Posted tagged ‘Fire Sermon’

a fire sermon

September 20, 2017

Early in my college life I had decided that I needed to keep my handwritten notes for classes (do people even do that any longer?) in notebooks with my college logo on the front. As an undergrad, I attended the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL, which we said was SLUM spelled sideways). Grad school was at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC, which we couldn’t do much with but you see above that the mascot is a kangaroo, named Casey, the original of which was drawn by a fellow named Walt Disney, who was living in Kansas City at the time).

Though none of my undergrad notebooks have survived (and why would they? I was a business major!), I had kept all of my grad school notebooks for some reason, and now, decades later, I still have them and haven’t opened them once. Thus as part of my ongoing effort to declutter and simplify my life, I’ve begun taking the old paper things to my little cabin in the Ozarks to burn in the fire ring.

You see above the first of these to contribute their essence to the ash build up. This was from one of my lit classes; of all of the notes I might have/should have kept to reread for possible enlightenment, this would have been the one, but it was the first my hand fell on in the cull, and cull I must, so off to the pyre it went. In the photo above it sits on the bed of coals I’d already created on a recent visit to Roundrock. Note the green fence parts also there.

The notebook sat for a surprisingly long time on the coals before the flames kissed it. Perhaps I was being given the chance to reconsider my plan. But I didn’t, and eventually the paper and cardboard pages were transforming themselves.

I burned the notebook whole. I didn’t tear out pages to use as tinder, nor did I remove the loose papers that were handed out in class, folded, and duly slipped into the notebook by me at some distant time. It was consumed as a unit, though it went up surprisingly slowly.

And thus one notebook is gone, its pages transformed to fine ash and its spiral spine now twisted and resting on that ash, eventually to be buried itself in further ash. I think I’ve said before that it somehow warms my black and shriveled heart to think that all of these unlikely things are accumulating in the fire ring and that someday, perhaps, someone will come upon them and marvel at why they are there.*

I have perhaps a dozen more notebooks from my school days to consign to the fire. There are also various files for projects that I was once in love with but that never happened (mostly ideas for magazine articles), so I have plenty of material for future cleansing fires. Plus, now that the chainsaw is fixed, I find that I have far more firewood than I can ever use for my infrequent campfires on overnight trips to the cabin. Burn it all!

*My engineer son says that the chemical composition of the ash combined with rainwater will likely cause the metal in the fire ring to dissolve relatively quickly and that little of this story-telling evidence will remain after a time. See, these kinds of things are the reason my heart is black and shriveled.


I also keep handwritten journals — I have for more than thirty years — in spiral notebooks with college logos on the front. I don’t intend ever to burn them, and at least one of my children has said that he intends to read them after I die so he can get to know me better, a task that might be better undertaken while I am still alive, no? My sister-in-law in Chicago has taken it upon herself to keep me supplied with these notebooks, and having raised three high-achieving children, all of whom have completed college and two of whom has completed grad school (with one currently in grad school), I am oversupplied with notebooks (Syracuse, Northwestern, Villa Nova, Loyola) and can’t write entries fast enuf to keep pace with her supply ambitions.


unburdened (a tiny bit)

January 23, 2017


So the point of the original fire sermon is that we are burning with desire for our sensory lives and that if we can unburden ourselves of these appetites, we can better achieve nirvana. At least according to my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. (Thank you, Wikipedia! But isn’t desiring to achieve nirvana a, well, desire?)

In my story of the same name one of the characters is unburdening himself of many old and no-longer-needed possessions, literally burning them in a fire. (One of them just happens to be an old peach crate. He probably kept vinyl records in it at one time.) The other character unburdens himself of some gripes about his life while sitting around that fire. (He also unburdens himself of a lot of beer.) The inability to listen, to heed one of the senses, also plays into the story. You can see I am conflicted about this whole freeing yourself of your senses business.

And all of that.

I have a rolling file cart in my little office at home where I keep “important papers,” but lately I’ve thought I need to unburden myself of a lot of them too. Over the weekend I grabbed one of the folders at random from the cart. It was a collection of rejection letters I had received years ago. The most recent one was literally 21 years old. Most were for feature articles I was pitching, but there were a few early fiction rejections as well. And these were actual paper letters. Some of them even handwritten. (Who sends handwritten letters anymore?) Old school stuff. I spent about three minutes leafing through them and reminiscing wistfully (is there any other way to reminisce?), then I closed the folder and carried the entire thing down to the recycling tub in the garage. Unburdened.

