This morning I walked into the kitchen to make my tea, as I do at the start of every morning. The kitchen is a mess. If I’m being honest it is always a mess, but right now the disaster has taken the form of camera gear, photo props, 300 pounds of pumpkin, and a few tender potted plants that I haven’t the heart to let go of just yet. Even my dog is reluctant to navigate this maze in order to get out the back door. Amidst the mess, my eyes landed on this beautiful plant, False Holly Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.
Isn’t it lovely? This small bush that looks like a holly, but isn’t, was an early Holiday gift from a good friend. I just can’t get over those scalloped leaves and the patterns of green and white variegation. According to my friend it will also take on a third colour, a pinkish blush. However, because it is not a true holly (Ilex), it will not produce fruit.
The friend who gave me this beautiful plant loves the Holiday season; I do not. I believe that this generous gift was a way for her to share some of the beauty and joy she sees at a time of year when I struggle with both. The gesture was thoughtful and caring, and this morning, as I stood in the middle of all the kitchen’s mess, I was moved to tears, undone by the knowledge that I am cared for and I am seen. What I lack, which so often feels like a lot – financial security, professional advancement – is overshadowed by the wealth of love, support, and deep connections that I enjoy in my personal life.
Still, the month of December is a cheerless time of the year, a time when I often find myself feeling slightly morose, a time when I want to withdraw from the world of freshly fallen snow, endless social gatherings, happy happy happy happy (so brutally happy) carols, and a barrage of saccharine sweet sentimentality. All of this is made worse by the sense that these negative feelings about The Most Wonderful Time of the Year make me some kind of alien weirdo; a Grinch; a deplorable, hateful human being; one of the Kardashians. I promise you, I am not a misanthrope; I just really hate The Holidays, and for good reason. Later at my desk, I began typing a story, a continuation of this post about False Holly that explains my Holiday hate-on, but stopped myself with the feeling that I was crossing – no, smashing my way over an invisible, yet unmistakably persistent wall. That voice in my head screaming, “Whoa there. Too far. Too much. Not appropriate for gardening.”
A great deal of who I am, my voice, and the stories I ache to tell, no matter how intertwined with my gardening life, are not to be mentioned within a stone’s throw of the subject of gardening, by a person who is by-and-large a garden writer. This maddening separation of worlds is something that has been troubling me for almost as long as I have been writing about gardening. Over the years, I’ve tried to address the problem by being conscious about giving more space over to personal narrative and crafting stories that move beyond the cheerful how-to portions that are expected of me. I have fought to keep a few lines of personal writing in client work, even when words were limited (they are always limited, sometimes to extremes) and the personal is always the first to go. I have allowed myself to go off on tangents here on this website, where I am not working for pay and there is no one to say what I can and cannot write. My partner Davin suggests that I can nix the problem in the bud, so to speak, if I simply stop referring to myself as a “garden writer” and leave it at “writer.” His strategy is doable except for one thing: as long as I am writing on the topic of gardening, I continue to be a garden writer.
Garden Writer. It’s not the title that is stifling, but the expectations that come with it. I want more.
I’ve been asking myself why it does not feel like enough to give over a little space to narrative and why it is not satisfying to simply segregate my writing, with some time allotted to paying gigs (wherein the idea is that I am paid to write. How novel) and the unpaid garden writing that I do here on this website, with everything else placed into their own tidy silos. The answer I have come up with is this: gardening is something that I engage in with my whole being. It is not separate from who I am as Gayla, the person. It is not enough – certainly not satisfying enough or truthful enough – for me to write about the act of gardening without engaging with my personal background, my experiences, my humanity, my struggle, my joy, my values, my world view, my anxieties, and all of these other things that make me, me, and that tag along into the experience of tending this little patch of earth.
I am absolutely certain now that this is how it is for all gardeners, whether we acknowledge it or not. The way in which we approach gardening, the vastly different reasons why we do it, the ways in which we do it, the other things we enjoy, the broken parts of us, the healthy parts of us, the way we evolve as gardeners and the way that our gardens evolve with us, all of the little trivial things that we think have nothing to do with it at all… it’s all relevant. It’s all a part of the story. Our stories. We all lose out when we choose to focus on only one part.
I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s engaging, wickedly funny, and honest book on writing, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Several times within the book she makes mention of her writing students: how they are more interested in getting published than in being writers. Obviously, the two go hand-in-hand on a practical level: if you want to eke out some kind of living as a writer you need to be publicly recognized and published. However, the point she makes is that often we writers don’t make much of what you would call a living anyway, and that if we focus on publication as the be all, we lose everything that the act of writing can offer us, which, it so often turns out is far more meaningful than being published will ever be.
“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises… The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” – from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The same can be said of gardening. We treat the garden itself as a reward, especially when the garden meets certain aesthetic standards, when, in fact, the act of gardening is the best part. It can also be the worst part, at times. Yet, even in being truly awful it offers us so much more than we could have expected. Decades in and I am still discovering all that there is to gain – gifts that far exceed a bounty of fresh produce and pretty green things that delight my eye.
As I work on the garden, the garden works on me.
How we choose to write about gardening draws boundaries around what a garden is, what it can be, and who gardeners really are. The more I learn through gardening and the more gardeners I come into contact with, the more I come to understand that we are far more diverse than the handful of talking heads that have come to represent us in the mainstream media. Here is your cardboard cutout expert who will teach you much and offer you almost nothing in the same breath.
