By Elizabeth Statmore
Writers are gardeners. We sow seeds and cultivate worlds. Every writing practice I do is a seed I hope will germinate, but I have to approach it with no expectations. Seeds, like words, are happily indifferent to my intentions. They force me to learn over and over how to follow their process without hope or expectations.
I keep a seed-starting station on the bookcase in my bay window sill. I face it while I do writing practice on the couch. It has fifteen deep cells, each planted with a different hope for my garden. Actually I sow in multiples. Right now I have two each of flat-leaf parsley, winterbor kale, lacinato or dinosaur kale, speckled trout lettuce, and Merveille des Quatre Saisons lettuce, among others. I have three cells of an heirloom ruffled pansy I am nuts about — chalon suprème purple picotée. The flowers are ruffled confections of deep plum and violet and mauve and golden yellow and white. They’re not easy to find. I have to order the seeds online from a web store in England.
As with writing practice, there are no guarantees. You make positive effort, but you can’t know in advance what will root and take off and what will refuse to cooperate in your plans.
My parsley cells have gone crazy. Same for the two types of kale. This year the pansies have agreed to participate. Some years they just refuse to release their secrets.
One of the White Boston Lettuce cells has sprung magically to life while the other has stayed mum. The seeds just refuse to get started. They sit there beneath the surface of their sterilized germinating mix, lips pressed stubbornly shut. They squint up at me when I inspect them. They dare me to plant over them.
The seed-starting system is a miniature greenhouse, with an opaque bottom tray and a clear plastic domed top. The top has two green louvered vents that can be opened once the first seed leaves poke their noses up out of the ground.
I placed the tray on a large baking sheet to catch any drips that overflow out of the sides. Germination is a moist and messy business. I have already had to refinish the top of the wooden bookcase once.
Below the baking sheet is an electric warming mat. It’s like a special heating pad for sprouting seeds. They respond to the warming temperature of the soil they are planted in, like words in a writing practice. They only start their work once I’ve warmed things up.
The other key to the seed-starting station is an old little desk lamp I’ve outfitted with a fifteen-watt greenhouse bulb. It’s a compact fluorescent that emphasizes the blue rays of the light spectrum, the ones that seedlings respond to.
I’ve learned all this from library books. I was not raised as a farm kid or even a gardener’s kid.
I am struck by the familiar combination of artifice and natural conditions I have to create to get things started. Some of my non-writing-practice writer friends feel this way about my reliance on writing practice. They ask how I can ever get projects done when I give over so much of my writing energy and time to wandering aimlessly across the pages of my Spiderman notebooks.
I’ve tried to explain it to them, but it’s like starting a garden from seeds. If you don’t do it this way yourself, it’s tough to wrap your mind around. How can a bunch of specks in a paper envelope turn into fragrant pasta sauces or salads? One person’s mystery looks like another person’s madness.
Elizabeth Statmore is a San Francisco-based writer and gardener. She is a long-time practitioner of Writing Practice, which she learned from Natalie Goldberg, and she recently finished her first novel by using Writing Practice as her foundation.
A frequent contributor to KQED-FM, Elizabeth’s last piece for red Ravine—Writing The “Remembering Grace Paley” Piece—was a step-by-step tutorial on how she turned a raw piece of writing into a finished radio commentary. Elizabeth was also one of our first guest writers, contributing the post Abandoned Is…. All doodles © 2009 by ybonesy.