What inspires a book? Invariably, this is the first question asked of the author when it comes out.
My new book is about rain, particularly the year it rained 89.97 inches in Newport, Oregon, where I live. Despite unfolding during the second wettest year in recorded history, my story has very little to do with weather.
Inspiration began unexpectedly one Sunday in January 2012 when I learned that someone I loved was leaving me for someone else. She told me over the phone prior to boarding a plane flying to the sunniest places on earth with, presumably, her new boyfriend.
That afternoon, rain moved like a gray phalanx across the yard. As I looked out the window, I felt crushed. I had never seen this coming and was shocked how my intuition had betrayed me. At first I asked, How did it come to this?, which is the dumbest question in the universe. If you ask it, then you already know the reasons why.
I knew the reasons. The story now, however, was not about recrimination, but how to advance, always advance, and learn new lessons and a new path.
Rain called to me that Sunday in a way I had never heard before. It was a recruiting pitch and I enlisted into a leaderless and mysterious association of rain. I left my room, donned the pea coat, and walked directly into the phalanx. I knew a discovery of the utmost importance awaited me out there. "One must go oneself to know the truth," wrote Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard, perhaps the most influential book I have ever read. In his remarkable journey of personal discovery and healing, Matthiessen had the Himalayan Mountains; I had Oregon Coast rain.
I walked a loop around the neighborhood, down to the beach, and back to the house. I repeated the loop three times, something like 10 miles. I did the same thing the next night and the night after that. It rained 4.65 inches in 24 hours on one of those days.
During these walks, I tried emptying my mind by contemplating a koan I devised: "Rain falls everywhere — why not here?" I utterly failed at emptying anything and just kept walking and thinking. This went on for a month. I never ran nor listened to music. I never wielded an umbrella. I virtually never slept. I never once considered talking about it with anyone else. Rain and I talked. It's called an ablution.
Not long after I started walking in rain, I stood facing the whiteboard in my classroom. Behind me, 37 seniors in my English class at Newport High School watched me prepare to demonstrate a prewriting process I call "stream of consciousness outlining." I encourage students to try this activity prior to beginning their personal research essay, a 2,000-word "descent into one's self" assignment where they assay the ultimate exploratory question of their lives.
The process begins with the student writing the subject he wants to explore on a piece of butcher paper. In some cases, the word might be "divorce" or "depression." The student begins writing or drawing anything related to the subject that comes to mind. If it rolls out with linearity, fine. If not, so be it. Follow the tangents. Just don't stop, don't block, and keep talking to yourself aloud during the process. The ultimate question may emerge, or it may not.
I wrote the word "rain" on the whiteboard. Then I started manically sketching rain, trying to render all the multitudinous ways it falls in our region. Questions arose: What is rain? Why do I love it? How much has fallen on me in 15 years residing on the Oregon Coast? What happens if you drink it? What's the greatest song about rain? What's inside a box of rain? Can you see purple rain? What does rain do to people here? Why is Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion the greatest book in the history of literature on the subject of rain?
Next, as I sang Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain?" I jotted down imaginary rain-themed organizations, competitions, affiliations, offices, distinctions, and awards, such as: First Team All Rain, Umbrella Eradication Project, League of Wet Dogs, Legion of Rain, Order of Rainy Day Women, Live Rust, Monochrome Adventure Club, and Rain Anonymous. After this came spontaneous comparisons to the sun, writing in a style previously unknown to me:
I want to overthrow the hegemony of the sun. Rain is born to run, the sun born to sit in a soft chair. Rain is wanton, exciting, the sun constant, boring. Rain gallivants, the sun merely beams. Rain ruins guns, the sun keeps powder dry. Rain invites prestidigitation, the sun casts mere shadows. There is no map of rain; the sun is a cartographer's dream. The sun compels people to pay for dangerous indoor tans. Rain pays you a good Gothic pallor. Rain plays chess and solitaire with you at the same time. The sun plays no games. Rain exudes perpetual ruth; the sun often shines ruthlessly. Rain is the rank outsider, the sun a cozy lobbyist. The sun speaks in monologues while rain always dialogues.
This went on for 10 minutes and then I stopped, stepped back, stepped forward, and wrote my research question: "What happens when you walk in rain?" I think my students thought I had lost my mind, and maybe I had.
Two years later, I published a book that completes the assaying of that question. I don't necessarily recommend walking in rain as a method to write a book or recover from a severe emotional loss, but it worked for me one winter on the Oregon Coast. My timing was perfect.