Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner’

Free-spirited and precise in writing and the yard

1 bek751Once upon a time, my garden was planned and–thanks to a a more orderly person than I am–in relatively straight rows. Now I’m embracing what a book I’m reading calls “free spirited.” After all, I’m focusing on a lot of native and hardy plants and self-seeding perennials.

1 dadAs my cowboy dad lived in many periods of his life and my brother Chris famously sang in elementary school, “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in.”

IMG_0276This camas lily in my rain garden might be my favorite of all the things that bloomed this spring.

I loved stumbling onto this quote from Meriwether Lewis’ travel journal in June of 1806: “The quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could I could have sworn it was water.”

Wow. Can’t wait until I have a lake of those lilies!

???????????????????????????????The monkey flowers have been spread from one little spot last year and are adding such a great yellow to my life. All I have to do is keep the soil moist and I guess I’ll have these around until fall.

???????????????????????????????Something like blue-eyed grass is so delicate and teeny I would never have noticed it until I started working on my backyard certification and learning about native plants. I know that writing depends on what John Gardener calls precision of detail.  In The Art of Fiction, he says that for stories to work, readers must come to feel them physically, as if they were injected directly into each scene.

GSS and cows grazingGrowing up in Ethiopia slowed me down. With no distracting television or shopping or even changing seasons, it feels like I noticed–and soaked up the sensations–of the world. Even my boarding school, which we say was in the city of Addis Ababa, was pretty slow paced. Notice the grazing cows.

A fast-moving plot is one pleasure of reading. But give me the slow, precise, vivid, unexpected detail…on the page and in the yard for making me feel most alive.

Good writing is in the details

Novelist John Gardner said a lot of interesting and important things about details including this:  “A novel is another world, one with so much detail we can imagine ourselves living in it.”  As many of my VCMFA students have discovered, it isn’t as easy as it sounds to find the exact and vivid details to build a world.

When I was invited to do some writing with kids at a Heritage and Culture camp near Washington DC, I tried to figure out what to do with a little smidge of time and decided to spend it focused right there…thinking and talking about sensory details and how to capture the fascinating world of Ethiopia.

So often, people choose words carelessly.  Toss them here and there. Repeat the same ones over and over, hammering the same board into place in the world without ever building something new.

Words give us the power, though.  If we honor them, we can use them to show the things we know about and care about.

We talked about some of the things I saw as a child growing up in Ethiopia–a dik dik–for instance, and how I described it in Trouble as a “shy and delicate animal.”  Using my words as a start, one group added their own details.

Shy and delicate

Like a baby dragon

Eyes as big as gumballs or giant jawbreakers

Dark as the inside of a microwave

Or burnt rose petals.


We talked about what we had done and seen so far at the Culture and Heritage camp and how to use words to capture sensory details and movements of…say…Ethiopian dancing, a spark of the three days that we all spent together.


Shoulders shaking like an earthquake

Heads bobbing like a Ringo bobblehead doll

Swaying like swings and rocking chairs

Feet flailing in a temper tantrum of emotion.

I never imagined when I was a child watching tall black warriors with their spears leaping straight into the air  in a somewhat scary dance that I’d one day watch kids–white kids, black kids, brown kids–trying on those moves in the middle of a camp in Virginia.

When I was a kid visiting the ancient city of Harar and watching the hyena man outside the city walls, I also never imagined I’d put the hyena’s eerie cries into my stories or gather words to try to capture the scene.

Hyena man

Bone in mouth

Hangs meat






Hyena snatches meat

Hands shaking


In one of the other sessions, most of the kids created a journal.  I hope they will use them to keep dreaming words and images and talking about their lives and what they think and know about the worlds they get to claim as theirs

I saw a hut with a top as golden and tan as hyena’s teeth.

I saw a snake as fat as a mouse.

I saw a giraffe as long as a snake.

My sister was born in Ethiopia.

I was born in Ethiopia

I saw a woman outside with an oven as tall as a giraffe’s back.

Curiosity.  Questions.  Answers.   Words dreamed and shared.