Saturday, October 6, 2007

Reaping What We Sow

Garden writing is a world all its own--but does it have to be so damned deadly boring?

I used to write a garden column. It was syndicated to nearly 2 million readers a month. I was an expert, and I wrote with expertise. That, after all, is the biggest part of being a garden writer.

Isn't it?

Well, yes and no. Anyone writing about any topic so specific as gardening has to know his beans. But he has to remember that being an expert and being an expert garden writer aren't exactly one-in-the-same.

We've all read "experts" who were dull as stripped screws. (You draw further conclusions.) At least, we've all started reading those experts. Whether or not we finished is open to debate. I have a feeling it's the rare reader, indeed, who will plow through those heavy-as-molasses tomes simply because they're written by an expert.

On the other hand, what a joy to find an expert in any field of expertise writing in a flip, lively, imaginative way! What a joy ... and what a rarity! Why is that? Why can't experts also be expert writers?

Well, the simple answer is, they can. The tough solution, though, is that it takes a whole lot of energy to write with vim and verve and vigor and ... oh, hell, I'm running out of "V" words. But you get the point. It's one thing to know your subject well. It's quite another to know your subject well and to know how to write it up so that everyone finds it interesting.

To wit:

The tomato is not actually a vegetable but a fruit. It's habitat ranges from the near-Arctic to the Equator, making it one of the most far-flung adaptable fruits on the face of the earth. It's habit, too, is similarly wide-reaching. It can be short and squatty or tall and leggy. It can be bush-like or vining. In short, it's one of the most remarkable of fruits known to man.

Excuse me while I excuse me.

Hey, what's going on here? A writer thinking that, as an expert, he need only put words on paper to capture everyone's imagination? Apparently. And apparently wrong. Just how many pages of writing like that would you be willing to suffer through? Oops, and here's a thought. If you can't endure such mindless dribble, how do you suppose the average editor (jaded, stilted, saturated with cliches, longing for creativity) feels? So, what's the lesson to be learned?

Take a dull subject (sorry, I love to garden, but it's a dull subject to most people who couldn't care less whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, only that it's 99 cents a pound at Safeco and not $2.99 at Wal-Mart), figure out where the dullness lies, and avoid that chasm like the plague.

I give you:

The Tomato. Humble, unassuming, common. If your supermarket has a produce department--and I know it does--it's deluged by the ruby reds 12 months a year (okay, yeah, sometimes they're yellow or orange, I know, but 99 percent of the time, they're red). And why? The question is, rather, why not. Tomatoes are the most popular fruit (technically speaking) on the face of the earth, mostly because they're so versatile, partly because they're so prevalent--ranging from the near-Arctic to the Equator and south to just shy of Antarctica. And absolutely because they're so damned tasty!

Okay, okay. I set you up. It's easy to write a bad paragraph; it's easier still to write a better one. What's difficult is to write a good one all the time, even with potentially boring subjects. Are we beginning to see eye-to-eye here?

My philosophy on writing non-fiction is simple. Make it interesting.

Fiction is a breeze. You have something to say, it's extraordinary, remarkable, unbelievable, mind-boggling, made-up. But non-fiction? Ahh, there's the rub. That's where we, as writers, tend to want to let the "facts" (Just the facts, ma'm) speak for themselves. But facts, as any good fiction writer knows, are deadly boring. Do you think you could write an intriguing novel using "facts" alone? Well, neither can you write an interesting non-fiction piece.

Facts, to experts, are the end-all and be-all. That is their downfall. Facts, to a good writer, are a jumping-off point. What do they tell us? How can we relay that information to others in a lively and entertaining way? In short, how can we use factuality as a tool to enliven our writing styles, rather than as a writing style itself to deaden our effectiveness as writers?

The answer lies within each and every one of us. Read the "facts" that you write, and then ask yourself--be brutally honest with your answer, here--just how interesting what you've written would be to someone outside your field of expertise. If the answer, on a scale of one-to-ten, is anything but an eleven, you'd better drop back and punt.

And tomatoes, by the way--as far-flung as their empire flies--are far less impressive in that respect than the common pepper. Or even the pole bean.

Who knew???

No comments: