Secateurs: Taking the Shears to Butterfly Blooms and Other Thoughts about Writing

August 4, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Ann V. Klotz

Before the long weekend, I am waiting to load the car, corral three cats into cages, leash the dogs and begin a long drive. Waiting does not come easily to me. In March, I had a trapeziectomy on my right thumb. I am a writer who has been unable to write—by hand—for more than three months—a quarter of a year, the length of the first trimester of a pregnancy, the first 100 days by which a new President is judged. And I’m mad that my hand still refuses to do what I tell it.

“Bend,” I instruct. It makes the puniest of efforts.

My pinky has become arthritic. I’ve developed an unwelcome case of Dupuytren’s Syndrome, which has to do with ligaments pulling my fingers inwards and means, according to my occupational therapist, who looks like a loving grandmother but is secretly a sadist, that I am descended from Vikings. Me at 5’2” with gray-streaked brown hair. Viking roots seem unlikely.

Impatient about waiting for my hand to heal and for us to get on the road, I visit the fairy garden I have made for my new next-door neighbor, Mae, who is five. I add a sow and three infinitesimal piglets to the small kingdom her big sister, Ruby, and I have constructed in the roots of an ancient maple between their house and ours. I place a tiny white fox and a red fox kit and a new fairy in a purple gown underneath an arch.

On the way back to our house, I note that the peonies by the front door need to be deadheaded. Before March, I could have easily snapped the stems between my thumb and pointer, but now I fetch my secateurs from the kitchen drawer.

Snip, toss, snip, snip, toss. As the pile grows, I consider how pruning gives rise to new growth in plants and essays. Studying recently with Mel Allen, I worked to be more concise. How to say more with less? I finish the peonies, groom the pansies and turn my attention to our butterfly bush. Pointy floral skeletons tilt at odd angles, their dried flowers a precise replica of the blooms to come. I worry that by neglecting to cut it back when I should have, I will inhibit the bush’s new growth.

A memory floats back. Years ago, I facilitated a book group for a group of women, most of whom had graduated from Radcliffe in the early 60’s. They wanted to read “good books” and they paid me, an English teacher, handsomely. We met monthly in Libby’s apartment. I prepped each session assiduously, researching criticism on classic novels in the Bobst Library at NYU. There was no Google in those days to offer a million links to what literary minds made of Howard’s End. Over time, I came to know the women and enjoy the thoughtful ways they discussed literature. Then, they chose To the Lighthouse.

When I, not yet a mother, suggested Mrs. Ramsay was manipulative in her mothering, one of the women rose from her chair, enraged.

“How dare you,” she sputtered. “How dare you!” She stalked from the room, grabbed her coat, and slammed the door.

“I’m so sorry—“ I began, looking around the cozy library at the other women, all unruffled. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”

“Think nothing of it,” reassured Libby.

But I did. I thought often of that moment, wondering why my characterization had provoked such indignation. Woolf was an accomplished gardener. It never struck me as wrong that Mrs. Ramsay, like all good gardeners, was manipulative. Gardeners, writers, parents–we weed and prune and train and switch up variables for the best effect. I continued to lead the book group until my own daughter was born, but the woman who left abruptly never returned.

Clipping at the butterfly bush’s old growth, I tilt my head, look again, realizing I had missed another branch full of last year’s frozen flowers. Each time I glanced away, I turned back to see bits I had missed. Like writing. When we look again, particularly after a few hours or months, we find more to edit, to compress, to fix. I re-arrange words to shape an experience. In my garden, I experiment, learn from one season’s failures, try new plants. As a mother, I hope I influenced my children’s characters by reinforcing certain behaviors over others. Manipulation in the name of cultivation is not scurrilous. Gardening, writing and parenting all require time; we cannot see what we have made right away.

Earlier in the week, I edited a long piece by hand. It’s different reading on paper than on the computer. Though I had revised the piece several times, I still found redundancies, peculiar constructions, the same word used twice in a sentence. As the scraps of dead-headed blossoms on the paving stones grew—a few bright violet pansy petals peeking from beneath the pile of lacy vestiges of butterfly blooms and the flat faded peonies–I thought about how liberating it is to cut, to revise, to make space and room for new growth. Patience is key.

On that brisk June morning, marveling at the architecture of each withered buddleia cluster, I thought of Woolf–of her incandescence, her ability to observe and describe a moth, her childhood rendered with such empathy and clarity, and her gift in writing characters we never forget. And I tried to be patient with my hand, healing as fast as it knows how.

Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection.  Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station.  She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction.  You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog:

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