The Fickle Nature of New England March

I had a friend who loved March: he was a Gemini, and cited “the push and pull, the back and forth” nature of this month in New England—essentially, that the month had “two faces.” I thought about this idea as I walked around the block in “productive meditation” this morning. On Friday, it was 60 degress, on Saturday we got 3 inches of snow, yesterday was below freezing and today, despite the blue sky, is brisk and windy. In short, March is a narrative nightmare. If someone brought March to a workshop, pretty much everyone would chime in with the dreaded “This doesn’t make any sense.” There’s no obvious causality to March, it’s an impetuous month, prone to fits of whimsy, an unreliable narrator trying to tell a bad joke after a few drinks.

Lucky for us writers, narrative is (usually) a bit more reliable than weather. But all this “in like a lion, out like a lamb” got me mulling over the age-old question: “How do we derive meaning from absurdity? How do we enforce structure on the chaotic nature of life?” We tell stories. And what is a story? At its most basic, a story is a dramatic telling of an event. Why “dramatic”? Because drama allows us to create something that makes sense—classic dramatic structure, often rendered as Freytag’s pyramid, gives us the idea that due to an inciting incident, we wan follow a path through rising action to a climax, and then that action will fall, returning to a neutral state. And in stories, both written and oral, this is often how the narrative is presented: one thing causes another—without causality it can be hard to derive meaning.

Once, put on the spot in a class, I gave this as an assignment: “Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end.” Afterward, I was embarrassed that I’d offered such a simple exercise. To my surprise, my students loved it. They loved the assignment so much that I now give this assignment to almost every short story class I teach. What I’ve come to understand is two-fold: first, the purported simplicity of the assignment is approachable and exciting; second, the exercise is actually much harder than it seems and it does not demand the story be linear. Pause with me a moment: how many stories can you think of with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, always following one another in that exact order? I mean this broadly—stories from your life, stories you’ve read, stories others have told—and I mean it pointedly: truly, how many stories proceed from one incident, to another, to another, to another, to a conclusion, never to move outside of its own narrative motion and never to be referenced again? If you’ve followed me this far, I have a feeling you’ll trust me when I say the answer is none. The assignment forces the writer to confront this truth and adapt their story accordingly. Some writers find telling a linear story, from inciting incident to conclusion, much easier than others, in part due to personality, cultural upbringing, belief systems, stylistic choices, etc. But for the rest of us, thinking in broad terms of beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order, allows for another kind of order to arise: this order might still be causal, but more often than not, it’s relational.

So, to return to where I began this missive, March’s weather patterns might not make the most comprehensible causal narrative. But when we place March in New England in a relational context, we can see that this fickle month is a transformative one—those warm days are a hint of what’s ahead, those biting winds are blowing the last of winter from our lands—and we grasp what’s to come based on the pattern of what has passed. Is there a beginning, middle, and end in all of this? If we look for it, and if we tell it just right.


Recommended Reading

I seem to be on a nonfiction kick this month. Here’s what I’ve loved recently:

George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: Late to the party as always, I finally dove into the pond and it has not disappointed! I don’t think I’ve ever had a craft book keep me up late, but this one sure did. Saunders lucidly deconstructs short stories by some Russian masters—Tolstoy, Checkov, Gogol, and Turgenev— at once demonstrating the power of literature to capture a readers heart, what’s working below the surface of these masterpieces, and—amazingly, because it’s George Saunders, the absurdity of life. I can’t recommend this enough to any writer looking to up their craft game.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman: Not your standard time management book, this new title by former Guardian columnist Burkeman tackles productivity and time management from a philosophical perspective. An enjoyable read all around, with my favorite takeaway being that we don’t have time to do/be everything we want to do/be and attempting to do so (because of social or internal pressures) will only lead to unhappiness; this is by no means breaking news, but I appreciate Burkeman’s smart and level-headed push to see that what we choose to focus on is as important, if not more, than the focus itself.


XO will be available from all major booksellers on April 5th. Thank you to those who have pre-ordered a copy!
If you’re not quite ready to pre-order it, there are lots of other ways to support me and this book.
1. Ask your library if they plan to order it. Encourage them to.
2. Then do the same thing at your local bookshop!
3. Mark the book as a “want to read” title on Goodreads. After reading, mark it as ‘Read’ and rate it.
4. Suggest it to your book club (or someone else’s book club!)