The first day of spring, yay! According to my own logic, the first day of spring is that day when the first of the bulbs you planted in the autumn comes into flower. A daffodil opened in the window box on Thursday – see attached. (We do have other blooms in the garden, but they were narcissi we got from the pound shop to jump the gun for a bit of yellow.)
And Friday was very sunny, and I had finished other work, so I finally started my late winter/early spring pruning and mulching. Of course, because I tend to do things arse about tit, I set about mulching first, then pruning afterwards. But how could I resist slitting open those bags of rich, claybusting bracken and scattering scoops on our beds of claggy soil, dumping and raking and levelling and mounding? And first of all I had managed to repot some heathers, which I’d put on top of tulips in the autumn, not thinking that heathers like acid soil or knowing that tulips like alkaline, so now the heathers are doing their own thing in pots of their own, while tulips are topped with heucheras and hart’s tongue ferns and maidenhair ferns.
So this got me thinking about writing and processes in writing in terms of gardening analogies. I find that making changes in the garden comes much more easily than cutting and making changes in writing – to my own work, or someone else’s work I’m editing. Maybe it’s because I’m new to much about gardening, and freer about taking risks, even foolhardy. Maybe it’s simply that I am not overthinking it.
And I also found it so much easier to do the work that had to be done this year, now that I’m gardening more seriously and have a proper garden to play with (first things first: have something to work with). For example, I’ve always been cautious about pruning in the past in my half-hearted containers, just trimming the straggly bits while preserving old growth, but I’ve now looked up the requirements of different roses and clematises and perennials, and (though I am yet to see if this all goes to plan) I noted that some things need pruning hard, even right to the ground; the life is still there, in the roots, of course, and sometimes things need cutting back in order to flourish later on.
And what’s the worst that can happen?! I murdered several acers last year, so am restarting the survivors and new ones in pots that I can dot around in sun or shade to see whether I can avoid the leaves turning to a crisp this year. (It’s a mystery whether this was sunburn, over- or under watering. The ones I’d grown in pots in the past always flourished.)
For this writing experiment: Take any piece of writing you’ve already done (a story, a chapter, a poem, a whole novel), and imagine how you’d work on this if it were your garden at the start of spring. By this, I mean that we should really be thinking about the physical work we do as gardeners, and translating that into the things we do as writers (who too often get stuck in their own heads). Some things (e.g., cutting) will be obvious, while other things will not, but sometimes it’s the striving that really forces us to bring on the work in fresh ways.
Think and work symbolically. I’m not going to relate these examples to writing, because you can do that for yourself, but hold these ideas in your mind – and body – as you look over the writing.
Pruning: What can be cut? What might be diseased, damaged, or dead? Which crossing shoots are clashing or crowding each other, and need thinning out? What needs pruning as it’s heading in the wrong direction? What growth needs encouraging? When is a plant pretty much done in terms of size?
Potting and repotting: What needs to be moved? What is growing in an unsuitable container, and what might be more fitting for both container and contents? What suits any planting as a bedmate – compatible, pleasantly surprising company, a clash of personalities? Do different needs require their separation? Does it make more sense to experiment with growing some things in pots, before planting right into the ground? Pots can, of course, be moved around as needed. (Though I wasn’t going to butt in with writing parallels: might it be worth experimenting with short fiction rather than running the marathon of a novel?)
Mulching: What layers of mulch (compost? bark? manure? gravel? grit? leaf mould?) can be added to amend and enrich what you already have?
Landscaping and remodelling: Do the larger structure and design need greater thought? Another flower bed here, a raised bed? How can needs of light, shade, water, drainage be negotiated: is it really possible to create a garden full of sunlovers when you get so much shade in the summer? Are different plantings needed or desirable? And what shrubs or architectural plants can be used to created accents? Could boundaries and borders be made more debfined? Can more light be brought in by cutting down a tree, or even just an overhanging vine? And is it really worth all that time and money and space trying to grow vegetables when Waitrose is just a five-minute walk away?
Roots: What lies beneath, within in the roots? What has yet to show itself, but can be fed for fresh growth?
Variations: If you’re not a gardener, consider the work you do instinctively or nonverbally in other areas – cooking, or yoga, or mechanics, or football. How would you take stock of a project in that field with the aim of improvement? The point of this is to get beyond the usual words we use to think about writing and to work symbolically instead. Really feel – as a physical instinct – what the writing needs in terms of what you do as a gardener, cook, or football player. Try to get beyond thinking.
Method: Hack away at a printout of a manuscript of your writing. You probably need to do this in a physical reality, rather than on screen. I really do think writing is a somatic process, and we have to force ourselves out of our screens/headspace/neuroses at least every now and then. You can use a pencil or pen rather than secateurs. Or you could do a bit of planning: maybe write yourself some notes in the form of a memo answering some of the questions above, as well as questions of your own creation. One definite outcome: a fresh draft in a month’s time. Though allow yourself till summer if you really want things to bloom.
Btw, be sure to paginate your manuscript. This will be useful for yourself, and make life easy for any readers you try this out on. Just saying.
Further reading: If you want a serious guide for pruning and other tasks in the garden, to help you continue with these analogies and others, you can consult the Royal Horticultural Society’s many resources.