My arm is itching like crazy because I have a poison ivy rash shaped like Italy. At least it’s not as bad as a couple of years ago, when my arm swelled to the size of a Spanish ham and the rash reached my eyes; that time, I looked like the Elephant Man rushing to Urgent Care and begging for steroids.
The price of being a gardener can be high: rashes, bee stings, permanently cracked fingernails.
There is also a high cost to being a writer: butt spread, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a car with a hundred thousand miles on it because you’d rather work less and write more.
I never set out to become a writer or a gardener. Now that I’m both, I’m amazed by the similarities.
In college, I majored in biology because I was determined to be a doctor. I was derailed by a creative writing class my last semester of college, and ended up earning an MFA in creative writing. I was hooked on writing fiction the first time I tried writing a short story.
Likewise, I always swore I’d have a cement yard so I wouldn’t be a slave to mowing. I stumbled into gardening accidentally when we bought an old house that had been owned by the same couple for sixty years. During their last ten years here, this couple had let the yard go. I was shocked when I noticed a tree out back blooming with lush white flowers. (Later, I learned it was an ancient Rose of Sharon.) The tree was being choked by vines and I ended up rummaging around in the shed, where I found a rusty machete and hacked away the vines.
As I freed the tree, I discovered a gravel path by its roots and began digging that out, too. This path led to more, and the paths defined garden beds where a few scraggly flowers were blooming among the weeds. It was an ancient perennial garden.
Just as I became passionate about writing fiction because of that one accidental college course, I became equally dedicated to gardening because I accidentally discovered that path. Isn’t that the way life is, though? If we’re lucky, we lose our way along to whatever goals we’ve set, and discover something better.
Recently I finished writing a novel that really beat me up, just as gardening so often does. My antidote was the get outside and weed the garden–an endless but Zen sort of task. As the late, great Oliver Saks wrote in an essay that ran in The New York Times recently, “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process.” Writing fiction calls to something deep in me, and I feel that same deep love of nature when I’m outside working the ground. I hope this will be my seventh novel to find a home with a publisher, but in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Writing this book, like gardening, was a process that fed my soul and gave me a new perspective on topics I’d been thinking about for years, just as gardening allows me to embrace the earth’s gifts in ways I couldn’t otherwise.
The best writers I know are like great gardeners, and vice versa. Here’s how:
1. Sometimes you have to be ruthless. Sure, I love lilies. But I don’t love them springing up in the middle of my paths or crowding out the Solomon’s Seal. If my lilies grow in the wrong places, I dig them up, just as sometimes I have to lose sentences or scenes I love.
2. You can’t weed (or edit) everything all at once. If you do that, you’ll give up for sure. Take it step by step.
3. Ask for help. Writers work in isolation, but we need writer colleagues to help us with everything from critiques to support when the rejections start arriving. Similarly, an older British friend of mine helped me identify the perennials I already had, and other gardener friends gave me great advice on what plants I needed to fill in gaps or, eventually, to create more perennial gardens from the ground up.
4. Enjoy the escape. For me, there is still nothing as challenging or rewarding as writing fiction—except, perhaps, for being outside for hours, my hands deep in the dirt as I transform my small plot of land and feel Nature exert its calming power throughout my life.