There are Woodchucks in my writing.
The phrase popped into my head in January, far from the days of warm dirt between my fingers. There are Woodchucks in my writing.
I had become discouraged by a work-in-progress, unhealthily attached to its “success,” and had returned to that old refrain–I’ll never have a piece that is good enough. Undermined by my own thoughts, tempted to give up, give in, to forces that seemed greater than myself–What the heck, my essays will never amount to much, so it would be best to give up now.
I began to see how Woodchucks appear in many forms, and got excited about creating a guide–yes! a field guide! isn’t that clever?–Identification and Management of Woodchucks in the Writing.
And then one of those damnable Woodchucks swaggered up and bit me in the butt, before I even got to the garden gate. So let’s begin with that one.
I scribbled down stories almost as soon as my oldest sister taught me to read, when I was four. She also wrote, lush adventure stories and even whole novels. I studied her fiction—the form, the characters, the movement of the action. In my admiration, I believed I could never be as accomplished. As I aged, prolific and polished and Pulitzer-prize winning authors entered my consciousness, and my Inner Critic, a nasty Woodchuck, emerged–
–to the point where I believed that somebody else could probably pen this essay better, draw out the metaphor with more sophistication and grace; so at first the vision of this non-existent essay stopped me like the sight of my chomped down, messy garden in the midst of everyone else’s blossoms.
But I committed to the task, anyway. (Even though the moment I publish, I will have changes I want to make.)
Yes, we learn from studying how other authors work, but we also just have to write. Yes, we can analyze when other gardeners plant, how they organize their pieces of ground, but our plot is our plot, for us to grow our choices of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Flourish or fail—but not to compare to others’.
The big ol’ Papa-Bear of a Woodchuck, previously identified as A+ Student Syndrome, shows up regularly. The creatures will come, and they will eat part of the garden. Like the nasty self-deprecating voices in our heads, they can be addressed. If you let Woodchucks keep you from planting or weeding, you will never get to where you want to be. Or you will have to adjust your expectations. The garden can never be perfect, and in fact is kind of attractive in its messiness, like being a human is imperfect, and a little messy.
During the summer, I called myself the worst garden coordinator, thinking I had to be the best. Why couldn’t I be just-ok, sometimes great, sometimes not?
It happened so fast!
The first time the cauliflowers were damaged I had tried to wish away the Woodchucks, but that’s like anticipating the sun to not rise tomorrow: Highly Unlikely. Instead, look at the evidence of sneaky invaders and name them: Yup, those little critters look like groundhogs to me!
What a difference a fence makes—the fence in your mind that says, Whoa! That’s an undermining message!, from the Supposed Expert or Mumsie & Dadsie, or those composition teachers or that nosy neighbor or The Permanent Record, of all our wrongs, mistakes, mis-steps, mis-understandings, pain we have caused others, pain we have caused ourselves—here’s the slippery slope to doing nothing, being stymied by the prospect of not doing so well.
Steel yourself against incursions, gather your resolve. I had these beautiful little cauliflower plants, carefully planned out. Something went wrong and I just wanted to give up, but I didn’t. Try again.
Sometimes you avoid the feelings: you avoid what you might find (destroyed or not growing or scary) by shunning the garden, by shunning the writing.
My favorite therapist says we are not “bad” at things; we’re just not always skillful. Helpful mantras: I am learning new skills. I have become more skillful. I have options.
With Woodchucks, we learn to face a difficulty and not “fix” it, but discover how to live with it, with patience, becoming more proficient every year.
Sometimes we need a partner in our work; a garden-mate, an encourager. The garden-mate is about asking for help, knowing you don’t have to do it by yourself.
Enlist the help of others, to do these things. Trade knowledge. Even if the suggestions don’t work, you can commiserate. The people who choose to be in the garden reinforce my choice to be there, and so it is a circle, a wheel of support, like my writers groups where we read each other’s work, or have writing bouts together, to get the work done.
Because I planted anyway, in spite of my worries/concerns/downheartedness, because I wrote when I didn’t think I had it in me; because I fought back against the Woodchucks of the Mind, eventually I succeeded.
My garden mate thinks woodchucks are cute, even in their destructiveness. I am not so sure about that. And yet, being able to step back and see them as not so large, not so vicious, yeah they are just those fuzzy things, that takes some of the sting and power away; they are just doing what they do, and I just need to do what I need to do. No need for panic or drama.
Make no mistake, they will still be there, come next year. They will not somehow miraculously mislay the directions to our gardens. The fencing will have to go up, we will have to be vigilant. The doubts, I have to be vigilant about those too. I tell myself: don’t be caught up in the hurry-hurry of getting it done; instead, relish the moments, second by second, breath by breath.
I write to slow down and look, to figure things out, to show others what I’ve seen so they might enjoy it as well. I go to the garden not just to reap the squash and basil, but to step into the muddy soil, feel the weeds dripping onto my sandal-exposed toes while I tromp up to my plot, take in the cicadas’ buzz and smell the cilantro in the heat, hear a friendly voice in a fellow gardener, feel a part of a community and be reminded of what I bring to them that is valued.
Often life intervenes; we make other choices so we don’t make it to the garden or the writing. But growth is still going on, even if we aren’t tending actively. Even the halfheartedly planted seeds.
Run-run! Dive-dive. Under the fence and out.
You rally. Every spring you rally. Every piece you write, you rally. Sometimes like a good gardening day, it flows, and other days you struggle to get there, wrestle to get the tools up the hill, get smacked by the damage you find, find bugs you weren’t expecting—but then those bugs (Old Yeller!) might be found helpful after all.
There’s a whole range of experiences to be delighted in, and we won’t have them if we let the specter of Woodchucks keep us from wandering up to that sun-filled garden.
Things to remember when you encounter real and other woodchucks:
Don’t compare your creation to others’.
Let go of perfectionism.
Anticipate invaders; identify them as the Woodchucks they are.
Don’t look away.
If you “fix” it once, it is not “fixed” forever. This is an ongoing struggle–but your worst attempts are getting better.
Structure and persistence are your friends.
Don’t let fear or doubts keep you from starting or following through on your work.
Live moment by moment, in beauty.
Community is valuable; you don’t have to go it alone.
Don’t take it so damned seriously!
Terrific, apt analogies here. And perfectly timed for me. Thanks!
Demon Woodchucks and their sound effects will now be part of my writer’s self-defense equipment. You’re right; they’re a force of nature, something that goes with the garden. Get out in the garden and you’ve got woodchucks to deal with. Go to the north woods to go fishing; there are mosquitos. It’s local conditions, part and parcel of what you’re trying to do.
Not all of the forces of nature come with thunder and lightning; some waddle into the garden and start chowing down.
Up the hill from me, in the student ghetto on the other side of the theater, the campus, and the burrito place, back behind a house full of undergrads, there’s this large woodchuck hole – more like a woodchuck cavern, actually – which descends hill-ward, west, toward the part of town in which you reside and where your community garden takes root. It’s hard not to imagine a vast network, these subterranean creatures burrowing in and out of all us surface-dwellers’ lives and gardens, the town’s unwanted subway system, wreaking their corpulent havoc in all of our lives. Great piece! I enjoyed it!