A Garden of Words

A writer friend and I have been discussing the role of theme in novels. He seems to believe an author ought not deliberately set out to convey a Christian truth between the words, for fear of spoiling the integrity of the story. We have some more talking to do before I can be sure, but I think he's really saying it's important not to be "preachy," which is of course, quite true. But in the course of our conversation, he mentioned his son-in-law, a gardener, and said he writes stories the way his son-in-law gardens, as a Christian for sure, but without "a motivation of changing lives." That got me thinking.

How is a writing a novel like planting a garden?

In a gardener's world, integrity and attention to excellence means one doesn't go about planting just anything haphazardly, simply because it's pleasing to the eye at first. Some plants thrive in shade; some don't. Some require good drainage; some like wet roots. Such things must be given as much consideration as aesthetics, or else the end result is less than excellent, regardless of whether it pleases the eye at first, because the plants will quickly die. This is similar to plotting a novel.

Excellent gardeners also consider the interrelationships of shape, height, color and so forth of a plant to the others before deciding where to place it. One doesn't place taller, bushier plants in front of low flowers, for example, or else the flowers are not seen. One puts plants where they do their best work, be it as a centerpiece, or in a supporting role. This is similar to characterization.

But the very best gardens, the ones that are so excellent as to be inherited by future generations of gardeners who carefully and lovingly attend to them in order to keep their beauty alive, are also planted with a sense of something more. As we stroll through them we feel we have been somewhere like this before; we are certain these plants and fountains and winding paths are telling us something true about another world; they instill a longing for something beyond words, a subconscious belief that things could be glorious again if only we could understand this feeling beyond words. In short, they remind us of something wonderful that we have long forgotten. If you've ever been in a world-class garden, you'll know exactly what I mean. And this is tantamount to theme.

It's possible to plant a perfectly acceptable garden without this third design element, of course. In fact, most gardens don't have it. They have the same pretty flowers and shade trees and so forth, but that indefinable quality is missing. People still enjoy them while they're there, but once they are beyond the garden's boundaries the pleasure they felt is quite forgotten. I want to take my readers deeper, to leave them something when they close the book. I want to try to capture the magical quality of a world-class garden, a sense of God's limitless love, an ache within the reader, a feeling that this love one senses is true, and could be restored if one only knew which path to take to reach it.

My friend calls this propaganda. If that is true, it's not the usual "do as you're told" kind. I'm looking to awaken truths that are already there in the reader's heart, not plant a new idea or further an agenda. In a small way with every novel that I write I want to take readers back to primal memories they already have, back to a certain garden as it was before the fall.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:46 AM  


Kay Day said... July 26, 2009 at 11:55 AM  

I think you succeed. And books like yours are why I keep reading. Sure it's fun to be entertained, but that wears thin quickly. If after I close the book I feel something renewed in me, whether longing for more of Him, or a sense of His love, guidance, or peace, or even conviction, then it has been a satisfying experience.

I have the same goal for my own writing. I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting to change lives. But I think the reader needs to not feel like some one is trying to change his life.

If I wrote books and didn't have any reason to believe people were seeing God in them, or being touched or changed, I would quit writing.

Tim George said... July 26, 2009 at 2:08 PM  

Athol - I hear similar comments all the time as I read, review, and interview authors. There is a place for stories designed to kill a few hours by the beach or to put us to sleep at night. I love those stories.

But there is also a need for stories that take us somewhere higher and deeper than before we read them. My wife is a master gardener, as was her mother before her. Your illustration is perfect.

Anonymous said... July 26, 2009 at 6:06 PM  

You've hit on something, and it's the qualities you describe that determine if a book will become a classic, at least in one reader's mind, or simply a pleasant read.

When it's done right, readers are intelligent enough to identify subtle themes and truths, I think, that we don't have to make large placards for all the plants.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Lynn Dean

Athol Dickson said... July 26, 2009 at 6:54 PM  

I love that, Lynn. The idea of placards identifying the plants is an excellent extension of the analogy to comment on the problem of a heavy-handed novel, a story that preaches when it ought to let the theme rise up organically from between the lines.

Michelle Pendergrass commented on FaceBook that the analogy also extends to weeds, by which I think she meant weeding a garden can symbolize trimming verbose prose, another great analogy.

This gardening comparison to writing fiction seems to work on almost every level.

Nicole said... July 26, 2009 at 8:45 PM  

Sometimes the contrarian . . . alas. Gardening is also for the pleasure of the one who plants it. The joy of working the earth and experimenting with new growth, the prettiness of certain flowers, the chaos of beauty as it blooms.

The gardener can plant to his heart's delight and who can criticize his creation if it grows.

Writing novels serves unique purposes and need not be stuffed into a pattern or frame designed by someone else. What one reader charges as "propaganda" another will declare noteworthy, meaningful even.

We've all walked through or observed "gardens" we thought were less than spectacular only to find someone else adored them.

To assert that a novel should be written one way or another is to limit the creativity of authors or "planters".

