In this week’s Inkpot post alum Donna Jones Koppelman talks about how gardening and writing have a lot more in common than one might think.

One beautiful spring day last week, I got impatient about planting my garden. Impatience turned to impulse, as if often does, and I bought a rototiller!  I love it.  It’s petite as a hummingbird but does the job like a bulldog. I love to plan my garden, plant my garden, tend my garden, and harvest my garden, but many of those aspects of gardening are vulnerable to conditions I can’t control—like weather. Tilling up the soil is something I can control, and with my own rototiller, I am unstoppable.

Gardening is a perfect metaphor for writing. I reflect on the parallels as I wait for the seed of an idea to germinate, as I edit out the weeds that impede the growth of my prize plant, and as I pray the hailstorm of my insecurities don’t ruin that last chapter. So what is the rototiller in this metaphor?

A rototiller prepares the soil for a luscious garden. It stirs up all that’s hidden, so I can spot weeds, roots, and shells I couldn’t see before. It makes my garden inviting. It beckons me to come and plant, and I like to think well-tilled soil is a glorious, comfortable place for tiny growing seeds.

In writing, my rototiller is my routine. My daily routine makes my work space a fertile place for ideas to grow and blossom. I have a friend who says she cannot write until her whole house is clean. That is not true for me (or I wouldn’t have written a word in twenty years). I just need a clean surface on my desk. I need white paper and a really good pen. I need brushes and paints or drawing pencils close at hand. I need my favorite craft book, THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield, from which I read a chapter every day. I need a poetry book, from which I read a poem every day, and lastly, I need a scented candle.

Whew. Sounds really neurotic, right? But the process of gathering all these things and placing them just so gives my brain the time it needs to shift from who is driving sports carpool to what story I will tell today. Clearing my desk clears my mind. Setting up brushes and drawing pencils signals my brain that it’s time to get creative. It’s time for fun. Mr. Pressfield reminds me it’s time to WORK, and poetry shows me that work should be lovely. Lastly, I choose a scented candle with a smell that fits my work for the day. Smells are powerful stimulants for my memory and thought process. I like to think E.B. White chose a cotton candy scented candle to write those marvelous scenes at the fair. Or maybe it was a pig scent? Or perhaps he had a completely different routine.

In graduate school, I studied routine in schoolchildren, particularly homework routines. Students who followed the same routine at homework time every day had significantly higher grades than students without routines. They finished their homework much more quickly than students without routines, so I know routines are effective.

What is your routine? Be intentional as you till up the garden of your mind. Get the pesky weeds out of the way, so you can nurture those good ideas. Harvest day will come. 

Donna Jones Koppelman graduated from Hamlin’s Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2015. She is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media, and she adores her new rototiller.