Tending to the task at hand: finding writing inspiration in the garden


Friday 19 February 2016 by Esther Porter

A typewriter and flowers

I may just be ready for spring, but while I watch the snow fall outside and type away in The Frameworks Minneapolis office, my mind continually takes me back to the garden. Growing up in North Dakota, I learned to cope during long, dark winters by finding solace in my work.

When I shift my mind to the task of gardening, I return to the part of my brain that cultivates focus. We shape our brain function based on how we use our minds. The act of pulling weeds brings me a similar kind of joy as simplifying a complicated sentence, spotting misspellings and fixing punctuation. It’s the same search-and-find adrenaline rush as described by players of Candy Crush. My addiction of choice is the dopamine-inducing Sudoku, which clears my mind, providing simple answers that can’t be questioned. There is only one possible way to solve this problem—and you just nailed it!

When I access this type of focus, work begins to feel like a game. And somehow this activity I happen to love is considered useful to the other humans in my community. There’s no greater fortune.

Green fingers

Every plant has its purpose on your small plot of land, and setting the tone of language based on audience is like determining which plants will thrive in your environment. Some attract bees, monarchs and helpful insects. Some require shade, sunlight, generous amounts of water – some pair well with others and some require space alone to grow. You plan the location of each plant, but also the timing of each bloom.

Tilling the soil is like clearing the mind. Laying down the compost is like enriching your thoughts with research. Then comes the actual work of planting, in various awkward positions, getting down on all fours or in the straight-legged, caboose-in-the-air pose. It’s a vulnerable position, writing from scratch, planting a line of seeds, but it’s the balance of focusing on the work – while letting go of control – that gets a garden growing. The vigilance comes later, in the weeding, in the tending, in the editing.

We can’t force results, but we have to attend to the work regularly. The trick is learning how to edit effectively while you write, while still getting the work on the page. We prune a plant to avoid sending energy out to the parts that will eventually fall away. We edit a piece of writing down to its essentials so the reader can know where to focus their eye. As I write this blog post, I know it’s a changing thing. I am planting as many ideas as I can and tending to the ones that flourish. Some will die away, but they will feed into the final result. The seeds that fail to sprout will give their energy to the soil, to be used by those that grow.

Ideas in bloom

A garden never comes from nothing. You can see the heritage in each plant’s appearance – how it has evolved over generations – and there’s always a line back in time. The same goes for our writing. Though we hope for original ideas, they tend to be rooted in the work of others. What we experience, what we see, what we read, all influence what we produce.

Here in the US, it’s less common for flowers and vegetables to grow next to each other. But the presence of certain flowers in a vegetable garden can actually help it thrive. The same could be said for learning to be an efficient and graceful writer for clients of The Frameworks. I should note that all vegetable plants produce flowers. That is, all vegetable plants have the potential to produce flowers if we allow them to. Just as writing for business can feel utilitarian, only serving a function, it’s made of the same stuff as poetry and always holds the potential for beauty.

The study and practice of elegant sentence structure and narrative arcs reflects the gradual accumulation of knowledge every time you return to the garden for a new set of lessons. You perform new experiments each year. Some provide insight – others only succeed in showing you what not to do next year. And there’s great value in the failure. A deeper knowledge comes from learning what to avoid the hard way.

As your understanding of what works on the page and in the garden deepens, you learn to contrast colours, heights and textures – sentence length, rhythm and sound. You learn how to place visual surprises that catch the viewer off guard, turns of logic that delight the reader. Your focus, your courage, your vulnerability and your willingness to fail eventually turn to expertise. And while you can sit back and admire the garden you have made, there’s no time to rest on your laurels – spring will soon return and it will be time to start creating again. In the soil. On the page.

Esther has left The Frameworks.

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