A Patch of Dirt, A Blank Page

Recently, I was digging in the containers of my outdoor potted plants, and I discovered the ornamental sweet potato vine I had planted last season had made tubers, and once I found them, I ditched my spade and worked with my fingers, nudging the roots from the dirt.

I wasn’t sure what to do with the fingerlings of last year, so I separated the decayed bits from those that looked healthy.

Ideally, I should have dug them in fall, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try and propagate them now. My usual way of sprouting any kind of potato is accidental: buying it at a store and then forgetting about it for a few months, there behind the cornstarch and an expired can of pinto beans, so I put the orange-ish lumps in a ventilated container, stowed it under the sink (a cool, damp, dark place), and now I am waiting for the eyes to bud. If it works, by mid-summer, I’ll have starts for an abundance of violent green vine, and if it doesn’t, I’ll have a jar of rot.

Writing is like this, the way we leave something alone in hopes it just needs time to incubate, the way we try to coax it to grow, the way we don’t know what will happen or what it will become until it actually does wilt or bloom.

What I love about gardening is the same thing I love about writing: the act of creating something where there was nothing, whether that is a patch of dirt or a blank page. What I accept about writing, just like in gardening, is that not every seed that is sown will flower.

As writers, many of us are struggling through the chaos of our everyday lives. We are making our way through the realities of wage-work and housekeeping and childrearing and perhaps still trying to maintain some kind of social calendar—we are doing what everyone is doing, but we are also adding our artistic practice to the pile of things we give time to. Then there are health problems or aging parents. Or car trouble. Or dirty laundry. A friend who needs our support. We have everything from the profound to the mundane that can keep us randomized and distracted. It’s not always easy. Most of the time, it’s not easy at all.

My third book comes out next year, and increasingly, the most reliable form of inspiration is the joy of the ordinary. A leaf pops up from root stock that refused to die or a seedling tomato springs from the compost, all while the ants milk the aphids and the lady beetles keep the insect dairy under control—a whole ecosystem on the underside of volunteer foliage.

It’s the magic of minutia and the often unexpected beauty of it that helps cut through the noise of life, and helps nurture a dashed off sentence so it can begin to germinate into a paragraph, into a page, into a story, and with some luck and the right conditions, messy worked pinned mostly on faith can become the tidy square of a novel.

My sweet potatoes have been only a week under the sink, so I don’t know yet if they will live or die. Whatever happens, it’s a potential line in a potential writing project, because either way, it will be a surprise.

Instructor Wendy J. Fox will be teaching two classes at this year's Lit Fest: Fuel Your Writing Practice and Magic in Minutiae. She is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories and a novel, The Pull of It.