Sunday 19 April 2020

Gardening of two kinds

Victory-over-Virus Garden
Blah! Only five hours sleep last night and I awoke with a headache. Naturally I thought at once of the Vile Germ and did some deep breathing while I could. After an hour of chasing the sandman, I got up and made a cup of coffee. I hope this cures my headache and meanwhile 1) no more afternoon coffee and 2) no more editing student stories at midnight.

Yesterday morning B.A. and I went to Tesco and carried home our last bags of compose for the trug. It was truly sad how we failed to keep sums in our heads as we argued about whether or not we had 420 L. B.A. thought we didn't, and I thought we did. When we lined up our collection of sacks on the grass, we discovered we had only 400 L. B.A. won that one, but I decided we should go ahead and fill the trug with what we had. We can put on 20 L of fresh compost in the autumn.

It was not a difficult operation. I emptied the sacks into the trug, and B.A. whacked at it with a gardening fork. Then B.A. went inside, spent from his exertions, and I planted my broad bean seedlings, cardboard tubes and all. After brunch, I returned to fuss over them, which meant draping butterfly netting over flowerpots stuck in the corners.

The lady downstairs was so entranced by the trug, she asked if she could come over and look at it. We had a nice conversation, moving apart when we realised we were breaking the social-distancing rule.

Although it was not warm--and tonight I am definitely putting newspapers over the beans--it was sunny, and I kept warm by grubbing up the dandelions. It is now a race between me and the dandelion blossoms. Apparently dandelions can go into the composter until they blossom, and this is a serious issue now that the Council is not picking up garden refuse. At the moment, our state-funded brown bin--which has a 240 L capacity--is half full, mostly of young dandelions.

I pulled out dandelions in the sun for two hours, and eventually B.A. came out with a garden chair, the Spectator and a cup of tea. It wasn't warm enough for sitting, so he soon went back inside. He returned with a load of laundry to hang, redeeming himself in the eyes of any judgemental neighbours who might have contrasted his repose with my labour.

Speaking of neighbours, I've seen mine more often in the past month than I had in a year. This is presumably because I've been out in the garden every day, but I suspect the neighbours are out in theirs more often, too. The Moppet's mother came out in a fluffy pink bathrobe to sit in her garden, and Sandy comes out periodically to smoke a cigarette. I've even seen our neighbour on the other side, whom we have never met and B.A. has still never seen. I've always assumed he is an airline steward or has some other peripatetic profession, as there is almost never any noise coming from his flat.

At 3:30 PM I went in for a cup of coffee and to work on my student's short story. My student, having formed the impression that proper stories are over 3,000 words long, half-killed herself turning out a 3,800+ long adventure tale. After hearing she needed to edit it, she was daunted--and no wonder. Editing is a lot of work, and it's very painful when it's your own story and cutting parts out feels like jabbing a fork into your leg.

Photo by Mike Peel (
I haven't taught children since I was twenty-one. For three years I taught writing skills to mature students at a community college, for two I taught essay-writing to my fellow students at theology school, and before my full-time gig I made $40 an hour editing doctoral theses in theology. I also proofread the scholarly work of Polish pals, all over 21 and smart and mature enough to do graduate degrees in a foreign language. Therefore, I find it very hard to read a piece of writing and not red-ink everything I think is wrong with it. I would feel I was not doing my job. So what if she's twelve? Gordon Korman wrote his first book when he was twelve.

Well, I'm joking about the book stuff. I was haunted by Gordon-Korman-wrote-his-first-book-at-twelve from the ages of seven to thirty-seven. It's too much pressure for a child to put on herself, especially when she thinks stories are dropped into the author's mind from above. It never occurred to me to sit down and consciously examine G.K.'s books to see how he did it.

There is nothing like going through a child's story to think about the relationship between imagination and structure. Imagination is a like a privet hedge free to grow all over the place. Structure is the shape of the hedge. Editing is like topiary, turning what could be a boring bush into something that will grab the audience's attention from beginning to end.

Editing also is the difference between Real Life and Art. Real Life, lived minute by minute, is mostly mundane and not of much interest to strangers. Art, however, takes interesting episodes or images from life and sets them in an unobtrusive narrative frame.

When writing stories, it is fun to begin at a beginning and to write until the end. Serial stories for newspapers certainly have to be written that way. Perhaps the first drafts of many scripts are written that way. However, films aren't shot that way. They are shot scene by scene, edited, and stuck together. They are transformed from a written daydream pleasant for the dreamer into something magical for thousands or millions of viewers.

But as I mentioned, editing one's own story, or having one's own story edited, is painful. It is hard to remember that a piece of writing is not really an extension of our very selves. When I bake a pie, I am perfectly capable of discerning that it could be flakier or less sweet or do with a bit of cinnamon without going into fits of depression. I just decide to try again. When I make pierogi dough, and a Polish pal looks critically at the lump and tells me it needs more kneading, I don't fall into a sulk. I believe she knows what she's talking about, as she has been making pierogi dough since she was seven, like her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before her. Why, then, do writers go insane over editing?

Of course, there are terrible editors out there. Some people just cannot hear the difference between good phrases and bad, between educated speech and regional solecisms, or between fresh metaphors and clunking cliches. Being edited by someone like that is torture. However, some editors are excellent landscape artists, as it were, and turn a slightly off-kilter privet squirrel into a glorious green beast.

I hope I have shaped my student's privet squirrel into a glorious green beast, for between writing remarks all over her submitted draft and inserting my suggestions into a new draft, I spent seven hours on it. This is not because she isn't bright but because she is. If I didn't think she had the talent and drive to become the next Georgette Heyer (who published her first book at 19) or Rosemary Sutcliff, I wouldn't bother.

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