Life in progress


Bamboo Patience

I’ve just read a fascinating article (which is always dangerous) and I went and generalized it (which is always entirely justifiable… maybe not) and made it about me (which… come on, I’m a blogger, what do you expect).

An article about bamboo.

I’m not a gardener. In fact, if the word “gardener” has a polar opposite, then I’m that. (Blighter? Destroyer of things green? Seriously, you should see my front yard. By which I mean, my front collection of weeds.) But through the whimsy of the internet, I found myself reading this article about bamboo farmers and success. It’s worth five minutes of your time, but here’s the quickly-generalized, me-centric summation of the article.

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet. It grows so quickly and so prolifically, and is so incredibly strong (it has a tensile strength close to that of steel) that it seems miraculous. Some species can grow as much as three feet in 24 hours. (I picture the analogue of my son sprouting up to my height overnight and it gives me the shivering willies.) Yet many people who try to grow bamboo get frustrated and give up and never see it achieve that growth, because the first five years of the seeds’ growth is entirely underground.

Imagine it.

  • Day one, plant a seed.
  • Day two, water, check for growth, nothing.
  • Day three, water, check for growth, nothing.
  • Day four, water, check for growth, nothing.
  • Day five, water, check for growth, nothing.

Wash, rinse, repeat, until …

  • Day 1828, water, check for growth, nothing.
  • Day 1829, water, check for growth, nothing.

That’s a heck of a lot of days, a heck of a lot of faith, and an ungodly amount of patience and tenacity: an untold amount of time spent doing a simple but time-consuming thing (watering the plant every day) with not an ounce of feedback that the thing you’re doing is useful, worthwhile, or even productive in any way. For all you know, on day seven the seeds died and turned to dust in the ground, and you might very well be wasting your time. But if you don’t keep working, the seeds will definitely wither and crumble.

And this is a little like writing, innit? Or maybe a lot like writing. Actually, make it a metaphor for whatever you like, but I think it’s particularly fitted for writing. Because we writers do our work underground. We have the inspiration to write and plant that seed deep in the loamy earth of our minds. We enclose ourselves in our batcaves, our secret chambers, our dark enclosures isolated from all human contact, and the words spill out of us like so much irrigation on the soil of our precious ideas. For days, weeks, months we toil in quiet and fear and clandestine hope that our pet projects, our favorite characters, our brilliant plot lines, will take root and spring forth, filling the world with color and the sweet scent of our inspiration … but we have no idea if it’s going to happen. Whether that field of bamboo represents simply getting published, or penning a bestseller, or even just finishing a draft, the finish line can feel so far away it might as well not even exist.

We see the bamboo fields that have sprung up in other authors’ backyards, and that gives us hope–I could have that, too!–but it simultaneously fills us with doubt–will it happen for me? And we don’t have a master gardener standing over our shoulder, telling us to keep our heads down, keep watering the seeds, keep fertilizing the soil, and all will be well. We don’t even have that five-year guarantee that bamboo has. For some, it may happen faster: they’ll have a backyard full of bamboo in the space of a year or two. For others, it may take longer: their garden may take a decade or more to sprout. For still others it may never happen.

But regardless of the speed at which the garden grows, I think any gardener will tell you that it’s not all about the end result. Sure, the rows of tomatoes and the baskets full of roses are the ideal, but even without them, the work is not a total loss. Because the work is therapeutic. Kneeling in the soil, breathing the unprocessed air of the outdoors, feeling the sun on your back, working your fingers in the dirt, plucking the weeds… the work means something in its own right. Likewise, forcing the words onto the page, exploring the characters, designing new plot lines… it means something. Yes, it’s about making the seeds grow, but throughout the process, you learn, you grow. And then, on day 1831, whether your bamboo has pierced through the ground striving for the sky or not, you come back ready to water it again. And again. And again.

Trust in the knowledge that the work matters, whether the bamboo grows or not. You have to be your own feedback. You have to fling your vision forward into the future and visualize those steely shoots springing out of the ground now, starting today, and let that vision sustain you, because the fruits of your labor are just going to be invisible until they happen.

Trust in the bamboo. Keep watering.

Thanks to Linda for allowing me to guest post while she’s out. For more drivel like this, check out my homepage over at Pavorisms.