A Vine Is More Than Its Grapes

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?

Also, there is still time left to fill out our reader survey if you haven’t done so yet.


18 Responses to A Vine Is More Than Its Grapes

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 5 2015 at 7:25 am #

    I wish I had time for all the stories trying to get out of me! I was in the middle of book 3 of my series when I had to stop for a short story contest, and then another short story, then another novel, and then this enormous fanfiction epic that’s consumed all my output since. For the fanfiction alone I figure I will have written 700K words in 4 years, but hopefully when I finally finish the story I can get back to that series. Oh, and there’s a short story entry I need to finish by December. (Check out a magazine called Crossed Genres, they have themed issues.)
    I completely agree with your friend’s comments. My fanfiction period has been the most pleasant and productive time of my life so far, notably because I publish as I go, and the feedback from the readers is quick. The business end of getting published sucks all the joy out of the whole activity, to the point where I don’t know if I want to bother anymore, not to mention the endless self-promotion (a nightmare in itself). I have to write but the annoyance of trying to fit myself into the business model makes me reconsider whether I need to sell. Are there venues for original writing, like there are for fanfiction?

    • Stephanie Garber Aug 5 2015 at 1:05 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading, Marc! I’m glad writing fanfiction has brought back some of the joy! One thing I do love about publishing is that there isn’t just one right path! I love that there are so many different avenues where people can share and publish work! As far as your question, about venues for original writing–I don’t actually know much about fanfiction (I was never brave enough to write it), so I’m not sure what exactly you’re looking for, but I do know there are a lot of different small presses out there that specialize in different types of writing. 🙂

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 5 2015 at 9:14 pm #

        Writing is always a joy (it’s trying to get published that drains the soul), but fanfiction is a lot faster to do, that’s for sure. I’m more of a fixer anyway. I find the crappy parts and make them better, so most of the work has already been done. A fanfiction site is like a huge, multi-author blog, really. I could post my chapters to my own blog but no one knows to come there (except for the lucky and blessed few). Fanfiction.net is one of the best, but I don’t know if there are any for original work.
        I’m currently published by a small press, mainly because she takes my word for it. I had no idea how to write a query letter, but she had no idea she needed them, so it worked out, but even she thinks my story ideas are weird. Your grape vines are probably more linear.

  2. Linda W Aug 5 2015 at 7:50 am #

    I really needed this post, because I have felt like giving up. I queried three books to agents. Received several nos on the first two and some on the third. Still waiting to hear back from two publishers on the third. So, I can relate to the desire to give up.

    I graduated from an MFA program three years ago. I had hoped to be published by now. I remember thinking that if years went by and I haven’t been published, then I wasted my money. The thought of writing to create beauty didn’t appeal to me. I was too mercenary minded.

    But your post resonates with me. I was too caught up in the sell-by date of my work. I need to nourish my little “grapevine” without a date or a price tag in mind.

    • Stephanie Garber Aug 5 2015 at 1:14 pm #

      Oh, Linda! I’m so glad this resonated with you. I have yet to get an MFA, but I was so similarly minded. I think it doesn’t help that people sometimes treat writing as if it doesn’t count unless it’s published–which is absolutely not true!

      • Lorelei Aug 5 2015 at 7:40 pm #

        Exactly! My husband always says that “writing is intrinsically worthwhile,” so any time spent writing, regardless of the results, is time well spent.

        • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 5 2015 at 9:19 pm #

          As your own first reader, you should be pleasing yourself at the very least.

  3. C.L. McCollum (@C_L_McCollum) Aug 5 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Ok this was a fantastic post – totally what I needed right now. Thanks so much!

    • Stephanie Garber Aug 5 2015 at 1:14 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading, I’m so glad you connected with it. 🙂

  4. Jo Smith Aug 5 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    My vine suffers from neglect. Life is taking all the nutrients from the vine. But as time goes by the nutrients will not be needed for other things and the vine will get them. Then my vine will not only be a beautiful plant but as fruitful as I want it to be.

    • Stephanie Garber Aug 5 2015 at 5:01 pm #

      Beautifully said, Jo!

      • Jo Smith Aug 5 2015 at 5:11 pm #

        Thank you so much for your comment. At this point with few around to complement my work your words are like a piece of chocolate to me.

  5. Paula Boer Aug 5 2015 at 6:55 pm #

    Very well said. I have been a struggling vine for many years. Even with many bunches of fruit savoured, I still strive to produce more. The important thing is that the leaves are just as beautiful as the fruit – fresh green at times, strong in winds at others, beautiful in their autumn demise. And, the vine rests through winter, strengthening those supporting limbs. Lessons for us all. Thank you.

  6. Katherine Traylor Aug 6 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    This was very timely for me, so thank you. : )

  7. acps927 Aug 9 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    This is such an encouraging post, Stephanie!

  8. Jenny Howe Aug 10 2015 at 6:42 pm #

    Thanks for this reminder, Stephanie. Lately, I’ve been wondering if my vine is all wrong. And I’m still unsure if I will be able to find the right climate for it to grow in. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep tending it all the same.

  9. Mark Holtzen Aug 11 2015 at 8:50 am #

    Nicely done. The vine is a great metaphor and one I haven’t heard before (hard to find those effective non-cliche’s). I’ve been feeling weirdly content lately. I’m querying novel number three and plotting for a big revision of novel number four. I actually do have a picture book coming out next spring with a small press. But what’s funny is despite that PB, I still have pangs of hope for finding an agent for my MG novels (my apparent true passion). So I realize that the more you have, the more you want. That slippery slope is always looming.

    I recently resigned my teaching position to write full time. There have been moments of sheer terror, certainly, but also a lot of feeling like this is what I want to do and even if I “just” write a blog post that makes someone think, that’s a pretty cool thing. I had a couple former students and a CP read my recent novel. They loved reading my hard work. Why shouldn’t that be enough to feed my soul for a time while my craft improves and I continue to find my voice? Anyway. It’s hard to remain Zen about it all–striving for a feeling of contentment right alongside trying to improve–but I find it easier as long as I’m writing.

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