Friday, April 26, 2013

Writers and Their Gardens

     When I read novels, memoirs, essays, and poetry, and am especially sensitive to the sensitivity of the author, I begin to dig (no pun intended). I search out tidbits about what made/makes that author tick. Does/did a life exist for them outside of words, pen, paper, typewriter, or computer, I wonder? I'm rewarded for my Sherlock instincts, and would be remiss if not selfish in keeping this information for my own Aha! moments.
     In today's Post, I relate that these authors learned to write by reading. They learned to garden by digging. I present to you the first in a series of "Writers and Their ________ ."

     Michael Pollan's articles have been anthologized in Best American Science Writing, Best American Essays, and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. Pollan served for many years as executive editor of Harper's Magazine, and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has received numerous journalistic awards.
    The jacket blurb of my volume of Second Nature (1991), Bloomsbury  Publishing, states that the book "is a lively and absorbing account of one man's experience in his garden" (his first in Cornwall, CT). Since this book, Pollan has written numerous others about gardening, and food's role in modern society.

     Charles Dudley Warner was an American essayist, novelist, and friend of Mark Twain, with whom he co-authored the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Warner's skills as an essayist and editor were greater than Twain's. Twain wrote to a friend, "I think you don't like The Gilded Age, but that's because you've been reading Warner's chapters." It was Twain's first novel.
     By 1880, Warner had become one of the country's most popular writers, and acted as a contributing editor to Harper's magazine (see MPollan, above). In 1884, a survey of the nation's literary "immortals" ranked Warner 15th. Twain was 14th. Warner's contribution to the hort world was My Summer In a Garden, back in print after 125 years. On October 20, 1900, Warner died after collapsing during a walk. Mark Twain served as pall bearer at his interment at Cedar Hill Cemetery, CT.

   Sir Roy Strong is an English art historian, museum curator, writer, and broadcaster. He had been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was knighted in 1983.
   Strong earned his Ph.D. from the Warburg Institute, University of London, and became a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.
   My educational past was in the field of art history, and I was familiar with Strong's historical writings long before I came to know his landscape and gardening interests. I came on that fact when I bought a small tome (385 pages) titled A Celebration of Gardens. The book has provided me endless hours of reading, and I have since learned that The Lasket Garden was painstakingly renovated by Strong and his wife. The Garden is open to group tours, see:

   Edna St. Vincent Millay had already won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when she moved to Austerlitz, New York, in 1925. Millay created a series of outdoor rooms on her 700-acre farm called Steepletop, and entertained on a large scale. She forbade bathing suits on many occasions, and weeded in the nude in her wildflower and vegetable plots. Milay, like other authors before and after her (VWoolf, GBShaw, RDahl, MTwain), built a writing shack in a pine grove she planted (inspired by her childhood in Maine), and worked on her writing there each day. Visit this garden after consulting for "open" hours at*

   Eudora Welty, the celebrated short-story writer and novelist, lived in Jackson, Mississippi. She learned to garden from her mother ("rising at dawn, moving along behind her in the borders"). She so loved Camellia japonica 'Lady Clare' (one of thirty varieties of camellias grown in her garden), that her mother overnighted blossoms by train when she was away.
   Be sure to check out One Writer's Garden: Eudor Welty's Home Place, (2011) by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown, which details the history of Welty's garden from planting to restoration.
  Her garden is open for visiting. For information:*

Jamaica Kincaid was born on the island of St. Johns, Antigua. Her books have received great critical praise. Jamaica's first garden in Vermont was a plot in the middle of her front lawn. Macmillan Publishers writes: "In My Garden (Book), (2001), she gathers all she loves about gardening and plants, and examines it generously, passionately, and with sharp, idiosyncratic discrimination." Later it's noted that her book "is an intimate, playful, and penetrating book on gardens, the plants that fill them, and the person who tends them."

   Eleanor Perenyi worked as a journalist, and has written a biography of Liszt, and a novel. She lived in Stonington, CT. For many years, she worked as an editor at several magazines, among them Harper's Bazaar and Mademoiselle, where she was the managing editor. Perenyi received the H. D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982.
   The NY Times wrote that her one book on gardening, Green Thoughts, "known for its plain, elegant prose, trenchant humor and above all, its forthright opinions," has become an American gardening classic. And that it "was notable for using Mrs. Perenyi's years of toil in her Connecticut garden as a window on to the wider social world, ranging over history, myth, and philosophy."

   Edith Wharton was  a keen observer and chronicler of society, many feel she is without peer. Her works include The Age of Innocence, Roman Fever and Other Stories, and The Writing of Fiction.
   Wharton said because of her efforts in her estate's garden The Mount in Lenox, MA, that she was "a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place . . . far surpasses The House of Mirth." She created three acres of formal gardens on a 113-acre property, influenced by the gardens of Italian Villas she'd seen on many trips to Italy. Her website states that she created "an environment that would meet her needs as a designer, gardener, hostess, and above all, writer." For information about visiting her garden, see *

This then is the "Ying" of writing, and the "Yang" of growing. I hope you found this of interest. Let me know, if in my search for interesting side lines to various authors' lives, you have a particular aspect you'd like to know about (name the author(s)). 

