All writers have heard that there are only finally two stories: someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. (I’m never quite easy in my heart about this statement; it seems to reduce so much to so little.)
But I might add that to my thinking, in terms of human discourse, there are only finally two subjects—granted, five if you insist on counting love, sex and death—place, and weather. And it seems obvious that both carry over to writing constantly.
Evidence is endless. Here’s a personal example: One of the biggest aggravations for me about visiting my husband’s home turf—the north of England, where they suffer some of the worst weather anywhere—is that weather is all people talk about.
Never mind that it’s a nonstop nightmare. Northerners talk about it every hour of every day as if it might change.
They reckon, assess, parse, hazard, and judge; they speculate, equivocate, revise, and review exactly what is happening at the moment (cold, ugly rain), what happened yesterday (cold, ugly rain), what may happen in the next hour, week, month, or year (yes).
At first I found this reality poignant in the extreme. I thought it fascinating that northerners owned a vocabulary for rain tantamount to that of words for snow in Eskimo culture. (It’s “sheeting it down,” “throwing it down,” “hammering,” “pissing,” “spitting,” “stair rods,” etc.)
But after awhile I understood that by doing this, Northern people were telling themselves a story to keep from committing suicide or murdering one another: This might change. Year round it almost never stops raining there, and the rain is cold and sticky and seeps into bones and clothing and walls and furniture and food.
Sometimes there’s snow instead of rain.
If all one can do is hope for better, then one passes time reconfiguring, shuffling the (largely imaginary) deck. “Oh, it’s comin’ brighter now,” they’ll say to each other, looking out the window in a tone of anxious hopefulness.
Writing needs to use this stuff for all it is worth.
We’re animals: regulated by light, dark, heat, cold. To write from the body means using place and weather as building-block elements of what it feels like to dwell inside the human form.
It makes the work dimensional and alive.
Next up: place.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.