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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Outdoor States of Mind and Phases of Writing

Meadow with morning dew
Out in the Garden

If I wake up in the morning worrying and fretting, my mood always lightens when I step through the door and out into the green June Michigan world. Watering gardens enhances that lightness of spirit, as imagining the relief of the plants at these gentle showers from my hand induces a calm, generous, altruistic mood.

Actual planting – seeds or plants – is more exciting than calming, but the state of mind created by that activity is positive and altruistic, too, like watering. Both have to do with nurture, with a turning outward from self, a caring for the world.

Little plum tree, pruned
I didn’t used to like pruning at all. It felt like wanton, cruel maiming. Only after working with a master gardener friend, who taught me not only how to do it and why, was I able to consider pruning as beneficial, and now when I set to pruning a tree or shrub, I see myself setting it free to be more, paradoxically, than it would be otherwise be. Pruning stimulates growth, too. 

One task that can lead my mind into a negative path, though, is weeding. Something about grubbing out invaders of my precious garden space -- maybe the time it takes -- calls up thoughts of slights, resentments, annoyances and irritations with human beings in my life. Perhaps the energy generated is well spent, weeding, but I don’t like dwelling on negative encounters. I would rather let go of annoyance than nurture negativity.

A lesson from the garden: What we nurture will grow; what we don’t want to grow, we should not nurture.

How, though, to resolve my weeding state of mind? It’s a good thing I mulch as heavily as I do, substituting heavy applications of spoiled straw for bare earth that must be tirelessly cultivated and weeded! But there is no escaping entirely the presence of weeds. What to do? Let them remain?

Untidy strawberry bed
One morning last week while pulling grass and dandelions from the strawberry bed, I tried to enter my pruning state of mind. Instead of hating the weeds, instead of a warring approach, I focused on the strawberry plants and their desire not to be crowded and strangled. Still pulling out unwanted plants by the roots, whenever possible, I found myself handling them more gently. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They were only trying to live, like any other plant or animal on earth. Killing them isn’t the point: giving the garden plants room to thrive is.

Parallels? Writing//Gardening?

Oh, the excitement of beginning a first draft! It’s like planting, isn’t it? Returning each day to add pages – that’s watering. To fill a notebook is to sow a field. Will there be a harvest? 

How much work between planting and harvest? The discipline of practice combines with the background excitement of hope. Maybe this will be really good!

Can you see the corn shoots emerging?
Revising and rewriting involve pruning – and sometimes grafting. That is, the revision process may be subtractive, additive, or both. The similarity to pruning is that it is a process of shaping. What might have begun as messy wandering fragments or a sprawling, ungainly mass must be relieved of extraneous material and dead ends. Sometimes beautiful, beloved sentences or paragraphs need to be sacrificed for the form of the whole. Tempting to defend, difficult to cut!

And where does weeding come in? That’s the copy editing phase. Most of us who write have certain words or phrases on which we lean too heavily – an adjective that crops up three times in a single page, for instance, signals a need to weed. Little words, too (and, but, said, etc.), can clutter the page is they are too numerous. But it’s difficult to copy edit one’s own work! (Exclamation marks generally weaken the statements the end. Does the exclamation mark preceding the opening parenthesis need to go?) Grammar and spelling software prod you inappropriately in one sentence and let errors slide on the same page.

Copy editing someone else’s work can be like weeding someone else’s garden, calling forth the terrible temptation to be annoyed. How can a writer not know the function of a semicolon? The difference between ‘rein’ and ‘reign’? When to use a subject pronoun and when to use an object pronoun? What's with all this pesky grass smothering the iris? The paradox is that the good copy-editor must pick nits but will be happier if she can do it while continuing to admire the writer and love the work. Focus on freeing up the garden, not destroying weeds!

I’ve worked as a copy editor, doing my first copy editing, unofficially, while working as a typist. I’m pretty good at it. But these days I say no, thank you, to offers of copy editing jobs, because they take up too much mental space for too long a time, and I already feel my mental space, like my free time, is scant and precious.

Outdoors – with sketchbook and pen or pencils, with camera, with dog, mowing grass, watering or weeding gardens – I can engage in activity and have my mind free at the same time. Then, when the time comes to immerse myself once more in written words, my own or someone else’s, I go to the page with a refreshed spirit.

Reminder: This Friday is our 21st bookstore birthday party with live poets! We have gone from a round dozen to a baker’s dozen (thirteen), adding Teresa Scollon to the list of those who will be present. Official start time is 5 p.m., but come early to choose your seat for the readings and to get a head start on enjoying refreshments.

“Life is short. Have dessert first.”

Note: Guest poets will be 
Patricia Clark, 
Linda Nemec Foster, 
Joy Friedler,
Francine J. Harris, 
Dennis Hinrichsen, 
David James, 
Josie Kearns,
Bill Olsen, 
Anne-Marie Oomen, 
Mary Ann Samyn, 
Teresa Scollon,
Alison Swan, 
and Keith Taylor. 
The cost of the anthology (which also includes beautiful color art reproductions of work by Michigan artists), including sales tax, is $42.50. Bring your own folding chair and receive a 5% discount off the $40 list price of the book.


Dawn said...

You are right. Gardening is a lot like writing. I'm always so excited at the beginning, the hope for what might be this year better than last...and then there's all that weeding. Sigh. But if we're good and/or lucky, we will end up with something wonderful!

Happy birthday bookstore! :)

Dawn said...

Oh, I forgot! Katie and I made it as far as Elk Rapids last weekend! We didn't get over as far as you...but we thought about you!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Dawn. I'm sure you and Katie had a good time in Elk Rapids -- and it's hard to do both sides of Grand Traverse Bay in a single weekend (especially with the allure of Traverse City in between). If only we had that car ferry from Northport to Eastport (or, more practically, from Northport to Charlevoix, but I like the sound of the two -ports together)! I'm still dreaming, as you can see.