Monday, July 9, 2012

The Hard Work of Dreams

I have always wanted a garden. Always. My whole life. From the time I was a small child I collected seed and bulb catalogs, poring over the different flowers and vegetables and imagining what I'd like to plant, and which varieties, and which flowers should go together. The first birthday present I ever remember receiving was a group of fresh potted geraniums from my parents to plant next to the house; they shouldn't be surprised. They had a vegetable garden, too, in the early years of my life, that eventually tapered off due to time, money, and their availability to dig and hoe when our lives were full of PTA meetings, work, and family illness.

However, I could never forget the scent of lacy carrot leaves, celery-like, as they unfurled from the soil. The pungent odor of crushed tomato leaves, or the uncurling of purple iris petals in the spring. I wanted to plant. To prune. To touch the earth. To Garden and tend my own little plot of ground.

I used my allowance money on rose bushes and flower bulbs, and I kept thinking - one day. One day I'll have my garden. My own garden.

Maybe after college.

And then, when I landed journalism jobs and lived in rented apartments to pay off student loans, maybe after I buy a house.

Instead I took a position as a missionary in Japan and gave up my career (and any relationships I had with eligible men at the time). And also my dreams of a home and a garden. Maybe after I get married.

When I got married, my husband turned out to be Brazilian, of all things - and we moved to Brazil. For nearly EIGHT years. All eight years in rentals. Maybe... never. Maybe this is one of those dreams that dies, that never sees the light.

Until NOW. Until last November, when my son's adoption process, my husband's and son's Green Card process, and airline tickets all miraculously came together - dumping us and our meager baggage almost literally on my dad's snowy front doorstep in rural South Dakota. My husband came next, got a job. We rented a trailer. (Yes, a trailer - just like the ones that lined the roads in my rural hometown of Churchville, Virginia). A trailer with a big yard, lots of land.

And - for the first time in my thirty-six years - my own garden. My very own garden.

All winter long we sprouted seeds in paper cups. As soon as it was spring, we tilled, hoed, bought fertilizer and topsoil, and set up deer- and rabbit-fencing to keep the wildlife out. We planted our seedlings and bought potted plants and dug furrows.

And thus began my very first garden. If you could see it now, the squashes and pumpkins are shin-high, and one of the tomato plants showed its first flower. My seed-planted watermelons are outgrowing the potted watermelons which were planted weeks earlier. Spades of green onions come up through the soil, and if I rub my thumb against a tomato leaf, I smell that same pungent green scent that transports me back to my childhood.

So what does gardening have to do with writing?


In fact, pretty much every dream is the culmination of years of longing, imagining - plus lots of hard work that  could never be anticipated.

My garden was like that. I ran into more problems than I could count, and it's still not trouble-free. Unlike the beautiful black-brown loam of my childhood, South Dakota soil is mostly heavy, sandy clay - and extremely dry and hard to work. We had to coax it a little at a time, through applications of peat moss and compost, to even support plant life at all.

And the weeds - the weeds! We have a vining weed here appropriately called "Creeping Jenny" - a sort of small morning glory that nobody can get rid of. It sounds beautiful, and it is, when twining around pasture fences and blooming along the dusty roadsides. But in my garden it is invasive, and hilariously prolific. I think I raise more Creeping Jenny in my garden than anything else. I have hoed it out, hand-plucked it out over and over, and it comes right back within a day or two.

The climate is dry and hot, requiring lots of labor-intensive waterings (at least two a day), and altogether it is quite a lot more work - and struggle - and cost - than I ever expected. Is it worth it? Yes. Oh, a thousand times, yes. But sometimes I sit, weary, and think, "Do I really need to go out and weed again? It's 100 degrees outside, and I just weeded two days ago!" (It really is almost a hundred degrees, and I really do need to weed. Again).

I've discovered that the hard work of writing is much like the hard work of dreams. The planning and writing is not necessarily the hardest part. This, for me, came like a breeze: writing, refining, editing, reordering chapters. But what happened next after my books hit the shelves was not so fun or expected: bad reviews. Insults to my character for presenting characters in a certain light. Unfair comparisons. Low marketing returns from trying to market abroad, from Brazil, rather than walking into a bookstore in person. Amateur flaws and rookie mistakes. Newspapers and magazines and radio stations who could care less about hearing from a local author. Clueless writing blunders pointed out for the world to see, and no way to fix it.

The hard work of dreams.

"I didn't expect this!" I want to cry. "I didn't plan on this part! It's not fair! It's not right!"

When the truth is, it isn't my gilded, glass-encased dream, safe from the realities of the world. Safe from weeds. Safe from sharp-tongued reviewers. Safe from... well, reality.

No, this is real life. And the exact point where dreams-come-true intersect with the nitty-gritty of our day-to-day world. This is where the "elbow grease" of all our years of planning, cultivating, and imagining comes into play. If we give up now and only accept the good parts - we stunt ourselves, and we truncate our dreams. We cheapen them, refuse them life.

Instead we need to put our chin up, pick up the hoe, wipe off the sweat, and get to work.
Got bad reviews? Good - then you're on your way to a thicker skin and an honest list (sometimes) of criticisms to work with. Try hard to find the grain of truth in each one, if there is one, and work hard to do better next time. Insults to your character? Your writing blunders spread across the Internet? Then work hard to overcome them with truth, and don't shirk and hide from them. Be transparent, be real. Be humble and gracious during interviews and book signings. Don't pretend to know it all, and don't apologize for it, either. People will see the real you.

Rookie blunders? Read writing craft books. Go to writer's conferences. Bad marketing or uninterested salesmen? Then take your business elsewhere. Work harder than the others. Seek out interviews and publicity. Make press kits and mail them out. Run contests. Give away freebie copies. See how other successful marketers do their best work and copy it shamelessly.

This is the secret in a nutshell: Almost all dreams require hard work. Usually more work than we've ever imagined. Don't be afraid of it. Don't back down.

Next time write a better book, and market it better.

Land a better agent, or land a good one in the first place.

Whatever your dream is, work hard to make it happen - no matter what hardships try to stand in your way.

And when autumn comes and I pick my first squashes, my first pumpkins, my first vine-ripe tomatoes - I will cup a dream-come-true in two hands. The culmination of years of praying, longing, and wishing. And more work than I could ever dream.

Jennifer Rogers Spinola is the author of Barbour Books' "Southern Fried Sushi" series, with two books published and the third waiting for release in November. She is also the author of "Yellowstone Memories," also with Barbour Books. Jennifer's first novel, "Southern Fried Sushi," is a Christy Award Finalist for 2012. Jennifer and her Brazilian husband, Athos, and son, Ethan, live in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. They are expecting their second child in December.


  1. Thanks for such a beautiful and inspiring post. And so fun to see that baby bump growing :)

  2. Thank you, Kara! I know - it's really growing, isn't it?? Thanks for reading!

  3. Lots of helpful advice and encouragement. Glad you finally got your garden and are learning from the experience.