Chasing the Flame
Note: I am a writer as well as an editor. Sometimes I wear my writer’s hat when blogging. This is one of those times.
When the source of his fiction was autobiographical, Eddie could write with authority and authenticity. But when tried to imagine – to invent, to create – he simply could not succeed as well as when he remembered. This is a serious limitation for a fiction writer… But Eddie would make a living as a novelist, nonetheless. One can’t deny him his existence as a writer simply because he would never be, as Chesterton once wrote of Dickens, “a naked flame of mere genius, breaking out in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from historic religions and philosophies or from the great foreign schools.” - A Widow for One Year, by John Irving
I spent four years trying to unearth my “naked flame of mere genius” while I struggled to write a speculative novel about a group of strangers who become trapped in a small mountain town when an impenetrable dome (not unlike the sort you might place over a slab of cheese) suddenly surrounds them. I reached as deep as I could to find all the relevant experiences I’d known that could place me inside the characters’ minds, but since I’d never been trapped under a giant cheese dome, I just made everything up. My characters came across as flannelgraph approximations of my writer’s intent and the story quickly crumbled around them. After about 40,000 words, I admitted defeat. I killed Sphere of Influence and spent the next year mourning the loss.
During that year, I read lots of great books. And, after a brief season of bitterness toward God for having given someone else the writerly genius I was supposed to receive, I reluctantly agreed to re-visit my childhood dream of becoming a published writer.*
I downscaled my plan: I would become a brilliant short story writer instead of a novelist (a plan that included frequent publication in The New Yorker, of course). I was much more intentional this time around. Before I wrote a single word, I sat down with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and tried to reverse engineer the stories in order to discern what it was about Anderson’s writing that made his short story collection “literary.”
Then I started writing.
Three overwrought, underdeveloped short stories into my new career, I sighed a defeated sigh and began to prepare my heart for the end of all dreams that featured “becoming a writer” as a key plot element. I was frustrated and discouraged. I stared into the mirror searching for evidence that I might be wrong, that I might be a writer after all, but all I could see was that I was no Sherwood Anderson.
Epiphanies are funny things – they appear out of nowhere and look at you like they’ve been there all along. They offer a kind smile instead of the smirk they have every right to wear and wait patiently for you to notice the truth they carry.
This was mine: I was no Sherwood Anderson.
Duh. (This is the only allowable response to recognizing an epiphany. A hand-slap to the forehead is optional.)
To my surprise, admitting I wasn’t a literary genius didn’t destroy my dream of becoming a published writer, it saved my dream from extinction. In time, the epiphany led me to this truth: Either you have the flame of genius or you don’t. But even if you don’t (and most writers don’t), that doesn’t mean you can’t become a successful published author.
After my epiphany, I started writing again, but this time I wrote autobiographically.
The shift from “trying to be a brilliant storyteller” to “telling the stories I knew” was life-changing. I stopped chasing the blue flame and simply started to remember…
…I remembered the day I ran home from school without a care in the world, fully believing that the very next footfall would touch only air. I remembered the jeering taunt of a classmate that pulled me back to earth mere seconds before I defied the law of gravity. I remembered the sadness that fell over my 10-year-old body like a lead blanket and slowed me to a defeated walk…
And as I began to remember this and a thousand other real-life stories, I realized what my writing had been missing: me.
Immediately, I had a deeper connection with my characters. When they cried, I felt the pain in my gut. When they yelled in anger, my blood boiled. When I painted a character into a corner, it was the character himself who would shout directions on how to solve the plotting problem.
What a difference this made. Instead of chasing the wind, I started to feel it caress my skin. Instead of trying to impress with big words, I chose to express with words I already knew. I stopped trying to be Charles Dickens or Sherwood Anderson and started to figure out who Stephen Parolini was.
Though improbable, it is possible my continuing study of writing and my willingness to learn might someday fuel a dormant flame that reveals a hidden genius.
In the meantime, I’m just going to keep writing. Because no one can deny my existence as a writer.
Not even me.
*I actually realized this dream nearly 20 years ago, and between then and now I’ve published a half-dozen non-fiction books, dozens of curriculum titles and hundreds if not thousands of magazine articles. But I’ve revised the original dream. Now it’s to become a published novelist. I’m still working toward that goal.