Speak, Write, Eat Tomatoes

If you read my last blog-post, you know I’m still processing my experience at the Heroic Public Speaking live event back in February where Dan Cordle, NYU Drama Teacher extraordinaire, and the shy star of my last post, asked us to improvise a scene between ourselves and someone—alive or dead—that we cared about deeply.


From the moment I’d woken up that morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about my Grandfather.


Was it because, at the last minute, I had chosen to wear the ring (old-fashioned, white gold, inlaid with emerald cuts) that my Grandfather had given my Grandmother?


When it was my turn, and I found myself enacting the following scene, I was as surprised as anyone: It was summer and my Grand-Pop and I were out in his small–mostly concrete–yard just outside New York City. I was probably five. I wore pigtails. He was old, shirtless, and very tan. He liked to wear basil behind his ears, roll a piece up one nostril, and tell me that among it’s many uses, basil passed as perfume in Italy.


He’d made a garden—framed in more concrete—alongside the fence between his and his neighbors’ attached yards. Summer meant tending to basil and tomatoes every day.


“You wann-a learn-a how to grow the biggest, most-a beautiful, tomato?”


He asked in his thick Italian accent.




“Look-a here,” he said pointing to the leaves.


“You see anything-a different?”




“You don’t see nudding?”




“Look-a closer. You don’t see nudding?”


“Poppy, I don’t see anything.”






Frustrated, he said, “Give-a me that-a stick.”


I picked up the stick and handed it to him. He took it from me, gently touched it to a leaf, and gingerly pulled off a plump caterpillar exactly the same green—precisely the same fuzziness– as the leaf it lay on…


Only seconds before caterpillar and leaf were indistinguishable to me.


“Now. You got-ta Keel him-a.”


“Kill him?”


“You wannna have-a beautiful tomato…you got-ta keel him-a.”


Sensing my reluctance, he said, “O.K., you find-a him-a, I keel-a him-”


He handed me the stick and went back to his chair in the shade.


“I give-a you $5.00 each” he called from his seat.


This was my first—and more lucrative than you might imagine–summer job. Still, I couldn’t stop puzzling over why that story had come up and why, without any rehearsal, I decided to attempt to perform my first-ever rendition of my Grandfather’s Italian accent in front of a group.


Later, in the elevator or during the breaks, people connected with me over what I had shared. I was still wondering why it had come up. Why had I shared that story? Of all of the scenes in my memory, between my Grandfather and me, why had I chosen that one?


If you’ve been to my website, and opted in (on the third slider or on the blog) to The Clementina Collective, then you’ve received my free tips and you know that one of the ways I encourage people to write more powerfully is by asking themselves who they are…once they brainstorm a list in answer to that question…I ask them to support the words with evidence from various points in their lives. A trajectory can help you create an avatar of yourself past, present, and future. The “pictures” that emerge can be a powerful springboard for writing from your core.


I’m sharing these stories with you in an effort to demonstrate that I do the same exercises I ask of my clients. I wouldn’t ask you to make meaning from powerful memories, if I weren’t asking the same of myself.


Watch and learn.


That night, I was still thinking about being in my Grandfather’s garden when the most recent developmental edit I’d done for a client floated through my mind.


Then, it hit me. The complete focus and peace I feel when I am in a client’s writing isn’t so different from the peace I felt tending to my Grandfather’s tomatoes.


A clear vision of those delicious tomatoes in abundance at my Grandmother’s table kept me focused on protecting and caring for the plants. As I got older, I learned more and more about what tomatoes need to grow.


Pop taught me that the plants need protection…it’s why we caught and killed the “worms. “ They need sunlight and water…nourishment and encouraging (an avid tomato grower knows how to stake up the plant without breaking the stems. Juicy tomatoes are heavy). And whether they’re writing a cover letter or a book, Writers require much of the same.


In essence, it was my Italian-Grandfather who first trained me as an Editor. He taught me that killing the bugs (ever hear the expression kill your darlings?) is an act of love. It is an act of grace. It requires a trained eye, a willingness to be still, and a clear taste for the beauty of a perfectly ripe tomato.