Farming and Writing: Against Planning the Full Course

The farmstead on my morning walk.

I am a planner. I like lists and strategies, and I like to know where everything and everyone is going to be for every minute.  The thrill of anticipation fuels me.

So when I bought the first farmstead and Philip and I bought this one, I started planning right away. Lists of garden plants and flowers. Jotted down ideas about who could come perform and what we’d have decorating the barn.  A deck out here and a wisteria on the pergola over there.  The barn would sit here, and the pasture would extend there.  I was in my glee.

Then, Dad pushed pause on the plans. (Imagine my glee deflating like a balloon.)  “You really need to live in a place to see how it works for you,” he said.  “Spend some time getting to know it. Walk it over and over again. Let yourself find the story it needs to tell with you.”

As usual, he was right. I would never have put our barn where it is now, but it works perfectly there. I probably would have gone ahead and fixed up that pergola right away, even though we don’t really need that space yet and have lots of higher priorities. It’s taken me 10 months to find just the paths I walk to and from our outbuildings.

I still like to plan, but I am learning that I have to let the place sing its story into me.


Somehow, I have absorbed this need for less planning when it comes to writing. I don’t do outlines. I don’t try to think through my work. I just have an idea, and I begin to write it. Then, as I build it out, I let the story speak back to me.  Word by word by word.

But when I’m overstressed or afraid, I let that planning part of myself kick in. I decide that I can’t begin to write until I know what I have to say. Or I imagine I must work my way through the whole book mentally before I can begin.  In short, I let my brain take over the work that my spirit and heart should be doing.  And when I do that, I almost never begin. (I wrote about how bad the mind is as a place for writing here. )

I know some folks really love outlines, and I know others feel like they need to know the ending before they can write the beginning. Honestly, if that’s the way you write and you actually write with those tools, then please use them. For me, outlines and plans are writing killers.

Instead, here are three things I do to let myself write the story that wants to be told:

  • I start. I stop trying to think it out. I stop wandering around mumbling, “What do I want to write? What do I want to write?” I just pick up a pen (usually a pen at this stage) and get some words down. Often I use my writing ritual of candle and poetry, and then I let it fly, anything that comes to my fingers gets put down.
  • I re-read.  It’s not my practice to re-read whole big sections of my previous work, but I usually re-read the few paragraphs before the blank page, just to ground myself and hear what the story is already staying. It’s like walking the ground of the farm. It shows itself to me.
  • I listen. As I read and as I write, I listen. I listen for the places where the words seems to have more energy, and then I trail behind them streaming more words as they go.  I used to scoff at people who said they listened to their writing, but now, I get it. I get it completely.

None of these practices happens in my mind. My brain is working, of course, but I’m not writing with some eye to logic or argument. Instead, I follow the trail of words like I do in a dream. Sometimes, my friend Cate ends up running an organic bakery, and sometimes, Philip hears me tell someone, “If you come over hear, I’ll kill you.”  I don’t control the impulses of dreams, and I don’t try to control those of story either.

I’m a wanderer of the word-land.


This morning, I walked back from the farm stand in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of the day. I stroll and look around. I see the farmstead spread wide across this bowl of a blessed land.  I imagine what it will be to have our driveway spin around the big magnolia, and I test out the idea of a more formal parking area for our cars. I try to picture what the farmhouse will look like when we paint it back its original white.

But mostly, I just walk, trusting my feet to land solid and confident that in time the full story of this place will open, maybe not wide like a vista, but crystal clear like a ray of sun through the forest.

It’s all about the walking, the writing. The thinking – that’s overrated.

What about you? Do you prefer to outline or let things flow without plan? Do you ever feel like you get in your own way when it comes to writing? How so?

Writing Day In and Day Out

My new book Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words came out just a few days ago. I’d love for you to grab a copy if you’re interested. You can get it on Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.  I hope you find it meaningful, and if you do and feel inclined, I’d be grateful for your review on any of these sites.  Many, many thanks.