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 boxer shorts."

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 citytype@globe.com.

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