Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

Seed Season

September 24, 2012

Seeds are usually associated with spring, and fall with fruit. But autumn is seed season, too.

Yesterday I snipped the spent flowers from the tithonia, aka Mexican Sunflower, the brilliant orange annual we grow beside the garage. It grows to nearly six feet, and is apparently indestructible. Last year, when Hurricane Irene snapped its stems almost in two, our tithonia kept on stubbornly producing its fiery flower heads. We’ve been starting it from plants we buy at our local land trust’s yearly plant sale. But my mother-in-law wants to try it at her home in Colorado, and asked for some seeds.

Maybe I’ll keep some more myself and try it from scratch next year. We’ll see. The point is, I’m thinking about seeds.

Take my new novel, for example. The seed of the idea is still compelling, but the story refuses to grow. I have been vacillating between two desires: to submerge myself in a whole, long book, and to write a series of connected short stories, which would be easier to commit to than another big book.

When I admitted to my agent the other day that the big book wasn’t going, she gently suggested I might want try the short stories, instead. So yesterday, after collecting those tithonia flower heads, I started writing a new short story, taking the seed of my novel idea and trying it out in compressed form. We’ll see.

And then there’s that old picture book idea of mine. The one I’d set aside years ago, and recently retrieved and revised. My agent is now sending it out. And although it hasn’t found a home yet, one of the editors who read it liked my writing enough to invite me to try my hand at a picture book idea she has had in mind for a while.

I started working on it last week, and completed what I would call a serviceable first draft. I went to bed last night thinking I needed a stronger “hook,” an approach to the idea that would be fresh and compelling, something that would deepen the story, make it be about more than just itself. This morning I woke up with four ideas of how to do that. I’m hopeful and excited. But we’ll have to see how it goes.

You never know what’s going to work. At least, I don’t. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor I started with, some seeds never germinate, either because they land in the wrong soil, or they don’t get enough water, or they weren’t any good in the first place. And even when they do grow, you don’t know how they’ll end up. Some flowers are cut at their prime and brought inside to be admired, and some get left to mature and create the seeds of next year’s plants.

While I was outside collecting those tithonia seeds, I spent a while with our tomato plants. I harvested ripe fruit, removed withered leaves, propped up sagging stems, and took stock of what was left of the season. Dozens of tomatoes were still green or just beginning to redden, and a few cherry tomato branches had new flowers.

And then I noticed a fruit I had forgotten all about. It was one of our first black krims. I had waited too long to harvest it, and it had split and rotted on the vine. I had considered removing it, but it was too slimy to touch. So I left it where it was, and before long the growing vines and leaves and other tomatoes had obscured it. But now that the plant had died back, it revealed itself once again.

It was paper white, pleated and creased like crinoline, as wrinkled and puckered as a scrotum. Beautiful in a way I had never imagined a tomato could be.

Here’s to autumn, the season of new beginnings.

Radishes and Revisions

May 9, 2012

Next time I plant radishes, I’ll sow the seeds more thinly. But I’m new at growing vegetables. So I just sort of dumped them. Ten rainy days later, they had become a gorgeous green mass, as luxuriant as ground cover. Unfortunately, they need room to grow as big as, well, radishes. The seed packet says to thin them to two inches apart. So today I went out in the rain and did just that, getting muddy and feeling like a bad-ass. I had to take out more than I could leave, but the sprouts I aborted will add a spicy bite to tonight’s salad.

What does any of this have to do with revisions? Not much, except that thinning my radishes was my reward for sending my latest set of revisions back to my agent. Also, after I’d finished tackling some biggish issues in the story (Where is the ghost now? Who’s talking? Is that sex consensual, or rape?), I went through the text at a micro level and tightened a lot of the language. That is, I thinned out a bunch of verbiage that was clogging up the story.

Here, for you list fans, are 5 (five!) types of excess verbiage I eliminated. The sentences are from my book, but if you’re a writer, you could probably find similar examples in your own work.


I am not a member of the We Hate Adverbs Club. I kinda like them, in fact. Parts of my book are lavishly embellished with them. But those parts are written in a voice that is deliberately baroque. In the parts of the book where the writing is more simple, adverbs can just clog up the works. So, for example,

 “Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on conversationally.

should probably become

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on.

2.Dialog tags

“What’s a dialogue tag?” you ask.

“It’s the little bit of verbiage that’s attached to a line of dialogue and tells you who’s speaking,” I say.

“And you want to eliminate them?” you ask.

“Not all of them. Just the unnecessary ones,” I say.

“But aren’t they always necessary?” you ask. “If you don’t have them, won’t you get confused about who’s speaking?”


