July 21, 2002
The Agony of Writing in a Steamy Season
"It's a combination of the heat and the fact that everyone
is running around with no clothes on." says writer Steve Almond.
"It's not a conducive environment to a big heavy literary experience,
either reading or writing."
Yes, it's the time when the air is heavy and the reading is light.
Of course, on the Red Line, people still read Sartre, but for most
of us, it's the season to dash to the bookstore for the fun summer
read before we pack our sunscreen and head for the beach. There's
a time-out kind of restlessness luring us into the sunshine to play
or into a dark cool theatre for a brainfreeze of movie silliness.
The languor of the weather touches writers, too, and beckons them
toward lighter work.
"I was looking into the maw of a big ugly revision of a big
ugly novel and it's hot," says Almond, who is the author of
My Life in Heavy Metal, a collection that includes the Pushcart
Prize-winning story, "The Pass."
Over a bowl of shrimp and noodles at Pho Pasteur in Harvard Square,
he elaborates."When it's oppressively hot, the last thing I
want to do is be engaged in a writing project that feels oppressive.
I have no desire to sit with sweat dripping down my face, writing
the great American novel. Part of it is physiology--I schvitz. And
most of my stories take place in hot weather. I write with my computer
on my lap, throwing off heat, and I sit in my boxer shorts writing
about guys who are sitting in their own cruddy apartments in their
Aside from the heat, there is the rhythm of the year that is particularly
hard on Boston writers. In an atmosphere ruled by the academic calendar,
summer just naturally feels like vacation.
Almond says, "It's time to strip down. It's too hot for heavy
self-exploration. It may be a huge rationalization, but I'll face
that grim possibility in the winter."
On the other hand, especially for writers who teach, there is always
the fantasy that, once school's out, the writing will begin. Almond
nods in recognition, laying the last of the shrimp shells to rest
in the peanut sauce dish.
"You think it'll all happen in the summer. You'll be a writing
machine and work eight hours a day. Right. Just when everybody is
heading to the Cape and looks insufferably tan and is telling you
about their vacations, this is the time you're supposed to be writing
the big heavy novel? Forget it!"
Author Mameve Medwed is hard at work on a novel, but the work seems
to fit the season: she is obsessed with passion. Medwed, author
of the Cambridge-centric novels Mail and Host Family, is reworking
a pivotal scene in her forthcoming book, The End of an Error. The
scene depicts more passion than she generally gets explicit about,
and she is obsessing over it with editors, friends, and fellow writers.
"I'm having bizarre conversations with editors about things
like whether or not he should unsnap her garter," she says.
"I'm trying to up the passion quotient. I keep putting the
passion in and taking it out and wondering if I'm somehow passion-deficient.
But I guess what better time to be talking about hot things?"
Medwed most often tackles ambitious new work in the fall, her nod
to the ebb and flow of the school calendar. What she generally prefers
to do in the summer are small projects--essays, reviews, travel
articles. She especially enjoys writing book reviews, which she
finds a combination of work and pleasure. In June she was delighted
to receive a stack of "summer reading" books to review
for New York Newsday--light reading, with writing to match.
"I don't write well in the summer," she says. "I
think I'm constitutionally incapable of thinking clearly when it's
hot. I do most of my writing when it's horrible out. There is nothing
better than to be in your study writing when it's gloomy and you
can hear the rain on the roof. When the weather is beautiful and
all the world is outside, all I want to do is walk to Harvard Square
for an ice cream."
But this year, thoughts of passion have claimed priority. "This
summer I haven't pulled a weed. The house is in shambles--it always
is when I'm writing," she says, sitting in her decidedly non-shambled
kitchen with its exuberant collection of ceramic cupcakes, wooden
pies, fabric fruit, and other non-edibles on every surface.
Medwed is eager to shake off her lusty musings. "I'm obsessed
right now, but in the next two weeks I'm going to finish the scene
Then life will start up again."
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org.