I have an aloe vera plant in my office. Her name is Alice. Alice came to me in a cute little terra cotta pot, and has followed me from sunny windowsill to sunny windowsill through a move across state lines. You could say we’re pretty close.
A few months ago, I noticed Alice wasn’t doing well. She was wilting, and the tips of her leaves were turning yellow and withering. She wasn’t growing at all.
After some experiments in watering and sunlight levels, I gently picked Alice up out of her pot to look at her roots. It turns out Alice was rootbound, and the thin white threads of her roots were filling up the potting soil and beginning to curl around the bottom of the pot itself.
A few years ago, I never would have thought to check a plant’s roots for signs of declining health. And I got to thinking about how much I’ve learned about plant care just in the past few years of being a casual, amateur backyard gardener, first with a community garden plot, and now with a raised planting bed in my own backyard.
Gardening is a popular metaphor for writing, especially to describe those of us who identify as “pantsers,” or writers who write by the seat of our pants. Pantsers are often contrasted with “plotters,” or writers who outline.
Putting aside the debate as to whether or not pantsing and plotting are useful or accurate terms, when I first heard them, I identified hard as a pantser. Yes, I thought, I am a gardener, letting my characters grow organically like wildflowers.
Then I started actually gardening.
Not to pick on anyone, because no metaphor is meant to be perfect, but gardening is way more than “dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it.”
And actually, that makes it work even better.
Here are six writing lessons I’ve taken from backyard gardening. I hope you might find some of them useful.
Lesson #1: The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Did I ever think I would know enough about soil composition to be able to diagnose why my plant’s leaves were turning yellow? Did I ever think I would actually use the pH scale I learned in high school chemistry? No and no, yet here I am, diagnosing my plants with nitrogen deficiency.
Gardening seems straightforward to the uninitiated, as I was a few years ago. Dig hole, drop seed, give water and sunlight, maybe some fertilizer. Boom: plant!
How many times has a well-meaning acquaintance said, “Oh, I’m going to write a book one day—how hard can it be?” Write words, write paragraphs, edit, send to publisher. Boom: book!
I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about gardening until I started having issues with getting my plants to fruit. Today, I know far more about soil acidity and the building blocks of plant growth than I ever thought I would, and I know far more about story theory and narrative structure than I ever thought I would—and in both instances, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of all there is.
However, both my plants and my stories are better now for what I know.
Lesson #2: Know the soil. Understanding your medium is crucial. In gardening, knowing the acidity of your soil can help you choose plants that thrive in such conditions, or let you know how to amend the soil in the way you want.
In writing, figuring out your own process is hard but important. For the longest time, I thought I was a pantser; outlines bored me. But I think I didn’t understand what pantsing truly was. I still get my best work done in early drafts by not over-planning, but it turns out, personally, that once I have something down, an idea or a handful of scenes or a basic story, I do need some sort of structure to hang the mess on.
That’s not to say that’s what your process should be—don’t even get me started on writing advice that purports to be universal (or writers who speak universally but then get angry when people point out their advice doesn’t work for all and say “you should know I didn’t mean it to be universal” because, hi, I’m a baby writer who was a straight-A student who likes to Do Things The Right Way and implicitly trusts those I view as more experienced than me and spent way too long trying to figure out The Right Way to write. ANYWAY.).
Lesson#3: Literally, kill your darlings. I hate thinning my plants. There is never a guarantee that every seed you plant will germinate, so most gardening guides recommend planting more seeds than eventual plants you need. If you’re lucky, you’ll get plenty of seedlings popping up through the soil.
And then you have to pull up the weakest ones to allow the strongest seedlings room to grow.
Yes, you can compost the seedlings you pull up, but they worked so hard to germinate! It’s not their fault they’re a little slower or smaller!
It is easy to get sentimental about your plants, just as it’s easy to get sentimental about your words. You worked so hard to write that scene! It’s really well-crafted! But perhaps it isn’t needed anymore, or doesn’t do enough to further the plot, characterization, or worldbuilding. At that point, it’s important to be able to let go of your work—even good work—so that your strongest work remains.
To help myself feel better, I tend to look at the bits that I have to cut from my writing as compost: I may be able to reuse phrases or characters in other work, but even if I can’t, I’m feeding my skill set, my experience, and my conception of what I can do.
Lesson#4: Embrace failure. My first year gardening, I hardly knew what I was doing, and my poor plants suffered for it. A squash vine borer killed not one but two squash plants. Heavy rains drowned my basil. My pole beans also drowned, but not before producing two (2) bean pods.
The next year was better: took the lessons I had learned from the year before and applied them to the next round of planting. I started the seeds earlier, amended the soil with more nutrients, and built up the areas of the plot that were prone to standing water. The plants thrived as a result.
But sometimes, no matter how carefully you tend your plants, a squash vine borer sneaks in (again) and munches your summer squash from the inside, and you don’t notice until the plant dies overnight. Or a wild summer storm comes in and blows your tomato plants over, even though they were staked and tied down. Sometimes you make mistakes; other times, fate is entirely out of your control.
