At this time of year, there’s always a bit of garden dirt underneath my nails (and likely in my hair, on my jeans, maybe even on my face). That’s usually because I’m spending a lot of time doing this:
But you know me, this message isn’t really about gardening. It’s about writing. Or, more specifically, about revising. About digging in and getting your hands dirty in your creative life the same way you might in the summer garden.
Almost every writer I’ve ever met can write a beautiful sentence. They can create a metaphor (like getting your hands dirty), craft an image of a radiant sunset behind majestic cedars or the smell of fresh-turned earth on a warm spring day. A smaller number of those writers can not only write a whole manuscript, but revise it to make it something that works not just at the sentence level, but as a whole.
To do that, you’ve go to revise. Shannon Hale describes her writing process this way, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” The building of the castles? That happens in revision.
I don’t want to mix too many of these metaphors, so I’ll adapt Shannon’s idea to the garden. Writing may be putting the shovel, and even the seeds, into the soil, but the watering, fertilizing, weeding, and pruning are all a part of revision.
I spent all of 2022 and a good chunk of 2023 trying to craft some fairly intricate flower beds and the Siren song of a new story idea called to me each time I lost focus. Because when the flower bed contains more weeds than flowers, it feels a whole lot easier to work somewhere else in the yard than it does to go through the pain and boredom of pulling out those weeds.
But weed you must. And prune. And fertilize. And drag the hose. Because that is what it takes to make a beautiful garden as surely as it takes revision to make a beautiful book.
So instead of starting a new story, I sat back down at my desk, opened my story, and worked through the revision until it was something I was truly proud of, until every entry on the knock list had been completed. Even though the sun was shining and there was a flower bed out there just begging for me to come out to play.
The results were hard-won, but oh so worth it.
PS - An early draft of this essay first appeared in No Blank Pages in 2019.