Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Writer in the Garden: Private Edens

It's the tail end of Garden Week with the Novel Bakers.
On Saturday and Sunday, we're looking at an extraordinary book: 
Private Edens:Beautiful Country Gardens
by Jack Staub (photography by Rob Cardillo).

The Novel Bakers presented me with this book on my 60th birthday, and it has been my constant companion. When I'm working hard on a project, I always reward myself with a cup of tea and a few pages of Private Edens.

Unless you live completely alone (picture a hilltop cabin, no neighbors for miles, and a gated driveway), the writing life isn't solitary. I work around a busy family, and the process is maddening for them. I've tried to explain the craziness of publishing, but it's like pouring water onto the ground. It's incomprehensible to my husband when I refuse a trip to the symphony because a slight shift in my focus may derail a fragile plot thread, and no power on earth can call it back.
It's gone, baby, gone.

Strong ideas have exploded and imploded whenever my husband sneaks up behind me and yells, "Where's the toilet paper?"

A manuscript will eventually become impervious to outside threats, and thank god for that small mercy. People can scream, and you barely hear them. Some part of you has left the earth. You're living inside the book.

But that, too, is hard to convey.

Someone once asked the great jazz musician Louis Armstrong to define jazz. "If you've got to ask," he said, "you'll never know."

Writing is something the author and the book feel together.
Reading is something the reader and the book feel together.
Two wonderfully different experiences.

Whether a project will succeed or fail has always been beyond my control, but when I'm working, I'm in a sort of Eden. I get so caught up in the process, I'm lucky to make it to Publix. I won't make it to the symphony, either, but I guess I'm not the symphony type. I do love to garden, as it keeps life in perspective, and baking is an especial joy. But I have a deep, abiding love for words.

As I near the age of retirement, I'm still going to scribble, but in a slightly different way: I'm looking forward to a new and exciting shift to my first love: food writing, and maybe a little bit about gardening, too.

 Thank goodness for books like Private Edens. I can step through the page, straight into sunny meadow. I can brush my hands over a clipped boxwood hedge...and never leave my house. 
In a way, a book is like a garden.
You plant an idea, only to discover that it just won't grow. Well, not where you put it.
Does it need more sun? A touch of humor, perhaps? Shade might do the trick--add a little darkness and see what happens. 
 New ideas are fragile.
A bamboo stake will keep the wind from snapping off the top-heavy flowers of a delphinium; maybe your idea needs support, too. Or perhaps you've planted it in the wrong damn place. 

No one said it would be easy, this life. But writing is the best time you've ever had, so don't give up. Each project teaches you about the process.

Some ideas need a little coddling.
Others need to be weeded.
But wait just a minute. Take a breath or two. Make sure a weed is a weed and not a young, tender plant that has not flowered.
The trick is knowing the difference.
(How long does that take, the knowing? A lifetime.)

As with gardening, you must first learn the basics. 

Don't plant sun-loving characters in a dank, mossy place. 

And you shouldn't put a shade lover in blinding light. 

Characters will keel over or succumb to root rot. If you pay attention, they
will tell you what they need.

Creative projects benefit from a little pre-planning.  
First, you must prepare the soil. Dig your hole deeper and wider than the pot. 
Take a deep breath and "tease apart" the idea's tightly compacted roots. Pray that you aren't too rough (or too gentle).  But don't ever be timid and leave those gnarled roots alone.
Fill the hole with dirt, tamping it down, removing air pockets. Water the root ball generously. 
Do not be surprised if an idea suffers from transplant shock. If it is strong, and if you don't neglect it (not even for a day), then your idea will take root.

And it will grow like crazy.

The creative soul needs a fearless heart. 
I was told that poppies wouldn't grow in Tennessee, but they thrived in my rocky soil.
People laughed at when I started writing, but I kept working.
If you love something, do it anyway. And if you stop loving it, pray for the courage and grace to walk away.
Success is measured by joy. And nothing else matters.

Since I am an armchair traveler these days, I'll leave you with a tour of Cerney House Gardens, Gloucestershire, England.

For more private Edens, visit the Novel Bakers: Jain- ..a quiet life and Mary-Home Is Where the Boat Is.

 I'm linking to Metamorphosis Monday  and The Scoop .

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  1. this was so beyond my expectations, i feel so shallow with my presentation after reading this wonderful personal account of your private eden. we have been treated to the author herself today, raw, exposed in her own private eden, how very lucky we are... even your video with the haunting music moving through the garden made this whole experience extremely memorable.

    thank you so much for striping down and sharing your soul today in the garden, we are all very lucky to get a glimpse of your thoughts in a private eden...

  2. Thank you for explaining a writer's life, which is your life, Michael Lee. I think we all get a clearer picture when we get the message through your viewpoint. I enjoyed seeing pics of your flowers and also from the tour of the country garden in England. Enjoy your weekend in your garden and with your thoughts and words. xo

  3. This is a lovely, lovely post. First for the opening up and sharing a little of your experience as a writer, and then for sharing this lovely book - I'll have to look for it. I have a very small collection of books like that around the house. I only need to pick one up for a few minutes to be transported.

  4. This touched me on so many levels, especially about others not understanding your drive, desire, and satisfaction in writing. This was beautiful.

  5. The garden is a metaphor for life for certain and I echo everything Jain said above. How I love your writing/gardening metaphors... from teasing apart the roots, transplant shock and planting in the wrong damn place, along with your accompanying photos of your wispy delphinium and beautiful chairs. Thanks so much for sharing your Private Eden but most of all for your message, "If you love a thing, do it anyway." I'm anxiously awaiting your 11th book. xo

  6. Blessings to you!
    Life is an adventure….let us carry on.

  7. Loved your post. So inspiring. I find the same is true for creating visual art. However, I could never express it so eloquently!

  8. Michael Lee, this is one of the most touching posts I've read. Your honesty and metaphors are heartwarming and make me appreciate you as a writer all the more. All of your books are on my shelf, each one has brought me hours of delight. I eagerly await your 11th. ;-)
    Thank you for the Novel Bakers' Gardening Week. It was spectacular! I will be revisiting these posts again and again as they are full of garden inspiration beyond compare. My copy of An Invitation to the Garden arrived this week. So happy to have it in my hands. Now I need to find a copy of Private Edens.
    Beautiful video!
    Glad to hear your garden got a nice rain. We had 3 days of glorious rain last weekend, and the garden has responded with much joy. Happy First Day of June!

  9. Michael Lee, I can't even imagine the difficulty of creating and then assembling a cast of characters for a novel, then adding a plot and interest! Writing a few simple paragraphs for a blog post is nothing like it, I know that for sure! Your garden metaphor is perfect. Why do some flourish, others perish, and how hard is it to pull up those still blooming because it is time for the next seasonal plants? I'm looking forward to your next book so I hope it is growing nicely. :) Linda

  10. Thank you for sharing this ML, the life of an artist can be a lonely one~I loved hearing about your process, the challenges with your spouse, and what distraction can do~my best days are days alone to create without interruption. I am eagerly anticipating your next book, and thank you for sharing so much during this busiest of times~