Come to think of it, in my first example, there are only two people in the conversation, and it’s obvious from context who would say what. The sentence above should probably read,

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted. ”

3.Telling and showing

You know the line, right? “Show, don’t tell.” It means that it’s better to demonstrate a character’s motives or feelings or whatever through dialogue or action than by explaining. I get that, and I’m pretty good at showing. I also have a tendency to tell as well as show. (My husband will confirm that I don’t just do this in my writing. I’ll say, “Monday is Memorial Day.” And then I’ll add, “So we shouldn’t put out the recycling Sunday night.” And then I’ll feel compelled to explain, “Because the town doesn’t pick up recycling on national holidays. And Memorial Day is a national holiday. So we should wait and put it out on Monday night.” It’s a wonder we’re still married.)

Here’s how it works in my writing:

Laurel hesitates, letting the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

Well, sure she hesitates. You can see that in what she does while she hesitates. That sentence might be stronger this way:

Laurel lets the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

4.Too many sub-actions

This is sort of like #3. It seems I’m not content to get the character out of the car. I have to document each step in the procedure – grabbing the door handle, pulling it forward, pushing the door out, putting one leg on the ground, etc. Okay. I’m exaggerating. But how about this?

 Neil steps forward with a grateful smile, his hand raised like a kid asking to be called on in class.

Unless the individual steps show something important (fingers fumbling, a fist swinging harder than intended, something spilling), why not just say what happens?

Neil raises his hand like a kid asking to be called on in class.

5.Too many examples

I managed to keep this list to just five items, but my natural tendency is to include every last thing that comes to mind. The house in my book is based on the house where I grew up. After my mother died in 1999, the house was sold. Setting my book there let me spend more time in a place I loved and missed. As I looked around the rooms in my mind, remembering more and more details, I had trouble not writing down every last paperclip and dust bunny. When I was revising, I spent a lot of time pondering sentences like this one:

Fringed cowboy vests and crushed plastic firefighter helmets and slippery skeleton suits spill from the costume box.

Could I have lost one of those details? Maybe. In this case, I kept them all.

How was it that after going over this book a billion times, I still found things to fix? Maybe it’s the advantage of having more distance. Maybe I’ve become a better writer. Or maybe the passages I fixed were newer material, which hadn’t gone through as many rewrites as the rest. In lots of cases, I was taking out things I’d put in as I figured out what was happening. Maybe those excess words are the extra seeds you sow, because until they sprout, you don’t know which ones you’ll keep, and which you’ll end up thinning out.

Michele Bachmann: Jack-o-lantern

January 4, 2012

When she announced that she’s suspending her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination today, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann said that she “looks forward to the next chapter in God’s plan.” Since late October, we have been watching God’s plan for her unfold here at home, in the form of a jack-o-lantern. Here it is, in pictures, from  our daughter Sophie’s elegant Halloween carving through decay and collapse on our backyard tomato bed.

Taking down the tomatoes

October 25, 2011


Today I took down the tomatoes. That is to say, I diligently undid all the things I so diligently did last Spring. I untwisted the twist ties, unsnapped the cage cross-bars, pulled up the stakes. I unearthed the plants and clipped them into manageable lengths, and dropped them into the compost bin, where the compost in which the tomatoes thrived so happily all season was produced. The bed is clear now except for the parsley at one end and at the other, the stripped Brandywine plant I left standing like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. After Halloween, we’ll retire our Jack-o-lanterns to the tomato bed, where we can watch them fold in on themselves and decay.

Dirt to dirt. It was just after noon, but the angle of the sun was low. The air was warm, but the breeze was chilly. This was a spectacular year for tomatoes. We ate them in salads, on bagels, in eggs, as part of sauces and straight from the bowl, as snacks. The vines I was uprooting were covered with flowers and fruit small as grapes and hard as rocks. With two weeks of warm sunshine, they would ripen. But they don’t have two weeks. I usually take pleasure in working outdoors and in following the progress of the seasons. But today’s chore left me sad.


I have been thinking about time lately. Or, more specifically, deadlines. Today’s to-do list was driven by deadlines: finish mowing the lawn; clean up the tomatoes; pull down the storm windows. Tomorrow I’ll buy the Halloween candy and the pumpkins. On Friday I’ll pay this week’s bills. By the end of the week I need to get to work on my November column. By five-thirty I need to start making dinner.


And floating through and beyond all these deadline-driven tasks is what I consider my “real” work, which is writing my next book. On the one hand, I have all the time in the world to do it. If I wanted to, I could devote eight, ten hours to it five days a week. And on the other hand, no one is expecting it or telling me to do it or waiting for excerpts. All my adult life, I have dreamed of having this kind of freedom. But the blessing of unlimited time can also be a curse. Back when my writing time was precious – when I had to squeeze it in while the kids were napping, or before they came home from school, between freelance assignments or on days off from my day job — I was a lot more productive.

