A bonsai took root in my fiction last week. Most likely it stemmed from my backyard discovery of tree seedlings whose tops I had scathed with the lawnmower in previous mowing seasons. Cropped early in life, the trees, with their tiny limbs and miniature leaves, looked scraggly and wind-torn. Lovely.
While this might not earn me respect for my lawn—a lawn so uncultivated that trees grow in it!—the revelation of the seedlings spurred me to research a gardening art I've always admired. I transplanted the tree-lings to pots. Two days later one of my characters wanted to try her hand at growing bonsai.
I allowed it—for you have to follow the avenues that open to you. Curiosity pulls you forward. Before I knew it, the story, with its miscellaneous other branches, had sprung to seventeen single-spaced pages. I was afraid to double-space. After all, it was supposed to be a short story. Like my lawn, it had grown beyond my control.
The experience reminded me of the tensions we encounter when we begin writing a new work. Occasionally, we envision the piece as it will be—the way we can predict the size of a particular tree species. Quite often, however, when we feel the tug of a character or plot line, or when a voice asks us to tune in, we don't know what seed we're starting with. Are we in for a short story or novel, a miniature tree or towering one? Or something in between?
A cursory glance at word-length guidelines in most literary journals suggests a preference for short shorts. But fiction, when mindfully tended, seems to grow organically. Arbitrary word limits can be, well, limiting. I've always thought Walt Whitman's observations about free verse in his "Preface" to Leaves of Grass applicable to fiction—that the forms of poems (and stories) reveal "the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears
No doubt, imaginative writing necessitates "free growth" beyond "laws," but what author would claim "unerring" buds? Most stories and poems require a good deal of tending before they bud at all (Whitman, in fact, propagated nine versions of Leaves of Grass). So how do you balance "free growth" with "pruning"? How do you wind up with "compact" forms of "chestnuts" and "pears" while encouraging "loose," lilac-like development?
The bonsai itself seems an apt metaphor for the ways stories flourish and the ways we nurture them, sometimes scaling back, urging growth one way, limiting it another. As with many domesticated trees, some branches are cut in order for others to thrive. Still, every piece of fiction is its own system. Pruning must be in accordance with a work's overall sculpted shape. But what shape? Is there in each germ of story a nature that foreshadows a truncated piece or giant?
Interestingly, bonsai, I've learned, can be nearly any tree species. Likewise, virtually any story seed can probably be grown in miniature as long as certain conditions are met. Bonsai means "tree in a tray." Imagining the seedling in a flat, shallow pot helps us understand what's involved in cultivating a miniature tree, and perhaps, a shorter work of fiction.
The bonsai's root system remains confined so that its size is restricted from the ground up. This is not to say short stories do not have the "depth" of novels, but rather that successful stories and novels cannot outgrow their foundations. As it turns out, more hinges on the seedling's ground than on the germ from which it sprouts. Are we planting in an open forest with loose, rich soil for deep, sprawling roots? Or have we planted on a rocky cliff, without much room for establishment—where the tree must cling with each fiber to life?
A bonsai's visible beauty is often the result of its controlled root system. Even its roots must be trimmed. Wait. Even its roots must be trimmed? With his famous iceberg theory, Ernest Hemingway suggested only one-eighth of a story need be above water (above ground, perhaps, if a bonsai), or on the page—as long as the writer quietly knows the other seven-eighths. But might one manage to pare down even a story's submerged essence?
Upon what roots does the work solely depend? The writer must focus on and nourish these roots while stripping away all others. A knotty, complicated task, to be sure.
Failing to bring desired leanness—and not finding ground for an expanding novella or novel—one might try the randomness of lawnmower lopping. Occasionally this, too, produces miniatures of startling and striking beauty.