We’re all on some sort of journey, aren’t we? Check back here
periodically to find out more about G. Elizabeth Kretchmer’s journeys
through the literary world and through life.
After spending hours maniacally ripping out the roots of Creeping Buttercup, I discovered some important lessons from the garden.
It was a hot weekend–90 °F in the shade–and these little buggers, which King County, Washington defines as a low-growing perennial and a Weed of Concern, were more tenacious in their will to survive than blood-sucking ticks burrowed into a dog’s skin. I dug, yanked, and pulled at them, determined to win the battle. It was when I finally collapsed in the shade, with the breeze drying the perspiration from my skin and my brain chastising the rest of my self for not getting more done on my writing endeavors, that it suddenly occurred to me how there are some important similarities between gardening and writing. And some important lessons to be learned, too.
Lesson #1: Gardening Is an Art Form
I have never been all that interested in flowers or most other plants. Or dirt, for that matter. Not that flowers and trees and whatnot aren’t pretty; I am in fact always grateful when someone hands me a lovely bouquet of roses. And there have been some brief periods in my life when I was into herb or veggie gardening. But my thumbs tend to be more black than green, so gardens just haven’t been my thing.
But then, when I started to realize after all these years how much work goes into a garden, voila! My dehydration led me to the inevitable conclusion that gardens aren’t just about their singular elements of flower, tree, or whatnot. Gardens are, in and of themselves, entire ecosystem works of art! They’re master plans with designs! Points of interest for a community, whether that community is just one family or an entire urban area! And sanctuaries for all kinds of birds and bugs! Gardens are natural settings designed by a human being with an eye for the beauty of the natural world! Yes, by God, they are forms of art!
But then of course I had to ask myself the question. What is art?
Just for kicks, I turned to our good friends Merriam and Webster, who say that art is something created by imagination or skill that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings. Sounds like a garden to me. I continued Googling the notion of art, and saw that others have defined art as something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Or that it’s a spiritual journey. Or that art is language which allows us to express what we aspire to. Or that art is the manifestation of the human soul. In other words, art can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Of course, many of us tend to think first of paintings or sculptures when we think of art, but the more I thought about M/W’s definition, and the way my own gardening experience had stirred me, the more I realized how a stunning display of flowers and other specimens of the natural world in an artistically designed garden can indeed be a fantastic expression of the beauty of life.
Likewise, great literature is a stunning display of words set forth in an artistically designed fashion on the page. And like gardens, literature can serve as a phenomenal tool for appreciation and expression of that which matters most in life, whether it’s beauty or something less uplifting (because life isn’t all beauty and smiley emoticons). While gardens might remind us of beauty and literature of something else, they can both help us make meaning of life. They can both help us enjoy life. Indeed, they can both help us get through life.
In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King said, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” We need art. We need literature. We need gardens.
Lesson #2: Creation of Art is Hard Work
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on Onomea Bay (on the Big Island) is a nature preserve and sanctuary hosting more than 2,000 species of plants that were brought in from tropical forests around the globe. It took the founders of the garden eight years to clear land and design the garden, and then they planted each plant by hand. Imagine planting all those plants…and keeping them alive, and keeping the weeds out! I can barely keep my plants alive and the weeds under control in a few beds around my house. Today, this botanical garden is considered a “spectacular living work of art.”
After learning about all the manual labor that went into that garden over eight-plus years, it sounds lame to say it also took me eight years for my first published novel to see the light of day. They were out there digging and pulling and hoeing and sweating and mulching for eight years while I was in my office chair, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine within reach, punching my fingers along a keyboard. It’s hard to say there’s any comparison, really.
But we’re talking apples and oranges.
The fact is: writing is hard, too. A different kind of hard. Writers make sacrifices in terms of time with family, lost opportunities and, even, sometimes, relationships. They suffer from harsh criticism. They rip pages out of their printers like weeds out of the ground, and they crumple them up and throw them into the corner and start over. And over. And over, until they get their words, and their messages, right. And, while gardeners discover worms or occasional bones in the ground as they do their work, writers make personal discoveries about their own skeletons along the way– discoveries they aren’t always prepared to make. Instead of digging in the dirt, we dig into our souls. As John Steinbeck said, we dredge up “our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
Gardeners improve the physical landscape. Writers attempt to improve the human landscape. They all work hard.
Lesson #3: Success Requires Tenacity
The garden at our house is blessed with an abundance of Morning Glory, English Ivy, and Creeping Buttercup. On the one hand, this means we don’t have a lot of other weeds–hence the “blessing.” But on the other, this means our “good” plants–the ones we love–are in a constant state of battle, trying to stave off strangulation, malnourishment, and sunlight deficiency. Glory, Ivy, and Buttercup are as ruthless as Attila the Hun once was.
And as enlightend human managers of the garden, it’s our job to protect the “good” plants from such Hun warriors. We do this by trying to eradicate the invasive plants. But it’s not easy. First let me say that we won’t use poison. Period. So that’s not an option. Then let me add that these plant systems aren’t like cute little dandelions, where you just dig out a plant’s roots and presto! it’s gone. These weeds each have a complicated network of underground roots and runners, and the Morning Glory in particular is amazing in its capacity to regrow. In fact, I sometimes feel like I live in the Jumanji movie, and just when I think a bed is cleared of the bad guys, I turn around and another one pops up. These invasive weeds, I have decided, are evil, and what’s worse, they won’t give up.
And so it goes with writing. Show me a writer who says writing is easy and I’ll show you someone who’s not really a writer. In addition to baring one’s soul, a writer has to suffer the World of Rejection. I had naively thought, early on in my writing career, that once you’ve collected your requisite rejections from literary journals and agents, and then once you got accepted somewhere, you were on your way. As in Dr. Seuss’s book, Oh the Places You’ll Go. Well, the operative word in the previous sentence was naively. A zillion rejections doesn’t mean you’re ready to survive in the literary world any more than pulling out a zillion buttercup stems means you’ve got that under control.
Writers, like gardeners, must be continuously tenacious, and those who are weak, yielding, or noncommittal will be weeded out. In other words, a writer’s world is a Darwinian world–not just in the way that survival depends on the fittest, and the fittest are those who are relentlessly persistent–but in the way that a dedicated writer, or artist of any medium, reveals his or her work ethic. In the foreword to Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection, 1825-1859, Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould refers to Darwin’s tenacity as “traits of character that make a person both persist and believe in himself,” a description that could easily have also been ascribed to Flannery O’Connor or countless other writers.
Writers and gardeners, like other artists, must believe in themselves.
I am still doing battle with the buttercups, and I suspect I will be doing so for a very long time. Who knows who will win? But now that I understand why I’m doing this–in the name of art–I am renewed in my commitment to fight them. It’s a lot like my decision to forge ahead in the writing world, even when artists and publishers and literary journals and even bookstores turn me away. I keep on writing and sending my work out into the world partly because my readers like my work, and partly because I want to be an artist. I want to submit my work in the name of art because art supports life, as Mr. King suggested, and I want to do my part to keep us all alive.
Note: this blog post is dedicated to one of my loveliest writing workshop participants, Kim W., who is a phenomenal gardener and an even more fabulous woman.