We gardeners come from all walks of life, with different skin colors, economic realities, and personal backgrounds. We come to gardening, which is not a singular, universal act, for vastly different reasons. We interpret it in our own unique way, and enjoy vastly different experiences as we engage with it. We are not a homogenous entity and for that reason I believe there is the potential for those of us who are taken to writing about gardening to find our own voices and tell our own stories rather than repeating what is already out there like a bunch of myna birds stuck in a box together relentlessly repeating the same sounds.
These days, with blogs and self-publishing we have the unique opportunity to do things differently, take risks, find our audience. But in what looks like a desperate scramble to grab for a sliver of a seemingly small pie, we seem only too happy to serve out countless dishes of the samey sameness seen in mainstream publications. And all the while we wait and pray that the gardening establishment will anoint us as experts and assign our work value when it turns out we already hold the power to give that to ourselves, should we want or need it. Sometimes that which is deemed good is not, it is merely compliant, easily manipulated and useful to make other people money.
“…if I’m not working for money; I’m working for freedom.” – Dave Chappelle
The other day I admonished myself for placing self-imposed boundaries around my own garden writing. I said that nobody is telling me what I can and can’t write about, and while that is mostly true when it comes to this website, it isn’t when it comes to the writing that I am hired to do for magazines and other publishers. There, very powerful real-world limits are driven, in part by economy. Magazines publish that which they believe will make money. They will take risks when they determine that a particular writer or topic will draw in a previously untapped audience/market. While I think I have demonstrated ability over the years to push boundaries and offer something more, the fact is that I am most often asked to write on the same topics in exactly the same way. There have been many times when I have tried to lend my own voice to a piece, and it has been edited out in favor of one that is lighter and often superficially optimistic in tone. Mediocre fluff. When you are only given 500 words to articulate a fairly complicated concept, trying as hard as you can to not dumb the info down, there is hardly enough space left to create a compelling narrative. We don’t allot the space to these other experiences that are a part of gardening because the very people who are working as editors, publishers, etc in garden media often either aren’t gardeners themselves, or they just don’t believe that anything beyond the very basic how-to holds much value or will sell to a paying audience. Feelings don’t sell, or aren’t perceived to sell in the same way that 12 Tips on [Insert Whatever Here] On a Budget does. Through the years I have been reminded nearly relentlessly that works in the gardening genre do not sell. While I suspect that this is said, in part as a manipulation to justify paying me less and less (in what other profession does one find themselves demoted with time?), over a dozen years of experience in the field has demonstrated that there is some truth to the manipulation.
I believe Willie Nelson said it best when he sang, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be garden writers.” Few garden writers make what could me construed as a living wage. I once tallied my work hours versus my actual income and discovered that your average fast food employee is in far better financial shape and probably has better job security to boot. That the misery of this fact hasn’t driven me to the drink or to give up entirely is a testament to either sheer stubbornness or insanity. I suspect that this is one reason why there are so many people of means, particularly women, working in a field where a handful of white men prosper. The job of writing about gardening is sold as a privilege and a gift, a hobby undeserving of fair compensation or respect. Since gifts do not pay the rent or keep the heat on through the winter, the genre is too often left to those who have the financial stability that affords working for little or no pay. It’s no wonder that the discourse is dominated by consumerism, perfectionism, and mainstream tastes.
Look, I’m not calling for an end to light pieces on how to wack weeds or grow a salad on your windowsill. I can’t write difficult, challenging stuff all of the time because it is sometimes painful, emotionally draining, and there are personal costs involved when I put my vulnerability into the world, even if it is also liberating and satisfying. I enjoy writing the light, how-to pieces, too. That said, I would like to see a balance. I would like to see more personal, heartfelt, and diverse stories come out from the confines of the gardening memoir ghetto. I would like to see the how-to pieces given more space to incorporate personal narrative and well-crafted anecdote. Heck, I would like to see more humor!
Save a handful of notable, exceptional writers, I have all but given up on the gardening world. I am older and wiser, but I am also right back where I started in my 20s: unable to relate to most of what is out there and downright bored. Instead, I have found myself looking to the food and cookbook world for inspiration and camaraderie. Each season a seemingly endless parade of beautifully illustrated and expensively produced hardcover cookbooks are published (Of the sort the gardening genre reserves for coffee table picture books of fancy palatial estates) and I am blown away by how many willingly, seamlessly incorporate at least as much storytelling as instruction. I eat those books up (pun intended). They invite me into worlds beyond my own and tell stories that delight, challenge, and engage my humanity. They inspire me to cook more, enjoy food more, try new things, experiment, and explore. Sometimes they are too rich for my blood and function purely as aspiration, but more often than not they are within reach and without intimidation, yet full, whole, and real. The writers are not just chefs or cooks. They are people with stories to tell, lives lead, and rich experiences that are part and parcel of preparing food to eat. I have read cookbooks that speak honestly of family, of familial joy, closeness, sadness and pain. Personal difficulties are revealed; beautiful works that are sometimes sad, dark, bleak, snarky, political, and all of the things that we shy away from when it comes to garden writing or relegate to its own little darkened corner.
Why can’t we do that in the garden world?