I’ll admit that spring has never been my favorite season. This transition from cold and snowy weather into the blazing heat of summer usually leaves me more sad than anticipatory. Packing up sweaters and coats and knitted scarves and leather boots is a ritual of mourning. Pulling out tank tops and shorts, with their washed-out or neon-bright colors, a disappointment.
I stubbornly refuse to swap my hot coffee for the iced version.
I prefer autumn. Give me bright leaves over delicate flowers, any day.
The past couple of years, though, I’ve learned to start appreciating this change in the seasons, because in the last couple of years I’ve had a vegetable garden. This is an exciting time of the year for people who plant things. Right now, peas and radishes are sprouting in my beds, sending up miniscule leaves and shoots, bits of green poking up out of dark earth. Tomatoes and broccoli plants grow under lights in my basement. Now is the time when all the plans I made in January and February become action.
I assemble my growing light in a basement closet, spoon dirt into black plastic capsules, tuck seeds underneath. I add dirt to my garden beds, I evaluate the activity of perennials poking up. Every weekend seed packets rustle and watering containers spill out their contents. I can almost hear roots wiggling their way through the earth.
This is also the time when I start running into snags, and little unforeseen problems crop up. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout. Sometimes a hard rain knocks seedlings to the ground. Weeds sprout. Toddlers pull up plants.
I do not deal so well when things go awry. I’m working on it, though.
I noticed this about myself shortly after graduating college. That was when I started to work on my novel. I had a beautiful vision in my mind of how it was going to go. I had epic scenes and complicated relationships all ready. My main character was awesome, and she was ready to conquer anything that stood in her way. The ending was hazy, but I figured that would work itself out when I got there. No problem.
Around the fourth chapter, things started getting messy.
Based off my conversations with people on airplanes, this seems to be where most novice writers run into trouble when they start working on a book. It’s always, “Oh, you’re a writer! I started a book once, and I just couldn’t get past that fourth chapter.” So I guess I’m not the only one.
When things got complicated and I felt myself getting stuck, I skipped ahead to a scene that seemed clear to me. And so I wrote my first novel, hopping around through the narrative, filling in the bits that were the most fun and about which I was the most certain. Then one day, I ran out of fun, easy scenes, and I found it was time to connect them all.
This was not a good time for me.
I used to think of spring as a time when rains fell, and all the dirt and muck of winter washed away. It was a time of brightness, of renewal, of new things.
But with new things, with all that vigorous growth, comes chaos. Vegetables and flowers aren’t the only things to spring up out of garden beds. Weeds are often the first characters on the scene, and they are remorseless. They spread before many plants have a chance to get started, covering the earth with their pernicious runners, spreading seeds into any spot that the gardener hasn’t had a chance to fill.
Renewal doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Sometimes the change of all that growth can be overwhelming. Sometimes what all that freshness and renewal does is show us just how much we still need to learn in order to deal with all that change.
I wrestled with that first draft for months. My book had to be perfect, had to combine literary technique that I’d worked so hard to learn with exciting plot. I forced the pieces together, made everything I had fit into place. I swelled with pride when, after all those months, it was done.
Then, a while later, I started to read. And what I read was not good. It turned out that by keeping every scene that I’d enjoyed writing and wedging them all together, what I had was a chaotic, meandering mess of a novel. Some parts were good, but they were being choked out by all the extraneous bits. I had a garden, but it was mostly weeds.
I couldn’t believe, after all that work, that I could end up with such a mess. Clearly, I was no writer. My masterpiece was, in fact, nothing more than a scribble made by a grade-schooler. I shoved the papers in a box, and swore I was done trying to be a writer.
A garden in spring is chaos. But it is also hope.
Weeds spring out of the ground as soon as the snow melts, threatening to claim all the territory as their own. Some perennials from years before never grow at all. Sometimes a late snow threatens the kill back any new growth. A snowstorm can wipe out trees. A cat might decide that the patch where carrots are growing will make a phenomenal litterbox.
Yet a skilled gardener can pull out the weeds, carefully prying out roots so they don’t grow back. The wanted plants can be separated from those that are unnecessary. Soil can be enriched with compost. Sun-loving plants and shade-loving plants can be moved to their proper places, where they will thrive and become abundant.
I had to learn how to be a novelist. This, it turns out, is a distinct skill from being a good writer. I had long practiced crafting beautiful sentences, spinning exciting scenes, and so I thought I already had all I needed. But in a novel, the story as a whole must work. A writer can create the most beautiful scenes in the world, but if they don’t work well in the story she is trying to tell, then the book will fail.
After some time away from my novel, I returned, ashamed at my vow never to write again. I picked up a red pen, and I learned new skills. I researched how to edit. I cut the scenes that didn’t work without mercy. I found the thread of the story, the thing that would hold the characters and the narrative together, and I shaped new scenes that made that narrative cohesive. I created a plot where once there had been chaotic meanderings and happenings.
Most of all, I learned how to stick with the task in front of me, even when the job seemed overwhelming. I learned how to sit at my notebook and work on scenes that weren’t my favorite thing to write, but were necessary to the story.
Chaos can be tamed, but it takes time, skill, and patience. It takes the wisdom to sort what is necessary from what isn’t. Like a gardener, a writer must learn to tell weeds from productive plants. Which is especially tricky, because what might be a weed in one garden could be desireable in another.
Spring is not so bad, although I’m not buying that it’s a time of blank pages and renewal. This season is a beginning, but like most beginnings, it is chaotic, full of all the trouble and challenges of new things. Beautiful things come forth, but not all of them are worth keeping.
As I write a new novel, as I plant my garden, I keep in mind all the work ahead. It doesn’t overwhelm me, anymore, because I have learned how to meet these challenges after years of wandering in a confusing, chaotic wilderness. This ability to keep the final vision in mind, and work towards it, is a skill that I have earned over years of work, and it is a skill that I constantly refine.
Sometimes, I would give a lot to have a time machine, to go back and tell myself that the mess of a novel that I hold in my hands will be better if I’m willing to let go of the parts that don’t work. That the skills I need to tame the weeds are not inborn, and that I can learn them, with time. That I will learn them. And that the time I have spent crafting this first draft, though it is clunky and cumbersome and full of unnecessary bits, has been well-spent.
Of course, I can’t go back. But I can go forward, and I can enjoy the chaos of this season.