How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner

photo 1I’ve reached an age where, because I don’t have any children, I’m picking up “adult hobbies.” I blame this too on the fact that I own a house now* and feel like, you know, I should probably take care of it. So, I’ve started gardening.

Last weekend I stepped into my yard to assess my hard work. The black-eyed Susans are blooming, so is the lavender, and the mint is out of control. The bee balm is bowing out of the mint’s way. The valerian root is trying to stand out amongst the weeds. The lilac bushes are holding their own, though one branch has given up. The pansies are fickle and wilt at a minute’s worth of too much sun, yet the second I flood them, they’ll perk up as if nothing was wrong. The pansies are acting like, well, pansies.

I realized there are probably a hundred metaphors or lessons on life in my garden. As I stepped close to examine leaves then stepped back to take in the whole plant or bush, I saw that the process of taking care of plants is much like the process of being a writer.

Not all stories will bloom at the same time.

One of my naiveties about gardening was the idea that some plants bloom in the spring while others bloom in the summer or fall, or take several years to flower. Honestly, I thought if you put it in the ground then it would grow “when it got warm.”

This vague sense of expectation (it just needs water, right?) is similar to the haphazard way I wrote stories when I was a beginning writer. I thought, if I begin a story and put x number of hours into it (y) then publication (z) would come at a constant rate. As I’ve continued to write and publish my work it has become increasingly clear that there is no magic formula for how long a story needs. Some stories or poems truly come out in one sitting, get a little spit and polish and they’re out the door. Others will require revisions and 17 separate drafts saved to the computer before there’s any promise of a few petals.

Stories require weeding.

And as I continue to revise those stories that persist for many growing seasons, I find little surprises when I leave the story alone and come back to it in the form of phrases like, “What the hell was I trying to say?” and “How did I not catch that?”

In my own yard, I went away for a weeklong vacation and came back to find more weeds than flowers in my beds, and they were embarrassingly and annoyingly tall. My initial thought had been, “How did that weed grow in just one week?” when actually, the weed had probably started much sooner. It wasn’t until the weed was out of control that I noticed.

Redundancies, wordiness, and darlings crop up in writing all the time but aren’t noticed until they’ve grown along side the beautiful stuff. When I find these weeds, I know what I have to do: pull them out, even if that weed looks like a flower. It’s not.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, How does your garden grow? photo 2

When you’ve done the writing thing for a while, if you’re anything like me you find yourself drifting into other genres. The fiction writers try their hand at poetry, the poet writes an essay, and pretty soon, like the zealous gardener, you have eight varieties of mint, a struggling patch of thyme, (and didn’t there used to be a rose bush in there?), all growing on top of each other.

Don’t get me wrong; I think writing across genres is a good thing. Prose can benefit from the lyricism of poetry, and fiction can appreciate the realism of nonfiction.

Similarly, many plants like to grow together. I’m sure that thing with the leaves and the tag with a little picture of a half-sun appreciates growing under the shade of my 50-year-old crab apple tree, for example. But when I pull the hose out, it would be a waste of water if I used any on that tree because it doesn’t need any (that’s what rain is for.)  While cross-pollination can enhance writing, each genre also requires the patience and individual care that an orchid collector might give her orchids or the rose enthusiast might give her roses.

The submission process has its seasons.  

As I’ve come to undephoto 3rstand the intricacies of my garden (water for pansies, yes, water for mint, are you joking? Grab the scythe!) I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the passage of time. The mint requires harvesting before the lavender, the black-eyed Susans bloom after the tulips. The changes in each plant mark a day in a greater cycle of growth.

Just as each plant goes through its process of germination, growth, flowering and/or fruiting, and decay, so too does the writing I choose to send out into the world. I have stories waiting to flower, others growing, some showing signs of decay, and in the moments between, every idea or singing phrase is written down in a notebook to germinate.

The satisfaction that comes from cultivating my garden is the same satisfaction I get from cultivating my writing. Each day, whether I’m down on my knees in the dirt, or am only doing so metaphorically, I am seeing a season through to its end while simultaneously sowing the seeds of the next.

*Note: This simple fact, that I can write the clause “I own a house now,” puzzles me. I have daymares where I ask myself, “Wait, who decided I could be trusted with a HOUSE?!”

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