It’s July. In Memphis. Ask most folks and they will tell you that Memphis is in Tennessee. It’s not. In the geography that counts—the geography of the heart, body and soul—Memphis is in the Delta. The rest of Tennessee may dilute the summer with the shade of mountain trees or rocky-faced roadways or blue-hazed vistas. In Memphis, in the Delta, we take the summer full-strength, head-on, no cheating allowed.
Okay, in a moment of weakness, we did let in air conditioning. But we needed to breathe, and without electrically-generated coolness, the Delta summer can wrap around your lungs and press. Your systems shut down, your mind whirrs to a stop. All you want to do is sit and listen to the bugs hop while you dream of long-necks leaning in ice-filled galvanized tub, waiting for your paw to set them free.
How does one write in such a Delta in such a summer?
As the woman said of the two porcupines trying to mate: Very carefully.
I’m not talking about physical comfort; that’s what we have the air conditioning for. I’m talking about psychological stupor, heat-induced comas, a lethargy so profound that even a fire truck screaming down your street, rounding the corner, and hissing to a stop at your curb will not pull you out of your brown study.
My answer: you’ve got to write your stupor. It’s a pure waste of time to try to tackle scenes of winter darkness, falling snow, drifting autumn leaves. Give it up, and write deeply into the gargantuan summer heat.
Whatever your genre, set it in the simmering pot of heat. You horror buffs, let your hero descend the stairs into the musty basement, the air thick-to-choking with summer’s heat, where a jar rests on the shelf, filled with an oozy yellow liquid. Romance writers, loosen your heroine into a summer shower, her filmy dress sticking to her heat-soaked body, steam tickling her ankles as the rain soaks the baking sidewalk. Mystery writers, leave your body in the fields, resting in the only cool spot in the Delta: low-down between the cotton rows, there in the moist wet earth, invaded by the juicy bugs of summer.
Me, I have a Mississippi novel to revise. Civil rights plot, updated. Rain will fall, gutters will gush, the heat will drive city-folks screaming from juke joints, gasping for air, hollering for their mamas.
We Southerners are a tough breed.
We can take the heat.
And no one, except maybe writers of the Southern Hemisphere, can write heat better.
Happy summer. Happy writing. Happy heat.
(This essay was published 12 years ago in a writers’ newsletter. It’s only gotten more true over the years: the American South is hot. 🙂 )
Last week, I drove through my old Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, taking photos of the houses I’ve lived in. I spent two periods of my life in the neighborhood: from age 3 years to 12; and again through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s.
My life in Belhaven began in a duplex my mother rented when we moved back from Denver, Colorado, after Daddy Joe died. On this street, we ran behind the fog machine that sprayed for mosquitos and lived to tell the tale. (The house doesn’t tilt; that’s me tilting the phone as I took a photo through the car window.)
When I was in the 5th grade, Mother bought a house (!—a single mom with 3 little girls: the older I get, the more I’m impressed with that feat). We adored the Arlington Street house. It had 7 levels (if you counted landings) and 2 balconies. As you can tell, the balcony over the front porch where we used to sleep under the stars has been removed. Who knows if they still use those French doors to go out on what is now basically a roof. The house is also painted blue where it was white then. And you can’t see the little house in the back which, though it was a real house, we used as a playhouse and where Cheep-Cheep the duck lived for a while.
We left this house when Mother married, and we moved to North Carolina. I moved back to Jackson in 1982 to practice law and returned to my old neighborhood, kicking it off with another duplex. My unit was the downstairs screen door on the left of this yellow house.
I didn’t last long here before I moved to the Arcadia. I loved this four-plex (that’s my unit with the upstairs porch on the right), but I left it when I married. Doing my drive-by, I noticed it still has window units.
We (actually me, though I was married) bought this wonderful little house that we extensively renovated. It’s on Pinehurst Street, right down from Eudora Welty’s house. Miss Welty is a famous short story writer. You can hardly see the house up the hill. The sign indicates it’s for sale again.
For a brief period, I lived in exile from Belhaven. When I got divorced, I returned to the neighborhood and bought my very own house which I loved dearly. The trees around it have gotten so overgrown it, too, is almost hidden. It had a magnolia, fig, redbud, and an oak. When I married again, I commuted a while between Jackson and Memphis. I sold my house (marriage was not good for my house tenures) and rented the Love Shack behind this pink house in Belhaven. That’s an orange trailer of some sort in the driveway. You can’t see the Love Shack, but I didn’t want to leave it out of the chronology. It was tiny. It had 3 patio areas. The heating was terrible in the winter. I adored it.
When I look at these collection of houses, I see how similar they are. My taste did not change much. As you can tell, the Belhaven neighborhood is lodged in my heart. It formed me. It might be why I’m a writer. I dream of it at night. It’s now a historic district.
Oh, and just for fun, here’s the ditch area where we kids told each other a crazy horse with red eyes reared and stamped in the darkness. We never saw the horse.