Today we’re on the eve of National Novel Writing Month, which coincides with one of my favorite holidays. In all of its faces, be it the Eve of All Saints, Halloween, Day of the Dead, or Samhain, this holiday celebrates the gate between the worlds, in a guise by turns macabre and comic.
A friend of mine from Mexico City told me the following story:
Once upon a time in the thirties, Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin’s assassins, came to stay with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at the Blue House. His arrival coincided with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). He came down to breakfast in the morning to find, next to his plate, a sugar skull with his name on it. Given his particular circumstances, he did not take it in the spirit intended.
My friend said, with a puzzled expression, “The Russians don’t have a sense of humor about death.” Nikolai Gogol, among others, might dispute that assertion, but most certainly it’s a different sense of humor.
She told me about Day of the Dead picnics in the cemetery down the street from her cousins, one of whom observed wryly, “It’s a view of the future.”
I grew up down the street from a cemetery myself, in Toledo, Ohio, though in a culture and family rather less open about mortality. So, not coincidentally, my literary work is shot through with ghosts, time-slips, time travel, and visitations from other worlds and times. It’s a marvelous coincidence (or maybe not coincidence at all) that National Novel Writing Month begins when we cross midnight from the Eve of All Saints into the Black Month, the time of storytelling in front of the fire. Looking back over my notes from four years of taking up this challenge, I see that my real planning on my November novel typically begins near the autumnal equinox, one of the great quarters of the solar cycle. The writing launches in earnest on the cross-quarter, what my Celtic ancestors called Samhain.
From Halloween to New Year’s is the eighth of the year that belongs to the dead. I’ve talked to many other writers here in the Northern Hemisphere who find the dark of the year their most productive time, where dream and writing most nearly coincide. As a writer of the fantastic, this time of year is my native ground.
So the excitement is building, as I hold off writing until it’s November 1 in earnest. In November, I write my novel and then in December, I send it to my first-draft beta readers, and in turn read the novels produced by my writing buddies. Only in mid-January, in the cold light of the new year, do I set myself to the task of re-visioning and re-imagining the strange beast that emerged from the forge of the Muse in darkest November.
Coda: I wrote the foregoing this morning in my favorite writing cafe, and then went to visit one of my mentors at her nursing home. We went to the residents’ Halloween party and then sat on a sunny bench outside, soaking up sun and talking about the Halloween blizzard of 1991, twenty years ago tonight; then the conversation ranged over life, art, the journal/memoir she’s writing, and the interplay between visual and written work.
We walked together to the reception area. Just as I arrived to sign out, a procession passed me: one going to the hospital in an ambulance; another, shrouded on a gurney, elsewhere.
The day had spoken its word: “Live! Burn bright, because the darkness is coming.”