The first stirrings come as a friend tells you that your garden is so interesting that you really ought to write about it. And by Golly, they are right. You have 25 years experience as a keen gardener. Your reputation as a knowledgeable plants-person has grown over time, and your garden has been filmed by the well-known garden show presenter who was once a professional wrestler. So it is time to take the next step; to move beyond the garden gate and take your place under the sun.
A book seems the way to go. It is so much more solid and lasting than an article or two in a gardening magazine. The old technology appeals through the feel of the paper on which a book is printed, the cover will be an eye-catching full-colour affair showing off one of your most excellent photographs and it will be possible within your busy life as the writing can be deferred and caught-up again as other events impinge on your time.
You require a few simple accoutrements to enable your writing: a study – check, a good work-chair – check, a desk-top computer – check, a sturdy lap-top – check, a supply of A4 paper – check, printer cartridges – check, a hi-res scanner to capture images – check, and a good digital camera – check. That is quite an investment in terms of cash outlay so just stow the sum away in the back drawer of your mind. The house may need a little restructuring to provide you with a writing room, or study.
A garden gazebo as a place of seclusion for garden writing is not really an option unless you have staff in the house to bring and fetch; otherwise it provides a kind of attractive isolation highly vulnerable to near-at-hand diversions such as flagging seedlings and flowers that call out to be looked at – or dead-headed.
Some long periods of thought and mindfulness generate the realisation that yours will not be a prosaic instruction manual about growing tomatoes or planting cabbages; it will be a personalised account of how your garden developed as a natural outgrowth of your creative self. Is a working title necessary? Well, it can help to provide focus and motivation form your by now pet project. Will ‘Project One’ do? Maybe not, such bare pragmatism is stultifying, bland and un-inspiring. Something like ‘Gold from the Dross’ sounds much more impressive and certainly strikes the right tone.
Do you need to join a writing class? The opportunity for sharing progress and problems rates very highly with beginning writers of every kind, and there is the mentorship available as well as the guided learning to be gained from skilled and experienced class teachers. Critical review is a distinct possibility too, as would be collegial support, plenty of idle gossip and the odd glass of champagne. Sounds pretty much like the ideal set-up.
But it tends to be the ideal set-up for not doing very much at all. While you and your class mates talk, chat, guide, mentor, review, critique, support and gossip not much progress is made with the writing. Even less if the champagne flows.
Must you have those self-developed means of communication and promotion such a blogs and web-pages? All of these take almost daily maintenance and that means time taken away from the book writing. And it means you can get side-tracked away from the free flow of ideas which are crucial to writing some readable, and something that is a reflection of your creativity and you. Admittedly books are old technology and are far less instantaneous but they remain very popular and give opportunity for extended, deep thinking – even gardening books can be seriously considered though presented in a light-hearted style.
So let me tell you a little story about how to be a writer.
Way back in the days of portable type-writers and white-out I had a pen-friendship with Christopher Lloyd, the well-known English garden writer. At the time he was, more or less, at his peak as a writer and gardener. He wrote a column every week for Country Life magazine, his garden, ‘Great Dixter’, was a renowned stop on the garden tourism routes of the UK; he was setting out on his career as a writer of gardening books and gardening speaker. A busy man he none-the-less kindly stepped in to give me the benefit of his experience when I wrote to ask his advice on how to write a book. His answer via a scrawled hand-written letter was tellingly practical and quite simple.
“Take a large sheet of card-board,” he wrote, “large enough to cover the seat of the chair in which you plan to do your writing.” “Next, using a large black Texta-pen write on the cardboard the following letters: B. U. M.
“Now place the piece of cardboard on your writing chair with the letters facing upward.” “Then place your bum on the spot marked B.U.M. and sit there until the bloody thing is finished.”
“That is the only way to write any sort of book, even a gardening book.”
That is called self-discipline; ignore the squalling toddler, fail to notice the herd of elephants stampeding through your living room, dismiss the constant ringing of the telephone, and definitely never answer the door-bell – it will only be some God-botherer trying to sell you a soul-saving tract you haven’t got time to read. Turn off every bleeping and dinging electronic device you have. Ignore you iPhone and iPad. Neither Tweet nor Twitter; dismiss Instrgram and forget about Face-booking.
Stay at your desk come what may. Do not be put off your task, not even by a horde of screaming savages doing the watusi in your family room. In reality they are only teenagers anyway and will soon enough tire of their frenetic jiggaboo-ing and go away to torture some other less dedicated adult.
So what is it to be? Fast, or Slow?
If Slow is the choice then stick at it. Stick at it until it’s done.
Small diversions in the form of thought gathering time are permitted; not wool gathering, not day-dreaming; not even fluffy thinking or any other fuzzy stuff, and definitely not clear-sky sailing. To maintain the almost Zen-like trance required for successful writing the best break is to simply go out into the garden for a few minutes. Weed pulling at this time can aid concentration and even be deployed to generate new perspectives and novel ideas that will enrich your book and please your readers. Weed-pulling being almost mindless is an excellent change of pace from writing but it must be done with a focus foremost in your mind. You must be consciously looking for other ways to say what you want to say.
Which brings me to the great American humourist James Thurber, who so wisely counselled,
“Don’t get it right, get it writ.”
That is a savvy way of saying don’t waste time polishing your writing to the point of perfection; you will never get there and even if you did your readers would be bored rigid waiting and most probably take up another author. Get the ideas down on the page. Plenty of time to change things when the second edition of your masterpiece comes around. Spontaneity counts big time.
On this point two-fingered typing is a great asset I find. It is sufficiently slow, what with deleting and using the un-do button, for thoughts to take full form as you tap away so your thinking goes hand-in-hand with your typing at the same pace. Turn off predictive text. It can be hugely annoying to the point of inducing blasphemy from the mouths of the perfectly vegetarian.
Spell checker is not perfect either so if you want to use an esoteric, antiquated, outdated word do so. I found ‘manavlins for mavens’ induced a perfect storm among professional manuscript readers and editors and it gave me great delight to ignore their insistent claims that they knew more about what I wanted to say than I did.
By all means make some small concessions to editors and such like to keep the peace but always remember the English language is simply the tool of communication not the maker of it. Use it to say what you want to say.