Failure and Patience: Lessons from the Garden for Writers
Yoojin Grace Wuertz on the Long Road to Her First Novel
The first time I tried to grow vegetables from seed, I was in the second grade. I remember they were carrot seeds and that my younger brother and I crouched in our small, scrubby backyard that overlooked the roaring traffic of Route 80 to tap them into the dirt. There were loose bricks in our backyard, and I used four of them to build a border around what I was sure would become a lush carrot plant. I had seen the film adaptation of The Secret Garden and knew that it was important to clear away leaves and other debris. I had absolute faith in these seeds. I couldn’t wait to eat my first carrot. It would probably take a few days, I thought, maybe a couple of weeks at most. I could be patient.
Knowing a little more about gardening now, I can appreciate how doomed this project was from the start. Carrots are not an entry-level vegetable. The seeds are tiny, even smaller than poppy seeds, and hard to space correctly so that the seedlings don’t crowd each other out. They are picky about germination and growing conditions: Seeds should be started either in early spring or fall, and they need loose, deep soil without rocks or other obstacles that can result in stunted or knotty growth. The hard-packed dirt in my childhood backyard would never have grown a carrot. Despite my diligent checking every day before and after school, the seeds never sprouted. Within my carefully laid perimeter remained a square of barren dirt.
Twenty years passed before I turned my interest to seeds again. It might not have happened if not for a novelty gift from a friend for my birthday: a ceramic egg filled with growing medium, a tiny package of basil seeds included in a box made from 100 percent recycled cardboard and printed with soy ink. The kind of thing you might see at Urban Outfitters, next to a display of silver-glitter fishnet stockings and David Bowie-themed adult coloring books. Secretly, I thought it was a waste of money. Even if I decided to grow this thing, what was I going to do with one tiny basil plant growing out of a ceramic egg? I was someone who liked to cook for an army or not at all. A single, over-coddled hipster herb like the rose in Le Petit Prince was not my style.
It was January, typically bleak and not exactly the most inspiring time of year for horticultural beginnings. But I planted the seed and put it under my sunniest window, expecting to have to throw it out in a week when nothing happened. For days I kicked myself, thinking I should have returned the thing and gotten myself a sparkly pair of tights.
And then the seed sprouted. It was a perfect bright green seedling that smelled, intensely, of basil, even at this infant stage. And it grew taller and put out true leaves. And more leaves, glossy and pertly furled like the corner of a lady’s silk neckerchief, an emerald green Hermes. It seemed nothing short of a miracle, this vibrant, living thing rising out of a mass-produced fake egg. Despite my initial skepticism, I was utterly charmed.
That spring, I dug ambitiously large flower and veggie beds in my backyard, which I was determined to fill with abundant flora. It was my first spring back in the suburbs after years in the city, the first anniversary of my wedding. I was so ignorant about gardening that it didn’t occur to me that I was making every mistake in the book. Any problems, I would power through with hard work and enthusiasm, the way I always did. This strategy had never failed me before—why should it fail now?
In retrospect, the miracle of that basil plant was a gift that sustained me for the next near-decade, years that were characterized by repetitive failure and loss. The winter of my first seedling, I was four years deep into a decision that baffled my family and friends. I’d abandoned a full scholarship to a prestigious Ph.D. program in English at the University of California, Berkeley, only one year after I’d begun coursework. That summer, I moved back East, picked up some editing work and a waitressing job in the Meatpacking District, and tried to teach myself how to write without scholarly footnotes. It didn’t occur to me to get a “real job”—what skills did I have? Instead I learned how to carry a tray of martinis without spilling a drop. I filled journals with cramped notes on character, setting, bits of dialogue and backstory. I wrote no actual narrative, too terrified and self-conscious to commit to a story or voice. Looking back, I realize it was the carrot seeds all over again. My ignorance was surpassed only by my faith that my actions would eventually be rewarded. Only this time, I was 23 years old and had built up more stubbornness. Seven-year-old me quickly abandoned my secret garden project when it didn’t work out, but now I had a big mouth and had told everyone I was writing a novel. So I had no choice. I had to keep going.
When those first precious basil leaves sprouted, my first novel—which I had written in a prolonged state of panic, knowing I had absolutely no idea what I was doing—was in the process of being rejected by every agent and editor in New York whose contact information I could wrangle from the internet. I received literally hundreds of rejections. Mostly, they were form letters that I still read carefully for clues, as if upon the 35th reading I would discover some new information beyond what they plainly stated. None of the notes shape-shifted.
While my writing career failed to launch, my personal life also seemed stalled. I had married my best friend and knew I wanted children, but in the fall of 2009, I had my first miscarriage, followed by two more losses in 2010 and 2011. Each time, I had worked so hard to get pregnant—taking my temperature every morning to track my cycle, peeing on innumerable sticks, having what seemed like gallons of blood taken out of my veins in doctors’ offices before submitting to invasive and embarrassing procedures in freezing cold rooms, giving up alcohol and caffeine, being poked with thousands of acupuncture needles, and imbibing hanyak, a Korean herbal potion, the monthly cost of which rivaled the rent of my first post-college apartment—and experienced the same outcome.
