Tending Orchids (by Christopher Latragna)

(Watercolor painting by Christopher Latragna)

“Nero Wolfe spent four hours every day . . . up in the plant rooms on the roof and during those hours he was unavailable.”

The Golden Spiders, Rex Stout

If we lived in Rex Stout’s fictional world of New York in the middle of the Twentieth Century and the time was anywhere between 9am and 11am, or between 4pm and 6pm, you could be assured that Nero Wolfe was on the top floor of his New York brownstone dedicating his time to his orchids. 

These plant room sessions were to be interrupted only in the case of emergencies. Wolfe would excuse himself from everything—including conversations with clients—if the clock struck 9 or 4. The plant rooms had to be tended to. 

As a long time fan of the Nero Wolfe series, I always enjoyed this characteristic quirk, but I considered this habit in a new light when I heard how Raymond Chandler approached his writing schedule.

He would dedicate time to do absolutely nothing—or write. He told himself he was allowed to sit and not write, but what he couldn’t do was anything else. No cleaning, no distractions. Considering the choices, boredom eventually overtook him, and he wrote.

And THEN I heard an interview with Neil Gaiman, in which he said he did the same thing. He has a property in Wisconsin that he says is very lovely and peaceful. And when he goes there, he also allows himself just two choices—he could sit and enjoy the scenery, or write. No phones. No distractions. As with Chandler, writing won out.

Which leads me back to Wolfe.

Why not set time for our orchids? Our own plant rooms?

Wolfe had 10,000 orchids—orchids that are notoriously difficult to maintain. They require vigilance and supervision. Any habit that requires constant attention seems relevant here.

It would take some discipline, of course, but certainly we can dictate some time to the distraction-free practice of our craft, whatever it may be. And if instead of tending orchids we simply said we could write, or do nothing—well wouldn’t that work?

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