New York elevators, low-ceilinged basements, and tiny rooms full of people make it hard for me to breathe. I don’t know exactly when it began. I was never locked in a red room like Jane Eyre, or closed in a closet. When I was nine years old, my cousin hid in a dryer and was severely reprimanded, but I was appalled that she did it in the first place, so my fear must have started early.
In light of this, you can imagine my reaction when I accompanied my family underground into the Crystal Grottoes Caverns in Washington County, Maryland, for my son’s school project. With each step further down the sharp-sloped walkway, cut from rock that framed my husband’s six feet almost exactly, I felt as if a fist was squeezing tighter and tighter around my lungs. My husband and three young boys didn’t seem to mind. It was an adventure to them, but I felt like I was going to have a panic attack.
At the end of the walkway, the guide shut off the lights in the passage behind us and closed the door to it, leaving twenty of us in a cavern about 15 X 15 feet, with an eight foot ceiling. I honestly thought I’d have to ask him to let me go back, but suddenly, his warm voice filled the space. He began to speak about his background in caving, and the origins of the Crystal Grottoes caverns. He pointed out the hole in the wall where the first miners chiseled through the rock to find the cave, and the techniques they used when hollowing passages to preserve the rock and its natural formations. We started down an even smaller path, single file, while he cautioned us to watch our heads, pointing to his own scar from where he’d hit a stalactite.
On the tour, we gathered around crystal formations and still pools, watched a single drop of water hang over a stalagmite and drop to the ground. We learned how that little drop of water and the minerals it left were part of the painstaking process that formed these magnificent rocky structures over centuries. We discussed how climbers installed lights in some of the tallest passages by climbing the walls with padded shoes to preserve the cave.
Near the end of the tour, the guide asked if we would like to experience total darkness, which we did, and he turned out the lights for fifteen seconds, plunging us into black. It was during this immersion in the darkness that I realized I could breathe. I had forgotten my panic and crawled with a line of people through five foot holes to learn about a cave, deep under the earth. And I understood that the reason I could breathe was because of our guide.
For writers, it is our job to be like that guide—to let our passion for our subject matter so engulf the reader that he is willing to accompany us into places he may have never before ventured. We need to present our narrative so the reader forgets herself and becomes immersed in the space we create for her. This is why we’re told to write what we know, which is, of course, what we love. Our passion for our subject matter will infuse the writing with authenticity and carry our readers away with us.
When I emerged into the cool, fall afternoon from that cavern, I felt invigorated. I had learned about and was fascinated by something that I’d known nothing about before, and I’d even forgotten about my fear of small places. My guide’s love of rocks (yes, rocks!) kindled something in me and in my family, and we are now eager to explore other caves.
Think of what you are writing, right now. Do you feel passion for it? Are you eager to share what you love with readers? If not, how can you revise your work to align with your passions?