gardening as exercise

Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #7: Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities [between gardening and writing]?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose, and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy, and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention, but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone.

In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.

Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.

And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.

While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.

For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

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