Posted by Valerie Drye
The cooler days of early spring give way to stifling, muggy summer-like weather before I can get out and indulge in my other love—gardening. Flower beds and mixed borders, once dormant under layers of brown, desiccated debris have exploded into lush green mounds. Of weeds. Lots and lots and lots of weeds. Somewhere, under those smothering blankets of weedy foliage, flowers and shrubs struggle in a fierce battle for sun, nutrients, and water. When I finally emerge—gloved and covered with Cutter’s, armed with clawed and bladed implements of steel—my heart sinks at the sight.
Let’s just say I have a really big yard and more landscaped area than is sane. I can almost hear the weeds roaring their defiance. But I can also hear the whimpers of the green babies I’ve been cultivating for the last few years. Touches of purple, yellow, and red remind me of the glory that can be ours. Although I am tempted to retreat to the air-conditioned, bug-free space inside, I tie my bandana around my head and don my sunhat. Spading fork in hand, I throw myself into the fray. The months-long war begins.
The early morning warms as I fill my wheelbarrow with the bodies of my enemies. After an hour or so, my bandana is soaked with the sweat that refuses to evaporate in the too-humid air. As I tie a new one in place, I think longingly of those cold, dark winter mornings I spent writing at my computer and wishing it was spring so I could be outside again. I laugh at my own fickle nature then start on the next bed. Thinking of my two loves—writing and gardening—it occurs to me that the two activities are alike in many ways.
When the seed of a story idea germinates in the fertile soil of my mind, I can’t wait to plant it in a bed of words. Often I just start writing with little idea where the story’s going—a bit like spotting some pretty perennials on sale while I’m out shopping for something else. I mean, who knows when I might see this kind of deal again? I may have no idea where I’m going to put them, but soon I’m dashing home to find a likely looking spot. Sometimes I get lucky and the result is pleasing, other times the plants just aren’t happy. Maybe the growing habits aren’t complementary or the exposure’s wrong. If I want the plants to thrive, I usually have to dig them up and transplant them—a risky move, especially in the heat of the summer. Sometimes the new setting works. If not, the plant dies.
Right now I’m working on a midgrade fantasy novel I started—years ago— without a clear plan. After several false starts, I had uprooted this idea so many times it looked pretty sad. While I was wondering if I should give up on it, I took an on-line course that’s helped me learn how to set up the key elements of the story and prepare an extended outline. Think of it as a landscape design for novels. I used to think such planning ahead would stifle my creativity, but I’m beginning to see that it’s the discouragement that comes from getting stuck that’s more deadly. I’d been tempted to toss out my story like a sickly plant that just won’t respond to treatment. Now I’m hoping an infusion of plot and character development will perk it back up soon and keep me motivated to finally finish it.
The more I think of writing as gardening, the more it seems that planning—sadly, something I often rebel against—is essential. A well-planned perennial bed is much like a well-written book. For the best designs, a gardener needs to factor in sun and soil requirements, bloom time, color, texture of foliage, height and growth habit. Writers must grapple with character, plot, theme, setting, conflict, dialogue, description, action. The best landscape designs use many individual components to present a satisfying whole; unless the viewer chooses to focus in on one section, no one part should call undue attention to itself. The best stories are like that: each element is such an integral part of the whole that nothing jars the reader out of the experience.
No matter how good the plan, both gardening and writing will still fail without one critical factor, that dirty four-letter word I often try to avoid. WORK. Drawing up a design or writing an extended outline. Preparing the soil or developing characters. Transplanting flats of plants or churning out word counts. Moving plants to better locations or major revision. Weeding, weeding, weeding or revising, revising, editing. Whether I put in three hours writing or three hours gardening, I should be tired—and feeling pleased with myself. And when I find excuses to avoid the necessary drudgery, I need to keep in mind that the enemy is never vanquished. Let a day or three go by without weeding, and the green monsters will take over again. Let days or weeks go by without writing, and the noxious weeds of self-doubt creep in and start to whisper: “And you call yourself a writer?”
When that happens—and no matter that I know better, it will—I’ve just got to take out that bandana, arm myself with steely tools of determination, pull out my bottle of Mudskipper’s All Purpose Self-Critic Repellent,* and answer with a resounding: You bet I am!
*Available only to regular attendees of the Mudskippers Critique Group (thanks, ladies!)