Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Folly of After

When I first started gardening seriously, I got myself a bunch of books and read like a maniac. I hadn't grown up in a gardening family, and I didn't even meet my first real "plant people" until I was in college. So I had no background in it, no natural feel for growing things. I just knew that I felt a strong desire to grow things, and I had a clear vision of my own garden.

The vision was especially important. In those first few years, I spent a lot of time looking at pictures, thinking, "THIS is what I want my yard to look like." I like a heavy tropical look, so I salivated over rare aroids, tropical epiphytes, and exotic ferns. I got in the habit of driving very long distances to track down unique and unusual plants, and when that didn't work, I found people who would mail me cuttings or root sections.

I didn't really know it then, but I was making a critical mistake that I'm still working to undo. My idea of the perfect garden was a snapshot. It was literally a photograph. I knew what I wanted, and it looked exactly like the pictures in the books. I figured once I collected enough rare plants, once I figured out how to grow them, I could have that garden. It would be mine forever.

I viewed this garden as a static place, a place of frozen beauty. Of course, anyone who has spent years gardening knows that's ridiculous. But I was new. I didn't get it.

Since then, now going on 15 years later, I've had too many moments in my yard to count when I marveled at the beauty of it all. But never the same vision twice. At one time, I had a huge stand of ice cream bananas. They were gorgeous, but they're gone now. I've had 20 orchids blooming at once in my yard; I've had rows of papaya all heavy with fruit; I've had beds of color; vines loaded with fruit. All gone now.

This is what gardening has taught me: there is no goal, and in a way, the only ending is heartbreak. If I stopped taking care of my yard today, by the end of the summer, it would have reverted to sand and weeds. It only exists through the sheer force of my will, and even then, I'm only barely in control. It's forever changing, a kaleidoscope of color and texture, life and death. There are days it looks beautiful, and days it looks awful.

So it goes with writing. I think sometimes writers get attached to an idea of after. "After I sell this book ..." and "After I get a big advance ..." and "After I can quit my job ..." But I'm beginning to understand that the writing life isn't meant to yield those kinds of rewards. If it does, it's purely accidental, fleeting. The more I write, the deeper I travel into my own writer's journey, the more I see that writing is very much like my garden—the process IS the point, and at the end, the only reward I can reasonably expect is the satisfaction of the journey itself.


Jude Hardin said...

Well-said, Jon. I do think it's important, though, to celebrate the victories--typing The End on a first draft, landing a contract from an agent or publisher, getting a nice review, etc.--fleeting as they are.

A huge stand of ice cream bananas is what it is. It's a beautiful thing, and should be appreciated as such. :)

Erica Orloff said...

Jon . . .

This is my favorite post you have ever done.

I always have MUCH MORE FUN writing and being in group than I do once it's a static book. It's why I have never re-read a book of mine in print.

LurkerMonkey said...


Where's the "though"? No one said (least of all me) said you shouldn't celebrate victories as they come along ... That's what sitting in the garden is all about.

And ice cream bananas are awesome. Sadly, mine never bore fruit for a reason I never could figure.

LurkerMonkey said...


I hear you. I rarely go back and read anything, even when perhaps I should :)