I feel like a cool writer today.
I’m sitting outside under a parasol with a cool drink and my laptop, listening to birdsong and the faint hum of traffic. It’s surprising how easily you learn to tune out some sounds, leaving more room to hear cawing crows and squawking nestlings.
When we look back, these are the days we remember. The patchwork greens of spring burst with life and Demeter’s promise renewed, warm sun on my legs and a soft breeze stirring the pages of my book.
My daughter spends the day inside, hunched over her laptop. She refuses my call to come and sit out, to enjoy the sun, to simply be. She’s certain there are many more opportunities waiting for her. She doesn’t see the point, because the wi-fi signal is better inside and the sun is slanting in through the windows just the same.
It’s not the same.
I remember a scene from The Simpsons, with young Homer pulling hairs from his comb. Plenty more where they came from, he says, and we laugh because we know what he does not, yet.
The future is not promised and all our days are numbered, whether that number is large or small.
So I allow myself to enjoy a fine day like this, storing it up in memory. It’s a blessing to live it now and will be a future joy to relive it with a smile. I will turn it over in my mind like a smooth water worn pebble, warming my heart, hearing only birdsong.
Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. Warren Buffett
We often make resolutions and set goals at the turn of the year.
Thinking about the future and planning for it is crucial to success. As a gardener and a writer, I know this is true. I can’t harvest what I did not sow, nor can I sow where I have not prepared the ground.
As January’s list of goals is forgotten and our resolve crumbles, there is one thing we all can do every day to get ahead. It is not cold showers, waking at five o’clock to meditate, or wearing the same outfit, which no doubt work for some but fill me with horror. Especially the cold shower.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for.
It could be a big thing or a tiny thing. It could be for the long-term or for tomorrow. But sometime between waking and sleeping again, despite being consumed by the busyness of the day-to-day, cast your mind forwards. Here are a few ideas.
Lay out your clothes for the next day
Write down that story idea or line of dialogue
Check your insurance is up to date
Make that call you’ve been avoiding
Exercise for ten minutes
Read a chapter
Drink a glass of water
Make your bed
Cook double quantities of meals and freeze half
Take the stairs
Put the laundry on before you leave
Tell them you love them
The gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter day to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate. But now, with little to no extra effort, the snowdrops above cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
We underestimate the power of compounding
The billionaire Warren Buffett is a financial legend. He buys carefully and holds for the long-term, much like a gardener planting trees. The value comes in compound interest and re-investing dividends. In the same way, daily actions add up over time to a significant return. Whether we invest in ourselves or in external achievements, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing our novel or building up a pension plan.
Often we think that it is the big gestures, the grand flourish that gets the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards. No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. Aristotle
So, what will you do today, and tomorrow, and on into the future?
Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.
It’s Friday, finally.
The end of the week for me, and what a week it was. A week of turbulent news, both in the world at large and my little corner of it. Unwelcome developments, painful separations, and unexpected changes came thick and fast.
It’s been a hell of a week, actually.
So now I can relax, yes? Not really. My brain feels stuffed full and yet strangely empty at the same time. I cannot be mindful with a full mind. Little fragments of song play over and over. Weariness tugs at my limbs, and the to-do list dances in front of exhausted eyes.
It’s time to slow down.
So, I go out into the garden and sit. Just sit, nothing more. The sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and the distant roar of traffic fades as I listen to birds chirping, and wind sighing in the trees. There are so many shades of green, if you only look. More birdsong, and if I am really still a brave robin approaches, his proud orange chest bright.
If I sit still enough, long enough, maybe I could become invisible. I pull my feet from sandals and curl my toes around cool grass, and watch cheerful daisies turn their faces to the sun. A blackbird hops by. The breeze brings a memory of roses.
Breathe, slow down, unwind. I drop my knapsack of cares so I can stretch shoulders bent under heavy burdens too long. I am Atlas released, Sisyphus freed, and for this and every moment that follows I will drink in the green refreshment of earth.
