Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

40 thoughts on “Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

  1. Awesome Post. Never Looked at it this way, But Truth Is, You are Right. I love gardening and writing, yet hate the weeding and editing. But as a writer its a must. Thanks for the Great Insight. Love it….

    • Thanks for your kind words. Actually, I LOVE weeding. It’s facing the clean slate of the garden (where to put the peas?) and the page (how do I start?) that fill me with angst!
      Best,
      Deborah.

  2. I love this! This will be our first year of substantial gardening and at the same time, I am really starting to focus on my writing. I love your garden!

    • Hi Lee,
      Thanks for your kind words. And good luck with both gardening and writing. I hope they nurture one another for you the way they do for me.
      Best, Deborah.

  3. This is such an inspiring note article about gardening. can we reblog this piece deborah? with a linkback to your site? please let us know.

  4. Wonderful insights into writing that I think every one of us can appreciate. I know I certainly can. Selectivity and limits are my big takeaways from your post, and as I’ve just begun submitting work for publication, your final insight, the end is the beginning, is ringing very true right now 🙂 This is a beautifully conceptualized post. Thank you for organizing your thoughts so well and sharing them with us. This will be very useful as I continue on the writing path.

  5. Lovely post, Deborah. Thank you for reminding me that slowness isn’t such a bad thing. Lately, I’ve felt like I’m moving at a snails pace with no tangible results. It’s daunting and seems such a large task. I’ve had…doubts…serious doubts.
    This helps me put things in perspective and helps push those unrealistic expectations to the back of my mind.

  6. I envy you your garden. I only have a balcony covered in pigeons so I can’t use your gardening advice. I can and do, however, thank you for the writing advise. I find the scariest part is that white page when you first start. I just have to remember to go word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence and I will eventually finish.

  7. I taught high schoolers how to write a novel last year. Though I had a great curriculum your analogy would’ve been helpful and inspiring. I am going to suggest that my writing students subscribe to your blog next year! Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration.

    • Shannon,
      Wow – writing novels in high school! All writers are beholden to you for raising a new generation of writers who will carry the torch of written stories. Thank you! And thanks for your kind words! – Deborah.

  8. I really enjoy your posts, Deborah, they’re so insightful. I don’t have a green thumb at all, nor any land for my own garden, but am thinking of trying a large pot and a few veggies this year. I like the idea of tending a garden and tending to my writing. 🙂

    • Hi Lisa,
      Could gardening in a pot be like writing flash fiction?!
      Thanks for your note – and good luck!
      Deborah.

  9. This is an excellent article, Deborah and I enjoyed it very much. I too am a writer/gardener and can clearly see your analogies — although I am not so successful in following them. Initial successes spurred excited expansion which led to being a little overwhelmed. Your point about focusing on the most valuable and buying the lesser from outside particularly hits home. Thanks!

    • Oh Allan, I know the problem! It’s so seductive to plough up a half acre and plant it in strawberries in the excitement of spring – all without remembering how weed-intolerant berries are, how much care they take, and how back-aching harvesting them is if you’re successful. And if you are successful, it’s often at the expense of some other crops – the peas, the spinach, the foundation shrubs and flowers in front of the house. Unless you can devote full time to the garden, it’s always a matter of choices. I find it’s the same with writing.
      Thanks for reading the blog, and for your comment. – Deborah.

  10. I love this post! I am a gardener also, and your analogies make so much sense to me, I’ll be weeding my writing so much better! I once had a writer tell me he laid bricks for a living for a while. He likened his writing to laying down bricks,– you had to be focused, careful in your craft, and just keep on writing one sentence, one paragraph after another…just keep on keeping on with the bricks and the writing. I found that very informative tol, thanks for this. Helen, new blogger to wordpress.

  11. Pingback: Writing Lessons from the Garden « Allan Douglas Allan Douglas

  12. I love a good rerun. And much like most of the reruns I love, I never saw it the first time it was made available so to me, its new fresh and inviting. I also like to pretend that I dont known what’s going to happen in a rerun I’ve seen many times. I reread this a few time and bookmarked the page.

    This post is helpful in as much as we can draw parallels to writing and many other things in life. Running for example.

    I’ll guess that you also, like with your garden, enjoy the fruit of your labor when your novel has come to maturity and is ready for harvest/ publishing.

    Thanks for reposting.

  13. Really loved this post. I’m stumbling at the moment which has caused me to leave the tarp on and not lift it. But you’re right, I must get the fork in the ground. One word leads to another! Thank you x

    • In my experience, playing in the dirt is better than thinking about it, so I hope you’re messing up the page. Good luck!

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