I have not been writing much lately. Instead, I’ve been lighting fires.
I’ve been working the morning shifts at a pizzeria, mixing and portioning dough and preparing the brick oven for the day’s fire. I scrape away yesterday’s ashes, peppered with glowing embers like red ants, sweep away the dust, and start a new fire, constructing a delicate log cabin of gnarly applewood logs. Once it reaches 700 degrees Fahrenheit or so, I push the fresh embers to the back, throw on more logs, and leave the rest to the line cooks.
It’s not the kind of work I prefer in the kitchen, as a baker at heart who loves playing with dough. At the oven, I singe my hair, burn my hands, get smudges of ash on my face. But if I don’t get it hot enough in time, the restaurant falls behind.
When we find inspiration, we call it a spark. When the writing is going well, we say I’m on fire. When writing reaches the right audience, it spreads like wildfire and can inspire readers with warmth and light. Or, it can inspire a burning passion to scorch the earth, or to devote spending our time and energy putting out all the little fires everywhere or to simply realize that the whole system is a dumpsterfire.
If I don’t do my job at the oven properly, I can start a literal dumpsterfire (the embers can last a long time before it’s safe to throw them away). But if I don’t properly write enough, what are the real consequences?
Writing is an act of creation, and I think it’s easy to let that get to our heads. The mythology a lot of writers believe about themselves as solitary, solipsistic introverts cloistered from the world is, to be honest, a little embarrassing to me because it assumes writing—seemingly unlike anything else in the world—can exist in a vacuum.
It’s increasingly impossible to ignore the world as it is. This last month has been a whirlwind of terrible news, setting precedent for worse news to come. I’m surprised by writers who still insist on cloistering themselves away, treating their craft as if it’s independent from the world they live in, the world they attempt to reflect, satirize, comment upon.
I’m thinking here of how Irish writers responded to the political turbulence of their time. James Joyce left Ireland in 1904, between periods of struggle. During the War for Independence after 1916, William Butler Yeats bought a tower in western Ireland to write from, above the violence literally and metaphorically. Meanwhile, writers like Patrick Pearse, William Plunkett, and Sean O’Casey joined the revolution directly, swapping out their pens for arms.
Language is as dangerous and useful as fire. It can create, but it much more easily destroys. Corrupt statesmen use language to whip up support for themselves and against marginalized communities. Snake oil salesman masquerading as pundits have injected rightwing politics with increasingly violent rhetoric, using the same tools writers use to tell a good story. The Supreme Court relied on the abuse of written documents, past and present, to transform violent ideology into equally violent statecraft using the tools of rhetoric available to every essayist. What is our responsibility when the materials of our craft are used for oppression?
A few days ago, I let the fire get too hot. I carelessly piled logs into the stove, building them up, eager to finish with one task and move onto the next. The first round of pies burned to a crisp on touching the surface, inedible even for the staff. For the next hour, the cook had to monitor every pie that went in, turning it constantly, waiting for the oven to cool.
I haven’t been writing much lately, but the writing I have been doing has been engaged with my community. I’m working on a zine about climate change with a local graphic designer. I’ve been writing newsletters and blog posts for a healthcare campaign. More importantly, I’ve been fulfilling my other obligation to the literary community by reading a lot: reading for inspiration, for action, and for comfort. I know there are many more people I should write to, family waiting for letters, loved ones I miss.
It’s easy to get caught up in being a writer, as if that identity circumscribes certain privileges. I’m more interested in a writer’s responsibility. Some writers are buying up towers, but heat always rises.
At the restaurant in the morning, I’ll stop what I’m doing sometimes and stare into the fire, assessing: What does it need from me now? What is to be done?
Photo contributed by the author.