimes writing involves just keeping moving forward, working your way into the story, trusting that those “seeds” are going to be beautiful flowers one day.
Pleasure, whether in gardening or writing, is closely tied to patience. One of the best ways to take pleasure in a garden is delighting in all the little stages along the way. “Look! The squash has sprouted!” “Look! They’ve got their first ‘true leaves.’” “Look at all the squash blossoms! They’re so pretty.” “Look! Fruit has set. Wow… We’ve got yellow squash, green squash, and one that has stripes!”
Writing pleasure is like that. Some writers join work groups so that they can share their work along the way. I don’t workshop, but I do keep a journal wherein – especially when I’m working on a longer project, like a novel – I note each day how much I have written. This keeps me from falling into the belief that I’m “getting nowhere.” I also note when I stop to research or when life gets in the way of being able to write – like having to stop to do proofs for another project.
Pruning is very important to a healthy garden, whether on the large scale, where branches need to be thinned and old wood taken off, or on the small scale, where dead flowers need to be pinched off so that new ones will form. This process, by the by, is called “deadheading.”
Most new gardeners do not like to prune. Either they’re scared they’ll kill or maim the plant or they believe that more is better than less. I know I was in a near panic the first time I had to prune a tree but, as it was pretty clear that my little apple tree was not thriving, I had to try something. I was rewarded when the tree not only didn’t die; it did (and continues to do) better than before.
As for more being better than less… Two puny apples are not better than one three times the size of the two combined. One large, healthy rose is better than a bunch of small, scrubby blossoms. Yeah, it’s hard to remove potential fruit, but once you learn how to do so, you’ll be happy with the end results and your plant will be healthier, too.
(Reminds me. I need to look at my Elberta peach tree.)
Most new writers worry about cutting from their work. Either they worry they’ll lose something vital or they have an unjustifiably high opinion of their prose and view every word as sacred or golden, not to be tampered with.
In the first instance, if you’re really worried you’ll cut something vital, you can save it in another file and rescue it later. But at least try cutting and see if it helps the flow.
In the second case, no one’s words are always golden. Period. But you’ve heard professional writers say they don’t rewrite. That’s because when experienced writers talk about rewriting, they mean something completely different.
Roger Zelazny often spoke of himself as “not rewriting.” Then he made me a gift of a novella typescript. (To the end of his life, he composed either longhand or on a typewriter.) To my surprise, the typescript was full of little cross-outs and changes. I said, “I’ve heard you say you don’t rewrite!” Roger was astonished. “But this is just polishing. When I say ‘rewriting,’ I mean the type of redrafting I’ve heard other writers talk about, where they change entire scenes or eliminate entire plots.”
So, whether they cut out whole limbs or merely “deadhead,” writers prune. I pruned about 500 words (or two or so pages) from this essay… But they were worth writing, because they got me to where I needed to be.