By Stuart Phillips
Many Southerners of my generation have learned that reverence for history is a double-edged sword. I cringe when I remember our field trip to Flowood, a “working plantation” where smiling white women taught us how to dip candles and card cotton with no mention of how the cotton was chopped and harvested.
Some history, however, deserves to be preserved, and you willingly shoulder the responsibility. When we bought our home in New York, we knew that it was incumbent on us to restore the 205-year-old home and to breathe life back into the acreage.
I had done the landscaping at my previous homes, so I was able to plant some cherries and pears, prune the grapes and prune the apple trees. I built planter boxes for raspberries and blueberries, built new trellises for the grapes, and even built a hog-wire fence around our garden. Then came the hard part—envisioning the long-term plan for the property.
For inspiration, I turned to Instagram. Among the accounts I followed was an architecture firm from Vermont whose aesthetic matched ours, mixing new and old, using reclaimed materials to stunning effect. I watched updates as their projects took shape. I watched them install Ornamental grasses, Bluestone steps, and Infinity pools with endless views over Vermont valleys. And I was definitely inspired. I was also a little jealous. Jealous of people who didn’t have to invest sweat equity, but mostly jealous of the craft the designers used to make these amazing living spaces.
This week I was listening to a song by the band Gold Sounds. It has a line that goes “And I’m jealous of the freedom this same life affords my neighbors making records that I love.”
Naturally, that made me think of my landscaping, but also of my writing. Sure, when I read something as naturally beautiful as Real Life by Brandon Taylor, I can feel a twinge of jealousy at how effortlessly the words flow. But, then you read about him and realize how much effort goes into that effortlessness.
The innate talent he brings to the page is supplemented by hard work, including a lot reading. Taylor, for example, worked through an Iowa MFA and is a devotee of Zola and Wharton—in short, his craft is informed not only by his own hard work but also by the hard work and craft of others. After all, the linchpin of an MFA is close readings of varied authors, all with an eye towards learning how one does dialogue, how another does setting, and then using those lessons in your own writing. Literally, standing on the shoulders of giants.
I took another look at my yard. After only two years, the six-foot cherries I planted are almost ten feet. And I remember the buckets of raspberries and bags of apples I got from our orchard this year, and the gallon of wine I made from our grapes. It just takes time, practice, and work. So, that’s what I’ve determined to do.
I recognize that I’m not a landscape architect, but I can learn from them. In fact, I put in a set of bluestone steps this summer that were inspired by ones I saw them do. And I love them.
Similarly, I recently re-read some Barry Hannah, and was struck by the raw, natural dialogue in his short stories. Am I going to imitate it? No. Am I jealous of Hannah’s ability? Well, a little. But that’s okay.
Basically, I decided that maybe a touch of jealousy is all right. I’m only human, born to make mistakes. But the key is to take that twinge and put it to good use – as motivation, not malice. Just like learning which plants work together, or how to use fieldstones to finish a walkway, as long as I can turn that “I wish” into “I will,” I’ll be okay. And eventually I’ll be able to make records that I love.
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.