This month I was going to make a thoughtful post/papal address – something topical on slow writing, or productivity, or how to crochet a big gay rug for lockdown dance parties in your big gay commune. But everyone is a poster/pope now, and there is so much guidance and advice and ‘content’ out there that we could spend a lifetime of quarantines just reading the index.
Also: though I am very good at slow writing, I am no expert on productivity – preacher, heal thyself, etc.
So instead I am going to post a writing experiment inspired by something that’s far more important. Something that has been a real salve of late.
I love tulips. I love gardens and I love gardening. We have a tiny garden, and I fill its beds with ferns and shrubs, and I fill the gaps with pots, and I fill many of those pots with bulbs. And one day in spring you turn your head, and colour and texture and form are there where they weren’t before. Especially in the bold form of
I planted 345 tulip bulbs back in November/December, and every morning since early April I have gone out in the garden to check on their progress. Cruellest month, my arse; Eliot is as bad as Plath, who described a tulip as a ‘wound’ – insert Scream emoticon! Two misery-guts together, spectres with their mugs lurking above Anglo-American poetry.
Back to my tulips – not wounds, but salves, comforts, great joys. Just a few duds this year (a pot of Tulipa humilis Liliput that I fear I waterlogged). Otherwise: the tulips are a thesaurus of pinks and plums and oranges.
And their names! Some grand, some silly, some wtf. And each name belongs to its tulip – sometimes a perfect fit, sometimes a less comfortable description but an interesting combination all the same. Trusty Ballerina, fey Orange Angelique, lush Jan Reus – admire his crimson hues at the top of the page. Prinses Irene like a flirty divorcée, hunky Havran, seductive Paul Scherer the sales director. China Pink: spiky and funny and intelligent – a scientist, I suspect (see just above). Each has its own personality, profession, deepest yearnings.
Sometimes they talk about me behind my back while I’m drinking my tea, like these Ballerinas above.
Sometimes I have to break up fights – check out these Queens of the Night ganging up on a couple of those bitchy Ballerinas in the rain.
Some are flashy, and even when they are getting old and a bit crispy at the edges they love to show their drawers. They remind me of my nan. These above are called Burgundy, but they look mauve to me. Which just goes to show: appearances are deceiving. Also applies to my nan …
So far this year I’ve taken 236 photos of tulips on my iPhone. I keep them in a special album, which is why I, unlike Priti Patel, can provide accurate statistics. I’ve posted some others on my Instagram. Sometimes I feel I am overdoing it with the photos, but I guess that’s what photographers do – you just take pics until you are happy with one. And they make me very happy.
From the vantage of my hermitage, and after however many weeks it is (three, six, a Priti thirty-four), I’ve come to realise that dogs and plants and books are on the whole my preferred company.
In other tulip news, I broke the longest fast of book-buying in my life, and ordered myself a belated birthday present in the form of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which for some reason I never got round to reading before. I am glad I waited, as last year it came out in a sumptous twentieth-anniversary edition, and it is GORGEOUS. Tulips for year round – and for planning my pots for 2021, and beyond.
Anyway, at the risk of being a bit Let Them Eat Tulips: I want to use tulips for a writing experiment in which you create a story. This is what I propose:
1. Pick half a dozen of your favourite tulips. Use some of the inspirations listed in the links below. Or go out into your garden or to a florist and pick some yourself, if you can. Be drawn to their hues, their shapes, their names perhaps, and what they represent to you.
2. Write their names down the side of a piece of paper. (Leave space for working beside each one.)
3. Now put them to work. Sort these names out. Take notes. Some of the names will be characters. Some will be settings, either the names you give to places, or places you can take your story to. Some might be the names of random objects that will set your story in action. Some might have other resonances: themes, workplaces, ambitions, character flaws.
4. And now: put all of these names together into a story. I’m here thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, where you put various ingredients into a container and then work out their connections: How do they describe themselves, and how do others see them? What are their deepest yearnings, and their inner conflicts, and how do these create tensions among the group? How do they sit in each other’s company, and what do they give or take from each other? What part of the world are they in? What story do they have to tell?
Then write it up. You can change names later, if the tulip names seem a little too peculiar for the story you end up with. Or you might just want to create tulippy variants.
Have fun with this. It is often a good idea to start with a name, and then just let your imagination go wild. You could ever do variations with the names of other plants: types of roses, the brassy monikers of heucheras, cultivars of apples. Or extend this idea to other catalogues: the names of yoga poses or cars, or product names from Ikea.
If you want some inspirations for tulip names, though, try some of the following links and departure points (excuse us, Black Knight and Don Quichotte!):
* The tulip pages at Avon Bulbs (my favourite supplier)
* Elegant Tulip Bulbs (new to me, but this site apparently lists over 3,700 tulip names – can’t be true, or can it?! you might have to Google some of the images)
* The RHS
* Annie Proulx, whose use of names for characters and places is astonishing. Absurd, even, but I’m not complaining. Jack Twist, Lightning Flat, Brokeback Mountain, Quoyle, Petal Bear, Dakotah, Charles Duquet. Some of those could be tulip names.
* And not tulip but ever so colourful – if you really want to crochet that rug: Artist Fritz Haeg on How to Make a Rug from Materials in Your Home
And now farewells, from Orange Angelique …
… Black Night, Don Quichotte, China Pink, Havran, and Barcelona … and …
… probably my fave of all, lusty Jan Reus.
We’ll be welcoming in the summer by then, but note that I am teaching an online workshop on Perfect Plotting for The Literary Consultancy via Zoom on Wednesday 24 June at 4-6pm – more details at this link.
And I am planning other online workshops too. Subscribe to my blog for further information when it’s ready.