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Tending the Garden: Organic Observations on Playwriting

Six turnips laying in the dirt.

Photo by E.M. Lewis taken on her family farm in Oregon.

People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden.” It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate—once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself. Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It’s a place where if you can’t say “I love you” out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans.
—Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

I wrote a whole play last summer, sitting down by the creek with the dogs curled up beside me. Waving away mosquitoes and hoping for rain.

I was on my knees when I started thinking up this essay. Weeding the garden. Hands in the dirt. Cool, feathery green asparagus fronds tickling my cheeks.

Living back on our little family farm again, here in the verdant Willamette Valley in Oregon, especially during the last few years of weird, stuck pandemic time, has made me realize just how connected my writing process is to the natural world.

I've written about the natural world in my plays—Song of Extinction and Magellanica in particular, but also Apple Season and Apple Hunters! (That's the creek play). I won first place in the Eco-Drama Festival, and was on a panel about ecologically-minded plays at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference a few years ago. I participated in the Climate Change Theatre Action several times, writing short plays about the fragility of the natural world and the importance of fighting to protect it alongside an international cadre of writers, which were performed around the world. But the connection between me and the natural world goes deeper than subject matter.

Our various identities and activities interweave into something rich and beautiful. They can, if we let them.

Reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer inspired me to think about the various strands of my life in a new way. It’s an absolutely beautiful book. In it, Kimmerer weaves together her understanding of the natural world as a biologist, as a Potawatomi person, as a college professor, and as a mother of daughters who has a little farm of her own in upstate New York. She talks about how some of her knowledge of the world comes from her culture, which has been handed down from generation to generation, often in the form of stories. She shares about her college experience, learning to become a biologist, and then working and teaching in the field—and how that experience was oddly divorced from her practical experience of the natural world and her people’s understanding of it. It’s separate. But it doesn’t have to be.

The various aspects of our lives can combine into something rich and beautiful. We don't just do one thing for part of our lives, then the other thing on off hours—like in that show Severance, where a person's life is divided between work and home with the help of a chip in their heads. Our various identities and activities interweave into something rich and beautiful. They can, if we let them.

A bee perched on a yellow flower with green leaves in the background.

Photo by E.M. Lewis taken on her family farm in Oregon.

Kimmerer is a Potawatomi biologist professor mother farmer. I am a rural Oregon farm girl teacher librettist playwright. She argues artfully for a more holistic approach to her field, and she has been practicing that integrated approach for a lifetime. Reading her book inspired me to explore what I know in my “Oregon farm girl” life that enriches and informs my playwriting life.

These are a few of my playwriting/gardening observations:

  • Structure is something organic that is discovered as the play begins to grow, not something to be imposed or forced. Square watermelons, designed in a lab for easy transport, are bullshit. Don't listen to anyone who tells you to cookie cutter your play. Don't listen if someone tries to tell you it has to do this by this page, or that on that page. Listen to your play. All the answers are probably in the seed of the idea. The bigger it grows, the easier it will be to see what it's trying to become. Oak tree? Sunflower? Crepe myrtle, with crimson blossoms? Venus flytrap?
  • Work is essential for both gardens and plays. If you plant a garden and abandon it, it won't prosper. It will either go wild or die. You have to weed and water. You have to tend it. Plays are just the same. I have a million ideas, scribbled on the backs of white electric bill envelopes and yellow sticky notes. But it's the plays I've tended, day after day, week, month, sometimes year, that have prospered into something delicious.
A butterfly perched on a purple flower.

Photo by E.M. Lewis taken on her family farm in Oregon.

  • Don't be afraid to thin out or "deblunker" your play. "Deblunkering" is a term we use on the farm to describe taking the giant zucchini off the plant so more zucchini will come. It seems like they grow about an inch a minute in high summer. Thinning is a related concept. Your golden beets won't prosper if there are too many of them, too close together. You have to take some of them out so the rest will grow. I’ve seen plenty of plays that are weighed down with words or ideas, where there's just too much there. Chunky dialogue, heavy stage directions. When you’re reading through a working draft of your play, consider. Can you pare that scene down? Many of my favorite plays are rich, but spare. Are you leaving room for the actors (and designers) to make their magic? Plays are different from fiction—art in themselves, but also designed to be collaborative roadmaps for theatrical events that take place in space and time. Are there blunkers in your play, weighing it down and taking up all your play's energy? Extra scenes, over-complicated plot twists, huge monologues followed by huge monologues about what the characters are thinking. What happens if you rip some of those out? I have sometimes replaced a whole big monologue with a stage direction indicating the touch of a hand to good effect.
  • This makes me think of a story. When I was a kid, my Dad had our vegetable garden out front, and he kept it so beautifully that sometimes people would stop and take a picture. One day, he was working out there, and an old Russian man stopped and got out of his pick-up and asked Dad if he wanted to know how to prune tomatoes. Dad wasn’t sure he did. But he said, “Sure!” The man pulled a pocket knife out of his pocket, and snip, snip, snipped away half the plant. To good effect! This isn’t really a story about pruning, though. It’s about being open to other ways of doing things. There are lots of ways of doing things when it comes to gardens and plays. Don’t be afraid to try them.
  • Sometimes, the seeds you plant don't grow, or don't prosper. Wet spring? Strange frost? Forgot to water? Plant again. Late beans are better than no beans. Or try again next year. Every spring is a new opportunity, and so is every play. Don't mope around, angsting about what went wrong with this play. Write another one.