Sit still enough, long enough. Here tall trees give shade, blue sky exists, and thrushes sing in the warm sun because they must. I can be grounded and yet soaring, separate and yet whole.
Green will nourish and revive, and the earth will heal my torn and quivering heart. After a time, I will go on. But for now I let everything go.
We can gaze at the night sky and marvel at the constellations. But sometimes brilliant stars can be found in the daytime too. All photos taken in my garden.
There is something about the combination of spring green and white that lifts my spirits. It is hope and possibility and a fresh start. It is the promise fulfilled, Demeter rejoicing at Persephone’s return, the reward for enduring winter. Now, past the balancing point of the equinox, gardens are truly awake.
I look out at young growth everywhere and know that despite everything, the seasons turn. Birds will sing, flowers will bloom, fruit will come in time.
It’s time to turn my face to the sun, so the shadows fall behind me.
Last time, I talked about how new beginnings can come from what seems like disaster. In the space cleared by the end of one idea, another may find the space and light it needs to germinate and grow. Sometimes, an idea (or a thing, which is just an idea made concrete) has a limited life span. It flourishes for a while and then disappears when its job is done. Its beauty lies in its temporary nature. Isn’t that the glory of flowers?
Gardeners know the turn of the seasons, and that few deaths are final. We bury our plants in the compost heap, and they nourish new life. Sometimes they are born again, in unseen seeds that burst into triumphant life.
But what about grief?
Mourning what is past is both necessary and healthy, as long as it doesn’t replace the act of moving forward again. When winter grips the garden, and it is but an array of brown empty earth, dead stems, or snow-huddled mounds, it’s easy to think that this is a permanent state. But it is just a phase; it’s not permanent.
Spring is coming
Whether you know it or not, life lies below the surface, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Those first green shoots are tender yet they are the toughest, willing to push out of cold soil into chilly air or even snow. They are the most precious, because they are eagerly awaited signs that the spring is coming, and with them comes the promise of better days. But to get there, a winter must be endured.
The only way out is through.
The only way to avoid grief is to never love.
The only way to avoid endings is to never say hello.
The only way out of life is to push through its many winters.
The only way through winter is to push out again, to risk exposure, to seek the sun.
We do, eat, read, and watch the same things. My supermarket online order page has a feature called ‘Your Usuals’ because apparently, 80% of my order is the same every week. If I don’t pick these items, it reminds me before I reach the checkout. Strange that in a world dominated by the latest new thing, we cling to the tried and tested. Maybe that explains the dominance of the movie franchise, the re-imaginings and remakes and tired sequels. Much less risky than something completely new, but ultimately not very interesting either.
A new challenge
When you have worn a rut following the same path, strike out elsewhere. It’s often best to start small, that way the risks are less, but the payoff is still worthwhile. It could be the start of something really worthwhile and rewarding.
To use an example from gardening; I grow or make something new every year. This was easy in the early days of the garden, when it was a blank canvas. However, I had no money, and so it was often seeds rather than plants. I tried different seeds, and found out what worked with minimal outlay.
I grew things that were almost impossible to buy, like the red leaved castor oil plant Ricinus communis carmencita. I grew things that were so easy, the prices charged for small plants made me angry. For example, Verbena bonariensis proved easy and beautiful, and as a bonus seeded itself. Since I raised many seedlings, I could afford to dot them around the plot and see what worked, and where. I tried plants that were said to be too tender for my garden. I still have Geranium palmatum, which tolerates my clay soil and also seeds itself, against the odds.
It would have been nice to have the money to just buy whatever I wanted, but it would not have taught me much. Time and money are always inversely related, if you lack one you must put in more of the other to get results. I grew sunflowers with my children when they were young, but I used the opportunity to grow more interesting cultivars as well as the skyscrapers they loved to measure. The time investment paid off several times over.
Last year, I made wine with a heavy crop of rosehips from my Rosa glauca bush. This year, I planted Musa ventricosum maurelii (bought from the supermarket for £10). It did very well, and has just been lifted to overwinter in the porch. Well worth taking the chance, and it should be even better next year.