Writing is an exercise in resilience. You write, you edit, you rewrite. You rewrite again. And again. Sometimes it takes a while for the thing you produce to match the idea in your head. Sometimes, it might never quite get there.
I tend to want to get things “right” on the first try. And not only is that not possible in writing, there is no “right” way to write. I’ve found that it helps to look at both writing and gardening as experiments, rather than things you must get right on the first try. Every “failure” adds to your knowledge of what works and doesn’t work for you. Once I took that pressure off of myself to get it “right,” I gave myself permission to rewrite scenes countless times if I didn’t feel like it was working. And eventually, I would land on the version that felt the best to me.
An engineer friend, who is extremely handy, once described the process of crafting furniture as a process full of mistakes. “But don’t look at it as failure,” he said. “Look at it as liberation.”
Lesson#5: Fallow seasons are actually important. Despite constant reminders that “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague!”, for most of us mortals, 2020 was not the year for great leaps in creativity (for those who did write and/or publish in 2020, I am both proud and terrified of you). Even reading, which has historically been my preferred mode of escapism, could hardly pull me away from the slow-motion train wreck of that year. To put it in the absolute mildest terms, 2020 (and into 2021) was a year of catastrophic loss.
I’m not trying to put a silver lining on anything. I am, however, trying to make sense of my own place in the world we inhabit today.
I did not do much writing last year, and I felt as though I were missing a part of myself during that time. I felt like hot garbage. And it was easy to berate myself for not being productive while stuck at home, because what else was I doing?
I mean, other than surviving a global pandemic.
Once I allowed myself to be not productive—easier said than done—I started to feel a little better. I didn’t force myself to sit down and read or write if I didn’t really want to—and friends, I really didn’t want to.
Anyone who grew up in or near an agricultural area is probably familiar with the term “fallowing,” which is when a farmer gives the land a break for a season or more. Fallowing lets the land recover, restore depleted nutrients, and kill pathogens that might have infected the crops. Even in backyard gardening—hardly comparable to actual farming—it’s recommended that you cycle your plants through different locations, and periodically restore the soil with more nutrients.
I picked up writing again in February, and my productivity has been through the roof. Taking time for true replenishment is not possible for most of us, particularly in the U.S., and particularly among those with less privilege. But my advice is to take those moments wherever you can. Claim them. And forgive yourself for not measuring up to whatever unrealistic ideal that’s been set for you.
Lesson#6: Patience is an absolute necessity. You knew I was going to say this one, didn’t you? Patience is an essential trait when it comes to publishing. You know the drill: You upload the thing to Submittable. You wait for a few months to a year or more for someone you probably don’t know to weigh your work’s merits and render a decision. If you are chosen, then you might even have to wait for a few more months for your piece to be published.
I haven’t gone through the book publishing process myself, but it’s not exactly an industry secret that publishing is a years-long process, even after the book is written.
Honestly, it makes the fruits of gardening (pun absolutely intended) seem rapid by comparison.
There is something almost anticlimactic about gardening that is quite humbling. You drop the seeds. You cover them up and water them. And then you just…walk away. And maybe you water the seeds every day until they germinate, but it’s no guarantee that all of them are going to germinate. It takes weeks for anything green to pop up from the soil, and months until it grows large enough to begin producing fruit. That’s assuming that nothing comes along and knocks it over/eats it/drowns it/sickens it/etc. And really, aside from prepping the soil and making sure the seeds have the right conditions to germinate and grow strong, the actual growing is up to the plants—not you.
Raise your hand if that makes you a little uncomfortable. (raises hand)
You submit, you get rejected, you resubmit. You don’t get into that workshop or get that fellowship you wanted. Sometimes that piece never finds a home, or that manuscript never finds a publisher. There are things you can do to adapt: maybe you decide to self-publish or to trunk that piece for a while before dusting it off and trying again. But just as you can’t force a plant to give you fruit, you can’t force an editor or agent to take your work.
It helps if you don’t look at the final outcome as the only goal: the book contract, the major advance, the bestseller list. I support aiming for those things if that’s what you want. Of course, I’m always trying to get my plants to thrive, to flower, to produce fruits and vegetables I can eat and share with others.
But I also feel immensely fulfilled by digging in the dirt, by nurturing something alive, by spending time under the sun. And yes, even by feeding the birds and the tomato hornworms.
Once I realized that Alice was root-bound, I quickly transferred her to a bigger pot, about three times the diameter of her first pot, and filled with new soil formulated specifically for succulents.
The next day, Alice was a new plant.
She’d perked up. Her leaves were now a vibrant green. I snipped off the ends that had turned yellow, and they healed themselves up. Her leaves are reaching up toward the sun and spreading wide, and she’s sprouting new ones.
Be like Alice.
And by that, I mean give yourself and your work the space to grow.
Do you have hobbies that have imparted lessons you’ve taken to your writing life? Are there other gardening tips that you think also apply to storytelling?
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About Kelsey Allagood
Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.
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