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.

Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.

WRITING PRACTICE

Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.

TEACHING WRITING

I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.

 

Walking My Way Back to My Desk

Walking & Writing

Walking my way back to my thoughts.

I’d been working full-time revising a novel from August twentieth until September twenty-first. Those were four glorious weeks of concentrated work, during which I never had to wonder, What am I going to write today? I worked on the revision morning and afternoon, completing all other assignments as breaks.

I love working deeply in a book, where I have its alternative universe to keep me company during the activities of daily living, from weeding the garden to hanging the laundry and other necessary chores. I’m particularly pleased about how I juggled this delicious revision task with the interruptions for the kitchen renovation, which demanded my irregular attention.

Amtrak's Vermonter

Editing the typescript on the train.

I pushed myself to have a typescript finished and printed in time to read it on the train to New York City for a weekend visiting friends, and I managed to proofread this version on the train ride home.

But back home, I didn’t have the anchor of this project to keep me grounded, even though I need to update the document before sending it to my next set of readers. It’s finish work, just like the kitchen, where I needed to make frequent decisions. In fact, the finish work of both the kitchen and novel are similar, demanding decisions about smaller and smaller details – a chapter heading, paragraph break, comma usage for one, and a door stopper, cabinet pulls and knobs for the other. Not just which ones, but where. The details seem endless.

And then there’s family life: my youngest and her partner returned from nearly six months hiking the Appalachian Trail, which they finished on the heels of a hurricane. They returned home tired and hungry. It’s been fun to feed them and hear their stories while they’re still fresh.

The upshot of this break in routine and concentration was first a sense of delirium – so happy to have completed the revision! How wonderful to meet an adult child for dinner in Manhattan before spending the weekend with friends! So relieved the hiking kids are safely off the trail!

But the delirium ended as it always does – with a crash.

Walking and writing.

Walking helps me find my writing voice after any hiatus. (photo courtesy of Leadership ‘n Motion)

I didn’t resume my routine. I didn’t check my planner. I didn’t reign in my mind, and my life wobbled out of control. I missed deadlines for two posts. (This one should have appeared last week.) I went to the grocery store without my list. I spent hours, it seemed, looking for my phone.

After four days, I’d had enough. I returned to my desk, I sifted my emails, and I went for a walk. It was on the walk that the word “Scattered” came to me, and I knew that wobbling from lack of routine and losing my focus would be the subject of a post. And that’s how I found my way back to work.

What’s different from the thousand other times this spinning off-center has happened, is that this time, instead of beating myself up for what I didn’t do, I’m congratulating myself on knowing how to pick up the fragments of my scattered concentration: Go for a walk, return to my desk, and start writing.

For me, the best way to regroup is to go for a walk and listen for my voice.

It works every time.

How to you regain concentration after it’s been disrupted?

writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, walker and educator. She’s hosting Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom WALKshop with walker and life coach Kate Lampel Link on Saturday, November 4, from 9 am – 4 pm in Newfane, Vermont. Early Bird registration ends October 7. For more information and to register, click here.

A New Strategy for Writing in Summer

Writing in Summer

I used to think that playing outdoors in summer interfered with writing. Now I know better.

Summers used to interfere with my writing. There was so much to do – both farm work and fun – that I used to despair about advancing narrative projects and meeting deadlines.

But I do.
I changed my attitude about writing.

Instead of heading straight for my desk after morning coffee, I’ve developed a completely different strategy about these lovely long days, where I’m busy from dawn till well past dusk.

I’m writing all the time – just not at my desk.

I’m writing as I drive to the river where I scull on the flat water at sunrise, when the air is sweet and cool. I slide through the water, the rhythm of my oars lulling me into the effort. I see, hear and smell the wild world while I’m out, notice changes from one day to the next.

Close observation of the world – natural, urban, indoors or out – is a key skill for a writer, one I practice in my boat, in the garden, and on the porch.

Living In Place. Deborah Lee Luskin

A detour through the garden on my way to work can delay me for hours.

After breakfast, I detour through the garden on the way to my studio. Some days, that’s as far as I get. I allow myself to become distracted by weeds or feel obligated to harvest the berries that have ripened behind my back.

I used to resent the need to stop everything to pick and process and pickle when I thought I needed to be writing. But now I know that I am writing while I engage in these summer activities. I’m expanding both my experiences and my store of metaphors. Both on the water and in the garden, my mind is freewheeling, and when I do finally get to my desk, my fingers are itching to press the keyboard.

