Saturday, January 31, 2009

It Is Done--The Hybrid Garden Memoir is Done

I told myself that I'd have it done, ready for the disseration committee, by 2/1/09. I worked 16 hours last weekend so that all I had to this morning was catch a few more small errors, add some thoughts that've been keeping me up at night, and batta bing batta boom. It's 240 pages with front matter and a 4 page bibliography. 75,506 words. 420,000 characters with spaces. 904 paragraphs. 5,334 lines.

I've written and researched around 75% of this book since June, though the idea for it came in the spring of 2004 in a nature writing course with John Janovy. In that class I had the beginnings--a 35 page essay--but I didn't have the drive. That drive came in May of 2006 when my grandmother passed away, and over the subsequent summer I lived the best time of my writerly life as I feverishly read about garden design and took hundreds of pages of notes. Well, best time of my writerly life until now.

I have never, ever, ever, worked so hard in my life. I am SERIOUS. I've never forced myself so hard in anything. On days when I felt sick, beyond exhausted, when I slept poorly, I made myself write. When I wanted to burn everything, wanted to bash it all to bits, I made myself write. When I wanted to be outside gardening, I made myself write.

On days when I should've been grading or lesson planning for classes, I wrote. This was a very important decision for me early last fall, and why my student course evaluations are some of my lowest since I first taught in 2000. I woke up one day and I said I couldn't fight this anymore--something had to give. I could not, not at this point in my life anyway, be both a devoted teacher and writer. It was pulling me apart. 9 years of grad school has broken me into too many little pieces, each of which everyone expects 100% from. So I put the book ahead of teaching. And I stand by this decision. I've been made whole again.

I love the book. I really do. Not just saying that in this 52 degree sunny euphoria. I've joined the ecological, environmental, philosophical, critical, lyrical, contemplative tradition of the writers I most admire. I think so, anyway.

I've never felt so much joy and so much pain at once while writing this book either. Writing is exhausting. I can't begin to tell you. I know plenty of folks think just sitting there sounds pretty relaxing, but I get less tired doing manual labor. Seriously. I put everything into it when I do something, ask my wife who says I "get on a mission." Writing this book has been far more intense than my first dissertation, a collection of poetry. That book came together easily, partly because 1/3 of the poems were written during my MFA years, partly because poetry is easier to write. It really is. And not just for length or the fact I've been writing it since I was 15.

Prose feels natural to me, too, but I think prose opens up a can of worms. In poetry, reflection is not really needed or wanted--it hurts the intensity of the image and the reader's full experience of the reading. Poetry is concise and focused, especially, and that precision is what makes it like a tightly coiled spring ready to burst with all that stored energy once the reader internalizes and experiences it. Poetry is like foreplay. (It may be the next thing too, actually....)

In prose, to a degree, the reader expects to be hand held a bit, and reflection is a greater part of that. The trick is to know when to stop rambling and let the description, research, and imagery do the work again and build the metaphor of experience--that's what poetry has taught me. Prose is spooning afterward.

So, see, I'm rambling even here, and getting a bit NC17. I believe in this book. I know a writer is supposed to, but think about all those years that "famous" writers spent writing books that no one likes, sometimes even the writer. This isn't one of those. And I hope I never write one of those. But this book is good. It is really really good. And now it waits for a talented editor to show me how much better it can still be.

For now, I bid you adieu, Morning Glory: A Story of Family and Culture in the Garden. As our cultures continues to clash with the natural world I hope, that in some small measure, you will begin to reconnect and heal that rift which has developed over time (unfortunately, ecological signs point to that rift needing to be healed overnight). I hope that as you settle back into me, as the dust of my research books and loose papers in the office nestle back in to files and on shelves, you will cool and harden like steel, you will extend your roots out into the new soil like a willow. See you in 2 months, my dear, dear friend. I can't wait to see what you will become in this moment of extended rest and rejuvenation. Perhaps, what I will become.


Sarah O. said...


All this time I've been mostly-lurking on your blog and reading what you were working on, and I never asked, have you read L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle? The main character is a woman who is not allowed to read novels, so she reads nature prose by an author called John Foster, and one day she decides to break free from her family and goes to live with a rugged hermit on an island in the Muskokas... I know it's a romance, but you might find some of the nature writing content amusing to read.

Gail said...

Fantastic Benjamin! It has been a true labor of love. You had those moments when you doubted yourself, wanted to turn back, but they were momentary rough spots. Congrats. Spring can't be far away.


Unknown said...

Well done, Benjamin. I'm so proud of you, for seeing this through, because your double dissertation would have defeated many. I am sure you're exhausted but exhilarated too, and you should be proud. I didn't bother doing a PhD even though I was 'supposed to'. I didn't want to teach at university, although I'm teaching a course in freelance writing right now on Saturday mornings that looks promising. But that's dealing with people who WANT to write and WANT to be there.
Do something nice for yourself and your wife this weekend--you've so earned it!

