To Walk Through the Fire

Writing scary moments


I’m doing quite a lot of virtual events this spring, calling the leg The Lost Spring Tour (after a line in my novel). First up, this Thursday 2/11 I’m reading for the Beck Series at Denison University, my alma mater (!!!) at 7:30pm EST. The virtual event is free and open to all. Sign up here to get the link!

To Walk Through the Fire

By now many of us have had or are about to have a birthday during the pandemic. I’ve never been a party person, but I find myself feeling grateful I threw parties the last few years before the virus. As for my own pandemic birthday a couple weeks ago, it was strange, but I felt very loved and seen: my partner and my child gave me multiple gifts having do with fire.

Have I told you about the visual artist, the older woman, at the artist colony?

The last snowy morning after breakfast, when we were all getting ready to go our ways, never to meet again so far, she grabbed my arms and looked me dead in the eye. I want to get a tattoo on my arm where she reached me. I need to remind myself of my own power, which is what she said to me, urgently, with the wisdom of an artist in her late seventies, who had lived through marriages, misogyny, ageism, poverty, raising children and a grandchild. It’s a secret, what she said to me. 

But I will tell you this: what she said was key to my work shifting.

During the two precious weeks I was able to spend at the artist colony—the first and only one I’ve been able to attend as a single mom—I was writing a novel which I abandoned. I might go back to it someday. But after that morning when the artist told me a secret about myself, I began writing a book I called The Grower, which eventually became Road Out of Winter.

It wasn’t a secret so much as a reminder. You know you are this intense thing. This is the source of your power. Don’t try to fight it. Go to it.

During revision of creative work, I think there is a temptation to scale back. The enormity of what’s happening hits you. People will read this project, soon—your editor, proofreaders, reviewers and critics, then eventually an actual public: strangers, maybe not all of them friendly or understanding. This thing in your heart and your head will be free and free to be criticized, misinterpreted, just plain ignored, or beloved.

You will be tempted to backpedal in these final drafts, maybe to protect yourself from getting hurt.  

These hot dogs don’t stand a chance.

But for me, the opposite needs to happen. For the story to work, it needs to be real. It needs get even DEEPER in revision. It needs to be bolder, badder. Darker. I can’t flinch away from hard or weird or challenging parts, but need to step up and own them.

The misogynist skateboarding cult in Road Out of Winter. The ambivalent and painful reality of motherhood in my next book, Trashlands. Rather than skirt these intense aspects, I have to commit to them, jump into them—jump with no rope to pull me back. To be certain. To burn with them. 

For my birthday, my family gave me a small concrete fire pit, candles, a light that looks like a big glowing orb. I love them. We watched Buffy on my birthday. I’ve been introducing the show, which I’ve seen many times, to my partner and son. It was the first slayer episode and in a way, was perfect for that day. Death is your gift.

Well, fire is mine. And sometimes, I forget that. When the pressure of publication, edits due, bills due, internet comments, messages from strange men, press down, it’s easy to forget: I was born for burning. That’s where my strength lies—and maybe yours too—not in backing away, but in being in it.  

Season 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

When something isn’t working or is frightening, go deeper in. Don’t avoid but embrace it. Go big. Go back to your gifts. My gift has always been a darkness burning. 

Clove Oil

If you haven’t been to the dentist in a while (thanks, pandemic) or you’re just experiencing some tooth soreness, a few drops of clove oil will make the pain go away.

A natural anesthetic, put a small bit of the oil on a cotton swab and dab it directly on the affected area in your mouth. It takes a few minutes to work, but the pain relief will last for several hours. Apply every 3-5 hours, as needed.

Clove oil is numbing and soothing (and smells great), but is very strong—a little goes a long way—thus, its inclusion in this essay about burning.