Learning to Fall

October 8, 2013 | By | 14 Replies More
Fall on a lake in central North Carolina

Fall in central North Carolina

Between summer and winter, we are in fall, a season I have found particularly advantageous for writing. 

The earth tilts away from the sun, our light source.  Yet though the days grow shorter, the light appears longer across the ground.  With this particular slant of light we begin to turn inward like plants do.  We reserve and retreat into ourselves, our own rich loam.

My longest writing projects begin in fall and ripen in summer.  Perhaps because I am a professor, I think of years in terms of the school year.  August is when we begin.  Early September is when we really get under way.

In the late 1990s, after publishing two scholarly books, I decided to write a memoir.  In the fall.

Gods of Noonday - Memoir by Elaine Neil Orr

Gods of Noonday – Memoir by Elaine Neil Orr

As it happened, I was also falling into illness: end-stage renal disease.  The illness was impetus for the writing.  “Let me begin now,” I thought, while I still have light.  I lived through two and a half years on dialysis and on Thanksgiving Day, 2000, I got the call from Duke University.  “Come,” the transplant nurse said.

The next day, I had two new organs: a pancreas and a kidney, for it was diabetes that had caused the kidney disease.   Now I have neither disease.

I started Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life in a seasonal fall and a physical failing.  It was published in a fall: 2003.

Two years later, in a fall, and during a week at Wildacres Retreat Center in the Western Carolina mountains, I fell into fiction.

A Different Sun Cover by Elaine Neil Orr

A Different Sun Novel by Elaine Neil Orr

A friend told me I should try it.  “You can make things up,” she said.  Let’s say I made a blind date with fiction that week.  I fell in love, in love with the path that could open, the way fall light will shine in unexpected places.

True: there were times I could not handle all the light, light falling into my hands and filling my palms and pouring over like Lyles Golden Syrup onto the pages.  I wrote lots of messy pages when I began.  But sometimes I got the light just right, creating that illusion of life that is fiction.

Perhaps, again, because I am a professor, I find in front of me every fall a room full of young faces, eighteen to twenty-five year-olds, with the occasional “nontraditional” student whose face is also a flame because she has decided to come back to college.

I decided to write a novel that became A Different Sun, falling just like that.  Not because I thought I could write a novel (I had no idea if I could), but because I desired to write one.  Which is how the light is in a North Carolina fall.  It is like a desiring, like a lover’s hand slipped into yours and gently pulling. 

Elaine Neil Orr

Elaine Neil Orr

There is all of this desiring.  I confuse my desire (for light, for life, for writing) with my students’ faces.  I think, “I’m not so far from them.”  Though in truth, it has been some while since I was a university student.  What does it matter.  I want to fall again.

I am beginning another novel.  Do I have another one in me?

There are all the rumors, the warnings: many writers publish only one novel.  Before I wrote a novel, there were the other warnings: most memoirists who try a novel don’t sell it.  What if I had listened?

I never listen.  I always try: to begin again.  And it is falling.  But the only way to summer is through the fall.

JOIN US! Between October 15 and November 10 we are inviting our readers to buy and read A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr – and participate with us in a live talk with the author. Read about our OFFERS.


Elaine Neil Orr is the author of the new novel, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Berkley, 2013) as well as the memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (U. Virginia P., 2003), and two scholarly books.  She is on the faculty in English at North Carolina State university and teaches in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.  She grew up in Nigeria as the daughter of medical missionaries. Follow her on Twitter @ElaineNeilOrr. Read more about her on her Website: elaineneilorr.net. Elaine Neil Orr is also sponsoring WWWB from October 15 – November 15, and contributed to When Women Waken, the WWWB literary journal in the HOME issue of August 31, 2013, “The Piano.”


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Category: Being a Writer, Multinational Women Writers, US American Women Writers, Women Writers Across Cultures

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  1. Oh Elaine, I am in tears as I write this comment. Your words fell into my heart in an unexpected way and I am certain that I will still be holding on to them in the summer. Your words are the story of my life: “I never listen. I always try: to begin again.” THANK YOU for sharing your story. I am so glad that you are still here. God bless you.

  2. Florence says:

    “….but the only way to get to summer is through fall” I love this.I’m holding on to it! Well done Elaine.

  3. Beautiful article Elaine. Thanks for sharing yourself with us.

  4. Amy Good says:

    This is so absolutely beautiful; it’s so wonderful that you fell into fiction. Your words evoke my own memories of fall in the US.

  5. Julie Luek says:

    What a gorgeous, lush post. It echoes so many feelings I also have– the swirling feelings that fall is new, that I want to try, set goals, move forward. This was lovely.

  6. Kim Church says:

    Fall is my season of beginning as well. I suspect this is something many writers share, for the reasons you so beautifully express.

  7. Thank you, Mona! I’m glad you read the essay and that it resonated with you.

  8. “Even as we lengthen our walks to match the light, we reserve and retreat into ourselves, our own rich loam.” I feel like this almost every fall. I’m glad I’m not by myself in feeling the melancholy. I enjoyed your words.

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