You know I love visiting gardens so when thriller author J. A. Jance invited me to tour her Seattle-area garden, I jumped at the chance. It’s a wonderfully imagined colorful space inspired by an epic poem by C. Day-Lewis. Jance fell in love with the poem decades ago at a reading.
“Baucis and Philemon” is based on Ovid’s mythical tale, which tells the story of how Zeus and Hermes visited a town where Baucis and Philemon, a simple couple who lived in a rustic cottage, took them in and showed great generosity when others in the town would not. Because the couple were kind, Zeus spared their lives when he destroyed the town because of its residents’ selfishness. He flooded it, killing all but Baucis and Philemon whose cottage was transformed into a temple. The poem ends with the touching image of the couple each transforming into a tree whose roots were intertwined forever.
A Garden of Words
When hired to landscape the garden, Jance’s designer wisely noticed she was a writer and asked whether she wanted words in her garden. She presented him with C. Day Lewis’s poem. The crew got to work, organizing the yard around that theme while including several points of interest. Take a look at this special outdoor sanctuary.
Though the garden features several Northwest plants, it also features some plants and colors that recall Arizona, where Jance grew up. Windmill palms line the pond and brightly painted stucco surfaces form a backdrop for plants and art.
These slabs carved with lines from the poem offer contemplative pausing points. As you read the words, you hear the trickle of the pond and smell the blooming wisteria. You’re surrounded by a tapestry of varying green, red, and blue-foliaged plants that together soften the view and make the visitor feel warm and serene.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tribes and how important they are in a writer’s life. Writers are often solitary beings so joining a group, any kind of group, can be stressful and intimidating. We writers write because writing is easier than interacting. Not for everyone, I know, but it’s certainly the case for me.
So while I’m a writer who enjoys being alone, I also yearn to connect with people. Not often, probably far less than others, but I do have that yearning. I realized this when I first took up fiction writing as an adult about 12 years ago. I’d left my job as an editor and while I knew other nonfiction writers and editors, I lacked a creative writer tribe. So I applied to an MFA program.
The Goddard College Group
I chose Goddard because it was a program that focused on quality work but didn’t discriminate against writers who wrote plot. My interest was not only in the literary, the strong sentence and profound insight, but in the thrill and ride of suspenseful events. And so, I attended Goddard’s low-residency program for two years. I ended up getting what I’d wanted from that experience. I stretched my mind and skills as a crafts person and I found a community. I mean, a really great community. I met writers who were as serious as I was and we went through the growth trenches together.
It’s not surprising to say I felt untethered after graduating. All of the students scattered back to their respective cities from across the country and I was left with a small core group of Seattleites that eventually dissipated. I still have a couple of local friends but mostly my Goddard tribe is spread far and wide.
What Social Media Offers
Enter the internet. So, when I wasn’t raising my kids and spending time with my family (how did I, a loner, end up with three kids again?), I joined groups on Facebook and made friends on Twitter. I found a core group of online gardener pals who I was able to share my passion for plants with, and I joined writer tribes. I joined a group called Women Writers who were supportive and caring. Later, I joined Sisters in Crime (even though I was unsure I belonged there), and a writing moms group called Writer Moms. I added the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association too.
These groups have given me so much support. I’m able to ask for specific advice and have received useful help and experienced wisdom. I’ve found free information about building an online presence, book marketing, how to publish, how to write, and other tips I didn’t know I needed. I also got integral support in balancing my mom life with my writing life. I’ve found online friends who’ve been generous with their time and knowledge. It’s been a productive and amazing experience. In return, I’ve tried to offer my own support and advice.
Twitter in particular has been fruitful for me. In addition to making friends, I’ve received a few professional opportunities. I also found my author coach. And I made one very important connection.
Stumbling Upon Publishing
I found the Writer Moms group via their usual Monday night Twitter chats. I started participating in these chats and checked in a couple times a week on the Facebook group. I got an incredible amount of support as a mom and a writer here. During these months, I stumbled upon quality articles and excellent feedback. I even learned about a couple of small presses I didn’t know existed. I had been querying for a few years and submitted my manuscript to the two small presses. Within months, I had a book contract. It was unexpected and wonderful. All because I’d joined and participated in this particular online writers tribe.
So today online, when a writer friend threw out the question of whether online social media was a waste of time, I didn’t hesitate to answer. And after reading this, you probably know what my opinion was. I think it is worth joining writer tribes, you never know what might happen, who might notice you, who you might notice, and how you might connect. I don’t think writers should expect to make instant friends and have instant success. The network of fellow creatives I’ve built has taken me years to foster, and even now I’m still, arguably, a nobody! But at least I’m a nobody with a huge supportive tribe, headed toward a brighter horizon in my career.
What author do you turn to for predictability? For a story that’s not too unlike one the author wrote previously? Perhaps, it’s a fantasy series set in a particular world (a la George R.R. Martin) or a mystery series featuring the same protagonist (a la Agatha Christie). It might even be a literary author whose books, while featuring fresh characters and storylines, offer consistent quality writing and beautiful insights (like Kazuo Ishiguro). For me, it’s the police procedurals of Donna Leon.
I’ve always read literary novels that brim with gorgeous language but lack a substantive plot. These books are rewarding for what they are. In fact, in most ways, they taught me how to write with deeper meaning and still inspire me. But when I discovered the crime works of Leon, I discovered an entirely new side of the novel. Donna Leon’s books aren’t weak on sentences, but they’re not there for the language and profound insights. They’re there for the story while featuring compelling plots and interesting characters and layered social commentary. They take me to Venice like a friend.
The Rewards of an Exotic Mystery
I’ve been working my way through her 25 novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, a detective who solves crimes in Venice. When I read her first book, Death at La Fenice, I was struck by the serious, workaday style of her language. It’s sort of like mine. She also deeply loves a foreign city (in her case, Venice, in mine, Paris). I was drawn to the practical, middle-aged detective with an intellectual wife and sweet kids whose personality shows quiet intelligence and fair reasoning. Secondary characters are colorful but not clownish, spawning my endearment. I thought it a kick that she often describes Brunetti’s lunch and dinner meals in great detail, so much so that there’s now a cookbook with recipes for the meals he eats.
The setting of watery Venice offers rich history and a portal to Italian life. I spent a long summer in Italy, just after college, and have fond memories of Venice. To go there via Donna Leon’s imaginative stewardship delights me. That I can do it again and again through multiple books, delights me even more.
What’s most satisfying is that Brunetti is never in intense danger. As I read in bed, I don’t stress that he might die. I’ve got enough stress as a mom with a job and house and pets and blah, blah, blah. Brunetti survives each case. Justice is only spotty in these stories, a commentary on the corruption of the Italian system, but Brunetti serves as its moral compass. The characters around him often don’t survive, of course, and some circumstances of the murders he solves are gruesome, but this is the nature of a crime novel.
And so, I’ve found a favorite author who I can return to again and again to counter the unpredictability of life. To remind me that, despite what hectic chaos I have to get through, I can always escape briefly to live as an Italian on the trail of the truth amidst great art, deep history, dedicated religion, delicious food, and the warm sun.