May Sarton on Writing, Gardening, and the Importance of Patience Over Will in Creative Work
“Gardening is like poetry in that it is gratuitous, and also that it cannot be done on will alone.”
By Maria Popova
The matter that we know — the stuff we can see and touch — comprises a mere 5% of the universe. All the rest is dark matter. We can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t discern what it is made of or how it came to be. And yet dark matter is what holds galaxies together, what keeps the regular matter in place so that we may live.
I believe every creative practice is like that — only a small fraction of it we can see and touch in the works of art we can point to, made possible and alive by all the invisible devotions and despairs that animate the maker’s life, that fill the days and hours, that occupy the heart and the hands. These private practices are anchors of sanity vital to the public work, for they are vital to the soul from which creative work springs.
The poet, novelist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores this
throughout her altogether ravishing journal The House by the Sea, nowhere more poignantly than in her contribution to the canon of great artists and writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening.
In a diary entry penned as spring is cusping into summer, after a season of devoted planting and tending to her garden, she writes:
I complained to Lee that no one really looks at the garden. Her answer was accurate, “You do the garden for yourself, after all.” Yes, I do, but I also long to give it, and in this it is very much like poetry — that is, I would write poems whether anyone looked at them or not, but I hope someone will.
A generation before Rebecca Solnit contemplated the creative purpose of Orwell’s rose garden, Sarton considers the role of gardening as a sanity-salving device for her creative practice:
Do I spend too much time at this ephemeral task? In spring, summer, and autumn I work harder at it than at writing, and I expect that looks crazy, but what it does is balance all the anxieties and tensions and keep me sane. Sanity (plus flowers) does make sense.
In a sentiment that evokes her lovely insistence on “joy instead of will,” she celebrates gardening as an antidote to the cult of achievement — the cult that makes a travesty of all creative work:
Gardening is like poetry in that it is gratuitous, and also that it cannot be done on will alone. What will can do, and the only thing it can do, is make time in which to do it. Young poets, enraged because they don’t get published right away, confuse what will can do and what it can’t. It can’t make a tree peony grow to twelve feet in a year or two, and it can’t force the attention of editors and publishers. What it can do is create the space necessary for achievement, little by little.
Complement with more reflections on gardening from Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Rebecca Solnit, Bronson Alcott, Michael Pollan, and Jamaica Kincaid, then revisit Sarton on how to cultivate your talent, the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, grieving a pet, the cure for despair, and her timeless ode to the art of being alone.
Published April 18, 2023