"Beach, it takes a heap of shit to grow a single rose."
I’ve had a lot of lovely and dedicated mentors over my nearly thirty years of writing. Birk Sproxton was one of the best. Not only was he a great professor and mentor, but he remained a dear friend until we lost him far too soon in 2007.
I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete his email address, and to this day, I write to him to sort out some literary bullshit that doesn’t matter in the least, but for the moment, I seem to think it does. I don’t send the email as it would bounce back and make me sad, but once I’ve sorted it out with him, I delete the message and I feel like he’s helped me.
One of his last acts of kindness toward me (one of the last among more than I can count) was to ask me to look at and comment upon a suite of poems he was writing for a new book (Headframe 2, Turnstone Press 2006). I don’t know that I’d ever been that honoured in my literary life. I had three books out at that point, and I knew nothing compared to what he did. But I guess he figured I knew enough to help him hone this particular suite. The book never leaves my house and they will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.
He died shortly before it appeared, but Birk lived long enough to know that my fourth book was soon to be published. I will always cherish that.
Unless he was introducing me at a reading or to someone at a festival or workshop, I was never Kim or Kimmy. I was invariably “Beach”. I took this as a mark of respect and returned the favour by referring to him most of the time as “Sproxton”.
Over the fifteen years he mentored me, I gathered nuggets of advice and pass them on to writers I mentor to this day. You, my readers, are the lucky recipients of this little gem: “Beach, it takes a heap of shit to grow a single rose.”
I had been whining to him about being rejected from some non-paying journal, or whining about not getting a grant, or whining about how my work in progress was garbage on a stick, or whining about how much I was whining. Probably I was whining about why it was taking me a zillion years to figure out what my first book was about. Okay, it took me six years, but when it’s your first book, that’s a zillion.
He asked me to think about roses. Do you just go my mom’s route of gardening: stick it in the dirt and throw some water on it? Sometimes, yes. That works with radishes. But other times, no. If that were the case, mom wouldn’t be stealing our asparagus grown in the soil that Stu and I have tended for thirty years.
Like asparagus, roses take dedication. They take trial and error and different kinds of soil, light exposure, fertilizer, singing, swearing, weeding, and all the other gardening aspects that make it so tranquil and meditative, until the chickweed takes over. Which is its own editing story, and to which I will return in the coming weeks.
Most of all, his point was, roses take heaps of fertilizer and roses take time. They take experimentation and care. What soil works best for what varieties? Too much sun? Too little sun? How much cayenne pepper do you put around the base of them to keep the bunnies you love from munching them before they’ve even had a chance? (Plant more radishes is the answer to this one.) Do you need the chicken wire you’d dearly love to not put around them to keep the deer you love from decimating your weeks of hard work in under five minutes? (The answer there is ‘no’, provided you’ve also planted tulips, the blooms of which you never expect to see. The deer will always go for those first).
What he was telling me (without telling me) was that if I planned to write a good book (or poem, or stanza, or paragraph or line, or fricking word), I’d best be prepared to work my ass off. I was going to be writing that thing over and over and over and a great deal of it would be utter shit, until it one day might have the potential to bloom into something like a rose.
Then I still had to tend it. Once the shoot appears, you don’t abandon it and binge watch Deadwood (though I do recommend that latter). You tend it, adjust what needs to be adjusted, water it, care for it, sing Flock of Seagulls’ songs to it. Trust me, all plants love new wave synth-pop.
When I tend my garden now, I think of Birk and hope that he would be proud of the way I don't expect my plants or my words to pop up perfectly without doing anything. I work and I work and I work at it. The great thing is that it’s enjoyable, meaningful work. At the end of it, I’ll have the best garden-sourced Greek salad outside of Greece, and I might have a stanza or a paragraph I can be proud of. I wish the same for you.