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.

Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery
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My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.

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Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

 

Words of Encouragement for Writers

encouragement for writers

Sand in your bathing suit is good for your writing.

Words of encouragement can help writers stick with penning words to the page. Here are some that have helped me.

“The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”  ~ A.B. Yehoshua

Starting a project is like shifting into first gear on manual transmission. A writer often hesitates, stalls, and jackrabbits before gaining momentum. It’s all about starting over – and over and over, until you’re at highway speed.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” ~ Virginia Woolf

Call it dreaming, calling it procrastination, call it an excuse to complete a crossword puzzle: there is something to be said for allowing the brain to freewheel for a bit – without engaging the gears.

So today, I encourage all writers to forgive themselves the time they are not writing, and soak up the irritations of living, whether it be sand in your bathing suit while you’re on vacation, or sawdust in your nose from working on an overdue home repair; or garden soil in your eye. These things will pass from immediate discomfort. You will return to your desk or your cafe or the refuge of your car – wherever it is you spin words into stories. You will get past the starting line, and you will be thick in media res once again.

“Beware of advice—even this.” ~ Carl Sandburg

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is an award-winning novelist, commentator and educator. Learn about joining her Private Tutorials, Writing Circles and Editorial Services, and read an essay every Wednesday on her blog.

Make Affirmations Rather than Resolutions!

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Affirmations rather than Resolutions!

This is the time of year I advocate for affirmations rather than resolutions.

I used to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the accepted and conventional manner. I’d stay up till midnight, fortify my resolve with champagne, and vow to live cleaner, work harder, and sustain a calm, orderly, life.

clock-334117_640I’d make these resolutions at midnight, and in the morning – just hours into the new year – I ‘d break them. Then I’d think I was a failure, and that the year was off to a bad start and could only get worse so really, why bother?

It didn’t matter if it was a modest resolution I’d failed to keep, like putting the clean laundry away, or a grandiose one, like writing a novel by the end of the week, or a perennial one, like losing a few pounds, or a hopeful one, like being kinder and more generous.

All resolutions did was set me up for failure.

I’m done with that!

Now I make lists of affirmations, including all the milestones and transitions celebrated and/or mourned, depending.

I write everything down: the visits, the adventures, the conversations and connections, the surprises, and the words.

If you’re a writer, it’s important to keep track of the words.

I write down all my publications and broadcasts for the year, including where and when they were published.

This isn’t just a measurable reality-check, it’s also good record keeping, which is part of the job.

Writers need to keep track of their work for several reasons:

  • So you can send a clip along with a query.
  • In order to keep track of your income; the tax man cometh in April.
  • To correlate your paying markets with your readership. What’s your payer to reader mix?
  • For a sense of accomplishment: Look how much you wrote!

This time of year I also try to update the list of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched during the year. I’m middle aged, and this is a helpful memory aid.

And I list all that I’m grateful for, which is especially helpful in these uncertain times.

Making resolutions is like “shoulding” all over yourself; listing affirmations leads to kindness and self-care.

I no longer make resolutions. I write affirmations, try to stay present, single task, and live one moment at a time.

Blessings to you. I’ll see you in the New Year.

One of the most life-affirming things I've done in 2016 is hike Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail.

One of the most life-affirming things I did in 2016 is hike The Long Trail, Vermont’s 272-mile “footpath in the wilderness.”

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place, The Middle Ages (in humans, not history), Vermonters By Choice, and most recently: Lessons from the Long Trail, about her 272-mile end-to-end thru-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail.

Telling Stories

TELLING STORIES ON THE LONG TRAIL
On August 15, 2016, we started our hike from Massachusetts to Canada on The Long Trail.

On August 15, 2016, we started telling stories as we hiked from Massachusetts to Canada on The Long Trail.

Hiking eleven hours a day is hard, but it was never boring, because my hiking buddy and I took turns telling stories.

Jan and I met in college and have been living apart ever since: she in Alaska and me in Vermont. We’ve kept in touch with infrequent letters before email and Facebook, rarely saw each other, and never phoned.