Cultivating the beginner’s mind
Maybe you’re quite good at something. Not at the level of mastery, because who has 10,000 hours to commit to something? (Even if this pop theory has been debunked.) But pretty good, and it’s started to get easy. We want easy, we don’t want difficult. Maybe it’s not any one thing that’s well within your capabilities, but life’s activities in general. Problem is, it can also get boring. We start to lose interest. At this point, you can go one of three ways.
Spend less time and effort, and probably give up after a while.
Spend more time and effort, challenge yourself to improve with a new goal.
Put the thing aside, and do something different.
Any of these could be a valid option, depending on the activity and how important it is. Above, I talked about the second option. I’d like to argue here for the third option. Why? Because starting from scratch is liberating, fun, playful.
Beginning without expectation or judgement is freeing. At the start of school, we’re eager for knowledge, full of questions and ready to make mistakes. We are willing to fail.
We end school downcast and oppressed by expectations, testing, targets and curricula. We cannot afford to fail.
In the process, all the fun of learning is stripped out, all our enthusiasm squashed.
How about starting again?
It could be a return to something you did before, or not. It could be learning a new language, fixing a car, making bread or curries or furniture. For me, it was art. I needed something completely new, but it was also a return to the girl who used to design clothes and matching shoes in a sketchbook. I took a life drawing class, and picked up a pencil for the first time in decades.
Having made the conscious decision not to judge my work, nor compare with others, I relaxed and concentrated. How to show a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page? How to shade the folds in fabric? Which softness of pencil? What kind of paper? I asked questions and enjoyed the novelty of knowing nothing, learning from ground zero.
In short: I played, and it was good.
We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw
Adults can learn. Our brains are much more adaptable than we think.
Adults should learn. It keeps us energised and interesting.
Adults must play. It keeps us young and puts a smile on our faces.
Adults benefit from play. Our newfound energy will boost the rest of our activities.
Letting go of outcome, focussing on the process and the journey, could be the best thing you ever did.
No matter how detailed, or how loose, start with a plan. You cannot reach the destination without a goal and at least a few markers set along the way.
“bury the treasure well”
The plot twist, the clues, Chekhov’s gun. They must be planted ahead of time, before anyone realises, while they are thinking of something else.
You of course, are following the plan. You know what is coming.
“right plant, right place”
You may fall in love with something gorgeous.
If it does not fit, you must either provide the right conditions for it, or put it somewhere else. Remember my space pirate last week? He awaits the right plot.
You may create beautiful prose, so lovely you weep tears of joy when you read it back. You need not kill your darling, this post tells you what I do with mine. Nothing wasted, in a garden as in writing.
“subtlety is underrated”
A bold swathe of colour is lovely to see, but hard to pull off in a garden. It can also leave the plot looking a bit bare in other times and places. It works, if well supported by action elsewhere. Whether writing or gardening, a single bravura flowerbed or scene is not enough to sustain interest.
A quiet gradation with one plant leading gently to another can have great impact, as well as ending a long way from the starting point without jarring. Not everyone will appreciate the thought behind it. But some will, and it is satisfying to add another layer of meaning, to challenge your own skills.
“enjoy your harvest”
My garden’s variety of plants and purposes leads to this. Fruits and vegetables to savour, knowledge for next season, compost made from those that didn’t make it.
My story, long or short, leads to this. Plots, subplots, character arcs, the seeds of a sequel, must all culminate in a satisfying conclusion.
It’s hard work, but let’s not forget why we do it.
Whether you are a fiction writer or a gardener, you must tend your plot. The more I write, the more I find parallels between my two loves, writing and gardening.
1 Find your plot
When we moved to our house, there was a huge lawn, some mature trees, but no garden at all. Even though we had less than no money, busy jobs, two children under three, and no family to help, I resolved to make a garden. I needed a place to wander around, to dig, to dream.
So naturally, I invested money I didn’t really have to get experts in and draw up a plan. Two plans, in fact. We combined the best of both. Yes, I was laughed at by those who didn’t understand why I then planted four saplings in the middle of the lawn.
