Finding Your Voice as a Garden Writer (Part 1): Sorry, No Authority Here, Ma’am

To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.

- Albert Einstein

Back in June, I travelled to Denver, Colorado to give two talks at the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of which was titled as you see above: Finding Your Voice as a Garden Writer. While my in-person presentation was an audio-visual extravaganza that included personal stories, rapidly flailing arms (I am a hand-talker), group hugs, a Kumbaya sing-along, AND unicorns (I am not kidding about the unicorns), I thought it might be helpful to share some of the points that I made (minus the unicorns) over here.

I’ve decided to break this up into a series of posts. This was one of my very favourite presentations to give (despite the fact that it caused wretched anxiety for weeks beforehand) and I have a lot to say on the topic. A short post just wasn’t cutting it. Over the coming weeks I will roll out more points.

Find, Finding, Found

Before I begin with the first point, I need to address the meaning of the title. You see, I could have entitled this talk, “How to Find Your Voice as a Garden Writer“, but I was very careful to use the word “finding” instead. I have enough experience now to know that voice is an evolution that comes with you as you live your life and grow as a person. There is no definitive voice to be found, no destination to arrive at full of self-satisfaction and arrogance.

….Aaaaannnndddd. Done. Found it!

Whether we like it or not, we all change. It only stands to reason that if all is going well, we will also change and evolve how we write and what we write about. I have found this to be true for me. I am a work in progress. I too am always in the process of becoming, growing, developing, changing… As I go through the process of living and working my issues out:

  • My priorities change.
  • I develop new interests
  • My goals as a human and as a writer change.
  • I let go of fears.
  • I sometimes develop new fears (god help me).
  • I have new experiences that alter my perspective and world view.
  • I learn new things.
  • I discover that I am not always right.
  • I discover that sometimes, miraculously, I was right all along.

My writing is strongly affected by all of this. It comes along for the ride.

Bullshit Authority:

I didn’t really say it like that in the original presentation, and I probably (maybe) don’t mean it how I’ve said it here, but, well… perhaps I do. I started off the presentation with a personal story about my university Japanese Cinema teacher, Robin Wood. On the first day of class, he talked about his background, experiences, and studies of the genre, but what surprised and even fascinated me was that he didn’t list his credentials or try to pass himself off as an authority that we should all look up to. Many university professors did. In fact, he specifically stated that his classroom was a conversation that we were all invited to take part in and that many would say that he was not qualified to teach the class. He felt that was alright — he wasn’t an authority, but he did know a thing or two.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned just how celebrated and accomplished he was as a film critic and teacher. If anyone had a right to claim authority it was him, and yet he remained humble and open. That class was a very difficult one for me. It was a forth year film studies course and I went into it with absolutely no film background; I just really loved film. I never spoke up in class and I was always scared to hand in my papers. The intimidation was all mine. Mr. Wood always graded me fairly (well even) and showed a sincere interest in what I had to say. Few university professors seemed to take as much delight in teaching.

Years later when my career as a garden writer began to take off and I felt lost in a whirlwind of people billing me as a “guru” and an authority to be placed up on a pedestal all-the-while telling me how I should be, how I should write, how I should _______, I turned to his example as a grounding and a way to find and stay my course. What might have been just another, unrelated class in a line of many turned out to be a pivotal experience in shaping how I work to function as a garden writer and as a teacher. I have always regretted that I was never able to tell him how how much I needed and appreciate his example.

It came to mind as I was preparing the original presentation that there are two distinctly different meanings of authority: One is the kind where you are confident in your skills and knowledge. The other is about power, control, and being in an elevated position above subordinates. The trouble is that in using the same word for two different concepts, we tend to meld them together and that confidence in your knowledge becomes ego and arrogance.

I know what I know. I am confident in what I know, but there is always room for me to be wrong. I am not an authority. I don’t want to be one.

Here’s Why:

  • It does not serve you; it hinders you. It’s appealing to place ourselves in the role of the all-knowing expert because it makes us look good. Keep in mind that it is marketing, and while there are reasons that this device is used, it tends to serve magazines, publishers, other media, and sometimes our careers even, but it doesn’t serve you, the person behind the work.
  • It is dehumanizing. It keeps you at a distance from your readership. It prevents you from making real connection, which just happens to be one of the best rewards, bar none, I have reaped from this career.
  • Placing yourself on an invisible pedestal puts you in a position to be knocked down later. Make no mistake, there is always someone that will try to knock you down, hoping to “show you” that you’re not all that and not worthy of whatever it is that you’ve achieved. They can’t do that if you’re grounded.
  • It places you in the impossible role of having all of the answers and always being right. That kind of pressure is torture. It keeps you captured in a constant state of fear: the fear of being wrong.
  • It hinders growth. If you are always right and know it all then there is nothing left to learn. If this is the case then you can expect a lifetime of boring sameness. However, if you are open to being wrong, and humble enough to know that what is left to learn is limitless then you invite wonder, discovery, new ideas, and connection into your life. That leaves an awful lot to look forward to.

Again, when I say authority and authoritative voice I’m talking about an, “I’m an expert and everything I say is right” style of writing. I’m not talking about writing with confidence and personal knowledge. That is the other kind of authority.

It’s freeing to be able to say, “Hey, I’m learning, too. I don’t know it all.” You are only one person; you can’t even have all of the questions, let alone all of the answers. You will develop new questions. Once I realized I didn’t have to know it all, it liberated me from the lingering fear that I wasn’t enough. That kind of freedom is golden.

[Insert unicorns, group hugs, and a fireside sing-along here].

