THE COLDEST WINTERS OF OUR LIVES:
Using the Changing Seasons in Your Writing
(Dedicated to Mervin Vann)
Sunrise July 7, 1919 Sunset February 12, 2003

I have not seen snow in 21 years, that is, until I recently rode through a snowstorm in Cheyenne, Wyoming mountains. Nor did I clearly remember how the leaves change in autumn on the east coast, and how they resemble flames leaping towards the sky in shades of persimmon, cardamom, amber, burgundy and rust. But I recently witnessed all this and more by going to the Baltimore Book Festival the weekend of September 27, 2002. Although I could write about having an exquisite dinner at the Renaissance Hotel overlooking the harbor or the workshop I conducted on "Writing Compelling Fiction," it was the seasons that spoke to me.

These two incidents—the snow and the leaves changing—reminded me how much I have missed the pageantry of the seasons. As I took a slow leisurely trip across the states, I thought of how living in the Los Angeles area for the last 21 years has blinded me to the changing seasons. Even so, I don't know if this would have helped me to recognize another passing season in my life. I am facing the impending loss of my last living parent. My father, age 83, who has crippling arthritis, has deteriorated since I saw him last year. Surprisingly, I do not feel sadness, but a resignation, a sense that this is part of the life cycle. Like the song, "Everything must change."

This is a very different reaction from when I lost my mother. I was so totally unprepared when my mother died of a sudden heart attack on December 1, 1993 that I felt a rage, almost a railing against God. How could You? How dare You take this woman, who I was just realizing was my root, who carried me inside of her, whose very hand movements I saw mimicked in my own? This period was to become what I later saw as the darkest winter of my life. Looking back, I think my reaction was part of what often marks the loss of the first parent, particularly the mother.

These are the things, we, as writers, must mark in our writing--the changing seasons of our lives, of our characters, of their journeys and how our characters react to them.

After the Baltimore Book Festival, I stopped in Detroit. While there, I took my father out from his new residence—a nursing home—to get a milkshake at McDonald's, and while pushing him in his wheelchair, I felt like the parent. I was no longer angry about his being human, his frailties, his failings, (which have been more glaring since my mother's death.) I just wanted him to feel the sun on his tissue-like skin, through which you could see the blue veins.

I immersed myself totally in the moment. We were enjoying the sunshine. No matter all the calls I'd received from my hometown, Detroit, about how horrible it is about Daddy, “He's in this new crisis,” or “that new crisis”—I was no longer upset. In the manner of a former social worker, I decided to reframe the issue. Instead of looking at my father's slow demise as, “Isn't it awful how we grow old and die?” let's look at it as how the seasons in life change. As a writer, we often write from the premise, “What if ...” So I say, what if we reframe some of the issues of being part of the sandwich generation—dealing with children/grandchildren/elderly parents? What if this is a celebration?

I saw my father's mood lift as I told him how fortunate he was to have four sons who have looked out for him, as well as three daughters. How blessed he is as a Black man, to have children who have made his life better, financially, when we all went to work. I saw the relief in my brothers' eyes as I commended them for the good care they've provided for my father over the past nine years, which includes putting him in a nursing home in the past month, even if it has been against my father's wishes, but was for his greater good.

Then it hit me. My siblings and I are now the older generation. Moreover, as a writer, I am now a teacher—the young come to me for advice. I am responsible to hand down the stories from past generations to the next generation as to how we, as a people, survived, which is why I feel it is important for us to write down our stories. Sadly, for African-Americans, much history was lost because, although there was the oral tradition, many people failed to write their stories down on paper.

As a writing technique, I saw a pattern. In writing, a symbolic spring and summer generally connote an upward spiral in our characters' lives. For instance, the characters fall in love, buy a home, have a baby, and get promotions. They are happy.

Paradoxically, a figurative fall and winter generally depict a downward spiral, which is often called the “inciting incident,” in a story. Someone no longer loves you and leaves you. Someone dies suddenly. Or perhaps a loved one is the victim of senseless violence. The character becomes sad. Like a sudden blizzard upsetting one's orderly life, the character's world is thrown out of balance.

This is the heart of fiction. No one wants to hear about how great your character's life is. Fiction is about trouble. So even the perfect life needs to get upset to keep your reader turning pages. At the same time, though, I think that we should learn to see the good in these downward spirals and make use of them in our writing. Although these bad times are what compel the reader on, we should show the upside of this, too. It is generally during the “symbolic” winter that our character's mettle will be tested, and the reader will find out what they are made from. As a writer, you might ask, how does the character change and grow through this wintry season? Does he go from cynical to optimistic? Mistrustful to trusting? Stingy to altruistic (such as Scrooge)? The character can also go through the reverse of these cycles.

Ironically, just as winter signifies death, (eg. death of a relationship, death of our youth, death of our illusions,) there is a certain element of resurrection in this final eventuality. For it is generally after we go through a disaster, we are plopped flat on our backs, sometimes literally, and forced, (even if against our will,) to reflect. What comfort or sustenance does the character find then? For instance, to this day, I marvel at how my mother is reborn over and over again on a wintry day when I drink a hot cup of soup, which was one of her many ways of nurturing.

Now I wonder. What memories will my father's last winter bring me? Will it be his love of a good anecdote or his story-telling ability that he handed down to me? I don't know. But this I do know. In the midst of life, we are in death, so as writers we must embrace those special, magical moments that make up our humanity. After all, as John Irving ended his novel in The World According To Garp, “ ... we are all terminal cases.”