The Composting Method of Inspiration

My mother had a favorite saying: “Garbage in, garbage out,” which she used when  she observed her children doing anything (eating candy, watching daytime TV) that she didn’t think would produce results later on in life.

But Mom’s wrong on this one. At least according to the compost method of  writing practice.


I stumbled on the composting method in New Age author Natalie Goldberg’s fantastic (not new, but spectacular) Writing Down the Bones. The basic idea is this:
Write down all the garbage you’ve got, every day—not like a journal, chronological and neat, but more like a garbage disposal, throwing everything in. Half-finished essay introductions, to-do lists, poems, love letters to no one. Fill notebooks with it. And periodically, sift through what you are writing for the beautiful things that’ll start to grow in it. Sometimes you’ll find the roots of ideas forming in your mind; other times you’ll be rereading your accumulated inanity and stumble on just the thought you’ve been looking for, or the insight you need, to help you wrap up your current project or crash through a new one.

Goldberg writes:

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say…I attempted several times a month to write about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, I can’t say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about the subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity—a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

So I’m trying composting, and for entertainment and full disclosure, here is the first paragraph of my first attempt:

Looking back, the absence of smoke alarms should have alerted us to something. During the move, in between huffing and puffing, over heavy boxes, three couches and a U-Haul full of furniture and garbage bags, my mother noticed it first.

“I’ve been looking all over your house,” she said, “but I haven’t seen any smoke detectors.”

When she said it, we all stopped, my husband, father, mother and me and looked at each other, the strangeness of this discovery sinking in.

Clearly, composting is for everyone. Massive writing genius not required.