*Ozawa, Melissa. 2013. The Writer's Garden. Martha Stewart Living, April, 107-109.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Understanding Poetry

      Actually, the title is not accurate. It would be, had I written "Reading to Understand the Meaning of Words in Contemporary Poetry." In fact, the fuller title is really what this Post is about.

     I've been immersed in reading a waist-high stack of modern poets––poets alive, poets young (some not), poets of laureate fame, and poets approaching the dawn of their fame.
     I pride myself on my vocabulary, and delight in discovering a good, challenging word. I keep a book for those words. I take pride that Latin was a core subject in twelve years of my early education, and still know to break down the prefix/root/suffix to move closer to a word's meaning. I enjoy stringing infinite word possibilities into my own writing. I love words, which is why Word P'rade is a tab in this Blog.
     However, I am confused by some contemporary poetry. Most often it's a word(s) that trips me. Once that happens, I falter with the imagery and remainder of the poem as I sort out the problem of word meaning(s). I value the malleability of the English language. Ditto for the artistic liberties that poetry brings to the table. But I'm left to wonder how some words I encounter are strange or are little used. It's become a handicap for me in reading the works of some poets.
     My reasoning is: if the purpose of language, written or spoken, is to make oneself understood, why use a word, for example appetence, in a poem. If the poet insists on its use, perhaps a footnote might offer insight (appetence n: 1. strong desire or instinct; 2. craving), but that's an impossibility. Still, with that example, what impact could the poet hope to achieve, if the reader has to stop reading to distill meaning from a word(s) before fetching the dictionary, and then shrugs with a muttered, "Okay, now where was I." It's this poetic factor that makes poetry hard to recommend.
     It could be argued that writers/poets are artists, and as such are tired of using easy-to-intermediate, even stale, words. It could also be argued that uncommon words keep poetry vibrant.
     Imagery, form, simile, metaphor, tone, content and personification are artistic tools of a poet. One joy for reading or writing poetry is the "work" involved in stretching the horizons of mind and soul. A poet can chose to use words that most people use every day as they experience life through work, love, play, celebration, grief, and entertainment thereby leaving more time and mental acuity to explore a poem's meaningful content.
     In the end, a poet is defined by his or her chosen words just as a poem itself is defined by its chosen words.
I've read some people feel that poetry has to be endured. They, as readers, feel limited. Artistic complications aside, I wondered if arcane words might be a contributing factor to this alienation. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would really love to know.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Atwood's 10 Rules of Writing

     Last week I shared Sol Stein's "Ten Commandments for Writers,"(Stein on Writing). A reader of that Blog post, emailed to me a for-your-interest website, Brain Pickings. I was smitten with the multitude of informational nuggets found there––and, those of you who know me, know how adrenalin pumped I become with discovering new things (view 1/4/2013 Blog Post Intriguing Resources).

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today’s most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here comes Margaret Atwood with her denary decree:
  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.  
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type. 
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4.  If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Two distinguished writers in just as many weeks. I hope you have sorted what's important for you and your writing. Thanks for visiting, and please let me know if you've been influenced by another writer's rules.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ten Commandments for Writers*

     I check and recheck my writing (short story, essay, poem), and to be positively sure, I recheck again for facts, grammar, punctuation, adverbs, and adjectives. Then I commit final triage, liposuctioning misfits, maladroits, and other scalawags that do little to bolster my creative intent. After, I make a few hand-to-forehead gestures with some audibles, but I'm learning from those mistakes and oversights.

     One year I plucked Stein on Writing off a bookstore shelf, perused the table of contents and a few chapters, and bought the volume. Right now, it's sticky-noted, annotated, and high-lighted. The book ends with Part VII, "Where to Get Help." It's here I double-check my work, especially against his Ten Commandments, which are:
    Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
  1. Thou shalt not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot lest thou produce hackwork. In the beginning was the character, then the word, and from the character's words is brought forth action.
  2. Thou shalt imbue thy heroes with faults and thy villains with charm, for it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
  3. Thy characters shall steal, kill, dishonor their parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor's house, manservant, maidservant, wife, ox, and ass, for readers crave such actions and yawn when thy characters are meek, innocent, for-giving, and peaceable.
  4. Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.
  5. Thou shalt not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream, for it is the words and not the characterization of the words that must carry their own decibels.
  6. Thou shalt infect thy reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in life he relishes in fiction.
  7. Thy language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers.
  8. Thou shalt have no rest on the sabbath, for thy characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever.
  9. Thou shalt not forget that dialogue is as a foreign tongue, a semblance of speech and not a record of it, a language in which directness diminishes and obliqueness sings.
  10. Above all, thou shalt not vent thy emotions onto the reader, for thy duty is to evoke the reader's emotions, and in that most of all lies the art of the writer.
I use these to check against my short stories or essays as they near homestretch. I pencil in the Commandment numbers that make the mark on my draft. The missing ones tell me I need to revisit my work. Writing is all about moving forward, and learning to get it right, isn't it?

* Chapter 35: A Final Word