When I started writing, I lived on an Iowa farm, in a county known nationwide as the “black dirt capital of the world.” Record crops were grown there, in the most nutrient-dense soil in the country.
Then I moved to Texas twelve years ago. I tried for years to grow something–anything–in my front yard. I watered faithfully, but after a few weeks, the bushes curled up and died, the flowers shriveled, and the firm succulents went squishy.
What passes for “dirt” here is a bit of leached-out clay embedded with rocks and gravel. There is almost no top soil at all, and certainly none of it is black. Not even brown. Just sort of dingy gray. One weekend, I asked the advice of the older man across the street, a retired wheat farmer from Nebraska whose vegetable gardens were green and lush.
“Compost your yard,” he said. “Pile up all kinds of vegetable peelings and leaves and grass clippings, let it get warm and decompose, then use the rich formula to give your plants something to grow on.”
Something to Grow On
When he said that, I realized he was talking about more than my dried-up yard, although he didn’t know it… I was twenty-seven years old when I took a writing course for children. At that time, I’d stored up twenty-seven years of experiences, plus twenty-seven years’ worth of books read and absorbed. I also had three small children, so ideas were unfolding before my very eyes on a daily basis. I had more ideas than I had time to write down, much less develop.
Fast forward thirty-three years to arid Texas. I’ve had nearly 50 books published, plus scores of articles and some short stories. Even so, sometimes my inner reservoir of ideas feels a lot like my gray hard rocky soil out front. Some days I feel like I’m about as successful growing stories as I am at growing flowers.
We all get there, if we write long enough. For me, it means that my writing life needs composting.
One of the things Julia Cameron advises in The Artist’s Way is to take a weekly “artist date.” It’s for feeding your mind with images and experiences you need as a writer. Weekly nurturing experiences restock the pond that perhaps you’ve fished from for years. An over-fished pond leaves us with diminished resources. Our work dries up. The pond needs to be restocked. You do that with artist dates.
“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”
You go alone–no spouses, friends, children, or grandchildren.
Cameron suggests things like a visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. A long walk, sitting to watching a sunrise or sunset, going bowling, a free concert in the park: all such experiences qualify.
Are you expecting a bumper crop of writing to come from soil that was depleted some time ago? Is the fruit of your writing labor smaller than it used to be? It could be that it’s time to do some composting.
What are some of your favorite ways to feed and nurture your creative side? What do you do to fit creative composting into your writing life?