I’m amazed how the events of our external, public lives often hold unexpected insight for our internal creative ones. The trick, of course, is recognizing parallels in seemingly mundane and unrelated places. A strawberry field, for example.
Yesterday my husband took me out to Barthel Fruit Farm just north of our home in Milwaukee. Picking strawberries has been on my bucket list forever; I remember as a child begging my parents to take me. Somehow, the trip never happened. This summer Nathan and I are making a point to do many fun things around our city that we’ve always been too busy to try.
Hello, strawberry fields at last!
When we arrived at the farm I wasn’t thinking about creativity. After all, this was my day away from my projects. We wound through acres of fruit trees and a squash field to get to to the strawberry patch, where a friendly farm hand gave us a 10-pound box. He invited us to pick anywhere in the field, which was nearly deserted.
“It’s the end of the season,” he explained. “Just so you know, the picking will be tougher than a few weeks ago. You won’t get much.”
We thanked him for the heads-up and made our way across the field. Imagine two fields put together, furrowed into neat rows of low, verdant plants with clean paths of straw between. Now imagine about ten people total working that huge patch of land.
It seems that everyone else knew strawberry season was over . . . except for us.
In the back of my mind, I wondered if we’d get anything at all. But like the stubborn people we are, we picked a far area of the field, set our basket down and went to work in two side-by-side rows.
To our surprise, turning over the first few leaves actually revealed nice strawberries. In fact, within a few minutes we realized that the plants were full of fruit at the peak of ripeness and sweetness. Filling our basket became a matter of how fast we could pick, not how much fruit we could find.
Discovering one little treasure trove excited us to find the next. One by one we searched the plants, drawing out those hidden clusters—many of them secreted in the darkest patch of shade or nestled close to the earth.
I looked up at my husband. “What was the farmhand talking about?” I laughed. “This field is full of strawberries. There are even still flowers on some of these plants!”
Nathan’s only response was to point across the field, to where the rest of our fellow patrons were picking.
Suddenly, I realized what was happening.
You see, when Nathan and I began picking, we squatted or sat down in the row and searched the plants systematically for their available fruit. But almost everyone else was walking helter-skelter around the field—often times stepping between rows rather than working one or two—plucking the fruit they could see from a standing vantage point while moving at a decent pace.
Often several people were trying to fill a basket: parents with three teenage children, for example, or a gaggle of middle-aged girlfriends out for their monthly activity. While Nathan’s and my basket filled steadily, many that bobbed by were half-full even after multiple turns around the field. Comments of frustration or disappointment frequently followed.
“End of year,” they all murmured. “Not much left now, I guess.”
Naturally I was more than a little surprised.
And that’s also when reality hit me: the best strawberries couldn’t be found by “grazing” the field at all. They took time and patience and a little physical stamina to draw out. Mostly because they were hiding in the deepest, furthest recesses of the plant . . . away from a casual observer’s view.
I tossed another handful into our almost-overflowing basket and kept on going.
It didn’t take me long to recognize the parallel between the sweet overlooked treasure in this field and my work as a creative person. Take for example a steampunk project that’s been seven years in the making. “Working” that idea for its best elements has felt like years of field toil under a hot July sun . . . sometimes with little to show for it.
But last week my writing partner Terry and I had a wave of amazing breakthroughs on that project. The kind of breakthroughs that give you hope that the 7-year project might not become, oh say, a 9- or 10-year project!
I had wandered around that metaphoric “field” for a long time, trying to pluck whatever ideas were on the surface. Only when I plopped down in one row and began to systematically overturn the leaves did I begin to truly mine the concept for what it’s worth.
Our basket of “ah ha” moments has filled up more quickly since we committed to digging deep beneath the leaves.
All this, of course, is hard work and much less glamor than hopping from idea to idea, picking whatever flash of red happens to peak through the leaves. But in the end, it yields a bountiful harvest. One that will sustain our production over the course of years, even decades.
If our richest ideas are buried deep inside of ourselves, it stands to reason that only time, effort, and a lot of cultivated self-awareness will help us bring them out. Yet the rewards for this effort are sweet indeed.
So how do we ensure that we’re delving into the shadiest, least-accessible regions of ourselves to draw out our best ideas? Here are a few tips I thought of while filling our second 10-lb box of berries:
1) Collect everything you find.
No strawberry is too big or too small if it’s ripe and ready to eat. Our final “haul” included large succulent berries and tiny ones that more resembled their wild cousins. The basic lesson? No flicker of insight is too small to hang onto. If it crossed your mind, and gave you that “prickling” sensation, you probably ought to toss it into your basket. The trick, then, is to be always alert, working both sides of your mental row and leaving no leaf unturned.
2) Made “idea harvesting” a regular habit.
I suspect that most of us don’t think of harvesting ideas as a regular habit. We skip through the field picking what we see. Yet there’s much more “down there” than we think. What if we spent time regularly capturing all the ideas/thoughts that cross our minds into a single place? What if we could refer to that journal or collection on a regular basis for inspiration? I know I’ve had a million great thoughts enter and leave my head: ones I could have made very rich use of had I had the discipline to harvest them systematically.
3) Pay attention to what excites and motivates you.
If you’re like me, you have lots of ideas, but you may only pick certain ones because you’re not entirely aware of which ideas are best for you. Over the last few years I’ve been on a quest to get to know myself more fully so that I can better select from among my creative ideas. Watch for how an idea makes you feel. Wait to see if it persists. Just as we turned over each strawberry to inspect its health, carefully inspect your ideas to test whether they’re really a great idea for you to spend precious time and energy on.
4) Fertilize your mind with outside inspiration.
Ideas take lots of nurturing. I’m sure on off-days the farm hands at Barthel are busy tending to those plants and ensuring the soil is nourished properly so that we customers can harvest the sweet rewards. Your imagination needs that kind of care, too. Expose yourself to as many kinds of art, philosophy, performance and activity that you can. That way, your mind will be full to bursting when you go to harvest some ideas for your next project.
5) Be willing to go to the darkest places of your experience.
Some of the best berries I found were the one perfect specimen in a clump of overripe, rotting comrades. Often these berries were located close to the soil and in very deep shade under layers of leaves. The other berries in that cluster had already been bug-infested or simply gotten too much water. But picking through those was worth it to find the one perfect berry still left. The lesson? Don’t hesitate to pick through the painful and “rotten” experiences of your life. Often the most beautiful ideas, the ones that will impact others, are the gems of joy attached to clusters of pain.
As I write this, I’m enjoying a big bowl of strawberries with cream for breakfast. About 10 lbs of our 20 lb haul is in the freezer already, and the rest are fast disappearing into our stomachs! I’m so glad we took the time and made the effort to look deeper than that top layer of leaves. And I’m even more glad I had the chance to observe this little parallel between strawberry fields and the harvest of imagination.
Even at the end-of-season, the pickin’s here are incredibly good. If, of course, we’re actually willing to work.
How about you? What tricks and tips do you have
for finding and harvesting your best creative ideas?
I’d love it if you’d share them with me below!