The Constant Gardener

Publish date:

Before I had a garden, I remember how desperately and urgently I craved success. I remember staying up all night, writing as fast as I could, or agonizing over the same few paragraphs. I would do anything to get published. And all of that was profoundly unhelpful. What I needed to do was leave the computer and try growing something other than ideas. When I finally did, this is what I learned:


Column by Helen Sedgwick, author of THE COMET SEEKERS
(Oct. 11, 2016, Harper). She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from
Glasgow University, she has won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers
Award, and her writing has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and widely
published in magazines and anthologies. Before writing her debut novel
she was a research physicist, with a PhD in Physics from Edinburgh
University. She lives in the Scottish highlands with her partner, photographer
Michael Gallagher. Follow her on Twitter

1) Have patience.

(Agents define their "ideal client" -- hear what they have to say.)

If you rush to submit a story too early, it won’t be satisfying for the reader. Trying to force writing to happen faster than it naturally does is as futile as trying to force a tomato to ripen by giving it a deadline. There is something beautiful about slowing down and taking the time. Gardening taught me that the right words come at their own pace.

2) Give it space.

Plants don’t like to be smothered, and neither does writing. Both require space around them. Plants need sunlight, and writing doesn’t work if it’s too cluttered; overwriting a story can destroy it. Learning to give my writing—and my mind—more space helped me write my novel. So step back from time to time, clear away the adjective weeds, and let the light in.

3) Move it if you need to.

Sometimes, a plant just doesn’t thrive. It doesn’t produce fruit, or it’s leaves look sickly, or it won’t grow. When that happens, you need to dig it up and move it somewhere new, where there will be a different character of light or soil. But sometimes more drastic action is required. When a plant fails, it is time to get rid of it and start over.

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4) Know when it’s ready.

Just as picking fruit too early is pointless, leaving it to over-ripen can be disastrous. I once harvested pak choi a fortnight late, and instead of tender crispy stalks I had tough, flavourless fibres. With writing, it’s important to know when to stop tinkering, when a story is finished. Everyone you speak to will have different opinions and suggestions for your work, but at some point you have to say: enough.

5) Don’t expect it to be sweet.

(How to be an agent's dream client.)

Then it happened, I got a book deal. It was what I’d been dreaming of for a decade. It was wonderful. But it was also nerve-wracking and exposing, and not at all what I thought it would be. I remember the first time I ate rhubarb as a child: it smelled so rich, and it looked luxurious—such vibrant reds swirling though golden custard. I expected sweetness, but I tasted the sharp tang of perfectly tart rhubarb. Because, with gardening and with writing, not everything is as sweet as you anticipate. Happiness can be found from writing though—and from the astounding variety of rhubarb-based desserts—so enjoy the unexpected flavours and experiences.


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