Iris in Autumn: Reflections on Writing
Sometimes, here in the hills of western Virginia, a spring flower will suddenly perk up in late autumn and bloom. I have some white iris (transplanted from Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia several years ago) that seem not to realize that by the time summer arrives, their time is supposed to be past. They put up fresh stems and bloom with a fury that suggests to me, not coming warmth, but the frenzy of their refusal to go out without a final climactic statement.
I am often reminded, when this happens, of how writing works. Planting and maintaining a garden is not unlike the composition process: you want beauty to appear, like the perfect image or phrase, and then fade as another, different sort of blossom takes over. The development of character, plot, and setting is like the blending of color, texture, and blossoming time to keep interesting things happening. From the crocus of the opening page to the final burst of the chrysanthemums of the conclusion, you want your text to bloom continuously—sometimes softly, like the more demure and delicate Russian sage, and sometimes in a wild spray, like the summer daisies and black-eyed Susans.
And yet, there is the white iris, which makes its appearance when least expected. Almost glowing, almost translucent, it demands to be noticed. It’s a lesson for me in letting the surprising event, image, or character just happen. Sometimes the unconscious wants a twist, wants the quiet character suddenly to say what she knows, wants the hero or heroine who has been so good through the whole story to do something vibrantly and unmistakably wrong and human.
When this happens, I am always caught off guard. No, I think, that can’t happen. My heroine is a good woman. She wouldn’t do that! But if she is a human being, and if the world she inhabits is a believable one, she will do the quirky, unanticipated thing. Friends will betray one another. Enemies will perform a kindness—because they, too, are human and not allegories of evil.
So I let the white iris have its day in autumn, blooming amid the fading summer flowers and the browning leaves. I water it and clean the weeds from its roots. It may not be the “right” time for the iris to shine, but, like a novel, the garden must sometimes assert its own beauty at the moment it demands to be seen.