Several years ago I visited the Robert Mondavi Wine Center at U.C. Davis and I was given a grape vine. I live in a region of California known for its agriculture, so when I got home I planted it in my backyard. That first year the plant grew like crazy—extra trellises had to be tacked to the fence, so that the crawling vines didn’t take over the entire backyard. It was incredible to watch this rapidly growing vine cover half my fence in lush green leaves, but sadly it didn’t produce any grapes that year.
My cousins, owners of a vineyard, advised it would take three years to produce fruit. But when the next summer came and the vine went crazy again—growing so tall it climbed into my neighbors evergreen trees—I thought maybe my vine was special. Surely it would grow grapes early. Maybe I’d even be able to make a bottle of wine.
Not a single grape grew.
The third year passed, and still no grapes.
I started to get discouraged. Instead of believing my vine was special, I thought my vine was a dud. Or maybe my cousins were wrong about how long it takes to grow grapes. I waited another year. And then, during that fourth year, something magical happened. Between the leaves, tiny little clusters started forming. At first they almost looked like weeds, spindly with tiny dots on the ends, but I knew those dots would turn into grapes. I counted the number of clusters. There were five.
It was not the bumper crop I’d hoped for, but I was still extremely excited for my little baby grapes. As the clusters grew larger, I started going into my backyard and counting the grapes on each cluster—yes, I am that nerdy.
Then one day, I went out back and, to my horror, every cluster had shriveled up completely. Not a single grape survived.
I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my little vine. But the following summer, one cluster stayed alive. After five years, my vine grew nineteen grapes!
I bragged. I beamed. My hope was renewed. My vine was not broken or useless, it was just a little slower than normal. I did fear my vine may never produce more than nineteen grapes, but by that point I’d had it for half of a decade, and I loved the plant. I decided not to care if it was fruitful. The vine added beauty to my backyard, and I chose to be proud of whatever it produced. I stopped counting grapes, and started to simply enjoy the way my vine curled around the fence, creating a beautiful green wall that thrived all summer long.
This is the sixth summer I’ve had the vine and—to my total shock—several weeks ago I noticed that the vine was bursting with clusters of grapes.
You can’t see them all from this picture, but there are over a dozen clusters. As a reader this might not feel like a big moment to you, but, for me, seeing all those grapes impacted me in a surprising way. For the first time I realized how strong of a parallel there was to that grape vine and my own writing journey.
The vine was planted in my backyard shortly after I’d decided to take my writing seriously and pursue publication. And like my writing, for YEARS there was no fruit.
But here is the big difference. Even though I thought my grape vine was a dud at times, I never once thought about ripping it out of the ground and giving up on it completely. I knew that fruit bearing plants could take years to mature. And even if it never bore fruit, I was able to simply appreciate the beauty it provided—something I continually failed to do with my writing. This is something I’ve also noticed that a lot of other writers do as well.
I do believe it’s important to have goals when it comes to writing, but I don’t believe that traditional publication should be a person’s only measure of success, the way it was for me.
I imagine there are a lot of other writers out there who have done the same thing to themselves. Maybe some of you have decided that if the book you currently have on submission doesn’t sell by (FILL IN DATE HERE) you will give up on it, or give up on publishing. Same goes for those of you who might be querying. It took me five novels before I found my first agent, and when she failed to sell that novel and decided to leave the business, many of my family members took it as a sign that I should give up on my writing as well. But you know, those same family members never suggested I rip out that grape vine. In fact, I’m pretty sure everyone agreed it was a beautiful vine.
When I shared this story with my friend, Stacey Lee, she had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with all of you as well.
Stacey: I love Stephanie’s story, as it underscores the importance of writing for the sake of creating beauty, and not for the end point. If you find yourself wondering if the writer’s journey is ‘worth it,’ we suggest asking yourself this one question: can I imagine myself not writing? If you can’t, then consider yourself the owner of a very special vine, a vine bestowed upon precious few, a vine for which there will be ups and downs, backwards and forwards, some years with fruit, and some years with blight, but it is all a part of the privilege of owning a vine.
In the comments, we would love to hear how your vines are coming along. Are you in a drought? Are you bearing fruit? Have there been years that have been more productive than others?
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