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How Does Your Novel Grow? The Writing/Gardening Connection

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photo by Flickr’s Cris

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.

[pullquote]We give ourselves permission to write badly, knowing that beautiful things will grow later from that all that fertilizing shit.[/pullquote]

Before the beautiful things do start to grow, though, you have to have faith. You have to water what essentially looks like dirt and simply trust that the seeds you planted will take root and grow. You have to show up daily and tend to the places where you believe they are going to arrive. And you have trust they will eventually take the shape and fill the space the seed packets say they will and plan accordingly…just like those early days of a first draft. Just make it exist. Put the words on the page. See one scene ahead and write that, even if you can’t envision the ending yet.

2014garden [2]When the beautiful things do start to grow, you need to be diligent. You need to thin them, so they don’t overcrowd (continuing to serve the story). As the early crops come in—the peas, the radishes, the spinach, and the spindly Brussels sprouts—you can enjoy that sense of satisfaction, but you know the work is only just beginning.

Later, as the zinnias and hydrangeas bloom, and the bees are humming busily about, and you pick your first sun-warmed tomato and eat it right there in the garden, juice dripping down your chin, the realization hits you: what are revision and editing, really, but pruning, deadheading, and thinning? Cutting out what’s not necessary, so that what remains can thrive? Staking and propping up parts that sag or need bolstered? Perhaps transplanting because you now see that a scene or a plant would thrive better here instead of there, in full sunlight?

You’re never really “done” with a garden, or with a novel, but eventually there comes the harvest. The baskets full of zucchini and cucumbers, the bouquets of fragrant basil…and the freshly printed draft. Eventually, at the end of the season, you put the garden “to bed,” and you’re lucky enough to reach “acceptance of final copy” and release the book out of your hands, making peace with what it is.

But…after a brief period of well-deserved rest, you start planning the next season and the next book. Because that’s what we do, right? And there will come a day, because of snow or because of resistance finally fading, that we cannot wait to delve in again.

What activities in your own life feed your writing process? How does your writing nurture other areas of your life?

About Katrina Kittle [3]

Katrina Kittle is the author of four novels for adults—Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals— and one novel for tweens, Reasons to Be Happy. The Kindness of Strangers was the winner of the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction. Katrina has an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville and teaches creative writing workshops from the third grade to universities to retirement communities. She also teaches creative writing regularly for Word’s Worth Writing Connections (http://www.wordsworthdayton.com/ [4] ) in the Dayton-Cincinnati area and to students across the country through OnLiten (http://onliten.com/workshops.htm#KKchar [5])  Through Write Sisters Consulting (http://www.writesistersconsulting.com/ [6], she offers manuscript consultations. Katrina has always loved the telling of stories in any medium, and because of her extensive background in dance and theatre, she is a firm believer in both honoring an apprenticeship and caring about craft. She lives in Dayton, OH with her odd cat Joey (he has anxiety issues, sucks on blankets, and is in love with a spatula) and her out-of-control garden; has a thing for goats, gardening, and going barefoot; and is totally addicted to coffee, dark chocolate, pedicures, and movies. If you’re on Facebook, she'd love for you to “like” her author page (https://www.facebook.com/KatrinaKittleAuthor [7]). Learn more at www.katrinakittle.com [8]