Sowing the Seeds: What Being a Gardener Has Taught Me About Writing

Things growing in my garden

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)  

It’s not an original idea,  just a homely little blog post, but I keep thinking about how becoming a gardener who can actually grow things is a useful metaphor for how I’m becoming a writer who actually writes things that might, with care, become a healthy, blooming novel.

I wrote up the draft of this post before Googling for similar posts on this subject; there are some great reads that make better points than me, which concentrate on the importance of preparing and planning, nurturing your story, feeding it, allowing it to grow and turning the “manure” of your first draft into a beautiful garden, fed by the wonderful loamy soil you have created from rubbish, leftovers and poo!

What I want to share in this post is that gardening taught me some of the fundamentals of writing, properly writing, and gave me the mental tools to turn my dream of writing a novel, and being a writer of fiction, into an actual organic work in progress.

Gardens for me growing up were something that I dreamed about; our homes in Belfast had back yards, or no gardens at all, and when we moved to London our first family home was an eleventh floor flat, with a narrow concrete and glass balcony.

When my mother finally moved to a ground floor house, we had a patio, and an area a couple of feet around the patio, to call our very own garden. I was a teenager then, and I bought some low level wire fencing, staked my claim to the grass perimeter and proceeded to plan my ideal garden in my head. If the garden was going to look like the ones in my imagination, it was down to me. My mother had lost the use of her arm and leg after her stroke, so I began with very little knowledge and no experience whatsoever, but a lot of ideas and some big plans!

I was faced with some challenges right away; we had very little money, and practically nothing to spare for luxuries such as garden tools and plants or seeds. My lack of knowledge was another drawback; I borrowed some gardening books from the library, but none of the gardens looked like mine. I knew I would have to compromise, and do what I could. I bought some seeds when they were reduced (at the wrong time of year to plant), but I planted them anyway. I dug a few holes and threw the seeds in, gave them a good watering and then promptly forgot them. Similarly I planted some flowers, but unlike the beautiful multi layered borders I saw in books and magazines, I would buy whatever was reduced at the garden centre, and hope that it would spread, and create a pretty display.

It’s fair to say that this first attempt didn’t yield much – my mum had better luck with her pot grown plants. I did manage to raise some weedy carrots and onions,and that’s when I discovered that I wanted to grow fruit and vegetables; in my mind I wandered through orchards, kitchen gardens and raised beds.

It wasn’t until I had a house of my own that I revisited the idea, but again it seemed like a lot of work, and I would try to cut corners where I could. If I grew a crop and it failed, I wouldn’t bother trying again. Experimenting with another variety seemed like too much work. I was still inconsistent with watering and feeding the plants, and I was very squeamish with the inevitable creepy crawlies that go with gardening; the worms and slugs, the mouse peering up at me when I uncovered my compost heap, the process of decomposition itself, attended by lots of ants, flies and tiny red wriggly things. I wanted a beautiful compost heap, but I was repelled by its mechanics.

If truth be told, I was a lackadaisical gardener, and my dreams always outstripped the reality. I made excuses to myself; I was a busy working mum, I had other things to do, I’d start doing it properly next season. But still, I’d pass other gardens, or walk in a park and see a beautiful plant, flower, tree and want it to grow in my garden, and again the idea of fruit and veg haunted me. Growing fresh food has a very strong attraction to me, and finally, I admitted to myself that cutting out pictures from magazines and buying gardening books wasn’t going to get me the results I craved. I also had to face facts about gardening; it can be messy, it’s an organic process, there’s bugs, and I wouldn’t magically hit on the right plant, or method of growing, every time. I had to experiment, and not give up, but mostly I had to stop thinking and start systematically doing things, in order to grow my garden.

And this is what I finally did. I did a lot of reading, research and cross referencing, and came up with a selection of plants, fruit trees and crops I thought I could grow. I made a planting timetable and I bought the right tools, but I didn’t go mad – frugal gardening is possible. The work you put in is more important than the tools you use.

I did the less enjoyable parts of gardening faithfully, and I kept records; if one particular seed or plant didn’t take in my garden, I recorded that and tried another variety.

I also learned to distinguish between good and “bad” bugs and creepy crawlies, and to appreciate the beauty of nature, how everything is used and nothing wasted. Gardening is hard work if done properly but it’s also incredibly rewarding. For a city girl like me, proudly showing my family my crop of courgettes, chillies, tomatoes and beans, and creating home-grown jams, chutneys and wines is the literal fruits of my labour, and every season I do better than the last.

My interest in writing pre-dates my love of gardening, but if I’m honest, I went about it in the same dilettante fashion for far too long.

Beautiful scraps of conversation, riveting character traits and a list of wonderful words were duly collected, saved and neglected. I had the basic idea for my novel And The Buntings Flew for many years before I properly committed it to paper, and gave it a plot and timeline summary.

I had a new raft of excuses that were really the same old ones – I had a busy job, I was doing my MBA, I had a long commute. All true, but all excuses just the same. I even did a creative writing course with the Open University; together with a handful of poems and a dozen or so non-fiction articles, this was all I had completed until the end of 2014.

I knew the idea for my novel was a compelling one, and I had ideas and themes buzzing in my head, but what good was that? Finally, I started, at the end of last year to WRITE THEM DOWN. I created folders for my book in Word and Excel, and I gathered all my ideas and snippets of conversation in there. I created a target word count for each week, and I was honest with myself if I didn’t meet the targets.

It was hard work at first; the writing was lumpy and raw. I was wordy, repetitive, some sentences were as long as paragraphs. I was writing in the first person but filtering all the action. But I had to start writing to become aware of these issues, and to correct them. I found that as I continued to write, a hundred more ideas came to me, and they in turn would need to be researched. Facts and assertions in my writing had to be checked, and the back story had to be historically correct. However, even though I hadn’t envisaged the process being this involved, it got easier. Not everything worked, and some of my crops failed to grow. I joined a critique site, and sought my first feedback. It helped me. I knew when I had written something that, if not perfect, was good enough to be put up for critique. This is a very powerful tool in my repertoire, and one I quickly learned, as much from the writings of others as my own.

Some things are still beyond me, but my writing, like my garden, is now a reality; I have written nearly 30,000 words of my novel. This novel, like my dream orchards and kitchen gardens, if not complete and as beautiful as my mind’s eyes visualises them, is on the way, a real work in progress. The seeds have been and continue to be sowed, and I will enjoy the fruits of my labour. I hope one day that you will too.

Margaret

Further Reading:

Your Novel As A Garden: 14 Ways Writing Fiction Is Like Growing Your Own Veggies

How Does Your Novel Grow?

25,000 words…

When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end
(Beryl Bainbridge)

That’s it, I’ve clocked up 25,900 words as at the end of last night, which is just under a third of the way through my projected 80,000 word novel. I hurried over to this site to update my little novel progress widget, proud to tell the world that And The Buntings Flew is inching along, and has reached another milestone.

As I referred to in a previous post, this section has been heavy going, and at times a real mental slog. I have however taken some positives from the experience; the first real plot development is written, and while writing the last chapter some beautiful ideas for plot and themes have come into my head, uncovered no doubt by the heavy plough of my mind as it trudged along the rocky and unforgiving soil of this part of the story.

I found the quote below about writing, and never has it seemed truer to me than at this point in my own novel:

“When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.” (Beryl Bainbridge)

Sadly, not all of the deaths in my story are fictional, but I have taken some poetic license, as Beryl Bainbridge suggests, to tie the story up into a novel.

Margaret