Fingers in the Fire

Thank you Sarah, Kathleen, Walk, Daisy-Winifred, Gullible, Deanna, Deb and others for your expressions of prayerful support, healing vibes and general solidarity. I'll share your good words with my little brother.

He is a good six inches taller than me, but I've got three years on him. Our older brother is three years my senior. We have two big sisters, who had a big trick played on them when we three were born. They were just old enough to be promptly turned into baby-sitters and little mamas for us.

I subscribe to Barbara DeMarko Barrett's excellent podcast, Pen on Fire, in which she interviews authors and others. A few days ago, I listened to a terrific interview with Dylan Landis, author of Normal People Don't Live Like This (which I just ordered). I'm going to listen to that interview again tonight so I can hear once more what Landis has to say about learning to hold her finger in the fire, a metaphor for learning to live with pain while you are writing. I realize I may have twisted her context a little to fit my own circumstances — one of the reasons I want to hear her own words again, but the essence is that when you get to a place with your writing where it hurts, and is hard to stay with, you are getting to the "good stuff" and your work will be more powerful if you can stay with it.

Here's the thing: writing isn't something we do to amuse ourselves. It is our way through the hell and the heaven of life. My artist sister interprets her creative visions through a wondrous alchemy of visual arts that includes painting, collage, and other media.That is her way.

And so, I have become self-revelatory here in this wide open yet strangely intimate space. You give me permission to be weak, vain, full of myself, creative, loving, innocent and eager as a pup. Even to reveal my helplessness. Even to confess feelings of guilt for leaving my baby brother home alone with our unstable mother and going away to college the summer I graduated from high school. Fast as I could get out of town, I did. Yes. I know that has nothing to do with why he is sick now. But it's been stuck in my craw all these years. There. That's what I mean by holding my finger in the fire.

It's a way to learn to be a better writer. Maybe even a better human being.

29 thoughts on “Fingers in the Fire

  1. This sure hits me where I live. Normal people don’t live this way; holding the finger to the fire; all that. I breathe it daily. And the forces that truly seem to be there keep keeping me at the task. As apparently they do you, Beth, and I’m so glad. In other words, yay, you’re persevering! That encourages me.


  2. This past summer I stood in front of my garage, camera in hand, and watched a barely fledged violet-green swallow that was afraids to leave the next. For long minutes he perched in the round hole, watching his siblings spreading their wings and flapping furiously. FInally, finally, finally, he pushed hiiself out, swerving dangerously close to the hard gravel driveway before his wings caught the air and lift began.
    He fluttered out to the open airstrip, more wing-flapping than flying. Immediately he was surrounded by swallows, flying closely, pulling at his wings, oulling at his tail. He zig-zagged toward a dead branch in a black spruce and landed, where he immediatly puffed his feathers for warmth and settled down onto the branch. His expression was priceless: “I;m not flying ever again. Not me, uh-uh.”
    Very soon, though, he was.
    The moral of the story? We all have to learn to fly by ourselves. Those who loves us can hover nearby and encourage us, but we have to take that first step out of the nest alone.


  3. Sorry for all the typos in that message. I’m sitting in Starbucks and the glare of the glass door is on my keyboard. That’s me excuse this time.
    I’m curious about writing with fire, NOrmal People DOn’t Live Like This. That seems to be what happens at my second blog, the one with the nom de plume. I shy away from the fire–that’s where I left it. Maybe this winter when it’s twenty below and I need the heat, I’ll get back to it.
    I plan to stay home this winter, and have several projects in mind. One of which is looking at my stuff to see if there’s anything worth being in a book-length collection of essays.


  4. Okay, I’m back from googling and becoming intrigued. Thanks for yet another must read book . I think. 🙂
    Can a blogger say ” I love you”, after reading a post. Is there an etiquette for showing cyber affection?
    Because when I read your post….
    That’s what I know.


