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. 🙂 )