From Fire and Smoke


In a world of reason and rational thought, where logic and planning rule over every inch of ground, there has to be a badlands, a place where things stop making sense, a realm where the only authority is the witchdoctor who consults the spirits as to the path before you. That is where I live. That is where I write. So be careful, the footing is treacherous. I can’t tell you what you will find when you walk off my path. Stay close and I will show you the mind of the one who wrote Liefdom.

When you sit at your desk, things make sense to you. They should. It’s your desk. Gustave Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But when you write a book, things will show up, things like outlines and character sketches, lists of settings. And grammar. None of that rules the place where I sit. The laws are different here.

I still have notes. The wall to my right is magnetic. That is a funny story. I’ll tell it sometime, but not now. This is too important to get sidetracked. That wall has 190 tiny pieces of paper held up by 190 very boring little magnets. The pages hung there ask questions I need to answer when I write a book. They say little things. Let me get one of them and show you. The note I picked at random says, “Peter’s second mistake.” As I sit here now, 550 pages into a novel, I can tell you with no shame that I have no idea what that mistake is yet. It hasn’t been made. But by the end of the book, it will happen. The notes are there; they make no sense to anyone. They are chicken guts spilled and stretched out on a rock. They are shades and skeletons dancing in the shadows. I don’t need to know what they mean. I don’t want to know what they mean. Some of them are meaningless, as they should be.

When I write, I write from emotion. My fingers hurt when I’m done writing. They throb. The joints are sore and I have to flex my hands to give them relief because, for two hours, they have been pounding, like a boxer punching the bag. My fingers have been striking the keys so hard that keyboards can’t hold up to them. I’m bad on keyboards. I have to buy warhorse keyboards, fighters that won’t go down until they are dead. Because when I’m writing, I’m on the verge of madness.

I take these questions and I take the emotion running through my head and I unleash. I don’t have much of a plan. I have the tiniest thread of an idea, a simple wisp of smoke to follow out into the wilderness. The path is not lit out there. There is no taking a torch. I follow that wisp of smoke and the land tells me what’s in the book. Things come out of the darkness. Bad ideas and terrible images come flying at me. Beautiful things I never could have planned are out there. Nothing gets in the way, not sentence structure or punctuation, not outlines or any kind of list at all. The smoke flies at me and I grab it and spill it out on the page.

My friend had a professor in college who told him that no writer in the world sat down to write without an outline and a planned course. No writer could write a book without setting it down first and knowing where they were going. My friend kept his mouth shut. He didn’t say a thing. But he knew what I know. He knew what I am telling you. Out there, beyond the reaches of the map, is pure, solid inspiration. It comes in like fire, formless and chaotic. You have to be brave and grab at it. Trust the flames and write it down. It won’t make sense for a long time.

I wrote a book called Eleacont with a king named Drowned. Why was he called Drowned? God, I had no idea. I have no way of knowing. Where did I get the name from? The ether, it came from the howl of the beast out there off the path. Something whispered the name Drowned at me, and I grabbed it, in my confusion, and slapped it down on the page.

You have to trust. You have to know that one day it will make sense. And it did. Not that year, that year I wrote Eleacont and went on to write others. I wrote two other books that year. Deep into the next, I found myself writing the sequel to Eleacont. I found myself off the path, walking the badlands, following smoke, and I figured it out. I knew why his name was Drowned, and it was good. It was really good. It made sense—as if it was planned. Months it would have taken me to draw those lines together. Plotting and planning, I would have been at it for years if I had needed a reason. If I had needed an explanation before I wrote his name for the first time, I would have been waiting to write that book for years. But I follow the whims of the shaman. I seek the smoke. When I don’t know why a thing works out as it does, I trust instead of fret.

It is not a good idea. Writing with no regard to any rules whatsoever is just plain poor planning. I don’t recommend it to you, but do it anyway. The edge of the path is right there. The darkness awaits. Step off the path. Put your outline away. Stop worrying about how a word is spelled. Spell it wrong—you can look it up later. Write with emotion. When I’m writing, I am rocking back and forth like a war victim. I’m shocked and terrified.

My work comes out of the badlands. Watch your step. Follow the smoke, and be afraid, because out here lies your subconscious. It is wild and unruly. It is pure and terrifying. Nightmares ride out here. So do dreams.

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