At the end of Voltaire’s satirical tale Candide (1759), the eponymous hero – sadder and wiser after all his misadventures – comes to the anti-climactic conclusion that ‘one must cultivate one’s garden’: il faut cultiver notre jardin. This attitude, relinquishing naive optimism and embracing steady self-disciplined labour, is one that any experienced writer eventually learns to adopt.
I do a fair bit of gardening – usually as a servile semi-skilled Caliban; chez nous the dominant Prospero role of designer is already taken.
Even at this time of the year, after many weeks of unremitting dry heat in Perth, there are plenty of chores waiting out there in the backyard.
This morning it was time to uproot a large bed of overblown petunias, regretfully dislodging countless small frogs who’d been sheltering beneath the flowers. (They soon found an alternative place to rest, adjusting their colours accordingly.)
Gardening seems to me an apt metaphor for the writing process. Getting quietly on with the task, preparing the ground, planting seeds, weeding, reshaping, pruning, regularly feeding and watering – all these mundane horticultural activities have their obvious counterparts in the work of creative authorship.
In the introduction to her book Between the Leaves: Stories of Australian Women, Writing and Gardens (UWAP 2011), Katie Holmes quotes Michael Pollan’s remark that writing and gardening, as “two ways of rendering the world in rows, have a great deal in common.” Holmes goes on to note that “both have immediate and long-terms results”:
Writers can erase one sentence and immediately replace it with another; gardeners can remove a plant and immediately plant another. But a book and a garden taken time to mature and develop. In each case, the end result will often bear little or no resemblance to those naive initial plans, with everything in proportion and place. Disappointment, failure and frustration are common to both, as are joy, delight and satisfaction.
Whether one’s development project is a garden or a book, the slow shaping process requires much the same kind of dedication.
And potentially there’s a closer link as well. For if (as in my case) the two creative spaces are situated side by side – if the writing desk is only a few steps away from the green shade where things grow and creatures roost (or wriggle, crawl, splash, visit) – then the vitality of the garden can enter the words that emerge on the page.
I look out through my window, or stroll over to the pond, or pick a bunch of parsley – and I’m reminded of the teeming variety of life forms on my tiny patch of the planet: more than a dozen kinds of birds, innumerable insects, an assortment of snails and worms and arachnids and amphibians, along with all the vegetables, herbs, flowers, bushes, trees…
Any of these can become fertile sources of imagery for a writer. (Don’t be surprised if frogs make a cameo appearance in my next novel. Unless the kookaburras get to them first.)