How do you keep working when all your motivation is internal? I have tried various tricks over the years – scheduling writing times; giving myself deadlines or word quotas; exchanging chapters with a critique partner. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Yesterday I sat at the computer all morning, doing everything but writing, and despairing of ever producing another word. Then I went outside and did some yard work, and when I returned to the desk, the words just flowed. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe taking down the tomatoes made me sad because it reminded me that my sense of unlimited time is an illusion. Maybe it reinforced my wish that my writing had a deadline. That someone was expecting it, that someone other than me was counting me to be as diligent about my paragraphs as I have been about those plants. That I felt as proud about my prose as I have been feeling about my produce. Or maybe my low feeling was just a temporary chemical ebb. Or else I was just really sorry to see the last of those delicious tomatoes.




Tomato Atonement

October 2, 2011

What does Yom Kippur have to do with growing your own? I suggested an answer in a sermon I gave at my synagogue yesterday. Extra thanks to Rabbi Joel Seltzer for his very helpful editorial suggestions.

Shabbat shalom and l’shana tova. When I was in my first year of college, I spent Yom Kippur as the guest of a professor. More than 30 years later, that day is still vivid in my mind. I remember the guy who organized the excursion. He was an older student named Aaron Lansky, who went on to found the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I remember how novel it felt to fast until after sunset. When I was growing up, my family never returned to shul for Neilah. Hearing that final teki’ah gedolah was a revelation. But what I remember most about Yom Kippur 5737 is broccoli. (more…)

While the World Wasn’t Ending

May 21, 2011

While the world wasn’t ending today, I took my camera for a walk around the garden. Walking with a camera in my hands makes me slow down and pay attention.

Here in Rhode Island, it’s rained almost every day since the beginning of May. While I’ve been staying dry inside, my garden has been growing more and more lush.

The maple tree has produced more helicopter seeds than I can ever remember. They’re everywhere. On the grass, in the garden, and on coral bell and hosta leaves.

Nothing is more satisfying than planting and caring for a perennial and seeing your efforts pay off the next year. We put in an old fashioned bleeding heart last year, and this year it came back bigger and stronger and dripping with flowers.

Our old neighbor was a master gardener. When she moved away and our new neighbors rebuilt their porch, we were the lucky recipients of a mature rhododendron growing where the new steps would go. The builder dug up the bush, wrapped its root ball in burlap, and brought it over to our house. We planted it without really remembering what sort of flowers it had. Turns out they’re pink with pretty black spots, like the sort of thing you might have seen on a hat at the royal wedding.

You can’t really appreciate an iris until you see it up close. So close it no longer looks like a flower. How can pollinators resist?

Every year I think about how much I hate the spirea beside the front steps. It’s messy and sprawling, and it’s taking up prime real estate — the sunny spot by the front door, the first plant visitors see when they come to our house. And then mid-May comes around, delicate white flowers cover the spirea, and I forget all my florocidal intentions.

The ferns are another problem. There are just so many of them. When they die off in the fall, they’re messy and ugly. And yet, how can I resist their primeval luxuriance?

I’m glad the rain finally ended. And I’m very glad the world didn’t.

My Other Garden

May 28, 2010

I spent the morning of my birthday completely away from my writing, tending to my other garden: the one I’m cultivating in my yard.

First I tweaked and polished projects I already had well underway. I cleared out the yellow daffodil leaves, pulled some weeds, uprooted grass that had confused the flower bed for the lawn, and tucked two basil plants (one Genovese, one Thai) and one hot pepper (Thai) in among the flowers in the front bed.

Then I turned to my main work in progress: the veggie patch near the garage. I had my first veggie garden last year, using compost I purchased. Because I wanted the garden to look good with the curving line of the flower bed behind it, I made it circular. Because it was my first attempt at growing vegetables, I kept it to a modest 3 feet in diameter. And, also because it was my first attempt at growing vegetables, I crowded in a little of everything: lettuce, parsley, basil, peppers, several varieties of tomato, and some flowers to make it pretty. It worked out okay, but like a short story with a novel’s worth of characters and subplots, it really had too much going on for such a small space.

This year, I decided to focus, with just four tomato plants. I stopped by a plant sale and bought one “Sun Gold” (which I adored eating off the vine at my beloved Intervale Community Farm in Burlington), one “Super Sweet 100” (because my mother-in-law swears by them), one “Yellow Brandywine” (because they’re heirloom and, well, yellow) and one “Paul Robeson” (just because).

Before I put them in the ground, I opened the drawer at the base on my Soil Saver compost bin, and shoveled out five or six heaping helpings. This was the most miraculous part of the whole process. For the last year, I had been filling that bin with things I would have otherwise discarded: garden clippings, fall leaves and kitchen scraps. With time and turning, those leftovers had magically morphed into soil: sweet, black, nutrient-rich and deliciously soft. I mixed the compost with last year’s soil and smoothed the surface with the back of a square metal rake. I scooped out four little pockets, and nestled my tomato plants in place.

I haven’t always had gardens. Before I got interested in plants, I raised two children. But I have been making stuff up forever. They’re miracles, too: bits and scraps of experience, hearsay and fact that have turned through time until they magically morph into stories.