Monday, June 24, 2013

Tiny Shells, Each With a Wilderness Inside

I’m trying to reclaim my yard and garden this summer, which is hot and unending work, but for some reason this year I’m in that mood. Maybe because of that, I’ve been thinking an extra lot about a metaphor that I find enormously useful when I’m writing: the idea of the seed.

Happy-looking seedlings.
I borrowed this image from two writers whose work I greatly admire: the playwright Kirk Lynn and the Newbery-award-winning novelist Rebecca Stead.

As one of the co-artistic directors of the nationally-known theater group the Rude Mechs, Kirk often works collaboratively. His terrific, widely-reblogged piece about collaboration was revelatory for me even as as a solitary writer (“Never take your own side in an argument” is surprisingly good advice when you’re alone).

But the most useful bit of all for me is Kirk’s #8:
"Seeds are small things. Learn to recognize them. Learn to plant them in your rehearsals. Big ideas have nowhere to go. They leave no room for the rest of us."
I have terrible habit of coming into a new project, sometimes even a new chapter, armed with a Big Idea. Sometimes I think of it as not so much a big idea as a really cool idea—a cool idea for a theme, or a Larger Motif, or an abstract idea about character or story.

Big, cool ideas mesmerize me, for some reason, but they don’t get my writing anywhere but stuck. Starting a writing project with a big idea is like trying to start a garden by transplanting a fully-grown oak. It’s never going to work: even if you manage to wedge the oak in, it will just wilt and die. Then your garden is crammed with dead tree, with no room, as Kirk says, for anything else.

I don’t know why I can’t learn not to start that way; I don’t know why I can’t remember that it doesn’t work. Every time, I have to circle back and start my writing-garden with little bedding plants, at best—but better yet, with seeds.

A seed in writing is the smallest thing — a little knot of pain, or a fragment of beauty, an image or memory-flash you keep coming back to for no good reason at all that you can see. In fact, that’s how you’ll know it’s a seed: because you can’t see inside it. All you know is that something is in there, and if you plant it in your writing, something magical, something you cannot now imagine, might grow.

Unlike that fully-grown oak, a seed will unfold delicately, shape itself against what’s around it, become an essential element of a closely-woven and lovely thing. Seeds will grow and grow, tangling with threads from all the other seeds. Behind a few dark, inscrutable shells are vast gardens and acres of gorgeous wilderness.

On the other hand—there is always another, useful hand—what I borrowed from Stead is the reminder that seeds don’t always grow. On a panel at the Texas Book Festival last fall, she said that part of her revision process is to go back through all the seeds she planted in the first draft, to see which ones seem especially healthy and cultivatable, and which just need to be pulled.

It’s true: some writing-seeds, once planted, pop open and spread their arms out to the sun like they thought you’d never ask. But others put up a pale, weak tendril and not much more. Some even stay stubbornly curled behind their dark little shells.

That’s okay. It just means this is not their right ground, or not their right season.

But you know what’s a great thing about seeds—the gardening kind, and the writing kind? There are a zillion of them out there. Every day, the world spills them out for you (and for writing-seeds, that means both your inner and outer worlds). Every day, something bites you, or haunts you, or strikes you, or somehow otherwise troubles the stream of your life. Those are seeds.

And here’s what I think I know. Whatever will be living and wild in your book is contained inside those tiny seeds. Whatever will weave together as if it could have been made no other way: that will come from those seeds. It will not come from your prefab, fully grown, extremely dead cool ideas.

Or anyway, it won’t come from mine.

I have another writing metaphor having to do with hedges—and if things carry on as they are now in my garden, I will soon have some about the heartbreak of tomato blossom drop—but I’ll save those for another time.

But if you have any yourself—any gardening metaphors, any thoughts about writing-seeds—I’d actually love to hear them.


  1. This really resonated with me. Often when I start a section, I have only the tiniest of seeds and that is it. Watching it blooms is lovely.

    And when it doesn't...pluck it out!



  2. This is a cool approach to thinking about drafts. I tend to focus on making my first draft too much like a final draft. Sometimes those seedlings need to be cultivated over several revisions. I think NaNoWriMo is good for that; to keep up wordcount you can't obsessess over stuff too much or you get very far behind. Great thoughts.

  3. This is absolutely true. I can easily get blinded by an idea, to the point where I don't remember that an idea is not a plot, or a concept, or a story. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Can't wait to share it with my writing group and get their thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  5. The other thing about the big idea (that dies) is the feeling of being totally overwhelmed and daunted by it. How many times have I looked at my writing and thought, "I'll never be able to do this -- it's too big. Too much. Where do I start?" Remembering to deal with it in small bits is a big help.
    Besides, no one can write in whole chapters or entire acts at a time, you gotta go word by word (letter by letter!), right?
    This is a great post, Kathy. As usual I come to your writing late! But it's always worth it!

  6. well I've come to this reply even later. And yeah, that thing of "you can't write the whole chapter, only the next word" is something I always forget. In fact I think the main thing I forget is that actually sitting down and actually writing is the only thing about writing that makes me feel calm and right. Everything else around it is so FRAUGHT, and conspires to keep me away from the writing.

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