What Gardening Taught Me About Writing

Many people tout the restorative, contemplative nature of gardening as a balm for their souls. Me, I’m not all that talented at gardening; I don’t have a black thumb, but neither do I have a green one. Some of my gardening efforts have gone very well; others quite literally have died on the vine.

Look! I grew this thing.
Look! I grew this thing.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about gardening that have been useful in my writing, too (with my sincere thanks to the plants that gave their lives for these epiphanies).

1. The Hosta Principle: Space things out. In the garden, you’ve got to plan ahead for growth, even if the spot you’re working in looks a little bare when you’re done. I planted hosta last year in a line along my front walkway, and honestly, they looked kind of sad; one or two green sprig leaves sticking out of the red cedar mulch every twelve inches or so, almost like so-ugly-it’s-just-ugly modern art. In writing, it’s critical that you resist the temptation to crowd your prose with juicy metaphor after juicy metaphor (for example); pretty soon, your work is going to feel very crowded, and the ideas that are trying to grow will just crowd each other out.

What? I'm fine.
What? I’m fine.

2. Don’t prop it up unless it really needs it. Last week, I started a small container garden on the back deck. “It shall have herbs; basil and sage and flat leaf parsley shall it contain!” declared my aspiring green thumb. And I planted the basil, sage and parsley, and saw that it was good. Until the basil began to droop.

I love basil. I cook with it and season with it and sometimes eat whole leaves for sheer spicy pleasure, so I was horrified, and watered it profusely for three days as it continued to loaf over the side of the pot like it was trying to escape. Then, on the third day, I went over to the pot and there it was, straight up and perky. (Turns out, when you split basil roots, it takes some time to get comfortable.) The (writerly) moral of the story is this: When you plant an idea, or begin a story, you’ve got to do it with a little bit of faith that, if you’re patient, it will eventually begin to stand. Or make sense. Or whatever it is that you’re aiming for.

3. Know when to let go of bad ideas and bad writing. My mother gave me an azalea bush last year that she’d rescued from my late grandmother’s garden. It was a sad little thing, with three or four leaves on it, but it had one beautiful pink and white flower still left on it, so I planted it in a strong, shady spot and hoped for the best. I watered it, fertilized it and weeded it carefully. And it died.

But I left it in the garden. It stuck out of the mulch for an entire season, mere sticks and brown leaves. Every so often I’d weed around it and pick at the rough spots. Maybe those are buds, I thought to myself. And I resisted the temptation to pull it out until one day, I noticed the dry wood of this dead bush was attracting exactly the wrong sort of company—paper wasps. And out of the garden it went.

It’s like that with bad writing, too. You start a passage, or an essay, or sometimes plant a character in the middle of a story, and you’ve got high hopes. You write around them carefully, you apply the proper motivation, artful description and great dialogue or exposition. And still, your story goes nowhere. It’s not you, it’s the dead wood. Yank it out, even if it belonged to your dear late grandmother.