Anonymous said...

Way to go, Benjamin! You have a lot to look forward to this spring. I bet it won't be long before your next writing adventure takes root.

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin, Congratulation on the completion of your manuscript. Do you plan on querying agents or do you have a university press doing the work, or...?

As a writer I can totally relate to the elation of a finished project. I recently completed a memoir. All 135,242 words of it (to be exact). It only took five years! :) I'm now in the agent querying process.

Writing is every bit as addictive as gardening. I wish you much success. Grace

PJ said...

Congratulations on getting to that stage - both scary and exhilerating I am sure. It certainly gives all of use gardening PhD candidates hope!

Amanda B. said...


How awesome!!

I want to buy a copy when it is printed! :)

Barry said...

I am a recently new follower to your blog, and have to admit I was fascinated with the topic for your new work of literature. Please make sure that you print enough copies for your fellow blogging fans.... have you considered turning it into an e-book? Take a well deserved break, you are most deserving!

Helen/patientgardener said...

Congratulations - go and enjoy a well earned rest.

Victoria Summerley said...

Dear Benjamin, well done! And by the way, it's wonderful to hear someone describe the labour of writing in such a powerful way. I think many people think it's somehow an easy option: there you are, sitting in front of your computer in your study, tap-tapping away while the rest of the world gets on with a "real" job. Writing is bloody hard work. I hope that the post-deadline euphoria stays with you a long time: you deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Oh I am so glad you are finished and that you feel so proud and worked so hard. What is life, if not hard work doing something you love? I can't wait to have your work in my hands so it can be read properly and slowly, unlike the blogs.

IBOY said...

Congratulations are in order! I look forward now to seeing your manuscript in print, so I can buy a copy. Now, if you'll excuse me I feel pretty exhausted and need to go lay down.

James Golden said...

Congratulations. Now you can put it away for a while (can you?) and see what you think in a few months. I'll bet you'll be revising to beat the band. I hope it's a success for you and you can move it forward to publication.

Amanda said...

Congratulations, Ben! That must feel so great. Good luck with it!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Tahnk you everyone! Now, let's see if I can surface long enough to comment back to y'all. Here goes:

Sarah O--Thanks for lurking and leaving a commment! I've never read that, but it sounds intersting. Yet more shopping to do on Amazon. Darn. :)
Gail--Yes, self doubt, and even self hate. I can really get upset with myself when I'm not clicking or seeing things how I know I can.
Jodi--Who says you have to teach if you geta PhD? Craziness. I do enjoy teaching, but am a bit burned out now--too much going on at once. It is very nice to have classes who want to be there, who want to be challenged and step up to the plate--that makes me try harder, and it's awesome.
Nan--Yes, I look forward to a graduation party. And I do have another book in mind, but it requires travel...
Grace--Oh, writing and gardening go hand in hand, but writing lasts longer. I do not have an agent at this point, and don't anticipate having one. I've several presses I intend to submit to, academic ones that aren't only academic, and some indie ones too.
Siskelkk--Yup, there's hope. It's that teeny tiny light way off yonder that looks like a dust mite. But it's there. (I'm a fatalist.)
Teza--No, I probably won't print it myself, but when a press does take it, I'll make sure I sell copies here--for a markup. A big one. I'm serious. Yes. (I'm sarcastic, too.)
PG--I can rest only after the paper are graded this week!
Victoria--Bloody right it's bloody hard work! I tell my students if you are dripping blood out of your eye sockets you aren't really writing yet. Keep going.
Frances--The real test in life is doing something you love no matter what. I haven't had that test yet--and hope I don't have to.
Don--Thanks! And hardy har har. I hope your nap was a good one so you won't be as persnickety.
James--Beat the band? I've not heard that expression for a while--I love it! Yes, it will sit for 1-2 months, though I keep looking at it, trying to find smaller bits to send out to literary journals.
Amanda--Merci beaucoup. Now it's your turn, perhaps?

Jehanne Dubrow said...

What a great entry. I especially love what you have to say about the difference between writing prose and writing poetry (the more NC17, the better). A big congratulations on finishing the second diss. I know that you're going to rock the defense meeting!

Susan Tomlinson said...

I tried to leave you a comment the other day, but for some reason, it wouldn't post. In any case, many, many congratulations are due. Finishing your diss/memoir is such an achievement. You should feel very proud and satisfied. :-)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Jehanne--don't tempt me to get all NC17 on you. That came out wrong, didn't it. Thanks for the congrats, hopefully I'll also rock a press or two.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Susan--Oh, I could tell you stories about not actually being done, alas....