father knows best: what my dad taught me about the writing life.
“Come here,” my dad Rob says tonight in our backyard. “I want to teach you something.”
It’s a Monday night in our hometown of Suffolk, Virginia, and the sticky humidity so characteristic of the South has finally broken, opening up to a twilight coolness – the sun still high enough to give light but no longer warm.
My dad is standing by the humble garden we’ve got going on this summer – a few tomato plants in bright blue cages, green bell peppers, sunflowers who’ve yet to unfurl their gold-fringed faces.
I’m hesitant to approach him, thinking he’s about to correct the way I’d poured buckets of Miracle-Gro over the plants a little while earlier. It seems he’s got something else in mind.
“You never know, you might end up growing tomatoes one day,” he says, and at this point – my departure for India only a few weeks away now in August – all I can think is, yep, you never know.
“You see these things here?” he asks me, pointing to a particular branch on a tomato plant. “You want to get rid of these, okay?” With hardly a thought, he snaps the vivid green stem off and tosses it to the ground.
At first, I don’t see why – for all I know, it’s just like every other branch on the plant. But he tells me it’s not about the branch itself, but where it’s growing.
My dad keeps pinching at the plant, snapping the deviants away. They’re all over the bush – some are tiny, barely big enough to call a bud, while some are long and have stems almost too thick to pull. But what they all have in common is that they’re growing in a fork between two branches.
“These are called suckers. If you let ‘em grow, you’ll only get small tomaters,” he says and I smile at the way he pronounces it. “But we want big tomaters, so we gotta get rid of them.”
These side shoots, he explained, end up stealing energy and nutrients from the rest of the plant. It may seem a little counter-intuitive, given that the suckers will also bear fruit, but the tomatoes will be smaller and the entire plant out of control.
It was right then that I yelled to my dad, “Wait!”, sprinted upstairs, grabbed my camera, ran back down and found him leaning impatiently on the handle of the broom. “What was all that about?” he asks.
“Hang on, I’ll tell you in a minute,” I say, leaning in close to the plant to get a good angle on the newly pruned forks, on the delicate yellow tomato flowers, and on the tiny green babies that have already appeared.
And that’s when I give him the explanation he’d been waiting for.
This summer – beyond being a time to catch up with family – has been a time to get things going. Writing things. Freelance things. In a way, it’s been a time of standing at my own fork in the road, asking myself what direction I really want to pursue.
A lot of people ask me if I make a living from travel writing, and I’m not ashamed to give them an honest answer. Because I don’t – just yet. And when your bank account hovers this close to empty so often – when the assignments aren’t regular and the paychecks far from steady – it’s tempting to take whatever comes your way.
Just last week, I saw a call-out from a travel blogger, advertising a part-time gig that would’ve paid a couple hundred dollars a month for twenty hours of work. I came close to applying, thinking it was better money than no money, even if it wasn’t for doing something I love. It was, as my dad might’ve said, for small tomaters.
But then something in me held back – maybe the little something that actually believes this whole big writing thing is gonna lead somewhere one day. That I can do a lot of writing in twenty hours. And that thing said, don’t fill up your time with things you aren’t passionate about. Hold out for the things you are. Hold out for the big tomaters.
When I finally ask my dad who taught him about suckers, he pauses for a moment. “Well, I guess Pop Crawford must’ve taught me,” he says, talking about my grandfather, further proving the point that father knows best.
And can you imagine a better metaphor for sticking to your dreams?
Tend the vine. Prune the suckers. Grow some big tomatoes.