In summer, I’m efficient at my desk.

How do you negotiate the challenges of writing and play in summer?

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin is a recreational sculler, amateur farmer, and professional writer. Read an Essay Every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

“Only One Thing To Do” – Guest Post by novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Only One Thing To Do

Donna D. Vitucci, a widely published short story writer whose first novel, At Bobby Trivette's Grave was published in June.

Donna D. Vitucci, author.

Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald, his friend and competitor: “You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damned thing.”

The size and breadth of a book overwhelms me –the writing of it. Writing the novel’s like taking medicine, in doses. I think of each chapter as a short story or a scene: one dose, just manage one swallow. Complete this, make this one piece entire and the best it can be and don’t fret over, don’t even think about what comes after. Self-trickery is the way I keep ahead of self-doubt. I certainly do not know the ending, and most times not even the why of the story. I look at the world, note circumstance and instances, I attribute reason where none exists.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the "the damp knuckled heart of all families" and childhood.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the “the damp knuckled heart of all families” and childhood.

I am disturbed by girls taken—Elizabeth Smart and others like her, here in my community a girl named Paige Johnson, who has never been found. The plaguing questions: why why, where are they, who would take them? I walk backwards to the trouble. It doesn’t need to be true, it’s not detective work, it’s less discovery and more burrowing into motive. I can’t see where I’m headed, till I arrive. Who could do such a thing, and how did they feel? Troubled, undoubtedly, and that trouble emerges via voice, voice of a character, a character in a situation, the more desperate and thornier the better.

Once I wrote a story called The Underneath. Touchpoint for the setting, the scene, the tension, the horror was the cellar of my childhood. Stuff under and behind, buried, covered up, secrets– the damp knuckled heart of all families. I regularly dig up my basement, excavate my childhood, assign motives to adults from my youth for the inexplicable things they did. I look and I can’t not see story.

Mommy sewed our baby doll pajamas, our school picture day outfits, our Easter dresses. She snapped thread with her teeth. She wielded pinking shears. Pinking shears. Does anyone else even know what they are?

This is the insular world of a character, a young girl, stewed in her family broth. She walked around with Catholicism for spine instead of backbone, with litanies of saints and church Latin as right and left hands. I thought everyone was Catholic. At school, at Brownies, on our street, the kids I played with and their families, we all attended Mass at the same church. What? You don’t know Mass, or Jesus Christ Our Savior? Can it be that others also don’t know the gut-trench of Lenten sacrifice or special intention Thursdays, or the Infant of Prague’s varied coat colors and the guilt-blessing of being chosen to change the clothes on that Jesus-boy-doll?

How to populate the world of the novel? Build from the inside out, from imagination and experience, history and supposing, initiating in that voice of that character, that one child, that one stolen girl. Hemingway called it the great “what if.” Follow the undoing, find that dropped spool, the bobbin losing its thread. There you have it. Story could, literally, be under your feet.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place. – DLL

 

Donna Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. She is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including Kentucky Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Forge Literary Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Southern Women’s Review, The Butter, and Change Seven. Her novel, AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE , a coming of age story set in Kentucky, was released in June 2016 by Rebel ePublishers.

Donna’s second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, will be published in 2017.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

Deb’s still smiling after hiking 275 miles in 25 days from Massachusetts to Canada on Vermont’s Long Trail.

Currently, Deborah Lee Luskin posts Lessons From the Long Trail about her thru-hike from Massachusetts to Canada over the spine of the Green Mountains. Twenty-five days living outdoors, overcoming obstacles (aka mountains, rocks, mud, streams and sore feet), has changed her outlook on life and helped clarify her goals, most of which have to do with advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change.

Starting and Stopping

Starting.

Starting.

The more I write full time, the more I learn about how to get started and when to stop, knowledge that makes me more efficient in a job that often is not.

STARTING

I’m learning to start by writing a rough draft: Rough as in scrawled in a notebook or typed without consideration for spelling, syntax or grammar. Usually, doing this shakes the ideas loose in no particular order. Often, the order becomes apparent before I’ve finished turning out all the pieces, so I number the sentences but keep pushing on to what may be the end. Or not.

