At some point in my writing career, I was told to write what I know. In my recent tenth grade poetry unit, I advised my struggling beginner poets to write about things that they know. One submitted a parody of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” as “O Point Guard, My Point Guard”. Another wrote a lyric poem about writing instrumental music. A third wrote about life as a military kid. A fourth wrote three poems about her cat.
So it’s ironic to me that I write about gardening. I craft prose about grieving an old oak tree and mourning the loss of my magnolia blooms, when before this spring, I knew neither. I praise my past-blooming pink azaleas and purple irises, when I know not who planted them nor tended them before I rented this home last August. In fact, until a couple of months ago, I did not know that there were magnolias or azaleas or irises in my yard at all.
The hanging impatiens that I recently acquired are already failing. Have I watered them too much or not enough? They danced to the tune of my butterfly wind chimes only briefly. Each day I move them to a different part of the yard hoping to woo them back to vibrancy. The salvia thrives on one side of the porch and dies on the other. In fact, the wonders of nature that have prospered the most in my yard were absent my knowledge or attention until after they bore blossoms. I paid no mind to the grand old oak until its wood littered my back yard and scratched against my bedroom window. To write about nurturing a garden seems an odd choice even to me when I clearly know so little about it.
I wish I could bring Mary home with me from Home Depot to assess my little lot. For all my efforts ripping out weeds and vines, I fear the end of the summer will find all my flowers dead and evidence the inevitable conclusion that I simply lack a green thumb. Yet, far too determined to admit to failure at any new venture, I covet the opinion of an expert and continue to hope beyond hope that I’ll make something of this little garden yet.
One of my students chose to write a poem about a broken heart. While her lines lacked meter and her rhymes were predictable, her sentiment was sincere. It reminded me of my own sophomore year writing terrible poetry about my first real breakup when I sought out the guidance of Mrs. Shelton, the creative writing teacher. Under her watchful eye, I composed a dozen poems about my first heartache, each attempting to master a new tool. We focused on line breaks and repetition, cyclical writing and moving beyond rhyme. Mrs. Shelton’s endless red-inked suggestions for revision all linked to her central poetic truth: every poem is a MADAM: the Most Acceptable Draft At the Moment. “Never fall in love with a first draft, Laura Joy,” was her mantra.
Mrs. Shelton was my writing mentor. Under her tutelage, I felt safe navigating the unknown depths of my soul to put pen to paper, and, ten drafts later, uncover greatness within me. If only Mary could do the same for my front yard.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Shelton’s central truth might just bear fruit in my garden beds. Any progressive undertaking that requires time and dedication is a work in progress. My garden is simply the most acceptable garden at the moment. My first attempts at poetry weren’t masterpieces. Only after each poem had undergone a process of revision and intentional perfecting would Mrs. Shelton have awarded her earned approval. There were even times I discarded budding poems in favor of pursuing more promising ideas that emerged in the process. It is more than acceptable to try again. It’s expected. The epic failure would be to give up on my garden altogether.
As a young girl imagining my life in twenty years, I drafted a picture of myself married with children by age thirty. When I began these weekly writing nights eleven weeks ago, I faced the harsh reality that my life did not turn out the way that I’d planned. “Never fall in love with a first draft, Laura Joy,” Mrs. Shelton had preached. Yet, I had. And so in love with that childhood dream, I failed to see the multiple drafting that my own life had undergone through a progressive undertaking that required time and dedication.
Even my life is simply the most acceptable draft at the moment. This version of me has seen red-inked suggestions for change and made revisions. I wrote a book in my twenties that will never see publication because the girl who wrote that book no longer exists. She was so consumed with maintaining a persona of perfection that she couldn’t strip away the sugarcoating and find the freedom that I do now in knowing that I am far from perfect… and that no one expects me to be. The freedom to be honest. To be real. To be genuine. To be unperfect me.
That vision of my life to come was only a first draft. Three or so drafts later, I’m divorced and living in Virginia, I have Master’s in Instructional Technology, I enjoy my weekends at the beach and my weeknights writing, gardening, and rocking my nieces to sleep. I am a work in progress. My first attempts at love weren’t masterpieces, and I’ve opted to discard some romances in pursuit of the more promising idea of a quality man to share my life with who meets a set of standards I couldn’t have known I wanted at age twenty-five. It is more than acceptable to try again. It’s expected. The epic failure would be to give up on love altogether.
At some point in my writing career, I was told to write what I know. At age sixteen, that might mean military life, basketball, and cats for some. For me, it was love and loss. Ultimately, it’s still what I write about. I may use analogies of gardening, but the irony lies not in the vehicle for unearthing my discoveries but the fact that I never wrote what I knew. I write about what I’m learning, and so gardening analogies fit flawlessly!
I’m only a few drafts into my life story, and according to Mrs. Shelton, I still have about seven more to go. No longer in love with my first draft, the “harsh” reality I faced only months ago isn’t harsh at all. Subsequent drafts of my life will reflect discovery of the things I didn’t know I would value, more magnolia trees and azaleas. They will find some plants flourishing, some wilted or replaced, some watered less or given more sun. The growth of my garden isn’t solely determined by its success, but rather by lessons learned from toiling in the soil.
Mrs. Shelton’s central truth about MADAMs is something I pass on to my students each year in poetry units; perhaps one day they too will realize the freedom that comes in a life continually revised and edited. In the pursuit of perfection that may or may not be achieved in multiple drafting. In the genuine, honest ramblings of a work in progress.