Seasonal Confusion: A Novelist’s Malady?

I am not sure why I feel the need to write about this, but I have been suffering from a vague feeling of disorientation for several weeks, and I have just figured out what is causing it. I don’t know what season it is.

If you live in a place like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, this is never a problem. The seasons are clearly delineated, with the gradually warming rainy days of spring, when everything turns green and flowers bloom, then the long, hot, summer days, with lightning bugs in the evening and the whine of mosquitos in the night, followed by the cry of the locusts and the gaudy colors of turning leaves of fall, gradually shading into the short days, cold nights, and occasional snows of winter.

On the coast of Southern California, where I have been living for most of thirty years, these clear seasonal markers are all mixed up. Rain tends to come in the winter, not the spring, and year round something is blooming; summer can often be chilly, with a marine layer that only reluctantly leaves the coast for a few hours each day, and the hottest days, with their Santa Anna’s and forest fires come in the fall. And, not only is there never any snow, but some of the most beautiful warm summer-like days come mid-winter.

But, that isn’t the sole cause of my problem. I, like most people who live in this region, have gown familiar with the more subtle indications of seasonal change, like the purple Jacaranda blossoms that signal spring, the arrival of June gloom, sometimes in May, when it is called May Gray, the flame of the liquid amber trees in fall, and the vibrant green that comes to hillsides after the rains of late winter.

So, after some thought, I have decided my recent seasonal confusion it the direct result of my decision to retire from teaching in December to start my career as a full-time writer. I have heard people talk about how hard it is to know what day of the week it is, once they no longer have a job to go to every day. But that has not been my problem. My weeks have enough regularly scheduled events so that, in combination with such daily visual clues as the morning newspaper (it’s Thursday, hooray for the  NY Times Home section and the pictures of remodeled houses!), I always know what day it is. What I don’t know is what season or month it is.

A friend would say something about spring break, and I would frown in puzzlement. There would be an advertisement for Mother’s Day, and I would be surprised. I really had to think hard about what month to put down when I was writing a check. I eventually figured out that my entire life, first as a student, then as a professor, I have run my life according to a school schedule. I didn’t need the leaves to turn to tell me it was fall, the start of the new term after summer break was my benchmark. Midterms meant the end of October, Thanksgiving break, November, and taking and then grading finals the hallmark of December. Winter term, that month between semesters, meant January to me, and February the beginning of spring term, with midterms again coming in March and Spring Break in April. May was the giddy last push to the finals of early June. Summer, because I didn’t teach, was marked by how many weeks until I had to start preparing for teaching again. Without the rhythm of new classes, new names to memorize, midterms, papers, semester breaks, and finals, I was all at sea.

And, even more upsetting, I kept thinking it was October, all spring. I wrote October on checks, and I wasn’t just surprised that Mothers’ Day was upon us, I thought, when did Mother’s Day come in October? This was really disconcerting (when you hit your sixties such little confusions lead inevitably to the question-is this the first sign of Alzheimer’s?) until I realized that for the past four months I have been working every day on my sequel to Maids of Misfortune, a historical mystery, entitled Uneasy Spirits, set in a three-week period in October, 1879. Each chapter starts with a date in October, I have pictures I look at of where the sun hits the hillsides of San Francisco in October, and I consult these wonderful websites that tell me when the moon rose and set each night of that year, in October. When I write, I describe days that get up into the seventies, the fog that begins its nightly journey over the peninsula, and how chilly it gets at night, in October, and I refer to the fall school term and the approach of Halloween. In my head, every day, it is October. So that when San Diego had an odd spell of hot dry weather a few weeks ago, I thought, of course, its fall, that’s normal. Until I remembered it was spring and it was supposed to be cool and gray outside, not hot and sunny.

Living in the seasonally ambiguous region of Southern California, set adrift from my usual school routine, and living in my imagination in a very different time and place, I have become seasonally confused.

And I began to wonder, how many other full-time fiction writers suffer from the same malady? Do you?

4 Replies to “Seasonal Confusion: A Novelist’s Malady?”

  1. Just back from a walk on what feels like an April day (in mid-May) here in the Northeast, and how perfect a post to read. I can’t say I suffer from seasonal confusion (though I think global warming has brought some confusion to the seasons themselves). But I have often thought of how ingrained the school year is in my own psyche. September has always felt like a good time to begin a project; summer is for lazy days reading outside. Your post is poignant, funny, and very evocative.

  2. I had to chuckle when I read this. When I wrote the first book in my mystery series, the events were taking place in the weeks leading up to Halloween. And even though my writing process for that first draft took me nearly six months, in my head, it was always close to Halloween. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a week before Christmas and I still had presents to buy! Or when Valentines Day came around, and I couldn’t figure out what all the shiny red hearts were doing hanging from the ceiling in the local Target. Sadly, I do still work for a living and I was STILL confused! So yes, I think you’re spot on about Seasonal Confusion for writers! Perhaps you’ve named a new syndrome. Seasonal Confusional Disorder.

    Fortunately, the book I’m currently working on takes place aboard a space ship. And in space not only will no one “hear you scream”, but there are no seasonal cues whatsoever, except the man-made ones. So I think I’ve dodged the bullet this time. At any rate, I feel much less confused…. 🙂 Thanks for another great blog!

  3. Oh yes. When I first moved to SoCal, I had a disconnect moment while driving: I felt it was spring, when it was autumn. I’m from upstate NY, so the holiday season particularly throws off my equilibrium: Where is the snow? Why are people in shorts? Christmas lights in palm trees are just…wrong.

    I miss true autumn most of all….

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