Planting creative seeds and letting them grow
“I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.”
A hard freeze down here in Texas means that the Kleon studios fill up with all of Meg’s plants. It’s like working in a garden center — absolutely delightful!
I love living with a gardener because not only do I get to enjoy the harvest without doing much (if any) of the work, I also get exposed to gardening tips which become metaphors for my own creative work. (The “gardening” tag on my blog is now dozens of posts deep and the last chapter of my book Keep Going is called “Plant Your Garden.”)
“When botanists go walking the forests and fields looking for plants, we say we are going on a foray,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass. “When writers do the same, we should call it a metaphoray.” (I prefer “metaphoraging” — searching for metaphors.)
I collect gardening metaphors because the lessons of gardening are basically the opposite of the messages we receive from our controlling, technocratic, perfectionist, algorithmic, optimizing status quo.
“The garden is an unhappy place for the perfectionist,” writes Michael Pollan. “Too much stands beyond our control here, and the only thing we can absolutely count on is eventual catastrophe.” (Sounds like, well, life in general.)
He explained his metaphor in detail when answering Grace Lin’s question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
I'm afraid you may not like the answer because ideas are not things you get. People tend to think that ideas are things like diamonds. And then you go out and you get them and you grab them and you bring them back. But that's not what ideas are. Ideas are things that grow.
And so the way to make a book or a story is to have the tiniest inkling of an idea and then to plant it and you plant it in a notebook and in that notebook you move it around and you see what it needs, what sort of nutrients will help it. And you draw and you draw it over time and slowly, some of those seeds will grow and die. And then some of those seeds will become invasive and they'll just sort of choke up your whole garden of ideas and that's not fun.
And then every now and then, one idea sort of grows up and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and starts to bear fruit and become a tree and get so big that you can cut it down and burn it for profit, which is called writing or making a book. So every day I am planting little seeds in my notebook.
Matter of fact, today I just finished a notebook filled with all kinds of little seeds and when I finish a notebook on the front page, I write all of the story ideas that are inside that notebook. And then I go back a month later or two months later or a year later and I see how they've grown.
Willems riffs on this notebook-as-garden metaphor over and over again in interviews and on his Instagram:
Inside these gardens are the seeds of ideas, their un-pruned wildness, the weeds, some fertilizer, and the first blooms of every book, opera, work of theater, or TV. Here’s a peek at a decade’s worth of seeds. Plant ‘em, tend them, they will bear fruit.
Note that Willems emphasizes that you can’t just toss seeds and see what comes up, you have to tend to your garden, return to it, over and over again:
At the end of every year, I’ll sit down and revisit the previous year’s gardens to see if there’s any idea or notion that deserves renewed attention.
For a look inside Willems’ sketchbook, check out Don’t Pigeonhole Me!, a collection of handmade zines that Willems made for clients and friends over the years out of stuff from his sketchbook.