My Dad kept a compost pile in our backyard garden when I was a kid. It really was a “pile” contained by some posts and chicken wire.   I learned to layer things. (Don’t put in a lot of grass clipping unless you want it to smell like a public restroom.) Some leaves, some clippings, some dirt, some green leftovers from the kitchen, a bit of wood chips or sawdust, some sand (not the salty stuff from the beach), even some shredded paper. You have to turn it. Mix it up and add some water, but never make it soggy. “Friable” was the word my dad used – an unusually fancy vocabulary for him to use that I had to look up in the dictionary.

I have my own compost non-piles. I have the more modern plastic tumbler that allows you to roll the compost around to mix it up. I’m not sure my dad would approve of such a purchase. he probably would have built his own from an old trash can or something. I do love after a few months to dump out the rich, friable, soil mix to add to my garden. Growing a few vegetables has been a summer tradition for me ever since my childhood in “The Garden State.”  (And yes, many people in New Jersey do keep gardens and on the vegetable side you are almost required to have a few tomato plants – hopefully at least one Rutgers tomato plant. (I would like to recommend that their next species be a “Scarlet Knight.”)

The more figurative composting that I do has to do with writing. This composting means writing down all kinds of ideas in notebooks, in my iPhone Notes, and  as drafts online. They often come to me while walking, in the shower, while reading or listening to podcasts and while working in the garden.

I allow these layers to pile up in layers. I mix them. We are often a bit too much in love with our newest idea. In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises that we allow ourselves to write a “shitty first draft.” Like my garden manure, those drafts help the compost work.

Garden composting requires water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and micro-organisms to break down organic matter to produce compost. Bacteria abounds. Actinobacteria is needed to break down paper products such as newspaper, bark, chips and sawdust. There is some fungi, molds and yeast that can break down materials that bacteria cannot. I haven’t looked under a microscope, but those protozoa from high school biology class consume bacteria, fungi and micro organic particulates. I have read that there should be some rotifers in there to help control populations of bacteria and small protozoans.

I put in any earthworms I find while digging and weeding the garden. In my less formal compost pile that I keep for extra leaves and clippings in the style of my dad’s piles, I will find earthworms there naturally who are not only ingesting partly composted material and depositing rich soil, but also continually creating aeration and drainage tunnels as they move through the compost.

I won’t take my writerly composting metaphor further and try to figure out what bacteria and earthworms are at work there, but time certainly does some of the work. The writing that emerges often looks very different from the raw materials that went into the pile. Hopefully, it is deeper, richer and bears more fruit.