Writing Seasons

No this will not be a discourse on the figurative seasons of a writer’s life. There are plenty of those oozing around the web and many more hidden in forgotten spiral notebooks on your study shelves.

Right now I’m focused on a much more literal literary problem. I’m interested in the craft of writing seasons.

Weather plays a pivotal role in narrative. Beyond the objective way it motivates plot and action, climate affects mood and tone in both monumental sweeps and incredibly subtle nuance. Seasons define culture, customs, language, symbols and associations in ways that few other narrative features can. It is inevitably a major player in any creative work.

walden_pondImagine, for example, that Thoreau had secluded himself on a Florida beach instead of the woods of New England. Walden would be an altogether different experience (with a different title) and we never would have had such an enlightened discourse on the transformative power of Spring:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

Consider the brooding danger of To Kill a Mockingbird without the backdrop of a long Southern summer. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights without the crystalising Icelandic cold. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori without the Japanese fall of winter sakura blossoms. The English Patient without the hot, sandy North African war. A Tale of Two Cities without rainy London streets. The White Tiger without the steaming slums of Delhi. Love in a Time of Cholera without the tropical heat of the Caribbean coastline.

In fact climate does more than simply play a part in a single story: its manipulation in one work forms part of a dense cultural mesh through which all associated narratives are viewed. That is, the way authors and storytellers interact with seasons defines the social discourse of the places they write about and the cultures they inhabit.

As an Australian I am aware of a niggling responsibility to try and build on the sparse cultural mesh of our young, small and (let’s be honest) insecure narrative landscape.

When I was just a little book nerd reading my Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter I would often find myself wondering where my parents hid those great piles of red leaves in which to jump (preferably with yellow galoshes). I would wait in my backyard hoping to spot a phantom squirrel nibbling an acorn. I would gaze out over green parks trying to imagine where all the spring bunny rabbits were hiding. I would search around our living room in hopes of finding a crackling fireplace, the one I was meant to curl up in front of while snow fell outside.

In short my imagination was genuinely confused by the disparity between the seasonal landscapes of my picture books and the reality that surrounded me.

DPSAnd thanks to narratives like The Groves of Academe, The Secret History, Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society I find it easier to picture a school year beginning amidst chilly autumn leaves than in a hot, clapboard classroom under a sadly rotating ceiling fan. Apparently we are supposed to camp in immaculate pine forests in the summer instead of at the beach. And overseas vacations should be at the Caribbean or the South of France instead of Fiji.

This phenomenon of seasonal currency also translates directly into the invented worlds of speculative fiction, finding its way into a variety of speculative genres but most obviously into epic fantasy where Northern Hemispherical climates dictate the law of imagined geographies. Middle Earth is modeled on the seasonal terrain of Tolkien’s native England, as is Lewis’s Narnia. American landscape features throughout Jordan’s Wheel of Time and is particularly apparent in the Western flavor of King’s Dark Tower series.

In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire narrative weather is a major player on a number of levels. It not only creates atmosphere, tone, obstacles, opportunities and cultures, it literally defines the identities of the warring families of Westeros and Essos, and thus the entire backbone of the series.

The_Wall

I’ve dreamed of the day when I would read (or write) an epic narrative where the climatic world was turned on its head. In my version of A Song of Ice and Fire the Wall would be in the south and Dorne would be in the north. The Iron Islands would be the Sandy Islands, and winter would never be coming.

In my world, pumpkins don’t grow at Halloween. Snow doesn’t fall on Christmas Eve. Beaches are never cold, windy places with wooden piers and taffy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter. Heading west means deserts, not prairies, and north the Equator, not the Arctic Circle. There is never a real reason light a wood fire, or rake leaves, or shovel the sidewalk. We steal mangos not blackberries, and bake pavlova instead of pie. Family picnics are BBQs at the beach, not sandwiches in green meadows.

This is the world I know. This should form the landscape of my imagination and therefore of my imagined worlds. It’s a strange thing to have to work against a preconceived cultural notion of tone and place because the culture, while dominant, is not your own. Yet it is part of my responsibility as an emerging creative voice, and a challenge I submit to all those in the same position: to add to this global lens in our own language and rhythm, and make our own experiences, and that of our Southern-land compatriots, a greater part of the world’s narrative imagery.

