Space for the Birds to Fly Through: What the Art of Bonsai Taught Me about Writing, or How to Break the Rules

Japanese flowering cherry bonsai styled by my talented hubby. The middle tree is an example of moyogi (informal upright) style.

Japanese flowering cherry bonsai styled by my talented hubby. The middle tree is an example of moyogi (informal upright) style.

Bonsai has been a part of my life since high school. Ever since this cute boy in my art class asked me out on a date. He lived in my neighborhood, so it wasn’t long before I was invited over to see his collection. He’d learned bonsai from his martial arts teacher (1), and was one of the youngest members of the Tallahassee Bonsai Society. Of course I was hooked. Miniature pine trees, maples, elms, junipers. All of them evoking a sense of place—perfectly proportioned to give the illusion of a full-scale tree. Even the pine’s needles were only as long as my thumbnail. Within weeks I had a few of my own, and delved into any and all literature about the art and philosophy of bonsai as I could.

I was quite taken with that artist. Now, twenty years later he and I still grow bonsai. A few of those early trees from our teenage days have survived. The year we got married we moved into an apartment with only a north-facing balcony. This was a great year for hubby and I, but terrible lighting for the trees and we lost several. As soon as we could, we moved out to a place in the country. I sit on my back porch now as I write this blog post, looking over the lawn to the large bonsai collection just against the forest treeline.

A corner of our backyard bonsai collection.

A corner of our backyard bonsai collection.

Bonsai is like writing in many ways. It settles into your way of thinking and doesn’t dislodge. Everywhere you go, you see the world with the eye of a bonsai artist. Driving to the coast, I notice the shapes of wind-swept pines and wonder if I could reproduce that in miniature. Like writing, bonsai compels you to do absurd things in pursuit of your art. I have braved swarms of swamp mosquitoes in order to collect cuttings from native styrax americanus, and endured freezing temperatures in the wilds on New Year’s Day (2) to dig up a leafless carpinus caroliniana. My fingers have been numb from bending too much wire. I’ve earned a heat-induced headache on many a summer afternoon because I had to finish leaf-pruning, even in 90 degree temps.

Those who write know how much that story can likewise torture you on the way from your brain to your laptop.

What makes a good bonsai? Like judging a novel, this depends on whom you ask. I am no expert in either subject, but over the years I’ve learned a few guiding principles for the American version of this art form. One thing many bonsai masters teach, although it takes looking “between the words” sometimes, is that one must first learn the rules of the craft before you can break them.

A seeming contradiction I’d also learned from my writing professor at FSU (3). I’ve heard the same thing from painters and sculptors and glass artists and anyone trying to find their own creative voice within an established art form.

The “rules” teach an acolyte not just “how to” do something, but they give your mind a set of ideas and constructs to work within. When you master these skills (although you’ll likely never feel that you’ve mastered anything) they become second nature. Automatic and intuitive. At this point as an artist, you no longer need to mentally go through your rules checklist, you just create, knowing your mind and hands have been fashioned with this ability because you’ve put in the time as a beginner. You are then free to move beyond rules.

In most cases, when you do, you won’t even be aware that you are. You simply listen to the tree.

Bonsai Styles

There are many classic shapes of bonsai, all of which form an asymmetrical triangle. From what I understand, this is deeply rooted in Japanese aesthetic philosophy—the three points of the triangle symbolizing heaven, man and earth. My personal favorite style is informal upright (Moyogi). Informal upright sways in a gentle curve but the apex of the tree must align with the base. Formal upright does the same, but the trunk is straight. The bottom-most point of the triangle formed by a cascade style bonsai must fall below the bottom of its pot. Choosing a style to work within is like picking your genre in fiction. Each style of story has its reader expectations and tropes, but you are free to interpret the art within that form.

Nebari

This is the Japanese term for the root base of a bonsai. Ideal nebari is proportioned to the rest of the tree. It should grip the soil in a show of strength and stability. In fact, when one is shopping for new bonsai material, trunk and nebari are the most critical things to evaluate. Branches can be regrown, but the core is the essence of the tree. To me this is like novel world-building and backstory. If you fail to do this work before you begin, your story may be weak.

Rule of Thirds

Aristotle established a three act play. In bonsai the first third of the tree (from soil level) is nebari, trunk and first branch, like a story’s opening and inciting incident. The second third showcases the primary branches, usually the sashi-no-eda (focal, literally “piercing” branch) perhaps not to dissimilar from a novel’s main theme, rising tension and turning points. The last third of the tree showcases the crown and apex, like a climax and conclusion. A good bonsai exhibits visual harmony from base to crown, just as the first chapter of your novel should deliver direct and subtle promises to your reader about the entire experience of the book, through to the end.

Space for the Birds to Fly Through

In literal aesthetic terms, this expression refers to negative space. If you study Japanese sumi-e ink paintings or ukiyo-e prints, you will see masterful use of whitespace. It brings focus to the essence of the minimalist composition. This same balance is desired in bonsai. Space between the branches will not only aid in the illusion that one is staring at a mature full-sized tree, but it helps the human eye understand the positive space—the real tree. This is why, even though it is difficult for a beginner to grasp, removing branches is often the best solution to a struggling design. Sound familiar, writers? How often have you discovered that cutting a paragraph (or a chapter), chopping those adjectives and nixing those adverbs will strengthen the writing?

Juniper bonsai styled by master Ben Oki for me!

Juniper bonsai styled by master Ben Oki for me!

To me, that is just the primary meaning of “space for the birds to fly through.” We aim for literal open space because it serves a function in the design. The first time I heard that expression from master bonsai teacher Ben Oki (4), I had an impression that it also meant we must infuse our designs with wonderment and magic in order to engage the mind of the viewer. I imagined literal miniature birds nesting in the branches of my one-foot high tree. A lizard perched on that trunk becomes a dragon at such a proportion. This is perhaps the best lesson of bonsai for the writer. To remember that the rules of the Craft exist only to bring an artist to the skill level where she can evoke that sense of wonder and enchantment in her reader.

Take them to a place where birds fly through the pages of their own imagination, and you’ve done your job.

For further reading, I recommend a few of my favorites:

Bonsai Techniques I and II, by John Yoshio Naka

The Art of Bonsai, by Yuji Yoshimura and Giovanna Halford

Bonsai: Nature in Miniature, by Kyuzo Murata and Isamu Murata.

Footnotes:

  1. Despite the fact that this scenario resembles the plot of The Karate Kid, this actually is true. Yes, we joked about it a lot, and yes he did teach me a few martial arts moves. Cue the 80s music montage (but with 90s grunge instead).
  2. Bonsai Club legend has it that once these intrepid explorers came across a few drunk hunters on the New Year’s Day dig, and discovered that a backpack full of tiny trees can resemble antlers on a moving deer. We have since re-located the annual dig.
  3. My writing professor occasionally took the class to beatnik clubs so we could recite our amateur works on stage. He is also famous for obscure prognostications such as, “When you need a literary agent you will have one—that’s just how it works.” And, “If you think the image in your head is better than your real words on paper, that’s a lie that smells like smoke.” And, “All stories are true.”
  4. Ben is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. He tells an amazing story of being saved from the Hiroshima bombing because he and a cousin decided to skip school and go fishing that day instead. The bonsai world is certainly glad he did.
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