All I can say is: we were busy. We had careers and jobs, husbands, children, and nearby friends. Nevertheless, the friendship we formed in college has sustained us through long periods of separation. Hiking the Long Trail was a chance to catch up.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Jan started by narrating the story of her recent divorce, ending a marriage that appeared rock solid for thirty-seven years, until he fell in love with a co-worker. It took about five days to tell it from beginning to end, during which time we covered fifty-five miles over two significant mountains. But who noticed? I was too busy listening.

Storytelling helped us endure the effort of hiking nearly 300 miles in 25 days.

Storytelling helped us endure the effort of hiking nearly 300 miles in 25 days.

Generally, I walked ahead and set the pace while Jan served as my live audiobook, telling me a story that’s rich, complex, heartbreaking and wonderful. Yes, wonderful. While the process of decoupling was at times harrowing and heartbreaking, Jan is on a new path of enormous personal growth. And in addition to the through line – the divorce – Jan filled me in with lots of backstory about her last thirty-odd years in Juneau, stories about her children, her siblings, parents, co-workers, and friends.

Eventually, Jan’s story caught up to the present and it was my turn. I told Jan about my work “advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change,” about my life in small-town Vermont, my children, my brothers, my parents, my friends. I also told Jan about my surprising thirty-year marriage.

Right after I decided I would never marry, I met Tim, pictures with me here, thirty years later.

A month after I decided I would never marry, I met Tim, pictured with me here, thirty years later.

Right after college, I was the one who decided I’d rather be single than marry one of men I’d dated and dumped. In July of 1984, I’d decided I’d probably never get married or have kids, and I was okay with that. In August, I met Tim. Jan’s never dated, so I told her the stories that led me to develop my rule: the worst thing about a partner had to be better than the worst thing about living alone.

Since we were walking the length of Vermont, I also told her stories about the Green Mountain State – history, personalities and politics – topics I’ve researched for two novels, countless commentaries and many public lectures.

MOMENTS OF SILENCE

At day’s end, we took time for quiet reflection.

Occasionally, one of us would ask for fifteen minutes of silence. It never lasted that long. Almost all the time we were walking, we talked. This may help explain while we never saw any charismatic mega-fauna like deer or moose; they would have heard us coming. But once we made camp, we stopped. Off the trail, we retreated to quiet reflection.

STORYTELLING AND ENDURANCE

We quickly realized that storytelling helped us endure the effort of hiking nearly 300 miles in 25 days.

Once we’d run out of autobiography, we told stories about mutual friends, about books we’d read, about movies and plays we’d seen, music we’d heard and other adventures we’d had in different parts of the world.

And because we’re both the sort of people who like to find meaning in what we do, we carried on a meta-discussion about the hike itself: what we were learning from walking day after day over challenging terrain. This led to Lessons From the Long Trail, a series of essays which you can read on my blog.

THE IMPORTANCE OF STORIES

Storytelling is a distinctly human activity. It’s how we make sense of the world, and how we connect with others. Telling stories shapes our experience, and hearing them expands our knowledge. Knowing the same stories creates community.

Telling stories is central to the human experience. Being a storyteller is an honorable job. Keep writing your stories.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

Deborah Lee Luskin tells stories every Wednesday on her blog.

Ready, Set, Write!

Ready! Set! Write!

Ready! Set! Write!

Today is November first and the beginning of Nanowrimo –when writers worldwide try to pen a 50,000 novel before the end of the month.

I’m not participating in Nanowrimo this year. The novel I’m working on is fermenting in a box. Instead, I’m working on a book of non-fiction about learning to hunt, and this is the month when I take my newly minted hunting license into the woods. Nevertheless, I applaud everyone who signs up, sits down and writes.

I applaud anyone who sits down and writes.

I applaud anyone who sits down and writes.

Edit that: I applaud everyone who sits down and writes. Regardless of whether or not you sign up for Nanowrimo, here’s encouragement from famous authors for writers of all genres, embarked in projects of all kinds, wherever you are.

Somerset Maugham famously said, There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

I would go further and say this is true for any book. Writing is an act of discovery, and each story has its own interior logic that dictates how it’s best told. A writer pays attention to what the story needs and makes up the rules as she writes.

