Fire Creeps In

It occurred to me Monday evening, while preparing to hit the publish button on the poem I had composed, that I often write about fire– in my poetry for certain and now, in my novel, I’ve burned down the cafe. And I suppose fire creeps into a lot of writing. It provides metaphors for all sorts of things: love, lust, war, creativity, warmth, cleansing, refining, life, death, destruction, rebirth…

I felt low that evening, as is sometimes the case after a long day. I’d begun the next chapter of the book, feeling unsatisfied with the way I’d left the previous one. The poem arose from that I think. But as I prepared my dreary little post, I reflected on why fire always seems to creep into MY writing. My approach is mostly from the death, destruction and possibly the cleansing perspectives of fire, rarely from love, lust and passion. And while I hate to psychoanalyze myself, because my mind is a messy, cluttered place these days, I couldn’t help but wonder….

I lost my paternal grandfather in a fire. My father was twenty years my mother’s senior when they married. He at fifty-five, she at thirty-five. My paternal grandparents were already in their eighties when I was born. Grandma Jennings died when I was three and I barely remember her. But Grandpa lived for a few years more. I had a lot more contact with him as a child. And as a result my memories are a lot clearer.

I was six years old when it happened.

Grandpa liked his cigars. He left one smoldering next to his favorite chair one Sunday evening before going up to bed. He must have thought it was safely stored in the ashtray but it wasn’t. The stub of the cigar either rolled or he carelessly dropped it right on the arm of the old upholstered chair. It smoldered. It consumed. It filled the house with smoke. It wasn’t a conflagration, it was a charcoal pit. When, in the light of day, the neighbors realized what was happening and called the fire department, it was too late. But Grandpa had known something was wrong. He had made it back downstairs in the smoke. They found him on the threshold of the front door in his pajamas and dressing gown. A few more steps and he would have been free.

That is the kind of information that a six year old girl most probably should have been sheltered from. But I wasn’t. I should fear fire. I should have a morbid dread of it. But I don’t. Instead, it creeps into almost everything I write.

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The Power of Negative Thinking

I woke this morning to howling winds. It’s dark and raining –perfect for staying in bed or for curling up with tea and a book. Or for writing. Usually this kind of weather lends itself to concentration and immersion in whatever project I’m working on. Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. It’s happened before but never for this long. I really haven’t put new ideas down on paper since before the holidays.

I’ve alluded to the stress I’m experiencing in my personal life –let’s just say that it is ongoing– and it’s had a dramatic impact on my ability to write. This too, is a new phenomenon. My best writing usually comes from that dark space inside. But this is different. And perhaps it has to do with the subject matter I’ve been working on. Without realizing it, I’ve given Maya –my main character– the same ‘kinds’ of issues that are troubling me as well. And maybe striking so close to home has stayed my hand. Because I can’t see the way forward personally, I can’t see the way forward fictionally.

However, the whole thing is tied up in a bundle together. If I can’t get the writing back on track, it will compound the rest of the stress I’m feeling. I have to act. If life would just imitate art, I could write myself a solution for my real problems and my fictional ones.

Anger Is An Energy

I wrote this very personal post at the end of 2015. 

Once upon a time there was a little girl, an only child, who lived on a quiet, lonely road. Her room was on the second floor of an old house with a window that overlooked a pond. Her mother was more worried about the placement of the furniture in the room than preserving the view, so a large wardrobe blocked the window onto the pond. It also blocked the morning sun and kept the room darker than it would’ve been otherwise.

The girl liked to dream, to make up stories in her head. She invented an imaginary twin brother named Jamie. Jamie always came with her to the creek that ran through the property and the two of them had great adventures there. They pretended to be giants stomping around a mighty river. The little girl would pretend to be caught in the current and cry out to Jamie to come rescue her. When she came back to the house wet and muddy, her mother would frown and scold her for not acting like a lady.

The little girl was afraid of the dark. Having a vivid imagination, she pictured all sorts of monsters and demons lurking there. She had a lot of trouble sleeping and stayed awake listening to the creaks and groans of the old house. Sometimes she would try to crawl in next to her parents in the middle of the night but she was always sent back to bed with an eye rolling reassurance that there was nothing under the bed or in the closet.

When she did fall asleep, she had nightmares. She dreamt of plane crashes, floods and the house catching fire. She dreamt that bad men would break in and kidnap her and hold her for ransom. She worried that maybe her parents wouldn’t pay. She pretended Jamie was in the bed next to her and she would hug her pillow like it was him. In the mornings, she would sometimes awaken on the floor.

Evening meals were spent in clipped conversation or in tense silence. The little girl was so nervous she couldn’t eat her supper. That only made her mother more angry. She told her that she ruined every family dinner they’d ever had. Sometimes the little girl would leave the table and go throw up what little food she had managed to choke down.

Despite all of that, the little girl was bright and did well in school. When she learned to read, she read well above her grade level. She won the spelling bee when she was in the 4th grade, finally making her mother proud. Her teachers encouraged her to read and gave her lists of books for the summer vacation. Reading helped her escape. At last it was something her mother approved of. She wouldn’t be scolded for curling up with a book the way she had been for catching tadpoles and getting all dirty.

She had to wear glasses now. Her mother made her wear curlers to bed because she didn’t like her straight hair. The curlers were uncomfortable and made her problems sleeping even worse. All the other girls in school wore their long hair straight and smooth but her mother said her hair wasn’t shiny and thick enough to wear that way. Her mother said she was too skinny and pale. She’d rouge her cheeks with her own makeup to bring a little color to the girl’s features. Her mother would sigh and shake her head. The girl would feel ashamed.

Her grandmother bought her a diary, the kind with a little lock and key. Even with it locked, she kept the diary hidden so her mother wouldn’t find it. The girl started to write things down. How she wished she was a princess in a castle one day and an astronaut on the moon the next. How she wished Jamie was real. How she didn’t think she was pretty. How she worried she would never fall in love because no one would ever want her. She worried that she’d never be happy.

The girl sought solace in books and music. She poured out her frustrations in poetry. She went away to college and drowned her sorrows in booze. She made friends. Men actually found her attractive. One of them told her she was beautiful. She didn’t believe him, couldn’t believe him. She pushed him away. She broke his heart.
It took the girl a long time to realize she was more than her mother’s disappointment. Eventually, though, she understood. The girl’s mother never wanted the girl to outshine her, to be smarter or prettier or more successful. She was only ever proud of the girl when she could somehow take credit for the thing she was good at. She really didn’t want her daughter to be happy. She wanted her daughter to make her look good.
Understanding makes her angry. But the hot anger feels better than the cold pain. The anger is fuel. Fuel for her writing and she is on fire.