Digging Holes

The cool spring weather of last week had me busy planting roses, pulling weeds, chopping down overgrown shrubs, doing battle with a briar overtaking my backyard flowerbed, and shifting daylilies and iris to new locations. I haven’t dug any holes in a year. It was last Memorial Day weekend when I injured my back and was ordered to move as little as possible for most of Summer 2013.

Yet finally, improved health and this lovely spring weather (so rare here on the prairie) have combined to rekindle my love of gardening.

While I was cautiously digging holes–tentatively at first, then with increased confidence–something wonderful happened. Hot and snagged by established, overgrown roses, I dug to the correct depth and width for nursery-potted rosebushes. I was slow and out of practice. Strapped in a back-brace, I was afraid I would undo months of slow-mending, yet everything held together. And during this slow, steady physical labor, I reconnected with the special mind-zone that’s generated by doing mundane chores.

Why are simple, repetitive tasks so conducive to creativity? Why does digging a hole or raking leaves or sweeping floors unchain our imaginations?

No doubt the psychologists have fancy terms for this effect. All I know is that it works.

When I was in high school–dreaming every day of becoming a published novelist–I would be roused early by my father and sent outdoors to exercise my horse. An empty lot adjacent to our house provided me with space enough to ride in a large circle–roughly the size of a small horse-show arena. Because I competed with my horse–strictly in a small, local show circuit–it was necessary to put him through his gaits and keep him in training. And while I loved to ride, it was boring going around and around that circle.

Yet my mind was free to roam as far as my imagination would take me. I plotted many stories during those morning rides. I plotted more stories while I folded laundry or scrubbed out the bathtub or groomed my horse or mucked out his stall.

There’s a famous quote from Agatha Christie about how the best time to plot stories is while doing the dishes. I’ve done that, too, in the days when my house lacked a dishwasher.

In our busy modern lives, however, we lack enough boredom–the kind that supports plotting and designing characters. There’s so much to do now. Such a barrage of multi-tasking, decisions, social media, and work responsibilities … so many types of entertainment–often inside our phones for the easiest, most convenient availability.

Tell me, when you’re sitting at your mechanic’s, waiting for an oil change, can you leave your phone in your pocket? My car dealership is so fancy that it features several huge televisions, a café, and a gift shop to keep customers happy while waiting. But if I watch Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, when can I think about my book?

As writers, we need to guard against watching TV on our phones or surfing through hundreds of channels on cable when we have nothing else to do. I’m not opposed to either of those forms of entertainment. I’m just saying that as writers, we need to be bored … and often.

Otherwise, when are we going to devise that next plot twist or mull over a scene we just finished typing? When do we have those windows of time where nothing is really happening?

We need that space, those spans of nothing going on, so that our characters can speak and dance and argue, sending us running to our keyboards to write.

I’m no dazzling housekeeper, and while I love to plant flowers I loathe weeding. I hire a man to mow my grass these days, and I dream often of hiring a cleaning service.

Yet, if I acquire such luxuries, or even if I rely on a Roomba to whisper along my floors, when will I plot?

At the keyboard, you may suggest.

No! Not then. The keyboard represents writing time, precious time that should be spent writing what’s already been planned out mentally.

And if I have to buy eleven new rose bushes just to dig enough holes to work out my new plotline, then it’s money well spent.


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2 responses to “Digging Holes

  1. Lee

    Very true! I’ve found moments of inspiration at the oddest times, usually when performing a monotonous task.

    I know you teach fiction writing at Gaylord College. Is there any textbooks you would suggest for an aspiring fiction writer? I have a tendency to make a grammatical error or two, on occasion.

    • Hi,
      I’d recommend ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White for the grammatical stuff. Also SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham, any texts by James Scott Bell, and TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain.

      Best of luck,

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