Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lilac, Garbage and Expensive Perfume

by Susan Cushman

When I read that the theme for this round of posts was “the effect of nature on your writing,” I was a little panicked. I’ve never considered myself a nature lover. In fact, I prefer the concrete jungle to the deep, dark, green, mysterious environs of the woods. But when I told my best friend about my anxiety, she said, “Oh, but you do love nature. You’re always telling me about the baby robins in the nest outside your kitchen window and you even wrote a poem once about your peonies blooming.” Was that me? Maybe the natural world just weaves its way into my city girl heart unawares at times.

And then, of course, there’s the beach, which for some reason I don’t consider “nature” in the same way that fields of wild flowers and mountain streams and dense woods are nature. The beach is the only place I love more than the city. The most productive time of my writing-career-in-progress was the month I spent at Seagrove Beach, Florida, this past November. Alone. Writing nine chapters of my novel. It was magical. I also memorized poetry as I walked along the beach every day and breathed in the salt air and felt the “flung spray and the blown spume” and heard “the sea gulls crying,” as John Masefield puts it so eloquently in his poem, “Sea Fever.” (Memorizing poetry is good medicine for the soul, especially during the cold, dark days of winter, as I experienced this past December.

The truth is I haven’t written any more chapters on my novel since I returned from my beach retreat at the end of November. Memphis experienced a historically cold, dark and wet December and January, and I found myself battling a severe case of depression. Some of it could have been SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and any number of other circumstances could have brought it on, but I was just blocked. For one thing, I couldn’t decide how the novel should end, and I’m still struggling with how to write the final chapters without knowing the ending. And just when our weather began to take a turn for the better and spring finally peaked out from behind the darkness, I found myself back on the beach for spring break with my best friend and her teenagers.

After a week of frolicking by the ocean in March (and coming home with a broken ankle) I was ready to return to the novel. But my daughter’s wedding is May 7 and now I find myself in “wedding central” with all the last minute plans during April. She’s getting married on the beach, and I’ll be leaving next Tuesday with my car packed with all the decorations we’ve made for the reception and everything else I’ll need for two weeks back at Seagrove. All this to say that now that the weather is beautiful and the beach is beckoning, I should be able to return to the novel, right? Maybe I’ll carve out a few days at the beach next week before anyone else arrives.

And then there’s always New York City at the end of May. My husband is speaking at a medical meeting in New York, and I love going with him for this trip every year. Me and my laptop will cozy up in our hotel room or at one of my favorite coffee shops in the East Village and we’ll see how the work progresses. Last time I was in New York I road a bicycle through Central Park, which was possibly the closest you can get to “nature” in the Big Apple. It was fun, but nothing compares to riding the subway to the eclectic shops in Soho, and to the Village to hang out in the coffee houses and used book stores, and to the Upper East Side to the art galleries and museums. I’ve written some essays while in New York, so maybe that will be the way to go.

Lilacs in Central Park, New York City
Joan Didion’s bittersweet memoir of living in New York City, “Goodbye to All That,” sheds some light on my love affair with NYC:

“I was in love with New York…. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring…. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume….”

Yes! The air from the subway grating and the plethora of smells from the city and the street corner vendors and the skyscrapers and the fascinating variety of people all around you. I could sit at a sidewalk café and write about those things for hours. Maybe I’ll try an experiment while I’m in New York next month. Maybe I’ll try writing in the middle of Central Park one day, and then in a crowded coffee shop in the Village the next, and see which kind of “nature” seems to feed my writing. The possibilities are exciting! (Back in January I wrote a poem, "City Girl's Lament," while visiting my best friend at her mother’s lake house in Arkansas.)

How does nature, the weather, or the “setting” affect your writing? Leave a comment and link back to your own site to join the conversation. I’d love to hear from you!

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, and several other journals and magazines. Later this year, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer Shadow,” will appear in the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s personal blog is Pen and Palette, and she is a regular guest blogger on Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest blog, “There Are No Rules.” Susan is Director of the upcoming 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop  (September 23-25). Registrations are open and spaces are filling!


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Karen Harrington said...


Thanks for sharing your story. I do think the mother nature affects our desire to do any number of things. I can see why the beach and ocean would be a great inspiration. How you have a second wind of inspiration! And have fun at the wedding. Sounds wonderful!

Great love,


Anonymous said...

Another good blog, Susan. I'd like to visit NYC the way you enjoy it! Not a nature lover? Maybe the extreme variations in cold and hot, light and night, wet and dry predispose some of us in the Deep Deep South to prefer concrete and air conditioning. Everything here is just so excessive! And, once again, our best can also be our worst. Mostly enjoying the days of spring in Mississippi. . .

Darrelyn Saloom said...

I'm reading this as I watch pelicans soar by my balcony and listen to the endless abundance of Gulf waves crash the white, sandy shore in Destin, Florida. The spring breeze is cool with the scent of salt water and sour towels left in a heap by my sons who enjoyed a late-night swim under a starry, moonless sky.

How does nature affect my writing? It is the setting, the thread that weaves through my prose to engage readers senses and take them along on my journey. It's as intrinsic as the seaweed stuck in the pockets of the bathing suits I'm washing this morning.

Enjoyed the post. Hope all goes well with your daughter's wedding.

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