Inspired by the Tarot Illuminati deck, by Erik C. Dunne, and informed by its companion book, written by Kim Huggens. This post in particular is built upon fond memories of browsing the gardener’s dream book, The Principles of Gardening, by Hugh Johnson.
The garden before me is only half green. The rest is bright scarlet with hollyhocks, blue with columbines, purple with irises, yellow and orange with lilies. A few clusters of small pale grapes, not yet ripe, hang from bowers overhead, and a path leads through trellises to a set of stone steps just visible in the distance. Here in the center of the garden, a young man leans on his hoe. He is muscled in the way that hard work makes muscles; he is richly dressed, in long, soft robes, but his sandals are well worn and his hands are calloused. Scattered throughout the plants of the garden are seven pentacles, which take the form of large gold coins with raised pentagrams in the center and arcane symbols around the edge. The young man’s eyes are on the closest coin, but they look inward, or far away, which is the same.
I approach, but he does not notice me, until my foot slips off of a stepping stone and pea gravel crunches under my shoes. Then he looks up sharply.
The writing life has many hours of labor for a few moments of measurable fruit. It is easy to focus on the fruit that may not have ripened yet – the published book, the good review, the contract, the money. Those are the things that the non-writing world uses to mark success and when an acquaintance asks about those, all the rest of the writing life seems to mean nothing. We don’t answer them by talking about those moments when brilliant words come through us, the joy that comes with the act of writing, the pleasure of the work. Our acquaintances wouldn’t see those moments as justification for our labors. But our friend in the garden is not focused on the grapes that hang overhead. He is considering what has to be done now, the small weed that must be pulled, the tiny seedling moved to where it can thrive, the buds that must be clipped to redirect the plant’s energy to growth. He is successful already, even if his fruits aren’t ripe, because he is living in the moment. His is a labor of love.
It is hard enough to take his attention away from what he does. I am reluctant to ask him to come with me, so I call for tea to be delivered, and lay the white cloth upon the wrought iron table while we wait.
“Tell me,” I say, folding my hands like a Ph.D. and leaning back into the flowered vinyl cushion. “What lessons would you like the world to know? What advice do you have to give the writers who come across this column?”
He does not sit down. He looks at his own hand on the hoe. “Do what is hard,” he says, and his voice is like a fresh glass of milk, rich and cold. “Learn to love the challenge of doing exactly what you don’t feel like doing.” He lifts the hoe and brings it down sharply, driving it exactly between a chicory plant and a hyacinth, and then he works the chicory loose from the crumbling soil by twisting the handle of the hoe in tiny movements. “When you have made a practice of this, you have taken the first step to loving your work.” Satisfied, he stoops to pick up the thick stem. He carries it to a bin waiting at the entrance of the garden. I open my mouth to ask another question but he begins speaking again.
“Keep your work area neat,” he says. “I don’t mean just the physical space. I mean here,” he says as he taps his head. “Keep your activities separate from each other. Know when you are drafting, know when you are editing. Make decisions and stick to them. Always finish what you start. Know what your goals are, both long term and for the moment you sit down. But do keep your physical space not just workable but beautiful. You must love being there. This is for you, after all.”
He comes back to stand at the table. My tea butler, my doppelganger, sets the table with full tea service and scones. She bows and sweeps out her arm, gesturing to a seat.
The gardener ignores her. “Forgo comfort,” he says. “Comfort feeds the need for comfort.” He turns his back on the tea table.
Somehow, the sugar crystals on top of the scones look a little less sparkly. “I didn’t expect your words to be so ascetic,” I murmur.
He laughs, a solid crashing sound. “You think pleasure only comes from ease?” he says. “Come here.”
“Look.” He points to a rosebush, set well in among the exploding stars of the alliums. The blooms are a bluish pink, and as I lean in, I breathe in a cloud of rich heady fragrance. “This one almost didn’t make it.” He looks up at me, and I see tenderness in his face. “Four years ago, I bought this specimen of ‘Gertrude Jekyll’. I thought I knew about roses. I didn’t know. The canes turned brown, the stems were sparse. But,” and he turns back, fingers one of the glossy toothed leaves that cover the plant in a thick green coat, “in the winter months, I read about rose care, and applied what I learned in the spring. When the plant still struggled, I went to an expert. I transplanted it. I dug it up, and moved it somewhere else. Still it failed. So I went to a class. I paid to learn. I learned. And finally, just last year, this little shrub began to flourish.” He lifts a bud, but does not pluck it.
“Do I love it for the flowers?” he asks. “No. I love it because I had to labor for it, and it responded to my labors. This one means more to me than almost anything else. So, too, those characters, those scenes, that give you the most trouble – if you are willing to let go of thinking you know how to handle them, and instead take the advice of those you trust, and learn again – then you will grow from them, and love them more than anything else. Look now.” He strides to the unripe grapes. “We’ll enjoy these when they come in. Sweet, delicious. They will give me a moment of gustatory delight. But it will be just one moment. You can’t live for those. You live for all the moments between. The work itself.”
He comes back to me, gets right close to me. “That’s what I would tell you writers. Make sure you love the labor. Do what it takes to love the labor, and accept the fleeting pleasure of the fruit as just that.” He straightens and faces his garden again. “Process is everything.”
I sit down, humbled. “Thank you,” I say finally. “And, ah, since this is for a blog about speculative fiction, can you recall any particular characters or stories which embody this principle?”
He chuckles this time, a rolling wave rather than a breaking. He leans on his hoe and looks in the distance. “This is a tricky one for characters, especially main characters. They have to be driven toward their goals, to keep the story moving forward. Every once in a while, though, you meet a supporting character whose focus is the journey, not the destination. Jonathan Strange’s wife, Arabella, for example, in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. She wants nothing more than the pleasures of living her role. She’s at peace – at least, until the Faerie becomes fascinated by her, and plants other ideas in her mind.”
I’m confused. “But if the characters need to be driven by goals, shouldn’t the writer?”
“Having goals and loving the work to get them aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said. “But peace with where you are at the moment – that is what the writer must have, and the main character must not.”
I thank him and rise, and help my doppelganger take the whole service away. I use the toe of my sandal to surreptitiously smooth out the pebbles where the legs of the chair made indentations. When all is removed, I return to say good-bye. I clear my throat to get his attention. He does not look up. “Thank you,” I say.
The gardener says nothing. I have no idea if he heard me or not. As I head up the steps to the waiting world, I hear his hoe strike the soil again.