May is as busy as I suspected it would be. Everyone is grumbling about the weather. It’s been cooler and wetter than normal for this time of year; records have been broken. On the upside, the flowering dogwoods have been in bloom for much longer than usual, and the flowers on the rhodos and azaleas are slow to show and lasting longer than they usually do too. But the squash and cucumber I seeded have been lost to bad weather, and the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are still languishing in the greenhouse, waiting for the temperatures to climb. It sounds like perfect reading weather. However, if I’m not writing, I’m outside dodging raindrops and working in the garden. My reward at the end of the day is a good book. And here’s what I’m reading this month:
A snake slithered across my foot as I walked to the greenhouse one morning last week. I felt it before I saw it, so I was a little startled when I glanced down and saw it slide off my toes and disappear under a nearby Hosta. It made me smile. My cousins and I used to play with the garter snakes in my grandmother’s garden when we were kids, going so far as to bestow names and weave stories around them (yes, the storytelling seeds were germinating even then). So, seeing a snake in my garden brought back happy memories.
Some people hate snakes. They see them as horrifying, villainous creatures. But, for me, it’s rodents that I hate with an irrational passion. And these days, as the plants in the garden begin waking up from their winter slumber, I have a current hate on for the slugs and rabbits that are decimating the new growth. They are the current antagonists of my world.
Life is full of antagonists. Novels are too. The latter not only require antagonists, but they depend on them to drive a story forward. Without a great villain, the hero can’t shine. And the key to crafting a good antagonist or villain is making them well-rounded enough to be believable. Every villain should have at least one redeeming characteristic.
If I’m ever tempted to forget this, all I have to do is look outside. Snakes may be considered villainous to some, but they devour garden pests and even small mice. Slugs are a great source of food for birds (thrushes love them), and they break down garden debris and turn it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Wild rabbits are considered a keystone species, essential workers of a healthy ecosystem. In fact, populations are so low in the UK and parts of Europe that environmentalists are sounding the alarm and working to increase their numbers (too bad I can’t figure out a way to export mine; both my garden and my wallet would benefit). Even mice, creatures I will never tolerate anywhere close, link plants and predators in every terrestrial ecosystem.
Whatever antagonist you’re currently facing, whether it’s ravenous rabbits in the garden, a belligerent boss at work or wicked, uncooperative weather, a piece of advice: always wear shoes and watch where you step.
This Sunday, March 20th, marks the spring or vernal equinox. Here in the Pacific Northwest, that means the days are getting longer, and daylight takes over the darkness.
In many cultures, the spring equinox is observed as the start of the New Year. It only makes sense. Birds are nesting and starting families. Trees are leafing out. It’s a time of rebirth, regrowth and new beginnings.
Some creative types believe that the natural rhythm of this time of year – the increasing warmth of the sun and the equal length of day and night – actually gives us more energy to create. It’s a perfect time, they say, to plant metaphorical seeds as well as real ones.
As a gardener and a writer, I love that idea. But something I sometimes forget is that seeds need time and the right conditions to sprout. Some require a cold stretch before the warmth nudges them to shoot out, while others want only heat to emerge. Creative ideas seem to be the same. While some come on quickly, in the heat of the moment, most creative ideas require a bit of percolating before they’re ready to germinate. And then, once those ideas do sprout, they need careful tending.
Right now, I’m tending metaphorical seeds (of a book) I planted a while back. This particular story has been a struggle but I’m hoping that if I prune and shape and carefully tend it, it will flourish in the same way a plant damaged by winter wind and cold comes back. And as I do that, I’m also planting some new creative seeds to tend over the coming months.
Because who can resist the promise of new beginnings? Happy spring, everybody.
A few weekends back, I zoomed into an all-day writing workshop. One of the speakers was author Jeff Elkins.
Elkins spoke at length about how we can develop and deepen our characters through the use of dialogue. As soon as he brought up what he called the character daisy, I was hooked (anything that relates gardening or food to writing gets my immediate and full attention).
Flowers grow in a predictable order: roots, stems and blooms. Jeff believes that order is reflected in the way we develop as individuals too. We also start off with roots: the genetics we inherit from our family, our ethnicity and nationality, and our gender and family history. Our stem grows out of our roots. That stem represents our hopes and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, and the inner facets of the personality we bring to the world. The flower is the outer way we show up: what we focus on in our lives, how we talk, live and interact. The bloom is, in essence, our gift to the world in the same way flower blossoms are gifts to the garden.
Literature is full of references to flowers. An old French proverb says, “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” Saint Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva, made the phrase more colloquial in the early 1600s when he urged his followers to “bloom where you are planted,” and artist Mary Engelbreit picked it up and turned it into a catchphrase in the 1990s.
Author Stephen Richards links flowers to the way we think. “Minds are like flowers; they open only when the time is right,” he says.
Musician Aaron Neville says flowers offer lessons on how to behave. “Be honest, be nice, be a flower, not a weed.”
Poet E.V. Rogina believes flowers can teach us about inner growth. “Like wildflowers, you must allow yourself to grow in all the places people thought you never would,” she says.
And last but definitely not least is John Lennon: “Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.”
