The Fire Inside: When Writers Must Write

Rita M. Gardner

Rita M. Gardner

Written by Rita M. Gardner

A friend recently told me she’d been thinking about writing, one of the things that brings her true joy. But, she said, she was absolutely fearful of anyone reading or commenting on her output. She wrote: “I think of you because you are so courageous as to allow anyone in this world – people you don’t even know – to read the words you have dared to put on paper.”

I just want to say—to her—and to anyone who has fears about writing down their inner thoughts, that sometimes it’s not really a courageous act at all; it’s a necessary act. And we all find some time in life when we must do something—and we do it. What that thing is could be anything at all. It isn’t something that fits with our “life plan” and yet we do it. People call us courageous, but we don’t see it that way.

Often, however, I think inspiration comes from a fire that burns within—and a moment arrives when it’s no longer possible to tamp down the flame or try to keep it buried. We all are in the same boat, no one of us braver than the other. Our fears can be like relentless ocean waves, trying to swamp our vessel, and—unfortunately—sometimes succeeding. But deep inside, hope flickers too, and it can be a lifesaver.

OceanSM I’m reminded of a poem by David Whyte called “Out on the Ocean.” He writes of being alone in a kayak, five miles from shore, waves raging around him as he pulls desperately for home. Here are the last two stanzas:

“And the spark behind fear

recognized as life

leaps into flame

always this energy smoulders inside

when it remains unlit

the body fills with dense smoke.”

Sunset on shoreSMWhen I first read that poem, I could almost smell the ashy heaviness in my own bones. It’s a reminder that there comes a time—or many times—when we struggle, filled with that same dense smoke that threatens to choke us. But if we can see it as also energy, still alive, then maybe—just maybe—it’s time to let the spark burn through the fear and bring us safely to shore. What are some of the steps we writers can take so that our flames burn bright?

  • First, I think we must allow and acknowledge the fears we have.
  • Then, start writing small truths just for yourself. No one else ever needs to see these words. In my case, I was writing a memoir that exposed family secrets long held under lock and key. I couldn’t unveil these secrets while certain family members were alive. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t write. It might be a very long journey, but time wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was knowing I could start to make my way home, one paddle stroke at a time.
  • Another idea is being in a writing group with like-minded voyagers. Many bookstores and libraries provide classes on writing. I happened upon one such class at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. It was titled “Is There a Book in You?” With trepidation, I signed up and found a warm tribe of writers in the same boat—doubtful, scared, excited, and unsure how to move forward. Some of us started a writing group. Together, we dipped more paddles in the water. We were not alone, and stroking together, we made steady progress through the breakers.

Maybe some of us are brave enough to face their fears alone, and I applaud them. In my case, I had to find a way to get out of the dense smoke before it smothered me entirely. Along the way, I found the company of other writers invaluable in guiding me on my journey. I’m grateful for the experience. My wish to others who are still hesitating to tell their story is that they discover their own spark and find their way to nourish it into life. 

Rita Gardner is a Bay Area writer and photographer. Her memoir “The Coconut Latitudes” won the 2015 Indie Book Award and the 2015 Independent Book Publishers’ Association Ben Franklin Gold Award for Memoir

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