Dark Firewater (Part One)

This is a pretty long post, so I’m publishing it in two parts. Here’s Part One. Part Two will come tomorrow.

In the woods behind my house, there sits a fire pit. I built it shortly after we moved here, and used it a lot for the first few years. Lately, it has sat idle. This morning, I kindled it anew. There were some things I had to burn. I had a box overflowing with items marked “To Be Burned,” items like financial documents, receipts, health insurance claims, and so forth. All papers that most people would shred. I don’t have a shredder, but I do have a fire pit. The box also contained several old altar linens from the church that were now no good, because of stains or tears. The respectful way of disposing of such items is either to bury or burn them. Since I enjoy lighting fires, I offered to take care of it.

This morning, I took the box out to the fire pit. It looked neglected, covered in a thick pile of wet, slowly rotting leaves. I dug out the leaves, and also several inches of the ashes below to get a good pit ready. I loaded it with some of the financial documents, and stacked some small wood on top of it. It lit right up. As the kindling began to catch, I added more and bigger sticks. There were plenty of downed limbs and branches all over the ground – it felt good to clean that up as I burned it. I added some more tax forms, and then some more wood. I kept on alternating until it was growing into a nice warm conflagration. But I kept hearing a hiss the whole time, a hiss that meant there was water in the wood that was boiling off. This was no surprise; after all, we’ve had rain five or six days out of each week for the last year. But it wasn’t a welcome noise either – the dampness in the wood would prevent the fire from growing to an inferno. It was hot enough to burn through all the paper with no problem, but I started to wonder if I’d experience the kind of bonfire that I like.

My relationship with fire pits goes back a long time. Ever since I went to summer camp as a kid, I have loved campfires. There’s something so magical, so spiritual about them. When they are roaring, there is such a primal power within them, a power that forces its way out through the flames, a power that is in some ways controlled, but never tamed. I’ve always loved staring into the flames, feeling them summoning me and speaking to me. Groups gathered around a campfire always have conversations that are deeper, more intimate, more meaningful. Fire is an image of divine communication in the Bible: God speaks to Moses from a burning bush, and the apostles speak many languages after tongues of flames alight upon them. This is no surprise to me; fire facilitates my own ability to communicate with others, with myself, and with God.

As a teenager attending camp, I was never great at building fires myself, but in my twenties I was determined to learn. I still went to that same summer camp for a week each year, this time as a volunteer chaplain. And each year I went, I made sure to go out into the woods to visit a few groups on their overnights, so that I could watch the counselors and learn the skills I’d never fully grasped as a camper. Over time, I got better. I learned the types of bark that work well as a starter. I learned how to stack the wood appropriately. I learned the importance of hot coals at the bottom. (Nothing bigger than kindling will burn without coals.) The summer I was 29, I remember spending a lot of evenings at my friend Eric’s house, because he had a fire pit. I would practice and practice until I could get the fire going from nothing to roaring, using nothing but bark, wood, and a single match. One night I was able to do it just 24 hours after a drenching rain. I was very proud of myself that evening.

The fire this morning wasn’t roaring. I went through a lot of small to medium-sized wood, but I was never able to get it to the point I wanted: that self-sufficient point where I knew I had succeeded. And that bothered me, for a few reasons. First, I felt like a failure – why couldn’t I do this thing that I’d worked so hard to learn? And second, I wanted to have a spiritual experience out there today. I have been so depressed lately, and so distant from God and from myself lately, that I really hoped that this fire would bring something back to me. And if I couldn’t get it roaring, then that wouldn’t happen. I was pissed off.

Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t out here to burn up as much wood as possible. I really had no reason to have a roaring fire. All I needed was a fire strong enough to burn up a few reams of paper, plus a dozen or so altar linens. And this fire was just fine for that. I had a feeling that if I changed my expectations, I could still have a spiritual experience here; and as for feeling like a failure, I tried to tell myself three things: the wood is damp, I’m a little out of practice, and I really don’t have to prove this to myself anymore. Not so easy to believe that last one, but I was able to shift my expectations. Once I was able to forget about the fire I wanted, and lean into the fire I had, I heard a voice. Here’s what it told me:

This fire today is a metaphor for your writing. You spent so much of this year writing Darkwater. And what is that book? A series of vignettes about your own past, stories of pain and depression that have made you who you are. The process of writing it wasn’t always easy, but it was a form of processing, almost a form of therapy, and it was good for you to write it. One might even describe the writing of Darkwater this way: you found painful things from your past, memories that you don’t need in the present anymore, and wrote about them, processed them, because they were dangerous if left unprocessed. If left unprocessed, then they’d still be alive in your present, and could rip you apart from the inside. That’s also a pretty good description of what you’re doing here at the fire circle. You are taking parts of your past that you don’t need anymore (old financial records), and burning them (instead of recycling them like you do with other paper) because it might be dangerous to dispose of them in another way. You did a fine job of building an “incinerator” fire for this purpose, and you’re doing the job well. But you’re getting frustrated because this fire isn’t also becoming something else: a beautiful roaring inferno. Just like your current experience with writing. The primary purpose (whether you knew it or not) of writing Darkwater was to get these stories out of your head and onto paper, to do the processing you needed to do. It was working well for that – you were making some real strides with your therapist and spiritual director through the writing. But you finished the writing about four months ago, and submitted it to four publishers, and have spent the past four months not writing, but fretting – fretting about whether the book will ever be published or not. Imagining the life of a professional author. Imagining what it would be like to hold the book in your hand, to hold a royalty check in your hand. You’ve gotten obsessed with the idea of being a published author, and the fact that you’ve received one rejection and a whole lot of quiet from the other publishers is making you so upset. Just like you wanted this paper fire to be a campfire today, you wanted your therapeutic writing to be a published book. But that’s out of your control. And it’s not what you were primarily writing for in the first place.

To be continued tomorrow…

6 thoughts on “Dark Firewater (Part One)

  1. I’ve heard different variations from several sources, but the general consensus is that writers don’t write to become published authors, they write because they have something inside them that needs to be written, and they can’t live until it’s written down. It’s true that getting positive feedback will feed that thing inside of you that creates the things that need to be written, but not getting that feedback won’t stop it. It sounds like you’re realizing that you’ve been smothering that part of yourself with your expectations of what happens next. That’s good. Think of the story like it’s your child. At a certain point, you have to let it go and succeed or fail on its own. The difference is that you can always write another book if this one fails. Not sure I’d do that with actual children. 😉


    1. I have also heard that, of course. But I’ve found that it’s so hard to put that into practice. It’s good to hear it from you — thank you for the reminder. I’ve been trying to remind myself that a “writer” is not someone who is published. A “writer” is someone who writes.


  2. Exactly!! And there’s always self-publishing and blogging, which seem to get you more feedback than traditional publishing, anyway. I feel like traditional publishing is a pass/fail grading system. Either people buy it or they don’t. And why someone buys or doesn’t buy a book doesn’t always have anything to do with the book, itself. It has to do with the reader and how they connect with the content more than it does the content. With blogging and such, you get something more like graded feedback. Actual comments, instead of just sales numbers. That’s just me, though. ♥


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