When J. and I first moved into this house, as autumn crept into winter, we started feeding the birds and thinking about gardens.
As soon as the weather cooperated, we carved out a small area of grass, ordered some soil and, as they say in England, got stuck in. We bought a selection of native wildflowers and grasses that appeal to our local birds and created the first fledgling garden on our property.
Now, of course, the garden is covered in snow. The birdbath has been removed, its post wrapped in plastic so it doesn’t crack. There isn’t much to see. On the trees off our back deck we’ve hung red, silver, and gold Christmas ornaments just to give our yard a little bit of colour for the long, white months ahead.
The plants are dormant, dead above ground, sleeping below. Preparing to push their roots down even deeper come the warm weather (provided the dog doesn’t kill them with the apparent appeal of peeing on the big bluestem).
I’ve also started pushing down roots – in my latest work-in-progress, that novel draft I wrote in a mad dash, that I finished typing up last week.
What I see is what I always see: the first draft is mostly surface, with hints here and there of what it could be, but (lucky me) a clear-ish arc. As my first drafts usually are, it’s really short (Swarm started out at 40,000 words!) and needs the embroidery of further scenes to deepen the reality of the setting, the characters, the story.
It goes without saying that it needs me to stay with it, tend it, nurture it, think about it, let it put down roots and grow.
This growth, of course, takes time. Time to daydream, start deepening my understanding, pick up the pen and write further scenes, some of which will stay in the long run while others won’t.
This is a different stage, this quiet, long effort. Past the rush and excitement of digging up the sod, buying the plants, getting them into the ground, it’s the more focused work of tending.
Deadheading, moving plants into the sun or the shade, adding a few new specimens here and there, applying compost when needed, watering.
It’s the stage when the work that’s happening is mostly slow. A lot of it underground, in the dark soil, psychological.
And it’s also the stage when it can be really tempting to simply walk away.
From experience, I know what a mistake that can be. Plant a garden at the beginning of a summer featuring drought then quit?
Furiously write a rough draft then abandon it?
So what helps?
You might think I’m going to say dogged determination, the commitment to wake at dawn and get that watering done.
Yes, sure, that can be part of it, but such an unemotional, ascetic focus can also, I believe, kill the work. Over-watering and over-fertilizing are, after all, bad things. We can ruin those tender plants by sacrificing our relationship with them for the sake of an automaton’s sterile drive, insisting they grow, grow, grow, at all costs.
I see this happen with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sometimes, when would-be novelists spend the month hammering out words strictly to make their daily count, no matter what they’re actually saying.
Fear drives us: fear of failing, fear of not making the daily word count, fear that all those tender roots will wither. Approached this way, though, the fear will likely win and that dreaded result might actually come true.
So what’s needed?
The willingness to allow the roots to spread as they will; the flexibility to determine on a daily basis what’s required and sometimes turn on a dime; the courage to make mistakes; an ability to ask for help when stymied or needing a second opinion; community with others on the same striving journey.
J. and I asked the local garden centre for advice.
We went to presentations about maintaining our trees and gardening with native plants. We read a lot of books, and watched a lot of television shows. We wrote questions to Master Gardeners.
We learned. We accessed experts. We made mistakes (who knew blossom end rot was a thing?), and practiced patience (my particular challenge…)
Most of all, we enjoyed circling our garden with end-of-day drinks, studying its diversity, drinking in its beauty, puzzling out what could make it even better.
Suffice to say that the more I write, the more I realize that what’s required is comparable.
There are no magic solutions except to show up, stay with the writing, learn from it, and be open, and this is less about discipline and more about devotion.
Because it’s love that keeps us committed, isn’t it? It’s love that makes us willing to wake at dawn and go outside and do what we have to do to sustain those tender plants and help them bloom or grow vegetables.
The question to be asked, then, is not “what’s wrong with me that I can’t get up at 5 a.m. every single day to work on my novel?” but instead, what’s needed for me to be able to nurture and sustain this love?
Sometimes it’s a fantastic, inspiring novel. Or to carve out a dedicated space for creative work. Or maybe what you need is a community of other writers to talk with and share ideas or a bit of expert guidance on a puzzling question of craft. Or, even, for someone you respect to just read some of your work and say, yes, you’re on the right track.
Then, it will be easy to get up at 5, or at least easier.
If you’re craving these resources, this shift in attitude, a bolstering of faith in your work, I’m in the process of creating a space for three weeks in January that will offer all of this and more.
To start, I’ll be personally inviting those I’ve worked with before but if you’re interested, please write to me and I’ll happily give you more details.
If you’re struggling to put down your own roots in your work, give this some thought. What would help you more deeply love your creative vocation, the effort, the work that’s in front of you? I would love to hear about it in the comments!