Each loss broke my heart in a different way. I had always processed emotions verbally, but I couldn’t talk about why being unable to get and stay pregnant hurt me so much. I felt ashamed that I kept failing at something that seemed so easy for other women, ashamed that I couldn’t “bounce back” from the feelings of grief and despair, which I thought self-indulgent. I considered myself a feminist, not afraid to say the things I wanted and needed to say, but I blamed myself for feeling ashamed, since rationally, I knew I had done nothing to deserve it. It seemed unmodern, somehow, to feel so distraught over my inability to have a child. As if my self-worth were defined by my uterus, and a dysfunctional one at that. This wasn’t what I believed—I would have fought anyone who tried to make any other woman feel that way—but my emotions refused to fall in line. I wanted to feel empowered and strong, like the person I always hoped to be. Resilient, ready to try again. Instead I felt silenced and alone. It seemed stupid to keep trying when all it brought me was more failure and pain.
“I am sucking at life,” I told the few friends and family members I could bear to be vulnerable with. “I am not contributing to society and I am sad all the time.”
“At least you’re a nice person,” a friend told me, trying to cheer me up. It was snobby of me to feel so offended by that well-intentioned comment. But the memory of it stung for years. I was a failed writer and a failed mother. But at least I was a nice person. A warm body with a smile on her face, the human equivalent of a stuffed panda.
In the years that I was sucking at life, I learned how to garden. For someone with an obsessive personality, a garden is a godsend. There is no end to the amount you can care about a garden. No limit to the work you can pour into plants and dirt. As an added bonus, humans have been writing about gardens and plants for as long as they’ve been writing about anything. The literature is boundless and colorful, both historical and contemporary. And the names! For every plant, there is a Latin botanical name and at least one common or whimsical name: foxglove, botanical name Digitalis. Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum. And every plant has subspecies and cultivars—Digitalis grandiflora, Digitalis lutea, Digitalis purpurea—words upon words one can stuff into a stressed-out brain and feel incrementally calm, like being surrounded by clever and useful friends who arrive well-dressed, bearing fun recipes.
I grew flowers and vegetables, perennials and annuals, things that thrived and things that floundered no matter how determined I was to make them grow. I grew daisies from seed, which colonized an entire bed until I dug them out in 30-pound clumps to divide and transplant all over my mother’s backyard. I grew Rose of Sharon bushes, the national flower of my native South Korea, which threw so many volunteer seedlings that I had to yank dozens of them each spring, mentally apologizing to my ancestors for the unpatriotic massacre. I planted exotic tulips, which did not come back the following spring, and common daffodils, which did. I became someone who thought in terms of growing cycles and harvest seasons. After decades of living with the modus operandi that I would impose my schedule, my willpower to make things happen in this world, I began to accept the notion that the natural world had its own rhythms and timeline that I could not change no matter how hard I pushed.
I learned to think of myself, my body, as part of an ecosystem, the way I came to view the flora and fauna in my garden. Living things exist in cycles of growth and rest. I learned that fallen leaves nourish the ground beneath as they rot. I learned that deep snowfall—which mutes human activities and creates punishing delays we try to master—blankets dormant plants, providing the necessary insulation to get them through to spring. These are ecological facts, but ripe for poetry and metaphor, if you’re the type who looks for metaphor.
So I learned how to rest, to respect periods of dormancy as a natural prerequisite and hope for growth. After my third miscarriage, the worst one for various reasons, I accepted that I was too depleted and too fragile to try again. That the kind, wise thing to do for myself, a living thing, was to stop.
By pure coincidence, five weeks after that miscarriage, I started my MFA at NYU—a step I had resisted for years, intimidated by the idea of paying for a fancy fine art degree when my art earned no money. Before applying, I had taken some classes at Gotham Writers Workshop and written a few short stories. I had drastically adjusted my life expectations. At 23, I was sure I could write a sellable novel even though I had never even tried to write a short story. (Carrot seeds, so many carrot seeds.) At 31, I only wanted to learn how to write a good sentence, to form narratives fueled by honest passion rather than panic that I would not succeed.
I graduated in the spring of 2013 with half of a novel manuscript, which I continued to work on into the next year. In the fall of 2014, I sold that novel to Random House. A month later I discovered I was pregnant, a pregnancy that lasted 39 weeks and actually became a child.
It had taken eleven years from the time I left grad school to “become a writer” to sell my first book. Overlapping that: seven years of infertility and pregnancy loss before I held my son in my arms. All of it seemed miraculous. All of it was miraculous, seeing the sprouting of these dreams I had planted so long ago.