Cultivating a Literary Garden

Plant the Seeds of Intention
The dog days of summer, when Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun, will soon be upon us. Hot sultry weather. Balmy nights. Screen doors and porch swings. Iced lemonade and fresh peach ice cream. The long sagas of our lives lived at a lazy pace.

Sound like the summer of a by-gone era? For many of us, there is nothing slow or lazy about summer. Fall arrives and we glance back over our sun-burned shoulders wondering why we didn’t read more books, or work on that novel, or fill at least one journal with poetic prose. Our writing aspirations, along with the dog, were left to languish on that figurative summer porch.

Cultivating a literary summer garden doesn’t have to be hard work, but it won’t flourish unless you plant seeds of clear intention. Identify your goals, scatter them among your other activities, and fertilize them with attentiveness. Here’s a two-pronged tool to get you started.

Explore Your Literary Neighborhood
There are more reasons than ever to stay close to home this summer, to travel the literary back roads of your neighborhood, your state, your region. The West is abundant with authors of award-winning books. Since 1971, the Colorado Center for the Book has been recognizing with annual awards the best novels, poetry, works of nonfiction, anthologies, biographies, histories, children’s books, fine press, and pictorial publications. (A list of the Colorado Book Award winners is available from Kris Rabida at Colorado Humanities, (303) 894-7951, or If you live in Wyoming, check out the Wyoming Center for the Book, or think about attending the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne. Or go to the National Center for the Book website, click on your affiliated state organization, and search their site for literary events in your area.

Here's another way to begin planting your literary garden. This summer, set aside a few hours each week. Pluck one book each week (preferably in the genre in which you write) from the list of award winners in your state. Take that book with you to your local café or nearby park. By the end of the summer, you will have harvested a working knowledge of your genre at the regional level, and you will have a much better idea of which books are winning these coveted awards, and why. I plan on picking up a copy of Bruce Decker's Home Pool: Stories of Fly Fishing and Lesser Passions (a 2009 Colorado Book Award fiction/literary finalist) and taking it with me on my River Writing and Sculpting Journey for Women in August.

Explore Your Physical Neighborhood
In 1985, Johnson Books of Boulder (Big Earth Publishing) published the quiet little book Seven Half Miles from Home by Wyoming author Mary Back. For twenty years, Mary, an artist, left her home each morning before breakfast and took a one-mile walk, a half-mile out, and a half-mile back. “The record of her observations became a conscious immersion in the body of life,” wrote Library Journal in their review. “She began to study seven different ecological communities including thickets, desert, swamp, forest, and river.”

Explore the terrain within a half-mile of your home. Explore what it means to be a westerner. Learn the names of the plants, trees, animals, and birds that share your neighborhood. Create a character sketch of them. Are they native to the area? Deciduous? Nocturnal? Do they mate for life? Where do they spend their winters? Sit with your journal among your favorite family of lichen-covered boulders and ponder their history and genetics. Pick a few characters from the novel you’re writing, or the memoir you’re crafting, and learn about the flora and fauna in their neighborhoods.
Start a list of your favorite regional poets. Commit to buying 3 books of poetry this summer from that list. Begin a dialogue with your favorite poems from those books. Each week, pick a poem, read it twice, then write a response to it (no rules, anything goes, just write). You might enjoy Open Range: Poetry of the Reimagined West (Ghost Road Press) edited by my friend Laurie Wagner Buyer and her husband WC Jameson, or Tamped: Loose Enough to Breath by Mark Todd, an exploration of the interaction between man and nature.

Pick up a copy of Susan Tweit’s award-winning book Colorado Scenic Byways, enjoy the gorgeous photography by Jim Steinberg, then plan a road trip. Or get a copy of Candy Moulton's Roadside History of Wyoming, take a journal with you, stop at all the greasy spoons and hidden hideaways, and pilfer as many tidbits of overheard dialogue as you can. Then, just for fun, sprinkle a few of these tidbits into the mouths of your characters and let them take over the story for awhile. You might be surprised at what you’ll glean from this playful scattering of seed, fresh from the tongues of locals.

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of InPrint, the official newsletter of the Colorado Authors' League.


turtlewoman said…
What wonderful bits of information. I am currently taking Susan Tweit's online class, "Writing Wild" through the Story Circle Network. I will add your piece to my journal of "Notes to Write By".

Lindy in the Sonoran Desert
turtlewoman said…
PS - I forgot to add - along with recently having read Susan's books (CO Byways and Walking Nature Home) I also recently read your book, "In Search of Kinship". I could hardly put the book down - loved every word. Thank you for sharing your memories and memoirs.

Page Lambert said…
Lindy, thank you for these generous comments. It's nice to know that IN SEARCH OF KINSHIP is still finding such appreciative readers! Glad you enjoyed the post, and that you're enjoying Susan's class.

Such wise words for enriching summer's months, Page. I appreciate the prompt. Too often I let work overshadow my days instead of pausing now and then to enjoy my favorite season. When I took my "big solo ride" across country on my motorcycle, one of the things I promised myself is that I would eat in local nonchain diners and NOT bury my nose in a book as I usually do. I'd visit with the local folks and talk about the area. Those chats enriched my experiences so much as I came home once again reassured that most people have life-affirming goals, are kind and caring. It's all about soaking up the good stuff!
Susan J Tweit said…
Page, Thank you for another thoughtful and insightful post. As always, your words inspire me to stretch farther and experience more! Thanks, too, for the gorgeous photos of the unusual Choctaw irises and the lovely bleeding hearts. And for the mention of Colorado Scenic Byways, which just nabbed the gold as ForeWord Book of the Year for the travel category at BookExpo in NYC. Wish I'd been there to celebrate!

Hugs to you, Susan
Page Lambert said…
Rosemary, you are so right about soaking up the good stuff! Yes, I too believe that most people are kind and caring and on a road trip such as yours, the chance to visit with strangers and turn them into friends makes the journey ever so rewarding.
Page Lambert said…
Susan, congratulations on the ForeWord Book of the Year for the travel category at Book Expo - that's fabulous!
Cynthia Riegler said…
Page, you are a beautiful writer. I'm enjoying your blog and plan to visit often.
Thanks for the information.
Page Lambert said…
Cynthia, thank you for lovely comment and for visiting and leaving "your tracks" so I know you were here. I look forward to more comments from you!
Dina Horwedel said…
Wonderful information and advice. How many times has autumn come and I have felt like the grasshopper in the fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper" when it comes to my writing. I like the idea of becoming more immersed in my own world to become a better writer, and also honoring other local writers.
Dina, I so love the idea behind "Seven Half Miles from Home." Oh, to become so intimately aware of our immediate surroundings! Cultivating a deeper awareness of local writers, who also share our landscape, is one more way to honor those who share our world.

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