Gardening, not architecture

Since I was given a set of Oblique Strategies cards, (digital version here) I’ve been choosing one at the start of each writing day. Some I use to set the mood of my work for the session, and some I use to have a bit of snark. One has become so important to me I have separated it from the main card pack and display it above my desk. That card simply says ‘Gardening, not architecture’.

There are many, many metaphors for writing, and many, many metaphors for writing practice. For me, gardening, not architecture fits very well to writing fiction. 

Beeez

Architecture implies a plan, building materials, and permanence. In traditional architecture, the impression is one of a project that is built with certainty and is rarely revised when construction begins. Sure, some repairs might be made and issues addressed if they occur, but overall, what’s on the plan ends up being built.

Gardening, I believe, is a more flexible and useful metaphor for writing, and I think this works whether you plan out every paragraph or you discovery write. Let me explain what I mean. (Warning, this metaphor is going to get stretched atom thin, but stay with me.)

Good advice

If you’re gardening you take account of the seasons and the soil, the prevailing wind and the local conditions. You might have a plan for your flowerbed or allotment plot. What’s at the heart of this approach, is that when you plant seeds, bulbs or shrubs, you never quite know how they will turn out. Of course your plans may turn out perfect, and your fruit bushes may be abundant. Or it might go disastrously wrong. There may be major storms or drought. Parts of your garden might become waterlogged or the birds might strip the fruit from the branches of your cherry tree. Your potato rows might become overgrown with weeds. 

You have to be responsive and proactive in your management by constantly making decisions and adjustments. (Doing nothing and allowing it to go completely wild is an entirely valid decision). You might decide that the fuchsias are far too dominating in the back corner of the garden, so you trim them back. You might see a mysterious plant growing by the compost bin, research it, find it’s a rare orchid and decide to leave it in place. You might choose to sacrifice one blackcurrant bush to the garden birds, but net the others so you have them for yourself.

Gardens can grow anywhere

However, the important part of all of this, is that throughout all the decision making, the garden is still a garden; coherent, whole and intact. It might look very different from what you intended, with roses and magnolia dominating where you hadn’t intended them, but you will still have your garden.

I think this responsiveness, this flexibility is a more useful mindset to approach writing fiction than architecture or sculpture. Often we have an idea of where we want to go, but until we start writing, we don’t quite know what it’s going to look like, and in the same way as we can pull weeds up from amongst the potatoes, or thin out the bedding plants, during editing we can change elements of the story while still allowing it to stay coherent.

Even in the cold, something good can flourish

I also think that the gardening metaphor allows for the possibility of surprise, the chance that we can arrive at a beautiful outcome that we weren’t expecting.

The idea of gardening works whether you are a planner or a discovery writer. You might have more control as a planner, but the final story is probably still going to need some editing, in the same way as a planned garden will need management to get it looking how you intend. And if you’re a discovery writer? Well, you can throw seeds all over the place, see what comes up and work from there.

Can I stretch this metaphor even further? Oh yes!

What happens when a story just doesn’t work. If a garden doesn’t work, you can salvage seeds, ready to start again. You can dig up plants that are in the wrong place, put them in the greenhouse over winter, and replant them in better locations the next year.

In the same way, you can dismantle a story, find the elements that did work (because no story is a complete failure). You might have a good character, but not in the right narrative. A setting might be perfect, but not fit the particular chapter. You might have nothing to show apart from the way the protagonist holds her cup of coffee as she looks out across the city. What you can do if you approach this as gardening is take the elements that might work elsewhere and nourish them in the better soil of another story.

Architecture is different. The building might develop and age. You might be able to tinker. You might even be able to add to it, but the architecture has a solidity and coherence that doesn’t allow for much flexibility. The garden is constantly changing, and constantly changeable. You can beautify it, or make it more practical. Even with all this tinkering, the garden will still be the garden as a story will still be a story, and eventually, you can sit back and put your feet up, enjoying the beauty of it.

So when it comes to writing, my suggestion is, don’t be an architect, be a gardener.

There are even gods to find in the garden, if you look close enough

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