The Writing Process

Learning by Doing

I’m currently going through a dippy-hippie, getting-back-to-Nature phase. I do, occasionally. It’s never more than a passing interlude – trying to attune oneself to Mother Nature is trickier than you might think, and I don’t have either the patience or the money to shop around for ecologically-friendly washing-powder or hemp soap – but it nevertheless always has a noticeable effect. So far, I’ve eschewed frozen ready meals in favour of home-cooked couscous and chickpea stew. My hair hasn’t seen a pair of scissors or straightening-irons for months. I’ve bought a load of summer clothes from a fair trade shop. As a consequence, and much to the hilarity of the locals, I currently look like a reject from 60s band The Mamas and The Papas.

Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons.
Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons.

Another consequence of my current hippie-ish phase is that I’ve started work on a vegetable garden. I always meant to do this before, but never got around to it. However, finally the idea of days spent trying to coax vegetables from the soil proved irresistible, and so I set to work – on a July day with the sun beating down, in temperatures of about 35°. After five minutes I was dripping with sweat and the idea of spending the afternoon locked in my air-conditioned writing space had never seemed so tempting. (A link with writing, however tenuous, is coming, I assure you. Hang on in there…) Nevertheless, by the end of the day I had a well-dug, well-fertilised piece of land ready for sowing.

It’s at this point that I feel I should make a sheepish confession: I don’t actually know what I’m doing. I haven’t grown anything more challenging than daffodils before, and though I’ve leafed through a couple of how-to books I can’t honestly say that I feel particularly confident. It’s entirely possible that my veg garden, instead of producing the planned radicchio and leeks and carrots, will remain a patch of bare earth, or become overgrown with weeds. I’ve prepared myself for failure. If I get a single cabbage in time for Christmas, I’ll count this as a minor triumph.

With this dismal prospect firmly in view, I telephoned a friend in Britain for advice. This friend is able to make things grow in the most unpromising of conditions: give her a tiny patch of stony, scrubby ground, and she’ll soon turn it into a market garden of astounding productivity. Plant life seems to respond favourably to her presence. If the condition known as “the green thumb” actually exists, she has it in spades.

Image credit: Olga Vasilkova | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Olga Vasilkova | Dreamstime Stock Photos


My friend listened patiently while I plagued her with idiotic questions, and then advised me, very calmly, not to worry so much. “Gardening is like driving a car,” she said. “In essence, it’s a practical activity. You learn it by doing it.” Guidance, whether garnered from books or people, serves as a good starting-point, but it’s no substitute for actually getting out there and getting your hands dirty. Advice is, apart from anything, general; and when you actually start doing whatever it is you want to do, you begin to work on the specific. Soil and climatic conditions vary, sometimes markedly, from place to place, even on a local scale. This is important: what flourishes in your neighbour’s garden may never even get to germination stage in yours, and vice-versa. You can learn far more in five minutes spent gardening than you can from a whole year of studying gardening books.

A lightbulb went on when she said this, and suddenly it all slotted into place. “Ah,” I said. “It’s a bit like writing, then.”

And yes, I really think it is. Writing can be viewed through the prism of literary theory, but when you’re actually trying to do it, it is – in my experience, at least – basically a hands-on pursuit. How do you know whether that character or plot point will work? You don’t, unless you try it and find out. Careful planning has its place, of course, as does guidance and instruction – it would be arrogant to deny as much – but the best way to learn it is by doing it. You have to be prepared for the possibility of failure, of course. Not everything works, and sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, your work just will not come to fruition. But failure is enlightening, too. Getting it wrong is a good way to go about getting it right.

Will my veg garden be fertile enough to keep me in fresh produce all year round, or will I be lucky to get a single droopy carrot? I don’t know.

Will my WIP turn out to be an impressive piece of writing, or a waste of the paper it’s not written on? I don’t know.

I’m going to try my hardest, though. And whether I succeed or fail, I’m pretty sure that the experience will at least be instructive.

Do you see writing as an essentially practical business? Do you favour careful planning or just getting on with it? Do you have any horticultural tips for a clueless novice? Leave a comment.

5 thoughts on “Learning by Doing

  1. I agree with your friend that the real learning is in the act of doing. Yes, there might be a droopy carrot, or entire rows of lettuce that are ready for the salad bowl at the same time – possibly when you’re headed out of town for a long weekend. There will also be plenty of beautiful surprises: the first pepper, the sudden understanding that if you swap the location of two things, both will do better next season. When I look at it that way, I agree with you that gardening is like writing – minus a lot of the sweating and most of the dirt (a little smut is okay!). The garden will reveal itself just as a story does. You will edit, rearrange, remove entire portions that didn’t go as expected. You will have the unexpected richness and sense of accomplishment from having tried and succeeded. And, yes, I think you will have success, both in the garden and with your WIP.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Aniko. I was heartened this morning when I noticed that the first green shoots are beginning to peep out of the ground already. Now all I have to do is keep them alive… 🙂

      I’m certainly hoping for success, but I think that failure can be an important experience too. Like many things that aren’t pleasant in and of themselves, they can nevertheless be formative and enlightening – or so my inner eternal optimist likes to insist.

      I hope your WIP’s going well!

      1. Failure is essential. You probably will make missteps in the garden or need to delete entire chapters in the WIP, but I believe that with honest effort and clarity of purpose, you will ultimately succeed. I don’t think that’s true of everyone in all undertakings, and I admit I could be wrong about your garden, but I believe in the quality and power of your writing without any reservation.

        My WIP is slooowly coming along, mostly because I have discovered gaping holes I needed to fill with new chapters, characters, and plot.

        Enjoy the garden!! And the writing!


  2. As always when I read about writers working intuitively, I feel envious. I have never mastered the art of writing in this seemingly more natural way. Your gardening metaphor is a good one. I’m one of those writers who plan everything. I start with an idea, work up a lot of notes, develop an outline, live with it until I can see how to tie all the story elements together more thoroughly, revise the outline – and then start writing. The process has more to do with construction than gardening! Great post, Mari.

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