That said, there are some rules for writing that apply whatever you write:

"Applying ass to seat" is what you've got to do.

“Applying ass to seat” is what you’ve got to do.

According to Dorothy Parker, Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat. November’s as good a time to do this as any. A cushion is nice, but not necessary, especially if you’re using a stand-up desk.

Writing is easy: just open a vein and bleed, is most often attributed to sportswriter Red Smith. Remember: it’s a metaphor. It’s also true.

Start somewhere - and always recycle.

Start somewhere – and always recycle.

And perhaps the best advice for those of you embarking on NaNoWriMo today comes from Anne Lamott. Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

Good words to you – and good luck.

 

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs every Wednesday at http://www.deborahleeluskin.com. Currently, she’s posting Lessons from the Long Trail, a 275-mile hike along the spine of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Canada. After that, writing seems restful.

 

Persistence

While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 20, 2011.

ITWplainSeeing the galleys for my first book was like seeing a sonogram of a baby that’s been growing inside me for years. I was giddy with excitement to see the cover, the type, and the design of the chapters. Like one of those biblical matriarchs, I felt as if I’d been waiting six hundred years for this birth. In truth, it had only been twenty-five. 

In February, 1985, I received my first rejection letter for a novel I’d written the previous year. The letter arrived on my twenty-ninth birthday, and I despaired of achieving my goal of having a book published before I turned thirty. I didn’t start my next novel until ten years later, and I was well into my forties by the time it was complete – and it’s still not published. I wrote Into The Wilderness in 2002, when I was forty-eight.

During the twenty-five years I’ve been writing but not publishing novels, I’ve also raised a family and worked to help support it. I’ve done some interesting things, like taught literature to health care workers and writing to inmates; and I’ve done some less interesting things, like laundry. I’ve worried about my children, argued with my husband, witnessed my parents age, and – always – kept writing.

A few years ago, a published friend said to me, “The single thing that separates those who get into print from those who don’t is persistence.”

I persisted.

I have the requisite number of rejection letters to wallpaper not just the fabled bathroom, but also the interior of a small house. Some are simple form letters; others are full of high praise. I’ve come to prefer the form letters that start with, “Dear Writer” to those that say what a splendid writer I am and what a wonderful book I have – for someone else to publish. There were months when I could have been working in a boomerang factory, when all the typescripts I sent out kept homing back. But a year ago, I received the letter I’d been waiting for all this time, and now, my book is in print.

This long, slow, journey has made me wonder what gave me the tenacity to keep writing despite so many other things to do (help with homework, wash dishes, plant peas), and what gave me the chutzpah to keep refusing to accept repeated rejection. My answer: my cats and my dog.

My dog doesn't know how to read.

My dog doesn’t know how to read.

As Groucho Marx famously said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” My dog is a great companion, but she’s illiterate. She dislikes the indoor, sedentary pleasures of literature. She’d rather be outdoors, on a walk. I did a lot of thinking on those walks, which are a kind of moving meditation in which I work out narrative difficulties. I also watch my pooch in her mostly futile attempts to catch the chipmunks. Despite her dismal record of failure, my dog never fails to take up the challenge. She flings herself over stonewalls and gives herself whole-heartedly to the chase. And she’s never discouraged by her failure to catch a chipmunk, only by my failure, some days, to take her out.

My cats, on the other hand, want me to do nothing but sit at my desk all day, so they can drape themselves decorously across my papers, my lap, or my keyboard. They approve of literature, and like to lie across the page of any open book, but especially on the page I’m reading. One of them likes to watch the cursor progress across my computer screen; the other likes best to curl up in a manuscript box, anchoring the pages in place. As far as they’re concerned, the only reason for me to leave my desk is to open a can of cat food.

Between the cats and the dog, I’m blessed with companions who provide inspiration, in the case of the felines, and a model of persistence, in the case of the dog. They have been good company for this long haul. They’ve helped mitigate the loneliness of writing in silence, a silence that has at last come to an end.

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin will resume writing when she returns from hiking The Long Trail. Meanwhile, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox – just subscribe at www.deborahleeluskin.com. It’s easy, it’s entertaining, educational, and it’s free!