06/04/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Everything Has a Name (or, How Gardening Made Me a Better Writer)

Recently I read an anecdote about Nabokov: a student asked if he had any talent, and Nabokov pointed to the window and asked him to identify the tree outside. When the student came up blank, Nabokov dismissed him: "You'll never be a writer."

For a long time I would have heartily disagreed, if only out of wounded pride. I, too, probably would have come up blank. My current neighborhood in Cambridge is full of gardeners; when I walk to the T it's like strolling through one long arboretum. But we weren't members of the green-thumb club. The yard of our house was shaded by our neighbors' enormous tree, so densely that not even grass would grow. We didn't venture back there much, and the plants that I tried to keep indoors eventually stopped craning towards the light and shriveled.

Then, last fall, our neighbors cut down their tree. Suddenly our yard was flooded with sunlight. We could grow anything, I realized. I sent away for a gardening catalog and pored over the pages, trying to decide what we should plant. We pulled up the weeds and scattered grass seed like confetti. We bought curious new tools: a sprinkler and a hose, trowels and gardening gloves. At first nothing seemed to happen. Then, at last, tiny green blades began to pierce their way through the soil. A green haze covered the yard, thickening into a peach fuzz of a new lawn, patchy and adolescent and adorable.

I could talk here about the obvious metaphors: writing takes patience; not every idea you have will sprout; writing requires regular, faithful watering and sun even when, on the surface, not much is happening. But that isn't how gardening helped my writing. As our garden began to take shape, I noticed that the way I looked at the world was changing. Before, when I passed a flowerbed I saw flowers—now, after so many days studying my own new flowerbeds, watching the first leaves emerge, I began to see hyacinths, tulips, daffodils. As I walked past my neighbors' gardens I lingered, trying to identify each of the new plants. That spray of green spikes was a lily. Those buds, curled hard and round as marbles, were peonies; come summer they would burst into pom-poms of ruffled petals.

Some plant names are new and luscious sounds—lupine, azalea, honeysuckle, rhododendron—or alluringly evocative: bleeding heart, creeping phlox, spiderwort. And as you learn, once-bland facts come alive with metaphorical possibilities. Peonies must get enough sun or they will sulk. Crocuses open in sunlight and close up at night, like eyes. Lillies-of-the-valley spread stealthily, multiplying each year, stretching their roots underground all winter and popping up farther and father each spring; they smell intoxicating but they will choke out other flowers if you let them.

That's what happens when you start to learn the vocabulary of a new world: it makes you slow down and pay attention and look closer. Suddenly you're awake to the detail you would have ignored.

I think of a story I read as a child, about how Helen Keller—deaf, blind, and mute from birth—first learned to communicate with the world. Out in the garden, her teacher poured water over Helen's hand, spelling "W-A-T-E-R" in sign language into the other. Suddenly Helen's face came alive. "Water," her hands spelled. "Water." For the first time, she understood that everything in the world had a name.

Writing is a bit like that: your job, at its heart, is to give everything—objects, events, emotions—its precise name. Not "flower," but He was waiting for the geranium. Not "summer," but Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects. Not "beauty," but this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. This, I think, is what Nabokov meant to say to his student. To be a writer, you don't need to have the name of every plant, or every tool, or every bird, at the ready. But you need to find it, to point your finger and make the reader slow down, pay attention, look closer.

This post was originally published on the Grub Street Daily, the blog of Grub Street, Boston's independent writing center.