Reader Friday: Setting Yourself on Fire

“Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” – Reggie Leach, retired Canadian hockey player.

Do you set yourself on fire when you write? When the flame gets low, how to you make it glow again?


25 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Setting Yourself on Fire

  1. That woke me up!

    I’m doing a show for the first time since Covid shut the theatres down (Hurricane Ian took a week off our run). I’m working 5 days a week (we used to work 4 10s, now we work 5 8s). I’m taking a writing course Garry mentioned in one of his columns and attending a virtual conference at the end of the month. Entered my screenplay in a contest. Got good feedback on my dystopian trilogy and now have people hounding me to finish it. Also working on finishing everything else I’ve started over the years. Our hospital closes Summer of 2024 and though I’ve been offered a job when we move (I work for the new CEO) I’d like to see what I can do between now and then.

    I’m exhausted, but it’s fun.

  2. I try to keep the fire glowing, even in between writing sessions by “what if” and brainstorming. I turn up the flame for writing sessions by reserving mornings for writing, caffeine, vigorous exercise in the afternoons, and reviewing my outline/notes before each scene to remind myself of the passion I felt when I built the story.

  3. Absolutely! When the flame dies down, I sink into someone else’s story world. Doesn’t take long for the fire to reignite, and I race back to the keyboard. 🙂

  4. Yes, because the characters are, in some sense me, everything that happens to them, in their pov, is personal – and I channel them as I figure out how they/me are going to get through this scene.

    It’s wrenching sometimes to leave one character, and become the next – I have three main characters and write close third pov – but the scene can’t take shape until I talk myself into being the next character. This is often helped by re-reading the previous scene in this pov, and by distancing myself from it by having the Mac’s robot voice read that previous scene to me.

    • That’s a great way to describe it. I feel the same way when I’m writing a scene.

  5. So interesting that you brought this up today, Jim. I was watching (re-watching, actually) a movie recently that I plan to write a blog post on in a couple of weeks. In the movie, a despondent author asks, “What do you do when the fire goes out?”

    I agree with Reggie Leach. For me, lighting the fire means reading good books and listening to writing courses or books while I’m out running. Also, getting together with other writers and critique group partners. Finally, it means sitting down in my writing chair with my hands on the keyboard knowing I might throw away some (or possibly, most) of what I write that day. But some of the words will work, and there will be joyful fire in that.

  6. The post contains a quote from a Canadian. Can’t resist 😊

    When I read this, I thought about Buddhist protestors that have set themselves on fire as a defiance to oppression. You made me reflect on this and I had some interesting thoughts related to the quote.

    I think if you’re attempting to set yourself on fire (symbolically), you may be at the point where you could self-destruct. Pushing yourself to do more could mean that you’re stressed and ready to tap out. Perhaps trying to set yourself on fire is a last-ditch attempt to make a point to yourself and/others. Nonetheless, needing a push is possibly the wake-up to do more with wasted time or putting your faith in other people and processes.

    Happy Friday

  7. Terrific question, Jim. I keep a novel journal, which lets me work out problems and ask myself questions, like we’ve discussed before and also helps me get inspired again. I also recently free wrote a scene to do some more work honing the voice for my novel which turned into a new scene which I’m really happy with. Reading mysteries gets my writing juices flowing. Same with watching classic mysteries like Perry Mason and newer ones like Monk

  8. This might not be exactly what you asked, but recently I’ve discovered the giant kick-in-the-pants a daily word count goal can be. Heard it talked about here, too.

    I belong to another writers group and we are in the middle of an October word count challenge. I set myself the goal of 5K words/week on my new WIP, and I’ve exceeded that number during this first week!

    I’m hooked! And it’s a dang fun hook, I might add.


  9. Great stuff here, kids. Tips any writer can follow.

    Jack London:

    “I would rather be ashes than dust!
    I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
    I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
    The function of man is to live, not to exist.
    I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
    I shall use my time.”

