Friday, 27 March 2015

Plant yourself some seedlings

I want you to plant seeds literally, as well as metaphorically. When I named The Writers' Greenhouse, I spent months hunting for a concept that would express exactly how I see helping writers. It's not about giving rigid rules, as anything around "school" suggests, and it's not about issuing formulae or dot-to-dot like a colour-by-numbers art kit. When I explain the principles of teaching creative writing, I usually reach to fine art for my metaphors. But when I explain my approach to writing, images of plants growing and of gardening start to sprout. A greenhouse isn't a hot house - it isn't an artificial environment to force fragranceless blooms - but it's a place to tend plants, and it's a safe place for seedlings to get a good start before they're planted out into the garden.

The plant metaphors are often most powerful when they're unspoken or when they run alongside actual, physical planting. That's why I want you to literally plant some seeds, actual literal seeds in actual literal soil. And here's how, alongside some of my thoughts of how this embodied metaphor can help how you approach your writing. If this seems very odd, think of it as that bit in the book where the sensei insists you scrub the floor with sand at dawn every day and that turns out to hold the secret at the heart of all martial arts!

You'll need a wodge of newspaper, a glass (ideally a tumbler), some soil, and a packet of seeds.

You don't need much to start. You can just start. Now, for instance.

Start with a flat piece of newspaper - tabloid sized.

Not all planting is putting seeds in soil and not all writing is putting words on paper.

Fold it in half.

On the closed end, fold a cuff of about 3 inches.

Get a tumbler and lie it on the cuff. (This tumbler has a thick glass base, so I leave that poking out. That also gives me a grip on the glass later.)

Roll the glass in the newspaper, with the cuff at the bottom. (Don't cover the thick glass bit at the base of the glass.)

Turn it upright, holding the loose bit closed

Start pushing the newspaper into the glass, starting with the loose end

Keep pushing gently and firmly - the newspaper will give, so don't push too hard and tear it. The easiest way is to keep pushing the central spike downwards, while your fingers press the sides more against the glass

The more pleasure you take in the process of what you're doing, the more patient you are and the more beautifully you do it.

And still gently pushing it in - as the newspaper gives, you can make the sides straighter and straighter

Push the inside down as flat as you can. The smoother the sides and base the better

Loosen the glass from the newspaper and pull it out.

Tada! One little plant pot, next to the proud glass.

Many little plant pots! The glass is very proud.

Take pleasure and pride in what you create.

A tribe! A tribe of plant pots! The glass is clearly outnumbered.

Don't just plant one seed and wait for it to grow. Plant LOTS. They have a high failure rate. That's okay. Not all seeds grow. Some of the others will.

Put them in a tray - one without holes, or put clingfilm inside one with holes.
You can write what they are on the newspaper, with a permanent marker (felt-tips will run when the pot gets watered)

Fill each pot with soil, to an inch below the edge.

Here are all the pots, with their soil

Sprinkle water over the soil (a waterbottle makes it easier to do this gently without sloshing water all over the little pots)

Soil is whatever you need to be creative. Don't be surprised if you need some quiet, peace, and space. Don't worry if you need support, warmth, and encouragement. Neither of these make you more or less a writer.

Here's the soil, dampened down.

Seeds at the centre of each pot, on top of the soil.

Eventually we want plants to survive outside, but don't put your seedlings out into the snow and declare that if they don't grow they were never any good anyway. Don't expose your seedlings to the snow. Some people are snow.

Fill the pots up with soil so the seeds are underground. (Your seed packet will tell you how deep the seeds like to be - some want an inch depth, some want to be just under the soil.)

Wet the soil again, nice and drenched (and this time you really do need to do it gently, or the soil will loosen too much and the seed float up.)


The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today. - Chinese proverb

And water.
And wait.

You can't make seeds sprout up overnight or guarantee they come up, but if you stop watering them, they'll definitely die.

And water.
And wait. 

All seedlings look the same, at the start - the same as everyone else's seedlings and the same as weeds. Don't judge them yet. Let them grow.

They stay inside being carefully looked after, for now, while it might still frost outside and the nights are chilly. But as it warms up and they strengthen, you can put them outside for a while, to hardy them. Let them get used to the cold rather than going from a sheltered windowsill to fullblown Weather all at once.

If you want to plant some writing seeds alongside your literal seeds, you can download a free writing game here to plant a bunch of seeds and start growing them.

Get occasional emails about interesting things

* indicates required

I won't share your email with anyone else. You'll get emails from me only, about upcoming courses, writing competitions, publishing opportunities, interesting articles about writing, new blog posts, and creative events in Oxford. All emails are sent via MailChimp and you can unsubscribe at any time. Add to your address book if you want to keep the emails from vanishing into spam.