Thursday, July 31, 2014

Would you like some zucchini? We’re swimming in them.

If I could figure out how to get veggies through the computer, I’d be happy to share my garden’s bounty with you. Since I can’t, I’ll share some Y’s words instead. (This post is adapted from one that appeared on my personal blog,, on February 11, 2011.)

I’ve been gardening far longer than I’ve been writing. But it didn't take me long to discover the two preoccupations fit together like cucumber and dill. Yes, gardening can provide great subject matter. But I not only like to write about gardening, I write while gardening. I’ve spent many hours plotting a story, getting to know characters, or mentally clambering about a fictional setting while tending my veggies.

Of course peppers and onions inspire creativity—everyone knows that. But it’s less common knowledge that the art of growing fruits can teach us a thing or two about the craft of writing.

Like many readers of my generation, I cut my teeth on the old classics, which were written when language was flowing and flowery. Consequently, when I began writing, I imitated their wordy style.

Keeping my writing clean and concise was difficult for me at first. For one thing, it seemed wrong to cut off all that beauty. (Or what I perceived as such. It's in the eye of the beholder, after all.) For another, old habits are hard to break even when you’re convinced of the need for it. Which, at first, I wasn’t.

Shortly after my writer friends held an intervention and forced me to accept that I had a problem, I came to a surprising realization. That is, the most helpful guide for trimming the fat from my fiction was the same book that taught me the art of pruning trees: Lewis Hill’s marvelously practical resource, Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. Since then, I’ve applied Hill’s guidelines to my apple trees, grape vines, and writing with equal success.
Grape vines in need of pruning

For instance: why do we prune?
1 – To remove diseased, broken, or old branches;
2 – To thin out extra limbs;
3 – To remove crossed limbs and prevent weak divisions;
4 – To allow more light to reach the inner branches;
5 – Removing old limbs that have lost vigor allows new ones to replace them, thus renewing the whole tree every decade;
6 – To train the tree into proper shape and size.

Though we're talking about fruit-bearing plants, it’s easy to apply the same principles to writing.

Confusing phrases and misused words are diseased and broken branches. 
Redundancies and repetitions are extra or crossed limbs. 
Side tangents that don’t move the story forward are weak limb divisions. 
Unnecessary words need to be cut to let the sunshine of clarity shine in. 
With all these things removed, our writing will take on the shape and size that makes it beautiful and fruitful.
Grape vines properly pruned

When pruning trees, Mr. Hill recommends removing everything you dare. The next day, go out and do the same thing. Again. To the same trees. That should yield the desired result.

I follow that advice with my writing. When revising a draft, I remove everything it seems possible to cut, let it rest awhile, then go back and do it again. 

Incidentally, that works with trees and manuscripts, but not grape vines. With grapes, you must know what shape the vine should be, and you merely remove everything that doesn't conform to the way the plant needs to grow. There's a lesson for writing there, too, I think!

Unlike the orchardist, the writer can prune in any season. We needn’t worry about temperature or sap flow. So scribes, get out your clippers and saws and start trimming!

And if you need some zucchini, stop by the house. I’ll give you all you want.


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