The Empty Plot and the Empty Page

Janey Harvey

Staring at the allotment I’d just taken over, I was filled with a sense of overwhelming fear. I couldn’t see any soil, just overgrown weeds the size of bushes, discarded plastic bottles, broken pallets and empty plant pots. How was I going to grow anything?

I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much for me. What faced me was months of hard physical graft and, post-Covid, I was weak and out of condition. That first day, I spent perhaps ten minutes surveying my plot and then got back in the car and drove away. I’d made a mistake. I would phone the allotment woman, Karen, and tell her it wasn’t for me. I felt sad about this. I wanted that allotment. I wanted to make it work.

I recognised this feeling. This was exactly how I felt when I was staring at a blank page. That daunting, heavy feeling that I might not be up to the job. It was then that I realised that gardening and writing share many parallels. In order to start growing I’d need to clear the allotment and start with a blank plot. In order to start writing I’d need a blank page and an idea. With an allotment, clearing the ground takes time and hard work. With writing, putting the hours in, getting the words on the page, is the first step. Then comes the clearing – the editing. Crafting and sorting the rubbish, the extraneous vocabulary that has grown like weeds and cluttered the piece so that the true story gets hidden. 

The next day, I went back and I began. I focused on a nettle-infested corner and tried to pull them out. Despite wearing gloves, my arms were soon prickled with red sting sites and I was tired. Covid had extinguished my usual energy levels and I was under GP orders to go slow and steady. After not even an hour, I was knackered and fed up. I’d hardly dented the mass of waist high nettles and my arms were sore. It was going to be harder than I thought. Much much harder. But the next day, I was back. This time armed with gauntlets. And the next day and the next. By the end of the week, I’d cleared a patch of earth and could see the fence and trees at the back of my plot. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. I was doing it. 

This also reminded me of when I’m writing. Some days are frustrating and I don’t get much done. Other days, I start to achieve some clarity and begin to understand where the story needs to go and what work I need to do in order to achieve it. It’s step-by-step work, writing and then chopping, writing and then editing, writing and then re-writing until it all starts to make sense.

The allotment too started to make sense. As I cleared the plot, I began to understand what I’d need to do next and how to do it. Sometimes, I’d plant something only to have to pull it up again because I’d put it in the wrong place. Like a word in the wrong place, or the wrong word all together, sense of meaning is lost but move it and meaning becomes beautifully clear and the magic begins to happen. 

Janey Harvey is a part-time student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.

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