At the start of the summer, the 4 year old and I planted a whole row of sunflower seeds. We tended them with love and the plants were a couple of inches tall … when the guys that do our lawn decided to bathe the entire row in weed killer. (They are very nice people, the lawn guys, but they are not really great at weed vs flower identification. There have been many casualties this summer, despite my best efforts at flower protection.) It was a dark day and I’m still really super bitter about it.
BUT, there was one sunflower that was a little bit to the side of the rest of them that they missed with the weed killer and it was still alive! Hurrah! I put up a big sign next to it (“I am a flower! Please do not kill me! :-(“) and spent a lot of time fretting about this, our last flower child. Despite ignoring other such signs, the lawn guys let this flower live (which may have only been because they forgot to weed a couple of weeks in a row but let’s pretend something more noble) and it grew very tall. A bud appeared and we got really excited to finally see a flower!
And then, I came out one morning to find the entire long stalk on the ground, severed at the bottom. Was it an overzealous lawn guy with a string cutter? Maybe. But we also have a bunny that lives in our yard so it’s just as likely to have been Hop-a-tude (which is, of course, the bunny’s name as per my 4 year old).
But regardless who committed the flower-cide, the result was the same. Game over. No more sunflowers.
Or was it? Because I decided to plant the remaining part of the stalk back in the ground just for the heck of it and, after a period where it looked mostly dead, it started to come back to life! New leaves grew and I started to harbor a little hope we might actually get a flower after all.
I transplanted it to a pot on the deck to keep it safe from both lawn guys and Hop-a-tude. I tended it carefully and there was steady improvement… until I came out one day and something had eaten off half the leaves. I moved it… but the thing found it again and soon all that was left was a single half a leaf.
My poor little zombie plant looked like it was done for but… no! Whatever was eating it left it alone for a few days and it stayed alive, the little leaf that could keeping the rest of the sad little stalk going against all odds. Teeny tiny new growth started where old leaves had been chewed off. By all accounts, this thing should have been deader than dead but, no, somehow, it was still going and that was thrilling. Go, little undead sunflower, go!
At this point, I started to think about how this plant was a lot like my writing habit. Not that long ago I had this lush row of advantages lined up and then, one by one, they were eaten away by life. And yet, my forward progress should have died in its tracks a dozen times already but, somehow, despite all the handicaps piled on to give me even less of everything I need to write, here I am, still writing, still going strong and getting things done with what little I have when it should be impossible. And maybe it wasn’t pretty but the dream was still alive and wasn’t it a good reminder that a hearty enough writing habit can take a whole lot of abuse before it’s–
Well, crud. I came outside the next day and the last leaf was gone and then the thing really and truly did die and I was like, “You can’t die, dang it! I was using you as a metaphor!”
So I made my peace with the fact that there would be no sunflowers this year despite all our efforts and ups and downs. I tossed the dead stalk and planted the bottom of a head of lettuce that had started sprouting roots in there instead as an experiment. Now I tend the lettuce butt every day just to see what it’s going to do.
Which made me realize I had the metaphor all wrong. My writing life isn’t the plant. It’s the act of gardening itself. It’s the coming back every day to care for a thing that sure doesn’t look like much, watering that ugly little half-dead plant in the hopes that there’s still a flower in there, the complete and total stubbornness of still trying long after any normal person would have given up. It’s getting down on hands and knees and getting dirty every day even though you know not every seed you plant will turn into something and that sometimes outside factors will kill a project no matter how hard you try. And, sometimes, it’s knowing when it’s time to stop beating a dead stalk and start with something new.
So that our poor little sunflowers have not died in vain, my hope is that you take something away from this pathetic little story. Namely, that the writing life can, at times, feel futile and full of setbacks and disappointments and big fat NOs. But you, as a writer, are more than that one rejected project, no matter how dear it was to you. You’re a whole garden of works and stories, some of them surprisingly resilient, but keeping them all growing involves showing up every day to tend to them even when they don’t look like much so that they can bloom into something wonderful.