What Sunflowers Can Teach Us About Writing

Earlier this week I posted a photograph on social media of one of our sunflowers that had lost its head, literally.  One of our recent thunderstorms with high winds must have snapped off the bud.  However, this particular sunflower refused to give up. Seeking another opportunity to bloom, it managed to create several tiny sunflower blossoms erupting from the sides of its stem. I’d never seen anything like that before.  It provides a great visual example for how, even when obstacles get in your way, you can still soldier onward.

A big sunflower makes an impressive statement,  but those tiny little sunflowers are unique.  

My husband Peter, loves sunflowers and he has planted them at different times this particular season with varying success. An entire batch of seeds just didn’t germinate. His solution was to try again, this time by planting a few seeds individually in Solo Cups which we positioned near our garage. If rain was in the forecast, we moved the cups under shelter to prevent the cups from becoming flooded. The result was another group of sunflowers to transplant. Then he bought a third batch of seeds and planted again. We now have sunflower seeds to be harvested, as well as adolescent sunflowers just beginning to form their buds and everything in between.

The sunflowers and their varying shapes and sizes remind me of my writing goals. We have some plants as tall as 14 feet and others  as short as 18 inches.  Part of the differences are due to the variety of sunflower and part are due to when the seeds were planted and the growing conditions.

I’ve been working on a novel and that is a giant sunflower. A large sunflower can take patience to cultivate. A number of storms have come through and knocked over some of our tallest sunflowers before they had the chance to fully open.  Sometimes a draft just doesn’t turn out and you have to rip it up and try again, plant a fresh seed and nurture it from the beginning. But as we saw with the sunflower that “lost its head,” smaller blooms can also present themselves, erupting from the stem. Perhaps not as important and grand, they are beautiful in their own way.  These tiny sunflowers are like the compressed pieces I write, less than 500 words. When I get frustrated with the long form, I write the short form. The finish line is shorter and the opportunity for publication is broader.

All those varying sizes of smaller sunflowers in our garden, I compare to  my  essays and short stories. Some varieties are more delicate than others and each has a different attribute to admire. I write every day, but I’ve found through trial and error that I’m a better editor of my work if I give a piece some distance. So, once I’ve finished the first draft I try to not read the story or the essay for at least two days. The optimum time is a week, but I have a tendency to grow impatient. Thus, the solution is to start another piece of writing.

Blogging for me is close to journaling, in that I write down what’s on my mind. I loosely edit, but immediacy is key. Whatever I decide I want to share is posted within 36 hours of conception. Unlike my other writing, which is labored over with hopes of formal publication, the blogs are entirely under my control.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the novel writing project. Writing a  100,000 word book worthy of sharing with the world takes long term commitment. The giant sunflower. I’ve been working on my current novel for four years. It’s gone through numerous iterations. At various times I’ve broken it up by chapter, hoping to treat each chapter like a short story, but the cohesiveness of the narrative arc makes one chapter dependent upon the next unless starting at the very beginning.  But all writing, even pages you decide to discard, is instructive. It is, after all, a creative journey. 

I recommend to anyone embarking on the writing journey, master the short/flash form. Also become comfortable with writing nonfiction. Writing the truth is powerful.  Many of my personal essays have taught me things that have helped improve my novel.

As every committed writer already knows, writing is hard work. There are no shortcuts. You just have to write. And read. Read as much as you can and if you don’t have the time to physically read a book, listen. We all experience the world in different ways. Challenge yourself. Don’t limit yourself to a few favorite authors, discover new voices.  Take time to admire the world around you, including the sunflowers. Thank you for reading or listening to my point of view and if you haven’t read my personal essay, “Voice Lessons” in Litro Magazine, here is a link. Follow me on twitter at SN Maril .

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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