Unpretty potatoes and their lessons

There are beautiful ideas, and there is reality.

I learned this from a tutor I was training, several years ago, when I worked in the Simmons College writing program. Her name was Kristin, and she told our group about a time she absolutely could not write a paper, although she had “written it in her head,” and it was perfect. So she went to her professor, and she told him about this perfect, imagined paper and how she was unable to write it. He said to her, “All you have now is a beautiful idea. And beautiful ideas are not writing.” He handed her a lined, yellow pad of paper and looked at the clock. “I’ll be back in two hours. Write,” he said. Kristin sat at a desk in the hallway and wrote. And what she produced was less perfect than what she imagined producing, and yet it was real. The words existed in the world and did not merely float in her head. “There,” the professor said. And the paper turned out to be neither good nor bad, Kristin told us.

If a creative person has high hopes for her work, she must learn to tolerate the gap between the idea and its manifestation.

Harvest done. Things arranged.

Yesterday I completely harvested my first crop of potatoes. I waited for the soil to dry from a previous rain, and then I clawed around each plant, exposing the stalks to the first potato. One at a time I grasped the plant down near the exposed soil line and pulled gently and with a little vibration, as though wiggling a tooth out. I piled up the stalks on the driveway. I piled up the potatoes — gold, red, and purple — on dry newspaper. My dark shirt absorbed the sun and my scapula were like hot wings.

I finished. I took off my shoes; one was filled with the dirt that had trickled in as I lifted the potatoes out. Dirt collected around my pink toenails and in the lines around my toe knuckles. A man from the Town of Brookline’s Public Health Department drove up in his official car and asked me if I had sighted any rats that day. Someone on the street had called to complain. “Not today, no,” I replied, “but I have in the past.” We walked around our property and went down into the basement. He took notes on everything I said. Later, as we stood again in the driveway, he admired the harvest. He left.

Old work shoes, the left one dirt-filled.

Many of the potatoes seemed crusted with dirt. I sorted them into three buckets. Grace filled them with water, I spilled it out, and she filled them again.

Buckets, potatoes, and water from the hose.

Eli came outside. “Mom, do you have any repetetive chores that need doing? I’m bored.” I gave him a vegetable scrubber and set him up on stool in the driveway, in some shade. He washed all the potatoes.

Repetetive work outdoors: cure for boredom.

Potatoes on deck. Feet on the ground.

They dried on newspaper and I inspected them. The golds: lovely. The reds: some smooth and egg-like, others scarred with split skins healed over. The purples: ugly, scabbed, and as warped and wrinkled as raisins.

Scarred reds in a grocery sack. Clean.

Beety fingers. Scabbed purples.

A year ago, my potato patch was a beautiful idea. I recall being inspired by Michael Pollan’s remark, in Botany of Desire, that potatoes could grow anywhere: just toss one in a pile of horse manure and, bam, three months later, potatoes. (Hmm.) Over the winter, I imagined the potatoes, read about them, talked about my plans. Also, I did not fail to do the work: I planted them carefully, tended them, watered, waited, and hoped all summer long.

Perhaps this imperfect potato harvest is like the first short story one ever writes, or the first dress ever sewn, or the first concerto every performed. As a product, it falls short, in both bounty and quality, of expectations.

And yet, as an experience, it has been rich. From it, I have learned what I might alter the next time I plant potatoes or some other vegetable (soil composition, watering schedule). I have had success with one lovely batch of potatoes, and I’ll figure out what to do with the unpretty ones.

This was a fully attempted draft. I learned what I can do, and what I cannot yet.

Obviously, I try to be philosophical about this. I am also really, really disappointed: so much work for so many gnarled potatoes. Even Eli said that it might not be worth washing the dirt from such potatoes with so much care. I even thought about quitting, and never deliberately growing anything edible again. Does the world really need another kitchen garden, or kitchen gardener? No, really, it doesn’t.

Why try again?

Because while the beauty of an idea is seductive, the dirt of reality is more what we desire or, at least, what will sustain us.

One-glove surrender.

Thanks to Eli Guterman for the close-up pictures of the red and purple potatoes.

12 thoughts on “Unpretty potatoes and their lessons

  1. Congratulations – job well done! I think you already had the success when you tilled the soil and got your hands dirty. Great accomplishment and I think they are lovely.

  2. Thanks for a very timely posting, especially this: “what she produced was less perfect than what she imagined producing, and yet it was real. The words existed in the world and did not merely float in her head.” I need to get some pages out of my head and onto the page, but I want them to be perfect — even though I know it will not be — so I keep holding back. As they say: “The best dissertation is a completed dissertation.”

    (BTW, there’s a Sylvia Plath poem called “Poems, Potatoes.”)

    • Kristin’s story (about a beautiful idea vs. actual writing) has inspired, er, pushed me along over the years. Glad it might be a prod for you too, Pamela.

      And I’m looking forward to the Plath poem, which I do not know. Thanks.

  3. The story Kristin tells is indeed quite inspiring. I begin training tutors tomorrow and will try to remember it.

    I also find it inspiring that you produce food from your garden. I think the world needs more kitchen gardeners, not fewer! Perhaps the purple potatoes didn’t meet expectations, but you still have the lovely golden ones. It’s more than I made this summer!

  4. I think those potatoes are *beautiful*. And they’re *yours*, just as Kristin’s work was hers. They wouldn’t be the scabby imperfect wonders they are if they’d just stayed an idea in your head. And how many ideas can you *eat*, and with butter? Mmmm…

    • They were eaten, with butter and salt.

      And more were eaten scalloped, with butter, salt, cheese, cream, onions.

      More delicious than a supermarket potato.

      Thank you for reminding me that imperfect can still be pretty wonderful, R.

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