In March, I started my tomato seeds in black plastic trays in our farm’s greenhouse. To overcompensate for the old seed I was using, I put two seeds in each tiny cell of soil. When both of them grew, the little square was crowded; I had to pull and discard one of the seedlings to make room for the stronger of the pair. As I was culling those seedlings, removing the extra tomato plant and tossing it outside on the ground, it reminded me that the lesson of culling is hard to learn, especially the first time.
While others might call my kind of gardening haphazard or messy—I plant a row here, a row there, some of them listing off to one side—I like to think of it as artistic gardening instead of untidy. The year of my first large garden, I had enthusiastically planted my sunflower seeds quite close together and as they grew, my more experienced husband could tell they were crowding each other. Seemingly willy-nilly, he began to pull out some of the plants that I had spent a considerable amount of time planting and caring for.
“No,” I tried to stop him, “What are you doing?”
He kept pulling them. Ruthlessly: “They’ll be more productive if you give them more space.”
It only took me a few weeks to learn that he was right. My giant sunflowers took up not only their own row but the entire section of the garden, shadowing their neighboring green beans and tomatoes in an effort to lean toward the sun.
Just like the weeds and plants, my words when I’m writing can get overcrowded, ideas littered like weeds that got out of control because I didn’t take the time—early on when they were small—to cull them.
As writers, we know it’s hard to let go of these words. Because finding a metaphor or just the right word requires digging deeply. I can sense it sometimes as I try to submerge into that place where words and images live, the level place just above presence, prayer, and silence, where the grasses become single blades, where I become a birdwatcher, where a sinkful of dishes is poetry.
Even as I sift through my son’s box of impossibly small Legos, helping him find the perfect piece for the instructions to a red motorcycle, the search for something small, the focus on finding the red piece amidst a sea of colorful hard-edged plastic bits, is much like searching for the right word to describe the way a cottonwood seed feels as it floats from the heavens to rest on my palm.
When you have taken the time to go that deeply—often setting aside other important things in your life in order to have the time and space for that kind of effort—it’s difficult to realize that some of the words and ideas you have toiled for have to be removed or repaired.
A writing professor from the early 20th century named Arthur Quiller-Couch spoke in a lecture: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
Yes, sometimes we must erase the words we have fought so hard to find. The phrase “murder your darlings” or “kill your darlings” has been miss-attributed to more famous writers ever since. I guess some people “steal” their darlings rather than “kill” them.
When I must murder my darling words or my precious sunflower plants, I have to remember what I am preparing for. Creativity, like a garden, requires the deep digging at the beginning and the painful editing in the middle. But how do our gardens, books, essays, and poems respond after all that work? If things go well, they bear fruit.
Except when they don’t. Sometimes my garden, after all the digging and productive killing, still gets knocked over by one hour-long hailstorm. No matter how much I work, hornworms appear on my tomato plants, Japanese beetles wreak havoc on my flowers, and deer feast on my green bean blossoms, killing them before they’ve even begun.
As with growing food, the toil and labor of art doesn’t guarantee a final product of perfection. Sometimes our work is just not there yet. But the experience is rewarding in itself. Just as I become a better and more knowledgeable gardener every year, each piece of writing I struggle through teaches me what to work for and what to plow under.
But it is not only the writing that grows with all of this struggle. The gift of creativity is that I also learn about the deepest parts of myself, others, creation, and God. This process of creating is often like a spiritual practice, an active, patient, and liturgical return to the very depths of life, sifting with dirty nails to make enough room so the seed can be planted in a place where it will be broken open and expanded to make room for new life.