Four cherry tomatoes. Two baby bell peppers. Two straightneck yellow squashes that fit within my palm.
We gathered a small harvest of flowers and vegetables yesterday in preparation for an early September snowstorm. Most of the fruit that would have flourished and expanded over the last month of our usual growing season came inside in green or miniature forms, mere toy models of their potential selves.
“Well, what can you do?” Some local gardeners have already shrugged their shoulders and moved on with admirable pluck. “Now we plan for next spring.”
I have washed and put away our truncated crop, and even though I’m trying this evening to concentrate on purchasing a few bulbs — on planting a flag for the indomitability of new life — my gaze has been drifting to the slushy white drifts outside. Spring is a long time away.
Yet at my elbow, in its usual spot, is a thin four-page document. At the top are the words “Writing Desk,” followed by the date I last rearranged its contents. Small capitalized words underneath remind me of the four projects I’ve wanted to prioritize this year.
This is my idea list for short form writing pieces. The longer-term projects each claim half a bookshelf of resources so far, along with a thick file folder and a “meta document” apiece, but this Writing Desk paper is for odd musings and working titles, for burgeoning connections and hopeful sprouts of stories and essays.
And now, as I glance at it, I realize this is my own greenhouse of slips and cuttings that are awaiting the growing season.
“Women of Gumption.” “Old mills and olive oil excursions.” Some of these snippets begin as a simple phrase and grow over the course of months as freshly read books and recent conversations water their soil. (Everything mysteriously goes through a growth spurt when I have a deadline for an unrelated piece.) Some never get any further than the initial handful of words, and some fail to thrive in time for their window of seasonal relevance.
Every now and then, I go through the bullet points under the six headings — “Essays: Blog,” “Essays: Submissions,” “Essays: Book-linked,” “Seasonal Letters,” “Instagram,” and “Photographs & Art” — to weed out the ideas that haven’t developed over the preceding weeks, and I paste them en masse at the end of the document on my computer. The heading over them says “Idea Bank” to make this scrap heap sound welcoming; the subheading adds, “(Not necessary to print),” in case I need some restraint during a reckless future fit of writer’s block.
A writer’s notebook is nothing new, but I’m grateful for this one, especially at this turn of the seasons. The significance of a little string of words can hardly be overstated, as a few historical favorites can attest:
“Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”
“Sale of Wife.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?”[i]
Author Roald Dahl, in fact, had a process for growing such seedlings into books; he kept a “plot notebook” which he reviewed once or twice a year. After a suitable length of time, he would pluck a ripe idea from its pages and begin writing it into a full-fledged story.[ii]
If spring seems ages away, then I think I might at least take a cue from writers who knew how to incubate future projects, and painters who learned long ago to make summer sketches in preparation for winter painting sessions. What seed packets of ideas can I collect this season? What might be stored away to emerge and become beautiful in its time?
This particular Writing Desk document has taught me to make note of the things that strike me as worthy of a long second glance, and to examine the interconnections between the concrete, abstract, backward-looking and forward-facing aspects of our lives. Many times the sight of a full chain of thoughts has enabled me to venture ahead and connect the dots in prose.
But if I’ve made it sound like this practice gives me dependable control over the writing process, a closer look affirms that the opposite is true. At review time I’m often surprised to see which pieces I’ve completed and which still lie dormant. I halt midway through drafts and find myself asking the living Word of God Himself for words — and for deep mercy, that I may never lead anyone away from Him to any degree.
Most of all, the constant germination and sifting of ideas underscores my limitations. Sometimes I glance down the list and realize I’m never going to get to all of the items — perhaps not even the ones that are burning a hole in the pocket of my imagination. In this sense, like Tolkien’s Niggle receiving his dreaded travel summons, someday I will feel that my winter has come too early.
Still, friends, I am also conscious of a greater wisdom at work. Year after year I’m reminded that the priority of the true Master Gardener is not the particular fruit that a branch bears — as precious as one or two among them may be to me — but the fact that the branch continues to bear it, and that it is willing to grow in the way He directs. The more I dwell on this truth, the more I can see that it is the life of the Vine that makes the difference in my writing, and that it is this life which will ultimately yield the truest sense of fulfillment. If I’m fortunate I will be permitted to keep nurturing written starts and seedlings to maturity until my homeward call comes, but the greater blessing is the joy of new life coursing through me from Spirit within to service without.
I, too, am being gathered in.
These, then, are the things I want to carry with me into this year’s autumn: a slim notebook of seed-prompts, the humility to rejoice over the writing equivalents of two-inch squashes, and a prayer that the rain and snow of His Word may not fall in vain here. To echo the words of a rich gardening liturgy, “Walk with us now, O Lord, in the stillness of this tilled and quiet space, that when we venture again into the still greater garden of your world, we might be prepared by the long practice of your presence, to offer our lives. . . ”[iii] May it be so indeed, especially in the stilled watchfulness of our greenhouses of thought.
May it be that we tend even as we are tended.
[i] These are, respectively, the fuses for L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves.
[ii] Gardam, Steve. “Seven Lessons from Roald Dahl on How to be Productive.” 07 September 2016.
[iii] Douglas McKelvey, “A Liturgy for Gardening,” Every Moment Holy, 93.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonki and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.