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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23 thoughts on “Finding Your Voice as a Garden Writer (Part 1): Sorry, No Authority Here, Ma’am

  1. Absolutely beautifully said and very true as well. I’ve always said two things: first that we’d have a very boring world if we all liked the same things (and as it applies to your post, wrote and spoke the same way) and second, that my job and goal in life is not to judge someone else’s way of being. It’s not always easy to live by my self-appointed goals of course–but that’s what tomorrow is for. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  2. Really nicely put and a great reminder that a little humility goes a long way. I don’t consider myself to be an expert on anything, but I suppose I am an expert when it comes to my own personal experiences.

    I haven’t been blogging much at all lately, because I just can’t imagine that anything I have to say will be of interest to anyone else. I guess I just need to figure out what are the things that I care about and start writing about them from my point of view.

  3. Well said. I always cringe a bit when I’m asked at work, “Are you the expert?” My response is normally, “I know what I know. What’s your question?” I know a great deal about plants and gardening, but there is so much more for me to know. And that’s why it is still interesting to me today.

  4. I really enjoyed this post and found it quite thought provoking. I particularly like the advice of staying humble and not being all knowing, I am always suspicious of people who use their knowledge as a stick to beat people with.

  5. That is definitely the way that I look at it too. Even with all my years of experience and my training I feel like I have forgotten more things than I have learned. For me personally I treat the act of growing plants as more of an art form than a science.

    Plus any time someone thinks I am some sort of horticultural authority they end up asking me some question I don’t have the answer to and I end up feeling dumb.

  6. Nice post! I wish it had worked out that I could have attended that talk.

    To me, “expert” or “guru” is a one-way cul-de-sac, something that implies all your experience is behind you, not in front of you, and that you only give out information, you don’t take it in. It is a term I have always shied away from.

    One of the things I enjoy most about speaking (or teaching), is that I always learn something as well. I’m pretty much the poster child for lifelong learning.

    P.S. Shied looks like a totally wrong spelling!!

  7. This is especially true because gardening isn’t exactly a topic that needs or can have “authorities”. Gardening is so dynamic, so personal, and so different from place to place that I don’t see much use for “gurus”. A garden writer should share experience, not lecture on dos and do-nots. And I think you do that very well on this blog.

  8. This is so amazingly helpful, you just have no idea. My job has nothing to do with gardening, but I had a talk about ‘expert knowledge’ not long ago with my boss. My boss wants me to be more authoritative and say “this is how to do it, this is the right way” kind of thing; she thinks I need to be more “confident”. That approach just doesn’t work for me; I prefer the “I believe you should…” or “when I did it that way, the result was X” and have more of a conversation than a uni-directional speech. I don’t feel that makes me less confident to anyone. I could never really express how I felt. THIS post describes it perfectly!!

  9. Beautifully put! I myself hate the all-knowing “gurus” out there, being up in your high horse isn’t proving anything other than your pride.
    I’ll take fireside hugs and unicorns anyday!
    [now to just think of what was being discussed when the topic of unicorns arose...]

  10. Very well said. It is a choice, isn’t it?

    The non-fiction genre is full of “experts”. It is so wonderful to find writers who are able to communicate on a more human level. It IS ok to be wrong, or not to know something. We are in this to learn – writers and readers both. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this. Really interesting.

  11. The article was good, tender and full of promises of things to come. I concluded it was about, that if someone writes about their garden long enough, then they willl be happy. Okay, I admit, you have inspired me, I began a blog today. Of course there’s nothing in it now, I’ll have to blog about the December weather for a couple of days. And, when I have years of opinions and photos I will think of publishing something. We’ll see what happens. Gayla Trail, if this is what you wanted to do, inspire people to write, then you have succeeded and this success is you authority, the authority you have upon your readers. Thank you. Sam Webb

  12. The article was good, tender and full of promises of things to come. I concluded it was about, that if someone writes about their garden long enough, then they willl be happy. Okay, I admit, you have inspired me, I began a blog today. Of course there’s nothing in it now, I’ll have to blog about the December weather for a couple of days. And, when I have years of opinions and photos I will think of publishing something. We’ll see what happens. Gayla Trail, if this is what you wanted to do, inspire people to write, then you have succeeded and this success is your authority, the authority you have upon your readers. Thank you. Sam Webb

  13. Thank you for this great post. I had the opportunity to listen to both of your talks in Denver and I’m so glad that you are posting this information. I was very inspired by your talk and appreciate you insights and openness.

  14. This is an amazing post, it really fits with my experience over the last 9 months of having had a book about growing vegetables published and thus becoming, by some weird process, an ‘expert’ when my book is very clearly about the mistakes I’ve made and the problems I’ve experienced.

    I don’t claim to be an authority or an expert but people keep telling me I ‘must be’ and I have struggled to work out how to remove that notion in a respectful fashion. Thank you for putting it into words that I can now borrow!

  15. I was labeled “Garden Guru” by the owner of the business I blogged for, but only tongue-in-cheek. We thought it would help people see the blog as a good source of info. I preferred ‘Garden Becky’, as it is a wee bit more friendly, but all the content was the same, no matter how we labeled it. The idea is to not put the readers off, and to be helpful within your content.

  16. This concept reminds me of Socrates in the apology.
    He is wiser because he knows he does not know everything. Humility. Open to more.

    “I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought they knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom–therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.”
    Apology, 22d-e

  17. Thanks for the indirect vote of confidence. When starting my website, wanting to be more of a clearinghouse of info instead of the “expert”, a close friend mocked, “so what credentials do you have to give advice? It’s bothered ever since. I believe that a passion for the subject to learn everything you can & seek & try new ideas are credentials enough!

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