  5. Beth, thank you for listening (twice!) to that Pen on Fire interview, and for ordering my novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. That finger-in-the-fire concept is so crucial, isn’t it? I love this quote from screenwriter Gil Dennis–“You got to find the places where people shake”–and this one from fiction writer Laura Glen Louis: “The scene that is emotionally scary to write is the one you must write.”
    You said: better writer, better human being–I’m sure they’re somehow entwined.
    Lovely to have met you, and found your blog.


  6. Thanks, Deanna. Buck and I are thinking of retracing steps of a trip we made back in 1985. Part of it will take us along the Oregon coast. Sure would be great to share a blueberry pie and a pot of coffee (for me and that more healthful decaf grain for you) and talk in person about what drives us to write. When we make concrete plans, I’ll be in touch.


  7. Thanks for the good thoughts, Tipper. Steve (my brother) will be having tests all day tomorrow, a procedure called a cystoscopy on Friday, and then a treatment plan will be developed depending on the test results and what the camera sees. He has a terrific son in his second year of college, good friends and a brother and sisters who love him very much. Regaining health will be a journey, but he will have many companions along the way. I guess keeping each other company, and love, love, love is what the whole point of life is anyway, whatever the moment-by-moment circumstances of our lives.


  8. Gullible,
    You lived in the fire for those years you’re talking about. You needed the balm of attending to your own self for awhile. I’m glad you have let it lie fallow. Your writing is growing like Jack’s beanstalk. I don’t know how it will happen, but somehow, we’ve got to get together for a writing jag in 2010. Maybe a tiny circle of bloggers’ meet-up/writing retreat? Okay, there’s you, me, Deanna, Deb, Shaddy, Walk — who else? Can we do this?


  9. Cool. A writer’s retreat. My place in beautiful not-so-downtown Moose Pass is available. For meditating with the muse, I will suooly fluorescent orange safety vests, gloves, and litter bags. It does wonders for getting her to communicate. Pablo reserves the right to edit all printed drafts.


  10. I’m sorry that you’re having this adversity and pain. I guess these awful circumstances are an inevitable part of the journey that each of us follows, mostly in isolation. Except that for fiction writers, this personal history must be written about, suggested at in stories that reveal the meaning of these experiences. Understanding and sharing, through literature.
    My youngest son, who is nearing 40, is dealing with the death of his mother-in-law, who passed away Sunday. I am mostly unaware of this part of his journey. I can’t even imagine what his wife’s family in West Virginia is going through right now. We are separated by a tough, invisible membrane of existence, and it’s hard for us to share the real truth of these matters.
    You’ve caused me to wonder about the painful “fires” in my past. I’m not inclined to communicate about such things; but if I were, it would have to be through fiction.


  11. Beth, I keep coming back , because I don’t know what to say. If I join you , I will be the encourager, and the wide eyed wondering how you guys do it. Relieved to hear that healing is on the horizon for your brother.
    We had a scare the other day when my sister-in-law was in a car accident. It was one of those “can’t believe she walked away unharmed or worse” , and none of have our breath back yet.
    Denny ~ may I say that you just wrote about some of it so gracefully.


  12. Catching up after a 3 week trip to the States, and I’m sorry to read of your brother’s illness. You and all of your family are in my thoughts…I’m glad you can be there for him. Times like this aren’t easy…so many of us know from experience.


  13. Thank you, Denny. As usual, you add considerable light to the discussion. And the question of whether and how (as writers) to deal with these essences of our lives: birth, death, and the struggle and joy in between — in real time nonfiction or with an imposed distance of time and genre, in fiction. There are many reasons to take the fiction route. But there may be some compelling reasons to be here, now, with nonfiction.


  14. Alaska is a great retreat site, but everyone should know that Pablo’s (the parrot) idea of editing a printed draft is to eat it — or a least part of it. (Do go to Gullible’s Travels to see some incredible photos of the area around Moose Pass. I would love to walk with Gullible on her “picking up litter” walks.


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