"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The first thing I noticed about the author was the way she studied the people in front of her waiting to hear her speak.  The second thing I noticed was the not-so-concerned-about-style gray hair that a bit of research revealed has been her style for years. Mostly, though, I could feel how much she was enjoying herself, how happy she was to be the person we were all gathered to see.

My friend Deb and I had left Vancouver at 6:30 AM on a Saturday to be in McMinnville in plenty of time for the start of the first Terroir Creative Writing Festival. The price was right. We were both really ready for a day of adventure. And the chance to see both Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss was too good to pass up.

The surprisingly unglamorous introduction and the mic stand that keep drooping were quickly forgotten as Ms. LeGuin began to speak. She was by turns inspiring, acerbic and laugh-out-loud funny. She's 80 and has more energy and pure vitality than most of us hope for in our twenties. She's written dozens of books in a variety of genres and continues to write and teach and engage with an ever-changing world.

You could tell she was speaking to chronologically young writers (there were several in the room) as well as to their more seasoned  counterparts. She managed to be respectful of both groups without boring either. I could hear the teacher voice loud and clear, although I had to keep bringing myself back to her words as I sat there simply falling in love with her beauty and spirit and palpable sense of joy.

It was her last words, however that reached me the deepest, and set the theme that followed me the rest of the day. She used compost as a metaphor for what's necessary to produce good stories. In her words, "Compost needs silence, darkness, time and patience."

Silence. Darkness. Time. Patience.

Exactly what my life is either providing (the first three) or demanding of me (the last) right now. Elements that give whatever ingredients are involved, whether organic material or words,  the space they need to ferment, incubate, transform into something entirely new.

In the very next session, Molly Gloss spoke brilliantly on the importance of place in story, and how that has to be part of the foundation of a story, not something added as an afterthought. Her metaphor was the difference between a hydroponic tomato grown with artificial chemicals (setting tacked on), and an heirloom tomato grown in compost (setting woven intricately).

Again, the difference between being willing to take more time (and to allow for some ickiness) for growth, or insisting on rushing a process for faster fruit stood out clearly for me.

And then at lunch, the poet Bill Siverly read his rich and evocative poem, "Turning Compost," about how leaves and chips and nitrogen and water become "dense and juicy" compost over time.

I found myself thinking about the compost pile of my childhood. We called it a mulch pile and it lived out by the propane tank and rhubarb bush on the far side of our front lawn. One of us four kids would trudge out daily, even through snow drifts, to deposit the organic waste from the kitchen. Only we didn't call it organic. It was whatever garbage couldn't be tossed in the fireplace (we burned paper and what little plastic couldn't be reused). Glass of any kind was used to store leftovers or for putting up jam. Tin cans went out to the barrel that would be hauled to the dump once or twice a year.

Holding the triangular drainer overflowing with coffee grounds, potato peels and egg shells as far from my face as possible, in childhood I only saw and smelled the death. Even in the spring when we spread the muck from the bottom of the pile onto the garden, along with generous amounts of chicken manure, I only ever considered the stink, not what it was producing.

I came home yesterday with a couple of new books, some cool handouts, and burned-in-my-brain memories of two women writers whose paths I would be proud to emulate. More importantly, I have the gentle reassurance that all compost eventually yields a fertile wealth that can only exist if its conditions of silence, darkness, time and patience are accepted.

photos from Flickr


patti said...

What a WONDERFUL post, Deb.
We composted THROUGH THE Illinois winter, and it has been a fabulous experience to see the enrichment that comes from...waiting.

Praise God for your productive writers' conference!


Wanda said...

Crap. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm..much more to think about. Silence, darkness, time, patience. I so rarely have any of those.

And I have to ask--did they plan to all use garden metaphors, or is it just that time of year?

Tabitha Bird said...

Silence darkness time and patience. No wonder I got my re-writes finished! I had plenty of all of those. Darkness- HEAPS!
Love this post. I can see why her words captured you so.

Mark Lyons said...

Silence. Darkness. Time. Patience. I love the metaphor...and it made me smile because it seems "someone" has been rushing me to write, when all along, perhaps...just perhaps, I've been allowing the story to compost.



Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, awesome post! That is SO interesting. I'm going to do a post on this and link to yours, if you don't mind?

What a great way to look at writing. Wow...

Thanks so much for sharing. :-)

Carrie Wilson Link said...

"I have the gentle reassurance that all compost eventually yields a fertile wealth that can only exist if its conditions of silence, darkness, time and patience are accepted."



I love it.


Go Mama said...

Sounds like that was a rich and fertile event. Love it when the inspiration seeps in and becomes contagious.... turn, turn, turn...

Jerri said...

Compost also needs to be turned.

Participating in this event is like turning the compost, stirring it so it heats evenly.

It's such a joy to read of the parallels you draw from everything you do.

fullsoulahead.com said...

That first picture is gorgeous! Look at her! You can really see her, no?

"Silence. Darkness. Time. Patience."

Love it.

Amber said...

LOL at Wanda

"... I have the gentle reassurance that all compost eventually yields a fertile wealth..."

Please God let all the crap turn into something healthy.

Love this post. Wish I could have gone with you!


Kathryn Magendie said...

I hope I am like the 80 year old LG when I grow up *smiling*

I am lacking that time and dark coolness right now....need to find it again.

kario said...

I grew up in a house where we just threw everything in the trash can and didn't think about where it went after it left our curb.

There is just something magical for me about compost and now that I can link it to writing, it is even more meaningful.

Thank you, my friend.

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