Her crowning glory was to be the purple climbing clematis, but something went awry in the potager garden. What was once such joyful possibility is a tangle of disproportions. The balance and symmetry I envisioned grew up wild children with ideas of their own. The Lemon Queen sunflowers once to wispy and whimsical have stalks thick as birch saplings and heads ready to flower a foot over mine. Having planted six, I believe I now have a sunflower woods. At their base, the delphiniums have bloomed twice despite the strangulation of the purple podded peas that the rabbit bit off at the stalks, leaving the tendrils to be dry and brown, still wrapped tightly. The cosmos and bee balm are exquisite, and the snapdragons are starting to get their blooms, and here comes the overreach of the butternut squash with tendrils like those of the Kraken. And who knew courgette plants could grow four feet tall?
But alas, that clematis has not grown into the potager’s greatest centerpiece.
I’m looking at my neighbor’s neat rows and thinking maybe I did it wrong. My thesis is feeling the same way. Her crowning glory was to be a strong protagonist, a deep setting, a hero’s journey. In the middle of things, it’s a grander mess than anything I’ve ever written. My professor provided line edits the way a horticulturist would critique my gardens. I’m just going to say it — writing hurts sometimes. Being creative and visionary feels fraudulent when the results fall far from expectations. It’s my pity party, and I’ll sit in my overgrown garden and cry if I want to. Except I can’t indulge in my bemoaning long.
I’ve got work to do. Courgettes to harvest, seeds to save, flowers to arrange in vases, and the most delicious golden globes of lemon cucumbers to eat. Maybe the crown was not the point. I have writing to submit 15,000 more words by August 10. First drafts and middles are meant to be messy. At the direction of both profs, my peers and I are charged with self-care this week. One shared an article: Why Self Compassion Trumps Self Esteem. Garden and novels are hard work. It does no good to compare ourselves to the finished works of others when ours are still in progress.
Mostly, I’m tired. Most of my son’s guests are canceling, including close friends. My heart hurts for him because many have been reluctant to say they can’t come. It triggered grief in me and guilt. My best friend was known as Aunt Kate to my kids. Wild unicorns wouldn’t have kept her from reaching out to him if she couldn’t be there. The guilt is for abandoning her kids, not keeping in touch with them, after all our wandering. Grief is such an unwelcomed guest, like smoke it permeates. It is never too late to reach out. Never too late to plan next year’s gardens with this year’s lessons in mind. Never too late to resist the paralysis of the writer’s inner critic.
Tomorrow I shall cut my hair. Better yet, I’ll make a hair appointment and mask up for the event. My own crowning glory will not be COVID-hair. I might even trim up the eyebrows that are transforming into caterpillars. Paint the toenails for the open-toe shoes. I’ll hop online in the morning with my fellow veteran spouses, and we’ll listen to one another and encourage resiliency. Later, I’ll go back out to Lady Lake. It’s cooled off this week after a blazing hot weekend. The water will be cold, but I’ll still get in and try to float again. Look for rocks again. Call for the loons. Reset. Then I’ll get back at it. Write.
Another good article to read is The 10 Types of Writers’ Block (and How to overcome Them). Each type calls for a different solution. The first is when you can’t come up with an idea. It happens with the challenges — the prompt fails to spark a story fire. One solution is to do writing exercises. The author gives these suggestions:
“Try imagining what it would be like if a major incident in your life had turned out way differently. Try writing some fanfic, just to use existing characters as “training wheels.” Try writing a scene where someone dies and someone else falls in love, even if it doesn’t turn into a story. Think of something or someone that pisses you off, and write a totally mean satire or character assassination. (You’ll revise it later, so don’t worry about writing something libelous at this stage.)” Charlie Jane Anders
I’d add to that: write the opposite of your first idea. Give your character a quirk. Reset the story someplace exotic, in the loo, or underground. Add a secondary character who is mean, or funny, or clueless. Add a sensory detail like something prickly, a whining sound, the taste of saffron. Collect details and turn them into story ideas or props. If all else fails, add a unicorn. Humor me.
July 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that uses the phrase “her crowning glory.” (Thanks to Anne Goodwin for the prompt idea.) It can be in the traditional sense of a woman’s hair or applied to any idea of a best attribute. What happens if you play with the meaning or gender? Go where the prompt leads!
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Hiding Her Crown by Charli Mills
When Thomas fell down the main shaft and died, the mining company told his widow to send one of the boys or leave the company house. Jack was ten and frail from illness. Robbie was eight, and Brad six. Lizzie was fourteen and fit. She sheared her crowning glory of long red curls. No one likes a ginger, Mrs. Lewis next door would say, her mouth pinched perpetually. Wearing her father’s clothes tied and tucked into her brother’s boots Lizzie settled the miner’s helmet on her bald head. No one ever paid the poor Irish kids much mind, anyhow.