Friday, June 13, 2014

When Writing is Like Gardening

Each spring in Vermont I shuttle from garden center to garden center, buying plants to fill what appear to be holes in my garden. I fill pots and window boxes with Moo-Do and pile in as much color as possible. (Impatiens do the trick with, really, very little effort on my part.) Gerananium, angelonia, lavender... go into pots. Lettuce, basil, and bean seeds land, inexpertly, in four, 3X3 foot raised beds. Cherry tomatoes live in large pots on the patio. I water, fertilize, and anticipate. 

For weeks, it seems, not much happens. Then I forget to check on things for a few days and when I go back, those holes in the garden turn out to have been the spaces the plants needed when they grew to full size. Lilies now overshadow iris, echinacea fight for space and light, the phlox has marched right over the sedum, and monarda has insinuated itself everywhere. Out in the vegetable patch, the basil has gone to seed, and the deer ate half the lettuce. Okay, so maybe my absence was slightly longer than a few days, but still. 

Novels, if you leave them alone for too long, will also run amok. When life first calls me away from a new manuscript I'm working on, I experience acute separation anxiety. I long for those relationships I've come to rely on and the characters who've kept me company for months. Plots often unfold as I go along, so writing a novel engenders almost as much eager anticipation as reading one. What will he say the next time they meet? When will she discover the girl's true identity? It's like a thirst for knowledge. 

By day three, my anxiety becomes nostalgia for friends fondly remembered. By day ten I have trouble recalling characters' names. By day fouteen I am afraid to go back. Much as I am when I haven't visited my garden in two weeks. (See note above.)

My initial reaction when faced with my garden in mid-July, after a two-week hiatus, if the weather has been (as it was this summer) very wet is panic. "This garden looks terrible!" I say to anyone who'll listen. "What was I thinking planting all those lilies?" Those lilies looked so petite and perky in June! They now bristle with unadorned stems, their foliage sags, spent blossoms litter the ground. "Off with their heads!" I want to start pulling plants immediately, despite the fact that it is 90 degrees and digging them up will, truly, leave some holes in my garden.

Gardening is a process. So is writing. It is a love of the process-as much as, or more than-the outcome, that gardeners and writers must learn to cultivate. There are days, even weeks, when my garden looks great. And days and weeks when it doesn't. The same is true with a new manuscript-or even one well into a fourth or fifth draft. Moderation is the key. Putting in too much material, too early, tempting as it is, isn't good in either medium. Impulsivity rarely pays off: whacking out huge sections of a book or garden now often leads to regret later. Better to pull weeds, edge, take notes, contemplate, watch, wait. Just don't leave it alone for too long.

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