I discovered this week that growing tomatoes and creative writing have a lot in common. My mother had a passion for plants and she successfully grew many exotic species, including an abundant supply of fruit and vegetables. In order to share her interest, my father decided to try his hand at growing some tomatoes. In keeping with his approach when embarking on a new adventure, my father spent time researching to find at all he needed to know about growing tomatoes.
These were the days before modern technology and the Internet and research involved visiting the local library to find the relevant books. He spent many evenings pouring over his chosen books which offered advice on the most appropriate soil, which tomatoes grow best in what climate, the required amount of water and light and so forth. Finally, and with exasperation after a few days, he asked no one in particular, just how is it possible for any tomatoes to actually make their way to the table? Despite all the advice of how to grow tomatoes, there was equally an overwhelming amount of information on how to avoid the many diseases and insects waiting to sabotage your tomatoes from reaching maturity.
I remembered this story when making a tomato salad for lunch one day this week. During the summer months we are blessed with juicy, sun drenched tomatoes in France. I always think of my mother and how much she would have loved the many varieties of fruit and vegetables we have to choose from this time of the year. The supermarkets overflow with mountains of bright, colourful displays of melons, peaches, nectarines, apricots, aubergines, peppers, to name only a few.
The anecdote of my father and his tomatoes resonates with me as I am grappling with the endless advice on how to write creatively. Unlike my father, I have infinite access to information on the Internet, a multitude of blogs filled with advice, not to mention all the rules to abide by if you are ever going to get anywhere near being a mediocre, not to mention, a successful creative writer. Many a day I find myself wondering whether I have bitten off more than I can chew. I spend almost as much time on learning how to write as the actual writing itself!
One of the challenges of speaking more than one language is that you don’t necessarily speak any one perfectly. I am always conscious to avoid translating from one language into another, especially the translation of metaphors. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to translate meaning accurately from one language to another. Not to mention the endless rules on grammar, guaranteed to kill any spark of creativity or inspiration. In my case I have to pay more attention to the use of grammar than a native speaker might have to do. Another example of the many rules you have to bear in mind when writing is that of split infinitives. The rule against split infinities appeared in the 1800s, yet language is a living thing and continues to evolve. Should we therefore be gagged and bound by rules dating back hundreds of years? I have no doubt that the purists among you will say with passion and conviction that of course we do!
All the many dos and don’ts of writing seem to imply that they separate those from who can write from those who can’t. Is writing therefore merely about mastering its many rules and the more capable you are of doing so, the more successful you are at writing? What about inspiration and creativity? Where do they fit in? Creative writing allows us to entertain, create awareness, express ourselves and share emotions, feelings and thoughts. Losing sight of the purpose of writing and getting side tracked by too many rules is in danger of derailing the creative process, especially as a novice.
I was therefore relieved and comforted when I came across the statement of Alan Gillespie (@afjgillespie), which reads: “I always tell students that there are no set rules for writing and they can write whatever they like.” However, he goes on to say that there are two rules he encourages students to use, namely “show, don’t tell” and “all adverbs must die”. I concur that there are many “rules” which will enhance the product of our writing. However, from personal experience I suggest this is not the place to start when building your confidence as a creative writer.
So, just as with my father’s challenge of growing tomatoes, there are many rules for me to take into account if I am likely to do justice to the tribute for Eugene and Pieter.