23 December 2010 2 Comments

Extreme weather boosts creativity

Samuel Johnson wrote that “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.” The good doctor wrote that in 1758, long before the conversation of Englishmen was informed by the hyperbolic outrage of London’s present tabloids. Just lately it seems he might amend his phrasing to “their only talk.”

The British are in a weather frenzy. Snow has shut down Heathrow Airport essentially for five days. Other airports are stuttering, trains are barely operating, roads impassible. The newspapers – and not just the tabloids – accuse the airports authority of dreadful failings, while others curse an unprepared government and the swinging temperatures caused by global warming.

What we writers ought to focus on is the opportunity for unleashing our creativity presented by such extreme conditions.

A writer should seek out extremes. Within himself, of course. But how to uncover those extremes of emotion? External extremes impinge on what goes on in your mind and heart, so that in the end they promote an understanding of the deepest feelings. And it’s deep feeling that makes a novel memorable, more than swish style and zippy plot.

I realized this during the Palestinian intifada. Not because of the extreme weather – though the battles I saw fought out in a rainy January in the West Bank or a sweltering July in Gaza were unrestrained – but rather because I was able to witness people in extreme situations. Surrounded by immoderate violence I saw the worst and best of people. In turn, that evoked my understanding of the best and worst in me.

I came to think of this experience in terms of color. If your everyday life is pretty good, let’s call it green. You get used to seeing green and, even when you change location, you prefer something in a similar shade of green. Then one day there’s a burst of scarlet, and then comes orange, and just as you wonder what that’s all about, your vision is splashed with turquoise. Suddenly the green seems different.

John Lennon wrote that “When the rain falls, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead.” He was right: Rain or shine, “The weather’s fine.” If you’re in tune with your surroundings, accepting of them, you can feel your own responses on a deeper level.

As always, newspapers and cable news cast things in a superficial unthinking way. Thus I read that today thousands of Britons are “stranded in Paris,” unable to return to the UK by air or by train. Some of those newspaper editors ought to be stranded in the middle of a desert or on a lonely island and forced to stare at their stupid copy. Strand me in Paris any time you like.

The job of a writer is to do the exact opposite of what journalism tries to accomplish. That doesn’t mean parsing the idea of being “stranded” in the most cultured city in the world – that’s rather too undemanding. Instead, we ought to look at the opportunities in experiencing any emotion, even if that emotion is frustration. If you reject the weather and wish for something else, you’ll reject emotions, too, and then you won’t be able to enter into them when your characters need to experience them.

Last week, Jerusalem was engulfed in a dust storm. For three days, visibility was low. I slept with the taste of dirt on my tongue, as it blew through the cracks around my windows. When it eventually rained for a half hour to break the storm, the meeting of dust and precipitation dropped a layer of mud over everything.

Every time I experience this muddy rain, I know why the Bible was written in what we now call the Holy Land. A dust storm seems so apocalyptic, it’s no wonder the prophets wrote of the end of the world. The sun is shut out; the earth whips through the air; your breath is short as the dust settles in your lungs, and you cough. Yes, and then it rains mud. It sounds like one of the 10 plagues.

So the Bible – whatever you think of it, definitely a great work of literature – grew out of extreme weather, I believe. That’s what we should see in the snow storms or the heat that descends upon us now as a result of changes in global weather patterns.

Just don’t tell your non-writer friends. They won’t understand. They’ll think you’re smug.

But you’re safe on this blog. The comments section is open for you to write about how happy it makes you when the weather sends everything to hell.

2 Responses to “Extreme weather boosts creativity”

  1. Tom Mulrooney (TFM1066) 23 December 2010 at 6:09 am #

    Well, if extremes of weather are your muse, you now have a perfect excuse for a trip to Minnesota. We’ve weather crises galore, especially in winter! Plus the Guinness that we keep on ice for you! You’ld have a novel’s worth of inspiration in no time.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 24 December 2010 at 4:29 am #

    I had thought perhaps I wouldn’t go to Minnesota, after the break-up of my favorite band, The Jayhawks, who’re native there. But now I have as good a reason, Tom. Thanks so much. I shall dust off my snowboots (they don’t get much used in Jerusalem.)


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