That leaves dozens of other folders in the cart (and who knows what in the file cabinet at the back of the closet or the box of “important papers” on top of it) still to be culled. I suspect it will get easier as I go along.

so I did a thing

January 16, 2017

I’ve been fooling around with my story “Fire Sermon” for a couple of weeks. I got the first draft down without too much agony, and it’s been through a few rewrite sessions, but I kept telling myself it “wasn’t finished” and “wasn’t ready.”

Sometime over the weekend I came to understand that this was code, and the message behind it was that I was too chicken to just finish it and try submitting it.

So I did.

“Fire Sermon” weighs in at 3,540 words (exactly, at this moment), and that immediately put it out of consideration at many publications that had calls with themes that my story might fit. (What is it with shorter short stories? Are they easier for editors to publish? For readers to read? Can you really cover a human story in only 1,000 words?) So I broadened my search for a potential home and came upon a new-ish journal published from somewhere in the Midwest (tantalizingly vague on their webpage, though physical location doesn’t really matter in cyberspace, I suppose). And off the story went.

Now I have a tw0-month wait for a response. And in that time I hope to be able to turn my attention to other stuff. My playful story “Stargazing” is only about two-thirds written and deserves some love. And ideas for the sequel stories to One-Match Fire continue to come to me, so there’s some note-taking to be done there. Plus that pesky query letter for the novel. And there are plenty of other ideas in the mental hopper.

BTW, although “Fire Sermon” has two characters in it from the One-Match Fire stories, it isn’t really part of that novel. (I just know these two people very well and could write about them more easily.) One-Match Fire has a specific narrator — I’ve always asserted that a story’s narrator must be as much of a character, at the very least to the writer, as any character in the story — but that will not be the case with these subsequent stories. I’m not sure who that narrator will be, or even if it will be the same narrator for each story, but my point (and I do have one) is that I didn’t have to craft the telling of this tale in the voice of the person telling the other tales. That made the job easier.

just, um, do it!*

December 26, 2016

I tell myself that I can make all of the notes I want about my stories and that I can muse about them incessantly as I’m pounding out the miles on the treadmill but that I cannot do the actual writing of them until I’m in the proper mental place (Call it inspiration if you want. Or a kind of essential quiet and solitude. Or maybe just too much iced tea — unsweetened, of course.) And so I often don’t stare at the blank screen, attempting to will the words to come, because I am just not in that proper mental place.

Today was different. I rose early to the quiet house (with five extra people in it including a one-year-old whose birthday it is today!) and sat myself in front of my laptop. I did the usual internet surfing, visiting all of the regular sites (including your blog). I finished reading a novel (Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). And vigorously avoided opening Word to have a look at any of the four stories I currently have underway. So far, that much was not different at all. But some nattering in the back of my brain (perhaps in the rudimentary brain stem?) told me to just, um, do it. Just open any one of the four and read what was there.

The nattering was such that I couldn’t resist it with my usual rationalizations. I actually did open one: “Fire Sermon.” (I think I picked that one because I’m still in that whole story line, as I mumbled about in this post. But I could be mistaken. It’s happened before.) And I just starting putting down words. Completely outside of that mythical mental place. I’ve always known that it is easier to rein in an overwritten story than it is to pad out an underwritten one. So whatever words I put down wouldn’t necessarily be wasted, even if they were not any good.

The words came easily. I know these characters well. And I know what I want the story to do in terms of tone and plot. I have the theme worked out. I just didn’t have the transition from moment to moment within the story in my mind. And you can’t go forward if you don’t know the way. (I assured myself!) But I did anyway, and it turns out I did know the way. Or the way I chose was a good one that does advance the story.

So I more than doubled the word count on the story this morning (going from 300+ to 700+). And I got over the transition hump so I can get my (drunk) character to say the things that need saying to develop the plot a little more and bring in the theme.

Was a lesson learned this morning? Have I realized that I don’t have to be “inspired” to just put words down?

No, but that’s because, honestly, I’ve always know that to be true. I guess the real lesson I need to learn is how to overcome inertia. (It’s the same with lacing up for a run. It’s so easy to say I’d rather be writing than running and then end up doing neither.)

What works for you. Enlighten me. Please!

*modified corporate phrase to show I’m more than just a shill for a product.