Monday, May 4, 2009

On Plants and Writing: Pruning is Healthy, but Painful

by Julia Buckley
My parents were in town on Friday to attend Grandparents Day at my sons' school. Afterward they came over to socialize for a bit, and since they are both accomplished gardeners, I asked them to take a look at mine. Naturally they tut-tutted over its sloppiness (guilty as charged) and immediately began weeding. This is how I remember my parents in spring and summer evenings of my childhood--squatting in front of their lovely corner gardens and rock gardens, weeding and tending and nurturing. Then they would water it all with our hose, occasionally giving in to the spritely impulse to water the children, as well.

Now my parents frowned at my yard. "You have to weed this, Julia! Look at how those other plants are choking these out!" My mother glared at the lab/beagle mix from next door, who while they watched slid his paw inside our fence and pulled back a stalk of my peony bush. "Stop him from doing that!" she cried. "He's killing your plants."

"He's so cute, though," I said. "And no one really plays with him."

My parents were stern. "You have to choose which you like better: the dog or your peonies."

I agreed that this was true, and asked my father to look at the little tree pictured above. We planted it last year, my husband and I, in honor of our twentieth anniversary. It's had a slow go of it because Jeff accidentally broke it last year while he was mowing the lawn (I asked if he was symbolically trying to destroy our marriage, but he says no). This year I was excited to see so many shoots and buds.

But my father, squinting at it with his arborist's eye, said, "You have to prune this."

"No!" I yelled instinctively. "It's just getting some green on it."

"But it's healthy for the tree," he pointed out. "If you leave it like this, it will grow out instead of up. You want it taller, right?"

"Yes," I said, pouting.

My dad nodded. "I'll go get my pruning shears."

"You have them in your CAR?" I asked.

Of course. My dad has everything in his car. If you have a highway emergency, you should pray that my dad is nearby, with his tools and his flares and, in case of a tree emergency, his arborist's implements.

He returned and pointed to the tree. "See how it makes a V there? It will grow outward now, and that's where the tree will branch off. You don't want it to do that so low to the ground."

Then, before my eyes, he went snip, snip, snip, and pulled off the pretty green leaves that were using up the tree's precious water in areas where, my father told me, I didn't want it to go.

It all makes sense. And today I see that the tree is, in fact, going to grow taller without wasting its resources on side branches.

This is also true of writing, isn't it? I take a draft that I've grown very fond of and I see that some of it has to go, but it's painful, to prune it all away like that and leave it dead on the ground (metaphorically). And then for a while the manuscript might look like nothing at all, once those terrific scenes have been cut away (or even, sometimes, beloved characters).

Still, pruning is a necessity, and my father's wisdom is something that I've come to rely upon, and not only in my garden.

Later in the summer I'll give you an update on my little tree, and all you writers can be encouraged that your pruning, too, is worth the effort.


Sandra Parshall said...

Cutting is indeed one of the most difficult things for a writer to do. I've been in critique groups where recommendations for dropping scenes, sentences, etc., would provoke furious rants. It's especially hard to cast aside something you've worked on for two or three drafts and polished to (in your eyes!) perfection. But often necessary. (sigh) We have to be filled with emotion while we're writing and absolutely cold when we're editing. No wonder so many writers seem a little crazy!

Julia Buckley said...

And perhaps depressed. :)