So, as the last of my summer flowers slowly succumb to cooler temperatures, and we hunker down for fall and winter, I’ll focus on the words of poet Jennae Cecilia:
The seedlings are doing what seedlings do best: growing madly and readying themselves for more spacious surroundings. In other words, they need to be transplanted, which means I have my work cut out for me getting them from the greenhouse to the ground. I’m not complaining. This time last year, I was struggling to learn the microclimates in our new garden, and I was doing it under less-than-optimal growing conditions. Things are better this year, though the learning curve is still steep. Good thing I have some great books to settle down with at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.
We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.
Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.
American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.
Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.
Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.
In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.
Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, bringing sunshine, warmer temperatures and garden happiness. Our veggies have stopped pouting and are galloping to catch up to where they normally would be at this time of year. It’s been an odd gardening year though. Summer started out cool and wet; we’ve been dealing with Covid restrictions and stock limitations at many garden centres; and we’ve been in observation mode in our new garden – watching what flowers when, checking out the light levels and exposure patterns, and planning for next year. It’s left me more time to read . . . and I have a lovely patio where I can enjoy a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.
The garden sent me a lesson the other day. It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed repeatedly in writing and gardening. But it’s a lesson I’ve yet to master. Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. The unfolding of life has its own rhythm. And as much as I’d like to think I’m in charge, I am not.
tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and basil. Sweet peas and eggplant and cilantro
too. The broccoli popped up first, quickly followed by basil, tomato and sweet
pea seedlings. The eggplant was slower, but it eventually germinated. The pepper
and the cilantro seeds languished under the starting soil. I hovered and
fretted and hovered some more.
Cocooned in their dark bed, the pepper and cilantro seeds paid no attention.
Meanwhile, the effects of the Covid-19 slowdown continued. I learned of more work cancellations and delays. I heard of more writer friends having their book releases postponed. Or having their books come out without the expected fanfare of a launch (if you’re a writer with a book releasing during the Time of Covid, email me and I’ll plug it on this blog).
going according to plan, one friend wailed after she’d been hit with a
particularly bad piece of cancellation news. Indeed.
In the big picture, she and I both know what matters is life and health and slaying the Covid dragon. We know it’s shallow to worry about book releases or cancelled tours when people are dying. We’re wearing our grown-up pants (yoga pants) these days. We have our priorities straight. But at the same time, we wish things were different. We wonder why things are the way they are. We worry that maybe if we’d made different choices or worked a little harder or taken a different route, things would be going according to plan. According to our plan.
finally germinated. In spite of my very best hand-wringing, the cilantro never did.
its own rhythm, my seedlings whispered. Maybe someday I’ll learn the lesson and
won’t need the reminder.
Today is the first day of spring in the Pacific Northwest and for once the weather is in line with the calendar. The sun is shining, clear and strong. The crocuses are up. The birds are in high spirits. And so, apparently, are the sea otters. Yesterday, one propelled its way up from the water’s edge to our house. I know they’re cute (at least some people think so) but they’re particularly aggressive with dogs so I’m careful to watch Team Sheltie when they’re out in the garden. Because the weather is warming up, the garden is on my mind and one of my current book picks reflects that. Here’s what I’m reading this month:
Beside the pond: Plants That Speak, Souls That Sing by Fay Johnstone
Before bed: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears
On the weekend: The Care and Feeding of My Mother by Jann Arden
If you follow astrology (and I don’t mean the daily horoscope stuff), you’ll know that there are six – count ‘em six – planets retrograde in the heavens right now. It may or may not be affecting you but it’s forcing some unexpected revamping, revising and redoing around here.
Last week, during a home inspection, we discovered a whole lot of galvanized pipe running from the street into our house. We thought we had copper . . . we mostly do have copper . . . but there was a long length of galvanized piping and it had to come out. The good news is one of the companies that came to give us an estimate had a cancellation; they could do the work Friday morning, providing we dug up and moved the plants.
So Thursday afternoon, rather than writing, I was digging out perennials and moving them into the shade. At the same time, Mr. Petrol Head was hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of landscape pebbles out of the way. Friday morning, the guys showed up just after 7:30. By 1 pm, they’d dug down 24 inches, replaced the galvanized pipe in the ground, drilled through our foundation to replace the length in the house, and put the soil back in place.
It was our turn to replace the pebbles and the plants, basically to turn that scorched earth back into something pretty. For one, the plants we’d dug up wouldn’t tolerate sitting in their temporary homes, even if they were shady, for long. And for another, we pitied the poor neighbors having to look at the disaster that was our front yard. So this weekend we dug and placed and planted and watered. It was hot, tiring work but in the end we have a much tidier rockery and entrance to the house.
I had planned to revamp the area this summer. The rockery was overplanted and without a sense of cohesiveness. In fact, the rockery redo was quickly reaching the top of my ‘to do’ list; good thing I hadn’t gotten to it yet.
Ironically, and as is often the case, my garden project mimicked what is currently happening in my writing life. My current WIP is overwritten, meandering and without a sense of cohesiveness. I need a better handle on the through line. As I ripped out plant after plant, it occurred to me that sometimes manuscripts need a little tough love too. This one does; it needs some ruthless gutting and reshaping. Gutting and reshaping, like digging and replanting, is hard, hard work. But it’s often the only way to end up with a book – or a garden bed – you’re satisfied with.