I smiled to myself. I knew they were the basis of the secret garden. What secret? The doubters had to wait and see.
Gardens are particular to their position. I could plant anything here, but some will do well and some are definitely not suitable. I can’t grow oranges outside, but there are lots of other fruits that will thrive.
With a story, have some kind of outline and plan. Plant your flag at The End and work towards it, with as much detail as you wish. Plotter? Lots of details. Pantser like me? Vague notions contained within a loose overall feel.
The genre is the location where you will plant your story. Genre has rules about what can be included. You can break the rules, of course. You can add things that are not native to the genre, or mix genres. But it will need more work and clever execution to pull it off.
2 Do the heavy lifting first
It saves time in the end. Oh it’s tiresome, pulling nettles, raking out rocks, making compost bins. But future you will thank present you for doing it. Afterwards it will be much easier to get on with what you really want, which is creating.
If you don’t get that weed out now, it will have sturdy roots that weave through your precious plants. It may even choke them. Remember your ultimate goal, as you dig through heavy clay soil in the rain. Put anything you will need later in a holding bed.
Make sure that your story idea will really fit the location. Some stories are short, some are novels, and some are operatic, requiring a huge space to bloom fully.
Composting in this context, is letting all those little flakes and fragments settle in your subconscious while you get on with something else. Not every idea will find a place, but capture them and have them ready if needed. Notes are your friend, however you prefer to keep them.
Weeding out is only for the big things at this point. You might have a character in mind, but a space pirate does not belong in a light contemporary romance. Probably.
3 Prepare well
Now there is some idea of scope. A clear plot, a plan of some sort. The next step is research. What direction is the prevailing wind? Where are the shady, dry, wet or sunny spots? What plants are your favourites? Which plants will do best in which situation? It’s time to make some choices.
Those choices will shape the overall feel of the garden. Start with the bigger, more structural things. Allow enough space for each to fill out. Small plants can come later, when things are more developed.
If you’re a pantser, know that you might not have everything finalised, and that’s fine. Start with the main characters and the main plot points, and sketch out how they all hand together. Note any gaps.
Read up on 18th century lace production, or space ship propulsion, or whatever your story needs. If you have subplots, make sure they are included. They are your second layer, benefiting from the first layer and supporting it.
Compost is equivalent to backstory. A fertile bed in which to grow your characters and nourish their roots. But no-one wants to see it, so it has to be worked in subtly.
4 Begin in earnest
Finally, start creating! A garden cannot be created in one go. The seasons take precedence, deciding that you cannot buy this or move that. Big plants like trees better go in first. If they’re wrong, it’s not such a big job to move or remove them.
For example, I planted a flowering cherry. It grew and grew. It had few flowers and so-so autumn colour. Well, since those things were its job, I cut it down after five years and replaced it with Acer griseum, which is much more attractive.
I bought what I could afford, which was not much. I bought small and opted to wait. I haunted bargain corners and market stalls. I had to be creative because money was a huge constraint. The garden started in one corner and moved out from there. It was done in short bursts and not in a logical order.
So, you’re gonna write a story. But where to begin? You could start with chapter one. Or you could start with a major scene that’s itching to get from your brain to the page/screen. Start anywhere, just begin. The outline is there to guide you, so that even if the pieces are out of sync, they all relate to a proper whole.
How does that work? This is an example of mine.
I wrote the start of my novel (planted the cherry tree) out of order (when the time was right). After taking some advice I added more detail (let it grow). It looked better, but it still didn’t do its job of hooking readers (so-so result). I really wanted to keep it, but reluctantly took more advice.
I realised it was backstory (kill your darlings) and used it as such (put it through the woodchipper). I took the useful pieces and slipped them into the story (compost and feed). With a stronger root system, my subplots thrived and my story was more cohesive. I wrote and rewrote a new chapter one that is a hundred times better (the Acer).