 

Elise Janes

The Hemingway

I glimpsed her before she noticed me. Proud affect but generous smile, turquoise wrap, blonde shoulder-cut: not too long (not too young). I could hear her admission in my head, spoken with a wink: There are certain things one must accept with age. From the blurred corner of my eye I could make out the bright red of her lips, the dark contour of well-made eyes. She paused at the table over my left shoulder, thanking the waiter like an old friend, the kind of woman who owned a dog, a small dog, a city dog as they call them here.

I felt her eyes on me as I turned back to my journal, felt the burn of her curious stare: A young woman, alone, on a Saturday afternoon? Hers was a life of faded curiosities, memories of gilded grandeur and headline parties, now a sepia echo in her mind, kept alive, artificially, in photos, individually framed, of course, that frosted every surface of her Manhattan apartment. She must live nearby, I decided. She had the bearing of a regular, but not too regular. Just the right amount, just enough to keep them guessing.

Light cut down through the glassed courtyard, cold but bright. There’d been snow the day before, but not today. Today was a day you could believe spring was coming. A strange day for a young woman to be alone, here. I guessed she hadn’t come for the exhibits, had probably stepped through the red-velvet rooms countless times. No, she was here for the place, the atmosphere; her favourite drink, perhaps: The Riesling, thank you darling, it is lunchtime after all.

I’d ordered the devilled eggs, an entrée, of course. The only thing on the menu without bread attached to it. Protein was all one needed these days, apparently, especially if one were slightly militant about those things. And I was. I hadn’t eaten all day, but still the entrée was only an adornment for my drink, to make sure not too many eyebrows were raised. I knew that when my drink came she would stare harder: Who is this sassy girl, on her own, here on a Saturday afternoon?

I decided to ignore her, ignore my sense of her, and attend to the journal. I had promised myself I would write, every day, but of course I hadn’t. How do you put these things into words? All these moments, all these instants of awe. The illuminated Dante. That had been the one, my breath-taken moment. Hadn’t it? What about the scribbled entry from Thoreau, in its pre-Walden, anecdotal rawness? Or the barely legible Beethoven, a piano trio, I think. My hands tingled at the memory, a moment already glistening like a fantasy in my mind, as if it happened years ago, to someone else.

Hemingway-picMy food came, four lonely half-eggs on a plate. And then the main course, the one I couldn’t resist: The Hemingway. The menu had mis-referenced, of course, it had been Ford who’d championed the three-martini lunch, an American rite of passage. Hemingway, though, was more romantic. I loved martinis, I loved Hemingway (who cares about Ford, really?), and I loved doing ridiculous things on Saturday afternoons, on my own. So here they were, three one-ounce perfections, a twist, an onion, and an olive.

I was sipping my second when she made her move. “Excuse me, do you mind if I sit?” Her voice hoarse, a smoker from decades past. I smiled, nodded, gestured, gritting my internal teeth, actually, no, I’m writing in my journal, can’t you see? But who was I kidding? I had time for her. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a woman who can take on gin before three pm.” I looked up, actually tilted my face, now, seeing her eyes for the first time. Deep brown, chocolaty almost, ironic, incisive, and sparkling, yes I know, a cliché, but I had never, before now, seen someone’s eyes truly sparkle.

I was thrown. “Say, where’s your husband, darling?” She didn’t even shift her gaze from mine, didn’t look at the ridiculously large diamond on my finger. Her voice, underneath the deep husk, was smooth, direct. A singer’s voice. I smiled again (yes, I smile a lot; it’s disarming and I like the upper hand). “He’s in Midtown,” I hear myself saying. “Waiting for me, actually. I’m late.” She snorted a conspiratorial laugh. I hadn’t meant to say it, she knew that. It was the twist talking. “You stood up your husband for a drink? My, my, I thought we’d have a lot in common…”

She asked about my accent, asked about my husband, asked about my life, my tastes, my desires. And I told her everything. Me. Usually the grand deflector, the one who holds the brief on everyone else, cards firmly to my breast. The afternoon seemed unreal, suddenly, like a dream, like a story, a narrative beyond my control, and I thought to myself, who is this woman, this woman who has disarmed me?

Out on the street I wrapped my scarf tight beneath my chin, felt the trailing end float behind me as I turned my head to cross the street. I ran through the cold, bright, ringing streets, ran west to my husband in Midtown, heels tapping clear on the grimed pavement. People stopped to watch me pass, cheeks flushed, and I was filled with a wondrous, ethereal awe of the world. Call me, she’d said, and she made me write her number down. A landline, I smiled, she was too proud for anything less. I thought of her smile, that direct, no bullshit smile, and the sparkling eyes and I thought,

I will.

Elise Janes