It's the plays I've tended, day after day, week, month, sometimes year, that have prospered into something delicious.

  • It doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful. Everyone who lives on a farm has experienced eating around the worm in the apple or enjoying weirdly shaped tomatoes. Sometimes, especially in the workshopping process, where playwrights receive lots and lots of feedback from lots and lots of people, there's a temptation to answer every question anyone has about your play within it. But maybe your play wants to prompt those questions in your audience and let the audience wrestle with them themselves. Sometimes we feel pressed to toss out parts of our plays (or whole plays) that are weird or uncomfortable or frightening or dangerous. But of course, some of the best art is all of those things.
  • In her book, Kimmerer wrote, “Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.” I scribbled this down and stuck it on my writing desk. She was talking about cleaning muck out of the pond on her farm, but it felt like playwriting advice to me. Are you being tentative with your characters? Or with your story? What happens when you go all in? What happens if you go farther? I remember when I saw Edward Albee’s play The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, California; I gasped and then gasped again at his audacity. Talk about going farther! Try the deep water!
  • Have you made room for beauty? We always plant flowers in our vegetable garden here on the farm. They make us happy, and they draw in pollinating bees and butterflies. In my plays, some of the moments that reveal character or story most memorably are the beautiful moments. May watching the southern lights wash across the Antarctic darkness and trying to communicate with her father, who has passed, in Magellanica. The hospital bed transforming into a boat in Song of Extinction, carrying Lily to the undiscovered country. Eddie, recalling the perfect summer day that he and his friends spent down by the creek telling each other everything when they were kids and wondering why they can’t have that anymore in Apple Hunters! Trim out the blunkers, but leave room for beauty.
A person's outstretched hand holding five cherry tomatoes.

Photo by E.M. Lewis taken on her family farm in Oregon.

  • Does the work feed you? When I walk across the yard to the garden, I nibble a spear of asparagus, and a handful of cherry tomatoes, and a fig from the fig tree. I make big pots of soup to eat and to freeze for winter. I take my garden basket out and gather dinner—sweet corn and green beans and peaches. I give my tending time to the garden, and the garden returns its delicious abundance. I often feel the same about my work in the theatre. If I’m brave enough to share my stories, to put in the work to craft them, to reach out and find homes for them, to work respectfully and intensely and joyfully with my fellow theatremakers, I will receive joy and sustenance from the process. More often than not. The work should feed us. If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong in our garden that needs to be fixed.
  • I’m not much of one for church these days, but the church my Mom took me to when I was a kid had a ritual that had nothing to do with Catholicism that I remember with great fondness. It was called The Sharing Table. During the summer in our rural Oregon community, folks with extra vegetables in their garden would bring them to Mass on Sunday, and anyone who didn’t have a garden could take what they wanted. Do we approach our playwriting craft with a similar sense of abundance and generosity? Do we go to our fellow writers’ plays, teach, mentor, be part of writing groups, and encourage young people? There is joy in the sharing. And so many folks have shared their time and wisdom with me.

There will always be more to do than there is time to do it. Don't let that stop you. Your work as a playwright (or gardener) is not lesser for being incomplete and uncompleteable. Writing, and gardening, is a way of life. The fact that you will never be done with it, and it will never be done with you, is the joy of it.

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Really lovely piece. I also find the rhythm of the farm and garden so closely linked to the creation of plays and theatre. (I hope that our paths will finally cross in person sometime soon, now that you're doing some teaching in New England.)

Oh what a gift this article is! It felt like I could take a big deep inhale with the reminder that "writing is a way of life" and I love the idea of The Sharing Table in terms of writing and asking ourselves how we show up to the table and what we bring to share. Thank you E.M. for this "food for thought."