      • That reminds me of a quote from Erma Bombeck — “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

    • Also found this one that I’d heard a long time ago –

      Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming”Wow! What a Ride!” — Hunter S. Thompson,

  10. I wish I knew the answer to that question, JSB. Oh, how I wish.

    I suffer from COPD and, if I live until Christmas, I shall be 70 years old. (How the hell did that happen?)
    My fire went out some 18 months ago when I lost my brother and then my mother within 6 months of each other. That double whammy knocked me for six.
    I tried to write through it, and managed to publish the book I’d been working on before Mum died, last July. Since then…crickets. To make things worse, when we finally got probate on Mum’s will and sold her house, I found myself in possession of more money than I’ve ever had in my life. It’s no great amount in the general scheme of things, but for someone who readily admits that she wrote for the money, that put the tin lid on my motivation.

    I still try and write every day, though it’s a tiny amount on most days – 100-300 words if I’m lucky. (There’s more words in this post than I’ve added to my WIP today, for example.)

    So, what to do? I have readers avid for the next in my 1920s mystery series, I still sleep with my characters at night, their stories fill my head, but the urge to write has gone. Do I call it quits, when I still get story ideas coming into my head? When I feel I owe my readers something?

    Help me TKZers. Please.

    • It’s a profound and moving question you ask, Lynda. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But I will say that you don’t “owe” your readers anything. Your writing is a gift, not an obligation. You’ve been hit, and hit hard. I do think writing a little each day is a good thing. Maybe take some time to write on something not your WIP. See where some “morning pages” take you. Freewrite. Write about what’s inside you at a given moment, etc. See if a little flame starts flickering again.

      And see this very honest post by our own Kris Montee. She’s been right there with you.

    • Hi Lynda,

      Have you tried a buddy system where you team up with another writer to check in for a daily word count goal? That practice helped me push through a writing drought.

    • Hi Lynda!

      I’m so glad you chose to be you in your comment. Sometimes we try to hide behind what we think we’re supposed to do and who we think we should try to be.

      Below in the comments, you’ll find a great observation by our own Marilynn Byerly:

      “…Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” It refers to inner personal relationships, doormats, and users. From a writing perspective, it can mean to write for you and what makes you happy, not doing what others expect of you.

      I really, really like that. I wish I’d read that a few decades ago when I lost my younger brother and sister as adults within 5 years of each other. I couldn’t write about that for a very long time…in fact, more than 30 years.

      But I learned that grief never goes away. It slowly became part of the fabric of who I am today, and how I write today.

      And Jim’s so right when he says there’s no pat answer that fits everyone. And the thing about writing a little every day. For you. No one else.

      I hope to see you here again! 🙂

    • Aw, Lynda, I’m sorry.

      I went through a similar devastating period in 2003. Deaths of multiple family members and close friends; life-altering illnesses; a catastrophic fire; my agent dumped me; and additional trials.

      I lost all desire to write. I threw out boxes of notes from conferences and writing classes, along with unpublished manuscripts. I was done.

      Writing friends said, “You can’t give up. You’re our inspiration b/c you’ve held out longer than any of us.” I felt bad disappointing them but it just wasn’t in me.

      After a couple of years off the grid, an author I knew slightly asked what had happened to my writing. I told her that, compared to the real-world problems we were dealing with, I didn’t see any point in writing silly, trivial mysteries.

      She stared hard at me and said, “Sometimes that’s exactly the diversion people need.”

      She made me think.

      A while later, I started writing again and the old burn came back.

      But I needed that time away to recover from the body blows we’d endured in that difficult period.

      Please take care of yourself.

  11. WordPress is being weird so I’ll try again to post.

    There’s a nice variation. “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” It refers to inner personal relationships, doormats, and users. From a writing perspective, it can mean to write for you and what makes you happy, not doing what others expect of you.

    I’ve talked with so many newer writers who think they should be writing literary fiction or whatever because that’s what’s expected of them, but it’s not their passion. Once they start writing for themselves, the writers block and the misery goes away.

  12. Lynda, last year my daughter died and it was months before I could write. It took me forever to do something that should only take five minutes. Give yourself some slack.

    Rest, read, watch good movies and tear them apart. The pain never goes away, but it does get better. Along with being able to think and write again. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

  13. Thanks everyone for your kind words and understanding.

    I shall keep on with my few words a day in the hope that the fire hasn’t been completely doused. As some one said, I shall write for myself in the hope that I may yet fan the embers from a flicker to a flame.

    Thanks again.

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