5 Refine and revise
A garden is never done, but it can reach maturity. At the end of each season I cast my eye over it critically. Seeing what worked, what died, and where the gaps are is fertile material for the fun part; buying more plants. Sometimes I don’t have to kill my plant darlings, for they simply die. That’s okay. It means they were the wrong plant, or in the wrong place. If it’s in the wrong place, maybe I can replant it elsewhere.
Some things get too big, and need cutting back. Others can be divided and produce new plants elsewhere. Impulse buys are part of my semi-planned garden. I started with big permanent things, and fill in with this and that, anything that catches my eye. Others take a measured view, sticking closely to their masterplan.
A story must reach the end, and then needs revision and editing. Pruning away the excess reveals the essential. A small addition may contrast with a larger element and bring it into focus. Darlings must be examined and dealt with ruthlessly, though sometimes they can find another home, as I explained here .
The plotter sees everything unfold as planned. The pantser has room to wander within the boundary, seeing what happens. Both may have to perform radical surgery, if the whole is not more than the sum of the parts. Sometimes, other people can see more clearly what needs to be done, so take advice you trust.
You worked hard, so remember to enjoy your achievement. When the garden looks good, walk in it, photograph it. Most of all, sit in it and rest. Look at the sky, at the birds, at the leaf colours and flowers. Dream.
Few people manage to finish writing a story, fewer still an entire novel. When you have let it sit for a while, read it again. Better yet, if you have a Mac, use the text to speech and have it read to you. Maybe you’ll hear something that text editing did not catch.
But best of all, you get to experience your story in a different way, one that links us back to stories told around campfires and in caves, since man first learned to speak.
But gardening is different from writing…
Writing lets me forget the world and live in my dreams.
Gardening gets me out of my head, and grounds me in the real world.
Reading stories lets me share somebody’s head for a while and forget the world.
And I have, except that I am compelled to make my weekly blog post. It doesn’t matter whether I do it or not. It doesn’t matter if I break my commitment, made by me and for me. It doesn’t matter if anyone notices, or not.
The sun rises, rain falls, darkness descends, without my input. The flower pictured above was not planted by me; it was a chance seedling, happened upon one afternoon when I wandered down to the bottom of my garden. I saw it, but if I hadn’t, it would have been there just the same. It would be no less beautiful, no less worthy of close examination, or of digital immortality.
It doesn’t matter. Everything is temporary.
Barren places hide seeds that may yet bloom, more gorgeous than anything deliberately nurtured. You just have to shine some light, go down to the further corners, and keep your eyes open.
I read somewhere that most writers have more ideas than they know what to do with. I imagine their heads crammed with story seeds and baby notions, all crying out to be fed and developed and watered. They would look something like the path by my back door used to be, overflowing with impulse buys and supermarket bargains, waiting for a permanent home. Then I’d be going away and all those little pots, too small to sustain themselves, would be crammed into a shady corner or plunged into the ground, in a frantic last minute rush to save them.
That’s how I ended up with a towering bay tree, all of twelve feet or more, rather too close to a bamboo. I had no idea it would get that big… and need so much pruning. But I digress.
I don’t have so many ideas.
If I read writing prompts, just one or two might interest me. But when an idea does take root in my mind, it grows. It demands attention. It gets bigger and stronger and it has to be followed to the bitter end. That is how I found my novel, that rose from a one hundred word seed of an idea. Rather like Jack’s beanstalk.
My forest of little pots sometimes suffered because I couldn’t tend them all. If I have more ideas than I can handle, I write them down. That’s like putting pots in a holding bed. [God bless the notes feature on my phone.] But in general, I look around and let things settle until one strong shoot appears. I nurture it, until it can look after itself for a while. Only then will I look around for another smaller thing to keep me going.
It’s more important to do a few things well, than to do a lot of things badly.
It is also vital to finish properly. Half done is not pretty. Some things work better than others. You try things out and you learn from success and failure.
Writing is a kind of gardening. Different timescales, and different spaces, and different care schedules are needed for all the projects. But put together, they make a wonderful variety.
Whether you want to collect all of one species, or one of all species, a garden grows in stages. Over time, a writer collects a body of work that reflects them, just as every garden reflects its gardener.