Perhaps this essay is only my desperate attempt to connect to spring in spite of the seven inches of additional snow currently falling on my yard and life. I should be glad to have a reason to stay inside and stick to my writing schedule, before gardening season distracts me. But I am itchy to get my hands in dirt.
My gardening is a little obsessive…friends tease me I have a problem. I used to worry about the time spent in the garden away from my pages. I felt guilty neglecting my novel in progress. But now I understand that the gardening actually feeds the writing in many ways. The most obvious way my garden enriches my writing is that it gives me something relatively mindless to do with my hands—which is exactly when the ideas flow. If I’m trying to figure out what happens next in the story or how to resolve a problem in a scene, I can’t just sit at the desk and expect the answers to come. The ideas come when I’m driving or running or mowing or washing dishes…or gardening. I never listen to music or the news in my garden. I like my mind open and free, while my hands are engaged. Many a scene has been created in my garden.
But beyond that most crucial gift, the gardening process is, in fact, quite similar to the writing process. Every step of the process in one has a parallel in the other.
The first step is to have an idea, right? It actually makes me laugh a bit when people ask me at signings and readings, “Where do you get your ideas?” (as if they want me to name a website or secret store). I don’t mean to be flippant, but I get my ideas from keeping my eyes open as a human being on this planet. I have so many ideas queued up in my brain (kind of like a Netflix queue, complete with the “move to top” option) that I will never be able to write them all in this lifetime. That is exactly how I feel when I look at seed and garden catalogues (or worse, when I am actually in the nursery and end up buying everything I want) “I want this, and this, and ooh, look at that! I need two of these, one in every color…”
But then, you have to eventually pick an idea and focus. You have to look at your space and decide which plants will actually thrive in your zone and soil and sun/shade conditions. I don’t have room for every single plant I’d like to grow, so I have to be picky. And just like with an idea for a novel, once I choose, I have to commit. You have to serve your story, and you serve your story by focusing on character motivation and conflict, not by straying off into tangents.
Early on in the gardening season, I deal with a lot of shit. Literally. Luscious, thick, black, fragrant compost…which is nothing but worm shit and decomposed other matter, usually mixed in with some velvety, ancient horse manure (which tomatoes adore) and chicken droppings raked from some dear friends’ coop. How fitting, since, as Ernest Hemingway told us, “All first drafts are shit.” We give ourselves permission to write badly, knowing that beautiful things will grow later from that all that fertilizing shit. Continue Reading »