#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.


How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.


We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

41 thoughts on “#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

  1. The old man once told me that to write – in my case, lyrics – decent stuff you have have to set your imagination free and that that means crossing safe boundaries, getting angry about injustice or passionate about anything at all. Then think of different ways of expressing stuff and digging up metaphors no one else has ever thought of. I find the metaphors the hardest bit.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Jean Lee – Your comments regarding not writing about your Christian faith “appropriately,” and Sherman Alexie’s about the reservation being the digestible centerpiece of Indian culture reminded me of hearing Edwidge Danticat talk about being scolded by Haitians for writing stories that include not-so-pretty versions of Haitian feminine culture.
    I love books in which writers share about craft, creativity, and inspiration so I look forward to locating a copy of Light the Dark!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah Jean- I’m so glad that you found something to feed that flame. The schedule can make even the joys just feel like one long slog some days- hang in there! You’re one talented lady, and you use your God-given abilities so well (even if it’s not in the framework that other people envisioned for you- uf. That’s a hard one 😦 ) that I can’t wait to see where your journeys take you- thank you for sharing them, friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely article, Jean:). And it has come at a very appropriate time as frankly I am hag-ridden by the WIP at present… It feels like I’m kicking a dead whale up a beach. Thank you for a slice of inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Lordy, that’s just how I feel on my WIP. I’m returning to the first act because it’s just way too damn rushed, but I can’t visualize the setting for tofu. It’s just….blech. I’ve been cursing under my breath about this for AGES. GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
      But I’m glad I can inspire you! πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s like nailing smoke – I fix one issue just for another three to bob up from the ether and wave themselves around, howling for attention – I fix them and… so it goes. I dream of it, think of it, try NOT to think of it… Hag-ridden, that’s what I am – by Bloody Miranda! (I’m thinking of renaming it that, btw…)

        Liked by 1 person

      • LOL! Basted merfolk are getting my goat. I can’t picture their world, and I need to see at least SOME of it, but I can’t for bloody beans, dagnabit!!


  5. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.
    Yeah, well, brilliantly said, and thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yep. The novel that I’m querying deals with an issue that no one wants to talk about – it’s extremely uncomfortable – and is far removed from the subject of ethnicity which some may anticipate my writing would naturally be confined to. Yep, box me in, in your dreams…hate boxes.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love your viewpoint. We are haunted and confined by our past experiences. However, the gift of your writing is to open the door and feel those emotions that confine you. Love them those emotions and the anguish and dear tends to release and you can be at peace with it. It takes time to be able to confront those and be prepared to write your heart out if only for your eyes. Thank you so much. You inspire me with your piece here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember reading about a brilliant mathematician. He talked about life burn out. The early day’s it would sink him with anxiety and worry, he couldn’t produce his best work. But later he discovered that actually many of his best works had been produced when he was highly burnt out.

    Liked by 1 person

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