Ideally, I then wait. That is, if I’ve left myself enough time before a post has to go up or before a deadline arrives. When I can, I let the rough draft mature overnight and return to it the next day. I’m a strong believer in the process of fermentation for both writing and wine, and often while I kick back with a glass, my subconscious continues to work.

When I return to the draft the next day, I’m always surprised by what I find: sometimes it’s a welcome surprise, “Damn, that’s good!” More often, it’s a set of notes with a workable idea buried in it, and I have to dig to find it, typically by writing another draft. And another.

Stopping.

Stopping.

STOPPING

I’m freshest in the morning. Today, for instance, I started at 5:30, drafting Holiday Weekend for Living in Place, my personal blog, which publishes on Wednesday. That’s tomorrow.

Next, I turned to a fourth (or maybe a fifth?) draft of a piece I’ve been working on for days. It’s taken a lot of writing to hone the one idea into just four hundred words. Thinking I finally nailed it, I emailed it to my producer at Vermont Public Radio for edits. Meanwhile, she returned a draft of a different piece with small changes and approval to record it later today for broadcast tomorrow.

In an effort to get ahead, I promised myself I’d draft this post a week in advance so I could go backpacking in good conscience when this posts. But I knew my concentration was done in for the morning.

The tell tale signs of needing to stop are attention to email, wandering over to Facebook, and staring out the window. Even though it was just eleven, I stopped to eat lunch.

Usually, the dog takes me for a walk after I eat, but today I have to go to the studio to record for VPR before a slew of meetings for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, where I volunteer.

So I returned to my desk, wondering what in the world I was going to write for this post; by allowing myself to write a rough draft, I found out.

How do you start a piece? And how do you know that staring at your computer any longer won’t help, so it’s better to stop?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin is a writer by compulsion and a Vermonter by Choice.

 

How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?

www.deborahleeluskin.com

These papers have been in a box under my desk for most of a year.

“How long it take to write a book?” my dad asks.

“It depends,” I answer.

“How long does it have to be?”

“As long as it needs,” I reply.

“How long is the book you’re writing?”

“It was four hundred pages.” I say.

“Four hundred pages!” he says. “Wow!”

“But now it’s just two hundred,” I add.

“How long have you been writing it?” he asks.

It’s been in a box under my desk for almost a year.

This makes it sound as if I haven’t been working on this novel since last August, which is not entirely true.

* * *

I think about the book all the time, as if it were some best friend I keep in my prayers while it convalesces from a serious illness. In this time, I have imagined a solution to a major structural issue. I won’t know if it’s the elegant solution I want until I unbox the typescript and bend to the story, and that’s just not on the current schedule right now, because I’m currently obsessed with a piece of non-fiction that I’m hoping to shape into a book.

This new project is about being outdoors and civil discourse and belonging to the land – but I don’t quite know the story yet, so I’m writing around it. I’ve not just been thinking about these ideas for the past year, I’ve also been learning to fish, to shoot, and to read the landscape. And writing about it. As part of my research, I will be hiking the Long Trail, the oldest long-distance footpath in the country, at the end of the summer.

The Long Trail follows the spine of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Canada. Two-hundred and seventy-two miles in twenty-five days. Plenty of time to think about a story. Meanwhile, I hope to be able to send preliminary chapters to my agent before I leave.

* * *

“My book is just ten pages, and it’s still not done!” Dad says. “I keep starting over!”

“That’s sometimes the way it is,” I say.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Dad at 90

Dad’s referring to the eighth or ninth installment of a collection he started over twenty years ago titled, Reflections of an Old Man. He’s now ninety-one.

The books include a family history, complete with photocopies of photographs of relatives who never came to America; important documents, like my father’s army induction, honorable discharge, and all the citations he received for his infantry service in World War II.

He also wrote A Love Story, which includes transcriptions of all his letters to his then sweetheart, my mother, whom he addressed as “Dear Blondie.” Her letters to him were lost when he was wounded. They wed after the war and were married for sixty-six years before my mom died.

The more recent installments of Reflections of an Old Man are more philosophical. The one that’s giving him trouble now is about religion.

“Writing is hard,” Dad says.

I agree, pleased by his validation.

“So how long does it take you to write a book?” he asks again.

“Each book takes a lifetime,” I tell him, “No matter how quickly you write down the words.”

Tell me, what are you working on? And for how long?

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story, set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs Wednesdays at www.deborahleeluskin.com