Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Effect of a Thunderstorm on Silver Queen: Writing About Nature

By Man Martin
Years ago I visited my friend Frank Cummings in Sandersville, Georgia where I was raised. “Durn rain last night knocked all my corn down,” Frank told me. Later his grown-up son arrived, and the first thing he said coming in the door, was, “Durn rain last night knocked all my corn down.” I envied them. They’d had an experience of rain I hadn’t. The weather for them was not small talk; it was an issue. They had a stake in whether or not and how much it rained. Rain to them was a like having a neighborhood giant: an unreliable and reckless, but not disliked, giant, friendly and essentially good-willed, but clumsy and prone to sudden tantrums. They had felt the damage, even temporarily, it could do to a patch of Silver Queen. They knew rain. I never wanted anything as badly as I wanted right then to have some corn planted so I too could talk about how the durn rain had knocked it down.

For Southerners – by whom I mean anyone from a largely rural area – nature has a meaning city-dwellers can’t imagine. In Manhattan, where the sun is rationed down one slice at a time through the skyscrapers, how could you know why spring is such a big deal? Oh, I’m sure they’re glad to see winter finished with and warm weather arrive. Central Park, I’ll bet, is beautiful in spring. But here in Atlanta, my heart rushes up when the dogwoods and azaleas break out and suddenly my own familiar street turns into a Monet painting.

Southerners don’t just like Nature; we soak in it. We get down like dogs and roll in it, which is fine, but as writers, we need to be highly conscious how we express this. Doing it the wrong way is, well, wrong.

For openers, here’s an example of some of Washington Irving’s descriptive writing from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The wide bosom of the Tappan Zee lay motionless and glassy, excepting that here and there a gentle undulation waved and prolonged the blue shadow of the distant mountain. A few amber clouds floated in the sky, without a breath of air to move them. The horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark gray and purple of their rocky sides. A sloop was loitering in the distance, dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast; and as the reflection of the sky gleamed along the still water, it seemed as if the vessel was suspended in the air.

Really beautiful, you’ll have to admit. The only problem is it’s not having any effect on anything. It’s just there as Ichabod rides to the Van Tassels. It doesn’t matter to him, and so ultimately – sorry Irving – it doesn’t matter to us either. All this gorgeous scenery – the lush gradations of light and color Irving pulls off – the bit about the sloop seeming to float midair – is just a backdrop, and since this isn’t a stage play but a short story, it’s not even a backdrop, but something worse: an interruption.

Maybe Irving’s point is that it doesn’t affect Ichabod, that he’s so absorbed by the prospect of all the good food to eat at the Van Tassels, that he doesn’t notice the heart-stopping beauty around him. Maybe, and if so, I’ll buy it. But later, Irving goes into another passage about the twittering of blue jays and whatnot that makes you want to scream, “Get on with it!”

For contrast, here’s how Twain does description in Huck Finn.

We spread the blankets inside for a carpet, and eat our dinner in there. We put all the other things handy at the back of the cavern. Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale under-side of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest -- fst! it was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs -- where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.

Twain jokingly apologized that he could write only “one kind” of weather, but that kind he handles magnificently. I contend this is a much more effective passage than Irving’s and not just because something’s happening, either, although that’s part of it. The point is, something’s happening to Jim and Huck. Nature isn’t something over their left shoulder as they head downriver; they’re in the middle of it. They’re responding to it, and it’s affecting them. If anyone understands this, it ought to be Southern writers; Nature isn’t just a backdrop we ride past on our way somewhere – it’s the thing itself; it gets right in the midst of our guts and does stuff to us.

It’d be great to write a passage as gorgeous as Irving’s, but you could make a pretty good name for yourself as a writer even if, like Twain, you could only do “one kind” of weather. But it still isn’t enough to throw in a thunderstorm now and then.

You need to have some corn planted, too.

Man's second novel, Paradise Dogs ("Zany," Publishers Weekly, "Hilarious," Kirkus) appears in bookstores June 7th.  His debut novel, Days of the Endless Corvette, won a 2008, Georgia Author of the Year Award.
Visit him on the web at

1 comment:

Susan Cushman said...

Great post. Teaches us how even the weather can become a character in a book, the way Pat Conroy talks about geography or place being a character. It's all in the way these elements are used, and your examples really pointed that out for us, Man. Thanks!