Stephen King’s Advice To Bonsai Artists-

Stephen King wrote one the most respected books on the craft of writing. It tops many lists: On Writing. It’s a fantastic memoir, with stories from his weird upbringing and beginnings as an author. And along the way he talks about writing.

King dislikes a rigid plot. A plot is a story’s events, sequenced by cause and effect, with tension that must be resolved. Fiction writers are divided about how to use plot. Some stick to it like glue, others prefer more wiggle. My sister once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture, and he began by illustrating a plot on a blackboard. After making a few chalk marks, he shot to the ground, doodled around down there, and then scooted ten feet away and doodled more. He wasn’t a fan of rigid plot either.

Most plots end where the author intended: the dragon gets slain, etc. And then there’s the plots that even the author didn’t see coming, where the dragon is blackmailed by the five year old from Topeka. 

Novelist Stephen King

Stephen King didn’t offer any specific advice about bonsai. And you might not like King’s books. But I was encouraged that King says that he’s often surprised where his novels end up, changing his plots to satisfy new developments. I suppose this makes sense to me because I was trained to work in painting and sculpture as a journey, and letting that exploration surprise and edify.

Here’s the applicable bonsai point: Bonsai tradition is your license to follow a visual plot. A pre-decided skeleton upon which you build detail. Nothing wrong with that (I follow common bonsai plots all the time). And yet, with that route, you’re not going to be surprised where your bonsai end up.

If you want to let wild hair into your design, get to know your inbuilt collaborator. The tree can suggest, ‘No, we’re not going to go that way, I think this other way is better’. And we’re lucky, not many artists’ media talk back to them like this. Use this collaborative input from the tree, whether branch death or spastic extension, to change design (roughly, plot).

I’m tempted to post a photo now, ‘Well, here, this is what I mean.’ But that would be my sideways canter, and I want to see yours.

Most creative sidestepping in bonsai is going to be subtle. It’s unlikely that your collaborator will suggest ‘Hey, my leaves would look better painted stealth black’. But the tree might suggest an alternative pot. It may suggest not cutting off a branch that the traditional style ‘plot’ would say has no business being there. Or, it may suggest other things.

We’re all riffing off the same plot. Show us your riff.

There’s another element of creative bonsai discovery, and that’s the clock. Let your tree convince you of something now and then, for sure, but as they can speak slow as molasses, you might want to bring a book.


  1. crataegus says:

    Errata: Apologies to Stephan King fans! In the original of this post I got his name wrong: Steven King.

  2. Wayne Schoech says:

    Hey, you should try your hand a writing a book or two. I think Stephen would agree.

    Be well and keep writing!


  3. Susan Daufeldt says:

    What a great post! This heavily involves the 4th dimension – Time. But in my yard, where the ecosystem is complete and diverse, I have a lot of help with “Plot.” Mites, Leafcutter bees, caterpillars of butterfly and moth species that I don’t wish to destroy, tree frogs, birds and, most unfortunately rabbits. Last winter’s rather unexpected levels of snow fall played old Harry with my rabbit fencing and a large number of trees were redesigned, including incredible collected honey locusts. Boxelder Pouch Gall Mites are influencing my journey with native Box Elder – It is not my general practice to remove half to one third of a tree’s foliage two months after repotting. But that’s what happened with the Box Elder and it looks GREAT – just two weeks after that indignity. Wow! Thank you, Michael, for your encouragement! I don’t know where I would be without it. For seven years, your views have supported me through indecision and uncertainty as I seek to find my foothold in the art of Bonsai. Thank you.

    • crataegus says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Susan— and thanks for the stories of your Box Elder. Good for you for attempting an unusual bonsai species. And happy to hear what I send off into the void here meets some needs. Cheers!

  4. alisendopf says:

    I’m a fan of Stephen King. I loved his book On Writing, especially his experience with alcohol. Despite getting horribly sick and missing the fun part of the school tour, he went out and got drunk again the very next day. It goes to show that some people can get addicted right away. I’m glad he’s sober now.


    Hey Michael. Hope you’re well. What a great blog post. Inspiring. This is excellent advice for dealing with bonsai… I also think it is way bigger than bonsai. This is some “how-to-live-your-life” stuff. I’ve found some of the best experiences I’ve had have been when “the plan” altered and then life led me in a new direction. Thats sounding heavy but its so true. I’m also listening to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Interstellar’ Soundtrack as I’m writing this and I’m a sucker for huge, orchestral, soundscapes featuring a pipe organ… can’t get much more inspirational than that… so your post fits right in with today’s vibe. Will totally keep this in mind when I next stare at one of my trees and have no idea what to do. I just need to take its lead. Cheers. – A


    • crataegus says:

      Glad you enjoyed it—and yes, a fellow Zimmer fan here! Interstellar is huge. So is the Superman soundtrack, though you need a lot of surrounding air to survive that one.

  6. literati says:

    Thanks Michael for a great post.
    In my garden most of the time it is the tree that decides on the direction of its development and shape. Of course I do the pruning of tops and bottoms, bending (usually with a string, not wire), but the tree has its own mind and I understand that. So far, for the last eight or so years both sides seem to be content. We are not winning any contests on the local arena, but the whole process gives me lots of pleasure.

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