By Virginia Parker Staat
“Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.”
~Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
As I write this, it is early December. Vibrant fall colors have arrived in South Texas. Sweet gum trees, bathed in red, shimmer and tremble in the chill of a north wind. Cloaked in deep rust, bald cypress sway, their feathery foliage dancing across sidewalks. Oak and sycamore revel in a myriad of yellows, golds, and oranges. It is a glorious autumn day, indeed. It feels as if a day like this whispers secrets about the coming winter.
There is something incredibly special about observing nature this time of year. The whole earth seems to entice eyes and ears, nose and fingertips. As writers, it offers us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a familiar landscape and discover something new. In the words of Thoreau, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
Several years ago I attended a lecture and book signing for a treatise on using mythological archetypes in storytelling. The author had moved to South Texas from Illinois a few years earlier. Well known for his skill at observing archetypes in everyday life, I was surprised when he lamented that South Texas lacked four seasons.
It was not the first time that I had heard that my corner of Texas is void of four distinct seasons. I admit that the statement rankles me. Does one really need four feet of snow to know for certain that winter has arrived?
The falls and winters of South Texas are simply more subtle than much of our country. Some years, like this one, are filled with bold autumn colors and winters with heavy frosts… occasionally even snow. Our most mild winters, however, can always be discerned by the direction of winds, the sight of hundreds of slender wings beating against a crisp blue sky, and the sounds of honking geese falling on wanting ears.
Perhaps it simply takes more effort than most care to muster to recognize the four seasons of South Texas. It requires observation skills, utilizing all five senses to detect what some may call only nuances. Pity the soul who dismisses how snow geese look like snow drifts when they glean nearby fields… or how swirling milkweed seeds dispersing in the wind look exactly like a freshly shaken snow globe… or how ice crystals in the upper atmosphere radiate halos around the moon, hearkening a coming storm while their incredible beauty verifies without question the existence of a benevolent Creator.
It occurred to me that writing like a Texas winter may best describe how writers can add vibrancy to their work. Observation is a powerful tool for a writer. When we relay those more subtle responses to our world, we add a profound layer of reality and drama to our work. We intuitively know keen observation when we hear or read it… look no further than singer/songwriter James Taylor’s line, “Lord knows when the cold wind blows, it’ll turn your head around” or John Muir’s, “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!”
This kind of writing requires the best of us, compelling us to take in each experience, weigh it against each of our senses, and then distill it into words. It is an intimate process, demanding that we unveil a portion of ourselves. Done well, it triggers our readers’ senses, connecting their experiences with our words and allowing them to see nature with fresh eyes.
I admit that this kind of writing does not come easy for me. While some writers can simply recollect their observations, I often must experience them again and again for myself. As a small example, years ago I was writing a story about two women caught in a thunderstorm while backpacking. I was excited to learn that thunderstorms were in our Texas forecast that very afternoon. When thunder began to rumble, I grabbed pen and paper and sat cross-legged on our deck, soaking in the smell of the rain, listening to the pitch of the thunder, feeling the chill of each raindrop and where the rivulets of water streamed down the back of my neck between my shoulder blades.
In the midst of my experiential musings, our then college-bound son arrived home earlier than expected. He strode toward me, stopped short, and asked, “Mom, what are you doing?”
“I’m writing a piece about getting caught in a rainstorm, and I’m trying to get it right,” I answered.
He looked at me for a full ten seconds, rain beading on his jacket and the brim of his cap. He then turned heel and announced, “I’m going inside.”
He has never spoken of the incident. Perhaps he felt that it would be an embarrassment to us both, as if he had caught me sitting, trousers puddled at my feet, in an outhouse with the door wide open.
Writing like a Texas winter means truly observing and experiencing the world around us. It means adding a sense of wonder to the norm. It means adding weather to weatherless stories. It means adding tastes and smells to our writing and allowing our characters to eat, drink, and laugh. It means including the sounds of birds or wind or thunder. It means describing the distinct difference between feeling the first snowflake fall on our eyelashes or the wet kiss of a toddler.
As winter surrounds each of us in its own particular way this season, may you know that winter has come by more than the proverbial four feet of snow at your door. May you keenly observe something fresh about winter today, and may you and your writing be the richer for it.