Tulip Fever

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.

Also: someone beat me to the big gay rug.

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)

* Other garden catalogues – Parker’s, Sarah Raven, Jacques Amand

* Arthur Parkinson’s Instagram

* Forde Abbey on Instagram

* 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.

* Google

* 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.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 32: This Ordinary Magic


Yay! Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

This is good for lots of reasons. A much-loved winner of much-loved writing. A writer who brings out the stories in the everyday. In Dear Life, a memoir piece about her childhood, Munro describes going to play at a friend’s house after school. The friend she calls Diane dances a Highland fling with Alice, and:

Eventually, we got thirsty and her grandmother gave us a drink of water, but it was horrid water from a dug well, just like at school. I explained about the superior water we got from a drilled well at home, and the grandmother said, without taking any sort of offense, that she wished they had that, too.

And there’s more in the next few paragraphs – a prohibition that reveals something that feels petty and turns out to be very spiteful and probably very defining – but you’ll have to read the piece to find that.

Throughout her writing we find the little surprises of ordinary life, those turns into unexpected joy, or moments laced with violence or revelation or connection. Lots of questions are asked, no easy answers are given, and something lingers.

Something key is a quality of perception: of looking, and seeing, and listening. The young (or older?) Alice in the selection above registers that the grandmother took no offence, and realises that she might have been offensive. A harmless interaction, perhaps, but one filled with harm – and lessons in compassion. And an understanding of what happened in this scene maybe only comes years later, in the moment of writing. Something is conjured up here.

Much of Munro’s art lies in the symmetry and energy of her sentences; note how the clause ‘without taking any sort of offense’ is slid between commas in the middle of a sentence in that extract above. And her sentences often rely on simple but strong word choices. Even neglected parts of speech such as prepositions have their own special powers. At the start of her story ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’: ‘We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school’ – maybe it’s a Canadianism I’m unaware of, but the use of that preposition ‘against’ opens up all manner of associations in my mind, and among other things makes me most alert to her language.

This prize is also a victory that reminds us of the wonders of the short story, the literary form of most of Munro’s published writing. ‘For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel’, she says. Well, the short story is not second best, and let’s praise the Nobel judges for reminding us of that. But even if you are stuck on other forms, I do think many people writing, e.g., novels could gain important practice in the writing of fiction if they tackled some short stories along the way. And I also think that some short stories – by other people – do feel like practice too. So maybe we should also remember to write short stories for all the reasons they are so special. I repeat: the short story is not second best. (Here is one of my Friday Writing Experiments that grows out of some opining on that matter.)

If you’d like to enjoy some more of her stories, the New Yorker shares some here (but maybe skip the summaries, which can reveal too much). The New Yorker also shares some of the enthusiasm of other writers, as well as a nifty piece by one of her editors (though maybe skip the two longer extracts and the sentences just before them – those literary types and their fondness for spoilers). And (update on 13 October) the Paris Review also has a super interview in its ‘Art of …’ series. Paul McVeigh has gathered together many things Munro on his terrifically useful blog too, including audio clips, interviews, and stories.

‘Books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic,’ Munro has said. For today’s writing experiment: write a piece in which you suffuse something very ordinary with something very magical. Not fantastical, not supernatural, but the magic of the ordinary. This ordinary magic could be observed in a place, a person, an object, or the view out of your window. Your form could be a story, or a poem, or memoir, or a paragraph of description or exchange of dialogue in a novel. And you probably want to be concrete and specific in what you behold.

I’m not sure how you’ll locate that magic, but let’s hope that the process of looking will help you find it.