By Louise Ure
Six years ago, I found a young man with a strong back and a weak mind. A man willing to create a landscaped roofdeck for me, hauling all the supplies three stories up a spiral staircase, for only $20 an hour.
Ten-foot planks of redwood.
Four trough-like redwood planters.
Over a hundred terra cotta pots, many as tall as your hip.
Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of potting soil and gravel and bark chips.
At least two hundred plants, including five trees more than eight feet tall.
I called in an architect and a roofer to meet with this sweet, witless boy to confirm the safest placement of the largest items. I’ll bet he never bids a job like that again.
My only caveat to this well-muscled landscaper was that I wanted nothing that the California Highway Department couldn’t grow in the medians. I know my shortcomings. I grew up in Arizona, where vegetation didn’t have to be green to prove it was alive.
He planted Mexican Feather Grass and Sea Lavender.
Clematis. Bougainvillea. Cordyline and Passion Flower.
Star Jasmine, Rhododendron and Sage.
Cotoneaster and Marguerites. Yucca and agave and aloe.
The result was stunning. Windbreaks to the east and west. A hundred and eighty degree view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. A seventy-five by twenty-five patch of paradise.
I love my time up there, in both fair weather and fog.
But now, six years later, the garden has gone wild. The bear grass is big enough to hide a bear. Adult. Male. The jasmine has metastasized and is threatening to eat the neighbor’s house. The yucca has grown to more than twelve feet and has become its own recognizable landmark on the San Francisco skyline.
I made the mistake of creating the garden I wanted, not the garden it would grow up to be. Something must be done.
For the last month I’ve dedicated forty-five minutes a day to getting the deck in shape. Pruning, trimming, cleaning, feeding.
But only one pot per day.
Like the painting schedule on the Golden Gate Bridge, when I finish the last pot, it will be time to start all over again.
And I’ve discovered that it’s a lot like the way I revise my work.
Certainly there’s the cleaning: getting rid of the typos and crappy grammar and lame analogies. There’s also pruning and trimming: tightening the sentence structure, losing irrelevant characters, and rewriting scenes to move the action forward. There’s feeding, too: it’s only the third or fourth draft before the words begin to sing and I can see on the page the author voice I heard only in my head.
There’s also rearranging. Upstairs, I’m reconfiguring the watering system and placing pots in new, more advantageous positions. I come downstairs and do the same thing with whole chapters.
And replanting: I’ll bring in two dozen new plants by the time I’m done, and I’ll bet I can say the same about new scenes and plot elements in my work.
I’m on one single schedule now. By the time the last pot is done, the next book will also be pruned, trimmed, cleaned and watered. And it will be time to start again.
With each book, I forget how many thousands and thousands of decisions I made to create the whole story. A character’s mannerism. The color of a car. The description of a breeze. An unexpected plot twist. Why do I continue to think that I have to create the garden-that-will-be all at once? When will I realize that the garden continues to grow, and not demand instant perfection?
I tamed the feather grass today. Tomorrow the yucca. And Chapter Fifteen.
Fellow writers, how do your gardens grow? Is your first draft just a sketch of where to put the plants? Or do you, like me, hope for perfection from that first seed?
And here’s a happy unveiling: the final cover for the new book, The Fault Tree, coming January 8, 2008, from St. Martin’s Press. Didn’t they do a fine job?