Monthly Archives: July 2009

Writing From My Garden

I cook because I garden. I garden because I love to cook. On the
surface it's that simple. As usual with superficial statements though,
there's something deeper. I garden to root myself in place, to belong,
both to the human community and to the wider, wilder community of
nature. I cook with the food I've raised with my own hands because that
connection to place and community nurtures my spirit—and it has saved
my life.

Perhaps literally. When I was in my early 20s,
on the cusp of what seemed like a promising career as a field
ecologist, I was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease. I
was so sick that specialists gave me two to five years to live. With no
known cure, and no consensus on the possible progress or course of
treatment, the advice that seemed most sensible to me boiled down to
this: Listen to your body. Pay attention to what makes you feel better
and what makes you feel worse. Take notes. Look for patterns in that
data. Make your health a priority.


words open the book proposal I started writing today. I've been rolling
the concept of this book around in my mind for months, writing bits,
pulling together other writing that might go into it, drafting outlines
and even envisioning pages of the actual book while trying to find the
dimensions and direction and heft of the story. I can see it in my mind
as a series of disconnected page-images, but until yesterday, in a
phone call with a colleague, I couldn't quite pull the ideas together.
Now I can.

What happened? This comment: "I want more of your story in the proposal. After I read Walking Nature Home
[my new memoir], some of the things you said resonated in a new way.
Your story could be a powerful theme in this new book; it's about your
life and nature and food and the garden."

As soon as I heard her
words, a new view of the book took shape in my imagination. I saw where
I had been stuck, and saw where the story could go and how it could
grow muscle and wings and voice. I knew right then just exactly where I
needed to start and what I needed to draw on. I was ready to begin
writing. Sometimes that's all it takes: Someone who sees the idea from
a different perspective can turn it slightly, just the way you turn a
three-dimensional object in your hand. That shift as they nudge it a
little can trigger an entirely different view. It goes from being
something so familiar you can't see it any other way to something
entirely new. With a piece of writing, that shift in perspective can
suddenly show you what you have, and where to go with it–or at least
how to begin.


This book begins where Walking Nature Home ended:
in our deep valley in the shadow of the high peaks. More specifically,
in our kitchen and garden, where I grow, harvest, and prepare our food,
the place where I go to restore my balance and mood when life grinds me
down. I knew that the new book was about gardens and food and rooting
our lives in place; I knew that it included practical details and
recipes and instructions for green living. But until my colleague asked
for more of my story, I didn't realize I had been keeping my distance.
Keeping a cautious distance is important for some stories, but for
others distance is just that: a space between writer and reader that
prevents the ideas from leaping off the page into readers' hearts and

This new book grows right out of my garden, and from
those roots, it aims for the stars. I won't be able to work on it much
for months. I've got freelance assignments that come first. But now
that I can see the story, I can hardly wait to start the real
writing–it's going to be quite a journey!

Cycle 3.3 Fear Finds Choices


JAIL BREAK from Keys to Freedom site installation by Janet Riehl at Mad Art Gallery, St. Louis inside the old Soulard jail. From 2005 national exhibition, juried by Judy Chicago. “Contemporary Women Artists Exhibition XIII,” sponsored by Women’s Caucus for the Arts.

Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

We’ve been talking about fear. What does it want? What does it need? What can it offer us? We’ve noted that when we take the bold step of dialoguing with fear, we can discover those answers and use them to help us achieve our writing goals.

Once we better understand our particular fears’ motivations, we’re ready answer a second set of questions.

1. Assessment. Where am I now?

2. Goal/aim. Where do I want to be?

3. Obstacles. Where do I get stuck? What gets in the way?

4. Action plan. How do I get there? What do I need to develop?
(See “Creative Catalyst” archives:

As we did in our last post (3.2), we’ll use the situation of “Helen”, a stay-at-home mom who wants to write more, to illustrate.

1. Assessment.
Helen fears that if she takes steps toward her goal of writing more her family will suffer.

2. Goal/aim. Helen wants to live a balanced life with the freedom to give to both her family and her writing practice.

3. Obstacles.
Helen gets stuck in several ways, some internal and some practical.
Emotionally, she is fearful and perhaps feeling guilty. Mentally, she is caught in either/or thinking; adding more weight to one side of the family/writing balance beam means upsetting the other side. Practically, there are a host of tasks to perform to keep the children well cared for, her husband happy, and the household running.

4. Action plan.
Helen needs to do further analysis of her situation and planning. This is what we’ll focus on in this post.

At a family meeting Helen tells her family what she wants to do (write more) and why. She also tells them up front that she’ll need their help. Together, the family members list what they perceive to be their needs. Even the youngest children participate.

Helen then analyzes the list. What do others expect? What is absolutely required? Everyone needs to eat, of course, and the kids need clean clothes for school, for example. What would be nice but isn’t necessary? Cooking a gourmet meal every night would be nice for the family but definitely not necessary, particularly with young ones at the table.

At this point Helen asks herself the key question, “What matters to me?” She puts Writing! up there at top of the page, before she starts listing family answers.

Finally, Helen engages in the process of identifying trade-offs and identifies other areas, which can do double-duty. For example, if she bikes with the kids, she’ll spend time with them, provide exercise for all of them, and save money on gas.

Once she takes the first steps, it begins to dawn that “We might have more choices than we think.” Helen continues to brainstorm ideas to expand the envelope of possibilities. She puts more structure into family life. Importantly, she continues to talk with her family, making them an integral part of the process.

Helen discovers that more flexible thinking sometimes yields unconventional shortcuts. Meal preparation, for example, is an area where she’d like to spend less time. What if there were ways to cut the number of food shopping trips? Could she simplify her menus? Could she roughly plan out her menus for the entire month and shop from that plan? She could try using more fresh produce toward the beginning of the month and more sturdy produce like cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and celery toward the end of the month. That would allow her to stack the refrigerator and larder to access the fresh produce first.

This approach may seem a little radical, but if it helps Helen reduce time on a family need and open up time for her writing, it makes sense. Writing keeps it place high on the list.

July’s post, third and last in this cycle considers: “Can we negotiate with fear?


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below. If you’d like to see previous articles in this series, go to

1) Go to to sign up for a free download of a 10-minute
audio from “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.”