Authors grow by letting go

Pop! The flowers of late spring are appearing right on schedule, several weeks later than in other parts of Michigan. This is Lake Superior North Country. My Keweenaw Peninsula is closer to Ontario, Canada or the Minneapolis Twin Cities than the state capital way down yonder in Lansing.

So the lupine waits ’til June while hothouse petunias shiver in their window boxes. No biggie. A profusion of forget-me-nots, columbine and the chives with their merry purple pom-pons will suffice in the meantime. Nature really does abhor a vacuum. For example, greedy chipmunks have eaten most of the tulip bulbs and all of the crocuses; soft-scented pink hyacinths obligingly fill in the blanks. As their aroma fades, here come the lilacs and apple blossoms, a glorious procession of scent and color that lingers until the next strong wind whips them away.

Each month of the short, intense growing season brings a garden surprise. As I watered the budding bearded irises this afternoon, I spied at the base of the old apple tree nearby a vibrant poppy, nodding its head at me as if to say “Yes, I’ve been here all along. It was up to you to stop mowing so close to the trunk. Do you see now? Do you see?”

There’s a lesson here for writers and editors. We plot, seed, fertilize, prune, yank and transplant according to our own rigid dictates. To keep a schedule: a time set aside for writing; a story list; a chapter outline; a map of where we are and where we want to go is all well and good. That’s how we grow in our craft, acquire effective tools and pile up publishing credits. We get in there, get our hands dirty and reap what we sow. Sometimes, many times, we have to wait longer than we think we should for the work to fully flower.

Just keep in mind that growth by definition evolves organically, in a natural order beyond immediate conscious control. Like those poppies. I vaguely recall planting a couple of poppy seedlings two years ago in a flowerbed 20 feet away from the apple tree. My friend Mary had given them to me from her own garden. They never came up. So did they migrate? Or are these new flowers the product of fallen birdseed from a long-ago feeder? Wondering won’t keep me up at night. I’m simply grateful for the unexpected pleasure and satisfying conclusion.

It reminds me of the times I’ve started an article or novel chapter thinking it’s going to go one way; then finding as I read over the completed work that the story has taken an entirely different path.

And then there are the forgotten stories rediscovered, just like the rhubarb I planted when my children were toddlers. Rhubarb takes a long time to mature. If I’d known I’d have to wait a minimum of five years, I probably wouldn’t have planted it in the first place (I was very impatient in my 20s). The experience taught me the importance of consulting growing instructions. I promptly dismissed the rhubarb, so thoroughly ignoring its presence that I forgot it existed. My children were in their 20s when the rhubarb finally reared its magnificent head from the sugar-plum thicket, fully matured, a scepter-like white flower heavy with seed pods rising from the center of the cape-like leaves and thick pink stems high above the bush tops. Talk about a masterpiece!

Smart writers preserve what long ago was planted. They take notes. They keep journals. They wait for the seeds of ideas to germinate. At a Seven Seas Cruising Association meeting in Marathon, Florida in February 2012, guest speaker and author Betsy Morris said she frequently mines her old notebooks and ship’s logs for story ideas. “When you go back to your notes, you will always find new material,” she said.

A frequent contributor to nautical publications including SAIL magazine, Morris recently self-published Bitter Passage, a novel set in the Gold Rush days (http://www.elizabethbmorris.webs.com). She used Amazon for the project, noting that it’s free and formatting can be done on-line. I squirreled away this grain of information in my latest notebook, a collection of publishing options I’ll need to research before taking my book to market. There was a time when I despaired, when the dream of writing a novel lay fallow in cold and barren territory. Interior and exterior interruptions would not permit my garden to grow. Those days are over.

In mid-summer 2005, I pulled a tiny sucker from a wild rose bush at the South Entry of the Keweenaw Waterway. Fragile roots wrapped in a wet paper towel, it resided in a plastic zip-lock bag aboard my sailboat for a week. Back at the house, I dunked the would-be rosebush in rooting powder and stuck it in a pot of growing medium. There it sat through the winter, gathering what fleeting sun it could from a southern-exposed window. I gave it a little water from time to time.

“When are you going to throw out that dead stick?” my husband asked in mid-March.  True enough, by all appearances my envisioned beautiful rosebush showed no sign of life.

Come spring I planted it in its intended spot in the front-yard flowerbed anyway.  It could decompose with dignity, knowing that I had never given up on it. At least the potting soil would benefit the garden bed.

The rosebush remained a stick that year; a stick with two leaves. The following year it added a branch and a few more leaves; the next year several more. A couple of years later it survived a fungus attack, although growth was severely set back by the blight. It still hasn’t bloomed, but it has persisted. I’m beginning to think that its time is very near.

Reminds me of my novel.

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