On Garden Writing

Writing is an intensely personal process: each of us employs the written word in a different way. Throughout the ages, in their own inimitable ways, the finely crafted words of great poets, essayists, novelists, columnists, botanists, and plant explorers have gifted readers with the delights and travails of gardens—both wild and human-made—the world over.

For most garden writers, the physical act of putting pen to paper or pounding a keyboard is a solitary activity. Researching stories, interviewing experts, touring gardens, attending trade shows, and networking with our peers involve social interaction; yet, when we retreat to our garrets to write, we rarely share our work-in-progress with fellow writers. Then, we send our articles, columns, and manuscripts off into cyberspace and wait, with trepidation, for feedback from an editor.

My own writing process has evolved over time, as a result of my friendship with award-winning author, lecturer, and chlorophyll addict C Colston Burrell. When we first met a decade ago, neither of us had any inkling that we were sowing the seeds of a relationship that, to this day, impacts our respective approaches to writing. Despite living on opposite sides of the country, we benefit from low long-distance rates and electronic mail, which allow us to communicate on a weekly and, often, daily basis.

As the roots of our friendship deepened, we began dialoguing about our writing projects, sharing ideas for articles, sources, experiences with editors, and the challenge of targeting audiences and publishers. With trust and rapport came the freedom to bounce ideas off one another. If I can’t come up with an opening sentence, or the right word doesn’t come to mind, our phone lines begin to hum. If Cole needs help editing a piece, or wants an opinion about sentence structure, he dials or emails me. We no longer write in isolation, prisoners of our own frustration. No need to scream, rage at the computer, or verbally assault a loved-one when the words and ideas don’t flow. Writing is a less stressful and more open process. I come to it now with a sense of liberation, knowing that, if I am stuck or can’t make the words work, Cole will be willing to listen and make suggestions—without passing judgment.

A Writing Workshop

Our shared passion for gardens, plants, plantspeople, words, and communication bears fruit in “Cultivating the Written Word: Creative Garden Writing From Production to Publication.” This four-day workshop is an outgrowth of our years of phone conversations, late-night planning in hotel rooms at garden events, and our experience collaborating on several writing and editing projects. The seventh and latest edition of the workshop will be presented at San Francisco Botanical Gardens in early November. Other past venues have included Garden in the Woods, Framingham, Massachusetts; Greenspring Garden Park, Alexandria, Virginia; Phipps Garden Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland State University Haystack Program, Cannon Beach, Oregon; and the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois.

As gardeners and writers, each of us brings our own point of view and experience to bear when we sit down to compose. Most of us struggle to find an inner voice—that immutable style of self-expression. As we move through the workshop program, we are constantly delighted and humbled by the way students reach into their heads and hearts to find material, ideas, and word combinations that are original and innovative.

Providing a safe, respectful, and trusting environment for the workshop students—one that encourages them to write on task and then read aloud what they have just written—is the core of the class. The results have been both gratifying and rewarding. Carolyn Criddle, a participant in our first class, thanked us, saying

You did not cover everything that I thought you would cover, but the workshop gave me so much more than I ever expected it would. I feel empowered to pursue my writing, and to continue honing my personal voice. Thank you for a remarkable four days. My life has been forever changed.

Cole and I came to garden writing on different paths. He was child-prodigy plant nerd, who began keeping journals about native plants when he was old enough to hold a pencil. Although I wrote for and edited my high school newspaper, I did not begin to write about gardens and gardening until much later in life. He has authored award-winning books and writes for a host of magazines; I have concentrated on newspaper columns, essays, and periodicals. Although our teaching styles are just as varied as our writing voices, we have found that we complement each other.

Phyllis Reidinger wrote, after attending the workshop in Boston, You make the perfect teaching team. Lucy is nurturing but honest, slightly outrageous, and always right on the mark in her comments. Cole is the perceptive and opinionated friend who won’t let you off the hook. I learned that I enjoy writing. There is a distinct pleasure in telling a story and in finding just the right word. Most importantly, I learned from you and my comrades that a writing voice is real.

Our own lives have been transformed by our students. Many of them stay in touch, sending occasional articles for our perusal and comments. Signing her note “Pittsburgh class of 2005,” Jessica Walliser proudly passed along a copy of her first “real article,” published in Organic Gardening. Another former student, who is working on a book, keeps us up-to-date on her progress. Deanna High attended a recent workshop in Virginia, and came to visit my garden when she was on a family vacation in Oregon.

Teaching these workshops has affected our writing, and our budding writers have taught us as much as we have taught them. We head home from workshops energized by the synergy that emerges from a group of folks who share the same passion. Thoughtfully responding to the readings of just-written essays hones our self-editing skills. We are acutely aware of the overuse of adverbs and adjectives, and of the need to find the perfect verb for each sentence. Class dynamics vary with each venue, which is both exciting and daunting. We expect, and revel in, the unexpected, as all of us reveal the hidden writer within.

We garden writers are a rare breed. Story ideas run from the ridiculous to the sublime. One week we are striving to capture the essence of a veritable garden wonderland, and the next interviewing a dairy farmer about the merits of pit-washed steer manure. Through it all, however, we are rooted in a shared purpose: nurturing a love of gardens and gardening and all that that entails.