Being called a ‘Nature Writer’.
My last book, Seed to Dust has been long listed for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing as How to Catch a Mole was before it. I seem to have been firmly planted in the Nature Writing camp. This is not a place I expected to be. Like Wainwright himself I am a wanderer but I never set out to be a nature writer, I love to be in nature, I particularly love to be in a garden surrounded by the life it creates and attracts, but I’m not a naturalist, not a plantsman or an ornithologist or any of the experts who write nature books. I am a self-taught gardener as was Vita Sackville West whose writing inspired my last book. I am by nature a meditator and the garden is often my subject, my mandala if you like. As I look after it, it teaches me about myself and as I am just like you, as we are all connected, it teaches me something about you and our lives together.
My real interest as a human being living this short and often hard life is exploring how to live, what we are, why we are here and what we are supposed to do while we are here, I have spent decades thinking about how we can be happy in a world that is full of cruelty and suffering. Much of it has been done while wandering or working in nature because it has much to teach us and working as a gardener is an ethical and honest way of earning a living that was respectful of the earth. My books are set in gardens because that is where I do my thinking and often my writing.
I have found that gardeners are very often the kind of people who ask such deep questions, it is after all a contemplative occupation, and my work is on the whole bought by gardeners and for gardeners, and it appears they are loved. With this next book I want to try to expand the audience a little, reach some people outside of the gardening/nature writing world who might enjoy what I have to say. It hasn’t started well, I’m writing about a garden again so I am not doing myself any favours, but I can't help myself, the garden is such a great metaphor not only for the world we live in but for what goes on in our own lives and I know it so well.
I don’t want to tell you in my writing how wonderful and beautiful nature is, I want to remind you that you are part of nature and so you are wonderful and beautiful. Because as you deal with many of the same hardships that the animals and the insects and the flowers deal with, it is easy to forget that you are beautiful too.
Maybe I’ll try to break out of this little niche I find myself in by not using a subtitle. I’m not a fan of subtitles really, I think they limit the readership. Or maybe I will argue with my publishers (the truly wonderful Harvill Secker/Vintage) that Tales of Spring Rain should have a more open ended subtitle something like:
Tales of Spring Rain
a story about being beautiful or
a story about change or
a story about growth?
Well, to the book itself. I am half way through and I have gone away to a town in France for a few months where all of my books have been written, or finished at least. I have family here and access to a room where I can write intensively without distractions, a quiet meditative space where I can crack on. I am surrounded by thousands of swifts that nest in the roof and church bells at the end of the road that call out every quarter. I am deeply lucky to have this little space.
Tales of Spring Rain is at a sensitive point. I am right in the middle, a place where I am always tempted to make something happen, add some conflict that twists the story in a new direction or gives the hero a new challenge which he must overcome, it is what people do in fiction and so I am tempted to do it too, it would be easy to make something up but I want to do something harder, I want to write a story that is true, and honest, that does not slot neatly into the accepted structure of western novels and yet remains a story that is engaging and enlightening and beautiful, I don’t want conflict, I want to create peace and harmony. Above all I want it to be a beautiful thing in itself. If you ever read Japanese short stories you might know what I am talking about.
Somebody once said that a reader often does not remember what happened in a story, more often they remember how it made them feel, and I want to make my reader feel beautiful. I think this is my main aim as a writer.
There is with any piece of writing a struggle, life is not lived in words and so the writers job is to translate the rich multilayered quality of life with all of the relevant ideas and opinions, scents and tastes, loves and all of its nuances and bits of ‘meh’ into a linear structure that is readable and makes sense and is enjoyable to read in that it creates enjoyable feelings; excitement or love or joy or calmness, or fear. So the words are sometimes wrestled out, battling with and wrenching the story, beating it into a shape that it keeps on springing out of. A couple of hours can easily go by following a thread and furiously writing away at a strand that, on standing back to read it, changes the direction of everything and suddenly you realise that you are writing a completely new story and it has to be somehow incorporated or deleted, or even worse the new strand tells it better than what you wrote before and you have to junk everything up to page 200. It happens. It has happened. The book is better for it and tells the intended story in a clearer way.
There is an old zen story. Condensed into a song that is known by all old hippies like me. A few of us know what it means. This song distills the essence of how the writing is going at the moment, the key line of the song is this: ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain then there is'. Already some of you of a certain age (i.e. Hippies) have the tune and some of you (i.e. Buddhists) know about the idea - at first we see the solidity of things, we live here firmly in what we think of as the ‘real world’ then some of us will see that there is no real world, no substance, that everything is just a matter of perception. Then we take another step and begin to feel comfortable living in a world that is illusory and treat it as if it were solid, walking on the firm earth with our head in the clouds. As far as the book is concerned I knew it from front to back, it was solid and clear and I just had to write it, but as I wrote I began to lose sight of it, it became something more evanescent, ungraspable, vague and illusory and I felt that I had lost my way. It was a struggle and that’s why I haven’t been blogging for a while, I have been trying to hold a cloud, to smooth it and roll it into a solid ball as if it were a dorodango. The only thing to do in that situation as a wanderer is to accept being lost, and to keep going until the truth reveals itself. I’ve just reached that third stage. Accepting feeling lost, keeping going, and the solid dorodango suddenly appears and begins to shine. But like a dorodango it is still very fragile and I can still ruin it and would have to start again.
(If you don't know what a dorodango it, please google it, it is a wonderful thing!)