Athol Dickson said... July 27, 2009 at 8:43 AM  

At the risk of being contrarian myself, I don't think that's contrarian at all, Nicole. :) I agree with every word you wrote!

Donn Taylor said... July 27, 2009 at 11:59 AM  

Good explanation, Athol. Let's change the metaphor a bit. An ordinary run of cameras gives a merely two-dimensional photograph that photo interpreters can't do much with. But a better camera has a quality called depth of field that enables photo interpreters to derive remarkably precise proportions and measurements.
Some novels remain two-dimensional. Others convey just as thrilling a narrative, but enable insights beyond the narrative into a third dimension of eternal values.
As Athol said, these long-lasting and eternal themes need to grow organically from the narrative rather than being pasted on.
Thanks again for an enlightening blog.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said... July 28, 2009 at 12:12 PM  

I'm pulling out my soap box, Athol. Just turn me loose on your friend. ;-)

Seriously, though, I think we Christian novelists need to take a hard look at the subject of theme, so I'm glad you brought it up here.

Surprisingly, the unbelieving world of writers doesn't seem to have a problem putting themes in their stories.

I wrote a blog post recently about a TV program, an episode of "Eli Stone," that had a clear message about (or against) Christians. Regardless of what the theme was, the point here is, the writers had no problem embedding a message into their story.

And this has been done since stories were first written. Who in high school English didn't have to ferret out the theme of the particular novel or play or story under study?

Secondly, while you've put a very nice twist on gardening to make it an analogy for writing, not an actual comparison, the thing your friend is forgetting is that writing communicates. A garden may communicate, but the inherent use of words--one person expressing ideas that another hears or reads and interprets--puts writing on a plain different from gardening or plumbing (usually the occupation the people I discuss theme with tend to bring up) or any other non-communicative pursuit.

Why would we think we are limited to communicating eye color and bullets slamming into shoulders, not ideas?

My belief is that many Christian writers, hearing the call to improve craft and the criticism of preachy fiction, have swung the pendulum to the farthest extreme in order to disengage from the past.

It's a mistake, I believe. A serious one because we are now saying to the world Christians are a mindless collection, out only for entertainment. We aren't trying to write anything timeless or universal, with ultimate meaning.

Propaganda, by the way, is not timeless or universal or conveying ultimate meaning either. The idea that any inclusion of theme equates with propaganda seems to me to show a lack of understanding of both theme and propaganda.

But it is a common mantra these days among Christian writers, thankfully one that is coming under more scrutiny.

I could say more ... but I'll relinquish the floor. ;-)

Thanks for bringing the topic to the forefront, Athol.


Tim George said... July 28, 2009 at 12:23 PM  

Rebecca said more than I could ever think of. You have hit a nerve for many of us Athol. Keep it up.

Athol Dickson said... July 28, 2009 at 2:17 PM  

Like Tim, I so very much appreciate your wise comments, Becky. And I agree with every word. Perhaps the most important point you made, in my opinion, is our tendency as Christian writers to be afraid of theme as an over-reaction to the valid charge of preachiness in the past. Undoubtedly we still have authors who need to learn to layer their themes organically through all portions of their story, rather than slapping them on the surface like icing on a cake, but the answer to that is not to go all the way in the opposite direction.

I think of that oft-quoted book, MYSTERY AND MANNERS, and Flannery O'Connor's tirades against preachy, superficial themes, and then I think of the themes she explored in her own work, and the powerful, powerful way she did it. Maybe that's something to blog about next...HOW do we work theme in without being preachy, but also without being so subtle that most people miss it?

Thanks again Becky, for your excellent remarks!

Rebecca LuElla Miller said... July 30, 2009 at 7:43 PM  

I for one will be eager to read that post, Athol. It's great to see this discussion surface.


Deborah Raney said... August 6, 2009 at 10:02 AM  

Wow! I've so enjoyed this discussion on theme and especially the analogies to gardening. I have NO idea if there is a metaphor hidden in this gardening observation, but one thing I've noticed is that, while my husband and I tend the garden in our back yard with the intention of sitting leisurely in it, we rarely do that. We both seem to be happiest in the garden when we're on our knees with a hoe or pruners or a watering can in hand.

And while we're on the subject of novels and gardens, let me invite you to take a peek at the gardens (and books) of some of my favorite novelists.


Author Scott Appleton said... February 20, 2010 at 8:14 AM  

This is my first time finding your blog. I like what you have to say about theme. In my books I let message come when it flows with the story. In my first book I used the father-figure dragon-prophet to convey truths, but didn't have any preachy points. In my second novel I unexpectedly created a new character, a monk, who revels in sharing truths through paintings that he hangs in the chapel. It was a fun way to teach truths/reinforce them through example.

Great post, and it was nice to find another great blog.

Athol Dickson said... February 20, 2010 at 9:15 AM  

Scott, I like the idea of your monk character exploring themes through his art, especially since you're revealing that through literature. Wheels within wheels. Very nice!

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