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You Say Tomato, I Say Writing

August 5th, 2009 9 comments

I suppose this column is about plot, although I’m not going to use E.M. Forster’s definition (“The king died and then the queen died,” is a story; “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” is a plot).

Nope, this is a different kind of plot, because right now I am seeing red (which is a good thing). At the risk of sounding like Chauncey Gardiner (the main character in Jerzy Kosinski’s book – and the Peter Seller’s character in the movie BEING THERE), I thought I would talk about a few essentials in gardening as well as writing. BTW, if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I recommend both, which is a rare double recommendation.

Anyway, this column is inspired by the abundance of homegrown tomatoes currently coming out of the Russell garden (last Saturday my 10-year-old daughter sold 24 bags, with four tomatoes in every bag). More than the quantity, though, is the quality. I love homegrown tomatoes. And when the tomatoes are running, I am busy making salsa and bruschetta and tomato sauce with flavor that trumpets it’s the ambrosia of the gods.

Two years ago my tomatoes earned a second place finish in a Taste of San Diego contest (where I won a $500 gift certificate to Ralph’s Supermarket). Because of my success with tomatoes, people are always asking me, “What’s your secret?” It’s the same question I get when people ask me about writing.

Don’t we wish there was a secret? No one is born with a green thumb. By trial and error you learn what works. It’s the same thing with writing.

A plot starts with a seed of an idea; same with a garden. But unless you have one of Jack’s beanstalk seeds, don’t expect that you can toss said seed into a pile of dirt and shortly thereafter start ascending your stairway to heaven.

Before that seed gets planted in the ground, the garden has to be prepared months earlier. In San Diego I usually grow tomatoes until Thanksgiving. In December I pull out the plants, and sow rye grass. It’s a perfect cover crop, and it fixes nitrogen in the soil. In March I usually spade the soil over, and in April I sow the seeds for the year’s crop.

When tackling a plot, the pre-writing is important for me. I have the seed, but I need to prepare the garden in my mind. I mull over what’s going to happen; I think about characters; I get excited about possibilities; I nurture the book in my mind. I plan what will grow and where. I think about the best way of working my plot. In a garden some plants work well with one another. The garden is enhanced by the scents and the symbiotic relationships going on. In a book you have to find that balance. Tomatoes work well with basil; what’s going to work for your book?

There are always obstacles in the garden; a book is a series of interruptions, false starts, and wrong turns. In both enterprises you have to give blood, sweat, and tears.

In the one endeavor you contend with blight, weather that doesn’t cooperate, weeds, and vermin. A garden has its problems as well (drum rim shot, please).

Your plant/book usually doesn’t grow as you had planned. It wants to spread out in too many directions. There has to be some wild growth in your plot, but it can’t run amok.

The early results in both enterprises are often disappointing. Every tomato gardener faces blossom rot. You second guess yourself on the amount of gypsum and calcium you put in the soil. As a writer you have to tinker with what goes in the early product so that the end product comes out better. Are you cutting roots, or weeds? With tomatoes you worry about water: too much is as bad as too little. I have the same worries about my words. It’s a balancing act. With my plants I stick my finger an inch down into the soil, testing for the wetness. I use a different divining rod for my words, but stories are just as delicate a crop.

You do your best – you hope – for a good ending. You work to make it happen. Sometimes you feel like Job, with everything conspiring against your work and your life. You fight pestilence and personal disasters; every year you think getting a crop was never so hard.

Bullshit is not good in a garden. It’s a fertilizer that burns. Bullshit is not good in a book. It’s a fertilizer good readers recognize.

I talk to my words. I talk a bit in the garden as well. I praise the beauty of certain tomatoes. I caress a full tomato, if not exactly in a Tom Jones kind of way, then still mindful of its pendulous, feminine beauty. It’s not only a male thing. Yesterday my daughter picked a tomato and exclaimed, “What a supermodel!” Usually I curse more at the computer screen than I do in the garden. Literary weeds are more pernicious. But perhaps I am reflecting with rose (tomato?) colored glasses. Early in the season a gopher took three of my seedlings, an action that prompted something other than measured equanimity.

If you work your garden every day, you will get a crop. Perhaps it won’t be the crop you wanted, and the result won’t be what you hoped, but the secret is to just keep trying. This year I had a bounty of tomatoes; the word harvest was not as fruitful. I am considering that I need to rethink my literary garden, and work it in a different way. It might be time for crop rotation, or taking on the challenge of new plantings.

I’ll think on that now, as I chew on a tomato. Hope springs eternal when you eat a homegrown tomato.

Pax,

Alan Russell

August 5, 2009

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