In spite of having to do the backstroke to get through the rain-saturated streets of our neighbourhood and, in spite of the sponge of clay that is our back garden, the season is fast approaching when I’ll be thinking seed trays and compost and getting my hands dirty. I might have mentioned once or twice that I’m an avid veg gardener. I might have even mentioned the sexy stories I’ve written which take place in veg gardens. The truth is that gardening is one of the topics I’m almost as enthusiastic about as I am writing. That’s not terribly surprising since the two are so philosophically compatible.
My husband and I inherited our first composter from the people who owned our house before us. We were suspicious of it at first and more than a little intimidated by it, and with good reason. It looked like a Rubbermaid Dalek casting a long menacing shadow across our back lawn. (Germinate! Germinate!) We’d heard that if we put egg shells and fruit and veg peels, cardboard and tea and coffee grounds in the top that in a few months, we could open the little door at the bottom and the myriad resident worms and micro beasts would have magically transformed all that garbage into rich luscious soil. Then all we’d have to do was shovel that organic loveliness out into our garden.
At first we had our doubts. Then one day we took the plunge, slid open the door and there it was, all dark and rich and soft and warm, and smelling vaguely of citrus. We filled a couple of planters. We were planning to put in geraniums, but never got around to it. Several weeks later I noticed there were tomato plants coming up in the compost we had excavated. My mother used to call plants that came up where they weren’t planted volunteer and, sure enough, we had eight volunteer tomato plants, the result of seed not broken down in our strange compost-making dalek.
Forgetting all about the planned geraniums, we nurtured our eight seedlings along and, at the end of the summer, they yielded up their yummy fruit. The next year we actually dug a bed and planted corn and beans and squash. After that there was no looking back. Our one lone composter has long since been joined by two others, and twice a year we open the doors at the bottom and marvel at what an army of invertebrates can make from our kitchen waste.
Each time we shovel bucket after bucketful of rich, loamy soil from our composters and spread it in anticipation of the veg we’ll be planting in May, I think about how much writing is like composting. There are times when my efforts truly seem inspired. Those are the fabulously heady times all writers live for and hope for; when every word shines the moment we write it down.
I would love it if everything I wrote would come forth fully formed and beautiful like Venus on the Half Shell, but more often than not my words are more like used teabags on an egg shell. More often than not, what I write is kitchen rubbish, the remnants of experiences already spent, the detritus of half-formed ideas and fantasies that aren’t quite what I planned when they appeared so perfectly shaped in my imagination. Somehow they’ve turned to apple cores and coffee grounds by the time I manage to get them into words.
My husband takes his lunch to the office, and he brings home his fruit peels and apple cores because he knows what they’ll become. He even convinced the lady who works at the office canteen to save the coffee grounds for him because he knows what the worms will magic them into in a few months’ time. It’s true, what we dig out of our composters is just soil. Oh, but it’s so rich, so fertile, so completely loaded with potential. We can almost taste the wonderfully succulent corn and tomatoes and runner beans we’ll grow in that rich compost in a few months’ time
Writing is no different. On the written page, the coffee grounds and apple cores of my everyday existence, the remnants of half formed thoughts, the grandiose ideas that didn’t quite have the magic on paper that they did in my minds’ eye will become compost, no matter how much they may seem like rubbish. I know nothing can happen until I write those words down, no fermentation, no agitation, no digestion, no chemistry.
But once the ideas are words on the written page, the real process begins. I turn them and twist them and break them down and reform them until they become the rich luscious medium of story, until they are just the right consistency to grow organically what my imagination couldn’t quite birth into the world in one shining Eureka moment. It takes longer than Venus on the Half Shell, and it involves some hard work and some getting my hands dirty, and a whole lot of patience. But the end result is succulent and full bodied, organic and living. And my fingerprints, my dirty mucky fingerprints are all over it. It’s intimately and deeply my own, seeded in the compost of what I put down in a hurry, raised up in the richness of what I then cultivate with sustained, deliberate, sometimes desperate, effort and a little inspiration. The result is achingly slow magic that lives and breathes in ways I could have never conceived in a less messy, less composty sort of way.