Designing the garden and novel

I sat out on the deck and did my Morning Pages (Julia Cameron’s Artist Way) and then, after admiring the geraniums blooming  creamy pink amongst the catmint, began reading “Beautiful by Design” a book on gardening by Tara Dillard. It occurred to me that the points she was making about learning plant design applied to the art of fiction writing:

 “What I learned from my Garden (fiction writing):

1. Gardens (fiction writing) require patience. A garden (novel) doesn’t happen overnight.

2. Striving for beauty in the garden (writing) is part of garden (novel) design.

3. Less can be more. Sometimes what is not there makes what is there more important.

4. My garden (fiction) continually teaches me new ideas.

5. I have to unlearn old ideas that no longer serve my garden (novel). Gardens (novels) are ever-changing–so should be my knowledge about my garden (writing).

6. An important rule of garden (novel) design: Simplify. The placement of focal points…is one of the most important points of garden (novel) design. I had to learn what is the right style of ornamentation for my garden (writing). Simplicity is a virtue.”


“Kathy-Diane Leveille observes the ties and binds of working class lives in lucidly evoked rural settings….her settings and especially her characters–their hopes and fears, verbal and behavioral tics, even their smells–are keenly observed and full of sensual presence.” The Globe and Mail

White-tailed editors

I was delighted when my husband and sons built a wooden swing chair for the garden. They painted it moss green and butter yellow and placed it at the back end of the garden.  This spot only gets a few hours of sun, and I had never given it any attention, but now with the old-fashioned chair brightening the corner, I decided it was time to dream.

I studied neighbouring gardens, thumbed through catalogues, and imagined various scenarios. One day in August, I rolled up my sleeves, hoisted the shovel, and started dividing plants that had taken over elsewhere. After a dozen trips with the wheelbarrow, the triangle of earth came to life with waves of fuchsia and scarlet astilbe.  White fronds of goat’s beard waved behind shimmering heads of oat grass.  I set two wooden trellises along the path, at an angle that drew the eye toward the bench. It was a day of fiddling, sweating, playing, ruminating and plain old hard work. I admired the results for days. Even when it was raining, I stood on my oldest son’s bed and gazed out the window at the lovely space that had been transformed; enjoying the colors and textures like a lovely secret.

A few weeks later, on a crisp September day when the sky was bright blue, I headed out back.  I halted in my tracks. The whole back corner of the garden looked as if it had been hurled into the air by a giant hand.  The astilbe had been uprooted and tossed willy-nilly.  The trellises had been crushed to bits and flung like matchsticks into the columbines, ferns and meadow rue. Two deer sauntered across the road. They must have gotten their antlers caught in the trellises and panicked in an effort to break free, flinging the structures until they shattered, destroying everything in their path.

I was furious. For days I refused to take my daily walk through. No deadheading, no tally of which dahlias were beginning to bloom where, no breathing in the scent of warm earth and the last of the basil roasting in the sun.

I decided I wasn’t going to plant anything there ever again. I would leave it and let the knapweed take over. What choice did I have if everything I tried was going to be demolished? One rainy day, I wandered aimlessly through Home Depot and found myself in front of shelves of ornamental grasses drastically marked down in price.  My imagination started picturing that back corner filled with their plumes. But, I asked myself, why bother with all that hard work if it was only going to be a waste of time?

The disappointment over the garden was identical to the despair that comes when I get a rejection letter after sending out a novel.  All my hard work, and the satisfaction I had experienced upon completing the book, all my secret admiration of how I had executed my ideas and brought them to life, are destroyed by one sheet of paper, a few short paragraphs. An editor’s comments can have the power to toss my words into the air and smash them to bits. Yet I know from experience that, if I’m lucky, there is a nugget of truth in that letter, some comment or observation an editor makes that will get the wheels turning and spark the novel back to life. Soon I’m writing again, seeing a character, a scene, a plot element in a new way with renewed hope and satisfaction. The vision returns tweaked and resurrected.  Once in a while I can even look back and reflect that the smashing, the flattening, the momentary disappearance of my creative vision was a good thing. I had to start over. I had to approach it with fresh eyes.

I hunted down a shopping cart.  I filled it with Japanese Silver grass, blushing Huron Sunrise and frothy mounds of Mexican feather grass. Will it remain untouched to thrive in that back corner after I’ve transplanted it?  I wish.  Luckily, for me, happiness comes with the fiddling, the sweating, the playing and ruminating and, yes, plain old hard work.



Coming soon Let The Shadows Fall Behind You from Kunati Books! 


Confessions of a Green Thumb Writer

The first in the conga line of tropical storms brought heavy winds to the east coast this weekend and a heavy downpour. I walked through the garden yesterday assessing the damage, and collected an armful of dahlias that the wind had knocked over. Every year I think I’m not going to bother digging the bulbs up anymore, lugging them inside to pack away in boxes of peat moss and carting them into the pump house. Then, as soon as the leaves start to turn, I find myself wielding the pitchfork and doing it anyway. After a long winter, I’m always grateful I did. I can hardly wait to fish each bulb out, like prizes in a cracker-jack box. They look shrivelled and sad, void of any sign of life.

But then I pot them up and, amazingly, slim green shoots appear. I think I started with three plants, and now have two dozen. This is so illustrative of my writing life. Every fall when it’s time to start a new novel I decide this will probably be the last project I’ll do; that surely it’s time to move onto some other creative pass-time: spinning wool or painting. But every year, after I’ve fallen in love with a new character that’s given birth in my imagination, and burn pot after pot of boiling water because I’m lost in a daze wrestling the story onto the page, I could no more stop writing than I could resist piling the bulbs into boxes for another long cold winter.