Stories and Trees
Since I love walking in the woods, I find it often feels as if my Muse is wandering in a forest full of ideas. Writing these stories down, especially as a discovery writer, feels very much like growing trees.
For example, despite their magnitude when they are finished, stories start with nothing more than a seed, a nut with a soft center but enclosed in a hard shell. In other words tough to crack— but put the seed in the soil, water it every day, and if it rains and the soil is damp and well aerated, over time the shell will crack and sprout.
This is the part where the daily words come in. I write almost every day, preferably in the morning, with a cup of coffee at my side. With time and persistence, the story inside me will reveal itself, and eventually a tiny seedling will surprise me as its green shoot pokes out of the fertile ground of my imagination.
This stage of story growth, while exciting, is also one of the most fragile. I must be careful lest a careless stomp of a critical foot presses the tender seedling back into the ground. I must shelter it from storms, from hungry rodents, from drought. Also, tiny as the seedling is, I can’t even distinguish what it might become. I must write a little every day before discovering what kind of tree I’ve got. Is it an evergreen, destined to adorn a future living room’s Christmas? Is it a weeping willow, its roots seeking the succulent earth near a lake or a river? Or is it a maple, turning fiery orange and red every Halloween? The excitement of discovering what it might be keeps me writing. Who are these characters who populate my idea? What genre of story do they inhabit? Before the first leaf shows its shape, anything could happen.
Once the tree has revealed its species, I must remain diligent as leaf after leaf unfolds to nourish the emerging trunk and creeping roots, as the theme of the story sends shoots into the ground and branches into the sky. As with many things in life, one can’t see the growth from day to day, but over months and even years, that tender sapling grows into a sturdy young tree with broad branches gently swaying in the summer wind. I am incredibly proud of it, but at the same time there are some limbs in the wrong place, shoots springing up next to the trunk that don’t belong there, and even the occasional infestation of wood eating pests.
This is where the pruning shears come in. Knowing where to prune and what growth to promote is an art in itself, one that can be learned through practice and observing other properly groomed trees. It can be wrenching to lop off graceful boughs in the name of stronger tree growth, but it must be done. A good gardener knows that the light and the nutrition must reach the branches that will bear the most fruit. A good writer knows where to cut and where to graft to create a rewarding story.
Finally when the tree has grown to its full glory, its magnificent crown dappling the garden below in ripples of shade, I invite my friends over to take a look, to admire the symmetry of the branches, the health of the leaves, the depth of the roots. We can picnic under its benevolent shadow, smell its savory blossoms, and I marvel as I contemplate this massive miracle of wood and bark and leaves and seeds that is my own creation. Trees, because they grow so slowly and tenaciously, sometimes feel as if they live forever. Certainly they outlive us, and stories feel that way to me as well. Writers who came before me, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, have left behind mighty literary forests that still inspire and enchant us today, and that still cast their shadow over lesser saplings like me.
As I look over my orchard of half-finished books I sometimes wonder, will my trees ever bear fruit? Will I ever reap a harvest from happy readers consuming the results of my hard work? Or will my story trees remain forever ornamental, fun for me to look at, rustling at my window as I sleep at night, but never to be shared?
How about you? What would you compare your writing process to? What is your favorite kind of tree?
Leaf images courtesy of Billy Alexander @ stock.xchng