Sunday, 23 April 2017

On the Architecture of Gardens by Lev Butts

My mother wanted me to be an architect when I was kid because I liked drawing and had what she called an "eye for detail" since I had once included every board of our hardwood floor when I drew our living-room. I'm not sure why she decided on an architect for my profession instead of an artist, but I am assuming it was because architects make decent money and most artists do not.

Much to her chagrin (I assume) I became a writer and a teacher (and thus doubly cursed to make less-than-decent money). While I'm not entirely sure when I decided to be a teacher (I always wanted to be a writer), I remember distinctly when I chose not to be an architect: As soon as I realized there was math involved and a whole shit-ton of work.

Pictured: My mother's ideal son.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem at all working long and hard at something I care about. I just didn't care about designing buildings.

I just wanted to draw stuff.

I am reminded of my mother's dashed hopes and dreams for me because I spent a goodly portion of this past week talking with four authors (Michael Pitre, Scott Thompson, Richard Monaco, and Cherie Priest) about our writing processes and a quote by George R. R. Martin:


This conversation began when my school hosted Pitre as our resident author for this month. While he and I were talking in my office, this came up and we discussed what kind of writers we were. Pitre sees himself as an architect. He planned out his novel from the start: figuring out how many words it would take him to tell his story, then how many chapters he'd need, how many words per chapter, and even the chapter titles, before he ever put pen to paper with his story.

Scott Thompson, too, considers himself an architect. He plans "carefully" before he writes, generating "thousands of words of notes for each novel" before he begins typing.

I, on the other hand, see myself as much more of a gardener.

Don't laugh. Gardeners are brave, steadfast, and true.
Just ask Sam
I see myself as doing very little planning beyond a basic plot idea or character note. I rarely outline beyond rough notes that are almost immediately discarded. I like this kind of writing because it gets me to the fun stuff, the actual writing, sooner. It also makes it much easier for me to allow my characters to dictate the plot development. I don't have to feel like I'm herding cats when the story goes in a completely different direction than I imagined.

Richard Monaco, too, is a gardener. For him the story isn't even his story; it's his characters'. "I'm just the amanuensis for my characters," he claims. "They tell me where they want to go and I write it all down."

And some writers, such as Cherie Priest, do not have a preferred writing method and may flip back and forth between the two. "It depends on the project," she explains, "because some require more structural pre-planning than others."

In truth, I suspect most writers agree with Priest: writing technique depends on the project.

Architectural gardeners, or maybe gardening architects.
However, there is a third category of writers, that need discussing. This type of writer believes that he or she is a gardener, and too often looks patronizingly upon architects. These people often sneer at the architects copious notes and outlines and drafts and maps. They claim that planning a book drains creativity, that they need to just free-write and let their creativity flow and not worry about confining their art in outlines and rules.

However, this is idiotic advice.

Like architecture, gardening takes planning. You have to know where and when to plant corn and soybeans and melons and tomatoes. Floral gardens require knowledge of when particular flowers bloom and what color they will be. The gardener needs to arrange these seeds in specific places so that when they bloom they will be pleasing to the eye.

These third writers are not gardeners no matter how often how loud they claim to be. They are random strewers. Artistic beauty does not generally arise by happenstance.


The effects of gardening (left) vs. the effects of random strewing (right)
Proponents of random strewing almost always fall back on the idea that the sole purpose of writing is to express yourself. This is more purely the realm of journaling, however.

Yes, there is a certain amount of self-expression in any writing, but it is not the purpose. In truth, no one buys a book by an author they do not know because they are curious about how this stranger expresses him/herself. The purpose of writing (at least for an audience) is to tell a good story well. Even poetry, perhaps the most expressionistic form of creative writing we have, is not ultimately about self expression as much as it is about using an experience (preferably one common to most readers) to express universal truths or ideas.

In short, if your experience is not applicable to the stranger reading your work, you are not writing for an audience. If the purpose of a piece is solely self-expression, it is not, in fact, writing; it is instead narcissism.

This is not to say you cannot begin from a place of self-expression. You can, and most writers do, I suspect. However, you cannot stop there. Planning and organizing, drafting and revising, are the processes by which we take our own personal concerns and make them applicable to others. They are the necessary components that take narcissistic self-expression and transform it into universal comprehension.

4 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

Lovely, thought-provoking post, Lev. I sometimes wish there was more of the architect about me but generally I'm proud to be a gardener. 'How do I know what I think till I see what I say?'

Reb MacRath said...

I like the categories of architects and gardeners. But I'd go with the label 'pantsers' or the third category of not-really-gardeners. Pantsers as in flying by the seat of their pants. This approach can work with certain types of writing: Byron's Don Juan and Stern's Tristam Shandy and anything by Tom Robbins are written on the run. But I'm convinced that many writers who scorn outlines have either done considerable brooding questioning before they start...or have a Mozartian grasp of the pacing and shape of the finished work in their heads. One writer, Claude Bouchard, claims he doesn't outline but periodically must stop to sketch out the next section.

Leverett Butts said...

I like "pantsing" Reb. It also carries with it the connotationhazing practice of having your pants jerked down in public.

So practitioners may think they're flying by the seat of their pants when they are actually caught with their pants down.

Leverett Butts said...

Dennis, I don't know why my earlier response didn't post, but I'm right there with you.