The crickets are really loud right now because it’s nearly dawn in September in Virginia and the insects want it to be autumn almost as badly as the humans who live here. We are in the clove of seasons, a phrase I am borrowing from James Hurst’s classic short story “The Scarlet Ibis,” which takes place in North Carolina sometime in late summer, before the temperature and leaves have changed.
If you haven’t read “The Scarlet Ibis,” you really should, probably today, because if you don’t, you will likely forget. It is seasonally appropriate. Be forewarned, it’s a tragedy, one that, despite being written before the invention of the internet, manages to make an impression even on a classroom of fidgety 14-year-olds, and they are hard to impress. It’s about a boy who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. To me, it’s about sibling guilt. Most of us who have siblings know something of what that feels like, especially if you were the oldest.
The transition from summer to fall is the most nostalgic and bittersweet of the season changes. It’s the last stage before everything freezes up and dies. We want autumn because we’re weary from the intense heat and humidity of summer, and because it is clear and beautiful. And at least where I live, fall is by far the most pleasant season in terms of weather.
But there is a sadness, a minor chord in the soundtrack, as the sun gets stronger and stronger before it fades. Here we have the cemetery walks and ghost stories, the emphasis on dying. Or is it that what we’re hoping to believe in is actually something after death?
It occurs to me, when I haven’t written a blog post in awhile, that I haven’t written a blog post in awhile. I wonder if I should keep it up. One of the main questions for writers is, what’s the point? I am one of thousands of voices trying to articulate something meaningful about the human experience.
Another pressing question is, what can I actually write about that won’t get me fired, disowned, or otherwise ruin my life? What can I write about that won’t annoy people because of its narcissism? Why would anyone want to read my thoughts?
There’s always a risk with writing. It doesn’t feel like as a big a risk as saying something aloud in public, but it’s a risk, nonetheless. You may publish something and get your feelings hurt when you hear the crickets chirping as loudly as they are outside my window at this moment.
But the bigger risk is that you’ll write something that strikes a major chord, find you’ve gone viral, and get yourself blacklisted. I know people who’ve experienced that and survived, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk for me. I’ve been called a feminist and a communist and wondered if my very small reputation in that direction was the reason an invitation to my kid’s birthday party was declined. (It probably wasn’t. Wanna-be writers always think people know who we are and what we said, but they don’t.) Recently I decided I was relieved after I got a rejection email for one of my essays because what I wrote was too personal and it’s probably better if it’s not on my permanent record.
So you think, OK, since I don’t want to be honest enough about my personal life to really get any attention, and I’d rather not be blacklisted for political reasons, maybe I’ll just write fiction.
For me, writing good fiction is a lot easier said than done, and based on what I’ve read from the kids I teach, it’s true for them, too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read better fiction by high school students than what’s in some of the popular young adult books on the shelves, but all that means is that something doesn’t need a lot of merit or credibility to be marketable, which is obvious in every market. Think about restaurants: Do you choose based on quality? Not always.
You know what high school students write best? Poetry. Because they can finish a poem (or two) within one class period and it doesn’t infringe on their time as much as, say, writing a 50,000-word novel or memoir.
Also, the experiences of adolescence often make for better poetry than the experiences of midlife. Your first love hits you harder than what you feel on your 14th anniversary. Most of us are lucky to even have a 14th anniversary, and if we do, to feel good about it.
Teenagers can usually be honest about their feelings without getting disowned, fired, or blacklisted. Sometimes, they are even rewarded for taking that risk with some kind of recognition or award. I wrote a poem about sex when I was 14 and got a third-place award which led me to continue down the angst-ridden path of the wanna-be writer. Submitting that poem to a contest was the only time I remember my creative writing teacher ever acknowledging me or giving me any feedback or direction, other than writing a one-word prompt on the board every day and turning us loose. To say that expectations for teachers are different now than they were when I was in high school is an understatement.
Usually the worst thing that happens for teens when they write about their feelings is that they might have to talk to a counselor, which, let’s be honest, is something we all need from time to time. Most adults just wish we could afford it. We don’t make time or spend money on our own therapy, but we’ll do it for our children if we think they need it, and we’ll do it for our students.
Living vicariously through the next generation is actually a stage of adulthood for most people. It might even be the definition of adulthood for some and I’m not sure there’s any shame in that. At some point you realize that maybe what you have to say isn’t as important as … someone younger, or maybe, everyone younger. You had your chance, and maybe you still have it, but you don’t want to take it at someone else’s expense.
So I wonder what I can write about if I keep blogging. As my children get older, they can’t always be the main characters of my stories because I have to respect their privacy. Recently, I considered writing a parenting column comparing head lice in elementary schools to STDs in college, but I scrapped that idea because of how it could affect my kids.
Maybe I’ll write more about aging, like Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which is usually in a pile of books by my bed in the guest bedroom, where I sleep more often than not because of my raging insomnia, which is almost as annoying to my husband as it is to me. I haven’t started having hot flashes yet. Based on my mother’s experience, I might have another decade before they set in.
It is not unusual now for writers to chronicle their dying process, although I’m not sure if I’ll be up for that challenge.
But aging, I can talk about. I do feel bad about my looks. At 40, even if you don’t look any worse than average, it still sucks because you don’t look like you did when you were 25. And I definitely don’t look like a lot of the beautiful girls that surround me every day. I never did. I’d say I get the wicked stepmother thing, although I’ve never committed an act of premeditated evil against someone just because she was younger and prettier, or because she was older and richer, for that matter.
Truly, the aging process is a goldmine of grievances, from little disappointments to aches and pains, elective surgeries and medical bills. Midlife is tragic in its ennui, and that’s if you are lucky.
It is the clove of seasons between youth and old-age. The only part of it I’m looking forward to is writing about it.