Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Writer's Greenhouse

I got back a few days ago from the Kiss of Death conference in San Antonio... what an experience! Writers in all stages of their careers... just starting out, on the agent trail, multi-published... all along the continuum.

On the drive back from San Antonio, my brain was buzzing with new information, and I got to thinking. So many of us have stories inside of us, just waiting to come out... and for most (if not all) of us, it's incredibly hard to sit down and make it happen. Kind of like walking outside in your underwear and yelling "Look at me!"

But we do it anyway, because we have to.

Now, as I'm launching on another project, for the first time I'm also juggling all of the million tiny things that go along with a book coming out. As I weeded my garden this morning, it occured to me that although so many of us want validation at the very beginning of our work (and I'm sending a first chapter to my critique group for tonight), it's not always a good idea. We need to write for ourselves first. And in some ways, stories -- or story ideas -- are like young, fragile seedlings.

The last month, it's been harder to find that tender place inside me where the words start as seeds, then shoot out little green tendrils, putting down roots in my subconscious. It's easy, sometimes, in all the hustle and bustle, to let those new seedlings get trampled, or try giving them too much mulch or fertilizer, just because that's what someone said would make them grow better. But the seeds come from you; and only you know what is the best environment for them. If you're a writer -- or an artist of any type -- allow yourself time to dream; give your ideas space to grow, take shape, put down a tap root. Later, you can ask for advice in pruning the full-grown tree those seedlings become, but I think at the beginning, you need to create a greenhouse inside you, let your dreams dig deep into the rich soil of your mind, and shelter those tiny storylings from the harsh light of criticism -- and the blustery winds of other opinions.

So today, instead of marching to my laptop first thing (which I felt I needed to do), I went down and weeded my community garden. The lettuces are gorgeous, the broccoli is about to bud, and tiny gray poppy plants are sprouting everywhere -- this twenty-by-fifteen plot of green is my creation, and I take tremendous pleasure from it. It felt good to work with the earth, with my hands instead of my brain. When I was done weeding, I still didn't write -- instead, I went for a walk and found my favorite bench, a green metal one that looks out over the water. I don't know how long it was, but for at least twenty minutes, I did nothing but watch the coots on the lake, letting my dreams unfurl and fly up into the cool gray sky. I didn't worry about whether my critique group would like my first chapter, or whether the book was holding together so far, or any of those things we writers obsess about. I just let my mind roam free.

And you know what? The writing today was better than it's been in weeks.

I think it's when we're in that that dreamy state, where your thoughts ramble down untrodden paths and you drift into a world that's not quite this one, that you're fortifying the greenhouse, sowing the seeds of work to come. Because some of it is sitting down at the keyboard -- and I do mean that. But if we forget the other part -- the childish part that sees fairies in the woods, or looks for patterns in the clouds on a summer afternoon -- we fail to give our ideas the nourishment they need to grow strong and reach for the sun.

So if you're a writer, take a little time for yourself this week. Read something delightful, and let your mind wander, freed from the hard work of plotting and composing. It'll be a long, cool drink of water for your story garden.


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