Disappointing My Inner Wisconsinite, Cultivating My Inner Grasshopper

 There’s been a wood-burning ban in most of the surrounding counties in the greater Seattle area lately, due to the unusually dry winter season. I finally have a fireplace in my new apartment, but I haven’t even been able to use it. Until last night. The fire-ban lifted in my part of town, perhaps just for a few days, so I simply had to take advantage.

During this dry spell in the weather, I’ve had a bit of a dry spell of my own. I’ve been trying to tackle this monstrous revision hurdle the last few days. I’m having the same problem I had with the first book, even though this is a completely different genre and story: how to tell the back-story without resorting to straight-up, boring old exposition. Kelly came up with a brilliant maneuver to accomplish said challenge (as she always does), but I found the maneuver very tricky to actually pull off. Though I know it almost never happens this way, I kept sitting down hoping and expecting to get all those revisions done in one hefty swoop. But every time I sat down to get the whole thing done in one session, I kept failing to type a single word and would walk away from the computer assuming that I’d get it done later. Somehow.

As a source of distraction, I bought a cord of wood from the nearby Ballard Fred Meyer (the very best Fred Meyer in the whole state, in my opinion) and headed home with a newspaper and one of those boxes of extra-long wooden matches. After dinner (leftover tofu and broccoli over rice with Thai peanut sauce) I hauled the giant tome I’ve been slogging through, a Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald biography, into the living room ready to cozy up. And then I set to work.

Now, let me preface this next bit with a short summary of my history with fire-building. Growing up, we had fireplaces in every house we lived in, including the one in Tucson, though I don’t think we ever used it there because it never got cold enough to feel necessary or even logical. I spent nearly half of my life at camp, where we build fires on a weekly basis. I went on several wilderness camping trips each season, and could deftly start a raging fire with a single match. We even had a club for it, aptly titled the “One-Match Club.”

And during the years in which my family lived in our camp house in the Northwoods of Wisconsin year-round, I had no choice but to cultivate such skills. We did have supplemental heat in the house, but our main defense against the arctic cold fronts that come sweeping down past the 49th parallel were two wood-burning stoves at each end of the house. My brothers were very often in charge of keeping the fires burning at a slow and steady rate, and making sure that the ceiling fans would disperse the heat through the house. But eventually, I took to the task myself and even helped out chopping wood. Dylan and I loved to chop wood together on the really cold days, when the wood would be so frozen and hard that it split easily, and with the most satisfying sounds.

So last night I held my single match up to the chimney, found the flue and pulled it open. I crumpled little balls of newspaper and cardboard underneath a small tee-pee of kindling. I don’t own one of those miniature axes used for making good-sized kindling, but the large pieces I did have were dry enough that I thought they’d catch without difficulty. Over that, I built a larger tee-pee from medium-sized pieces of wood, and set the paper on fire with my long match. Overly confident in my skills, I walked away to fix a bowl of raspberry sorbet with fresh strawberries. I’ve built fires so many times, and in exactly the same way, that my little heart just broke when I reentered the living room to find only a puff of smoke and a few measly embers where my roaring fire should have been.

I tried again twice, failing both times, and then gave up. My inner Wisconsin was so very, very disappointed. The fire ban will likely be placed in effect again soon, and I’ll have to wait a long while to have another opportunity to redeem myself. Shame on me.

As usual when I hit yet another notch on my comedy-of-errors life belt, I texted my older brother, Dylan. I told him that I’d failed with the fire, and he wrote back to me, “Small pieces, grasshopper.” Of course—it was so simple: I needed to start with smaller pieces of kindling.

How silly of me to presume that the whole fire could start without the building blocks. Enough wood had burned to at least fill my house with that delicious smoky cedar smell, and I went back into my office to chip away at the revisions. I only got a page or so revised, but at least it’s a start. Hell, even if it only happens one line paragraph at a time, one line at a time, at least it’ll happen.

Just as with the fire, sometimes writing needs to be done in stages. Piling too many expectations on top of the metaphorical kindling will smother the sparks. Sometimes ideas need air and space to feed them, too. Young grasshopper is learning.

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4 thoughts on “Disappointing My Inner Wisconsinite, Cultivating My Inner Grasshopper

  1. It’s wonderful how lessons learned in the most mundane parts of daily life can translate to your craft. Definitely good thoughts to keep in mind.

  2. So, I’ve learnt something new from your writing: a wood-burning ban! How I wish we had it here in Poland, especially Silesia region. You should see all those chimneys around me producing dense and dark smoke, so that you can’t open the window…And the problem with starting the fire – yesss, I know what you mean, sometimes my efforts last an hour.. Great writing, Tanya!

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