The Writing Cave

I dislike small spaces.

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?


About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.


  1. says

    Erika, I love this analogy. You really drove home an important point for writers in a way that makes it come alive. Passion for your work is vital to success.

    • says

      CG–We couldn’t stop talking about how much our guide’s enthusiasm inspired us. It was a gift to learn from someone like him, and I only hope (in my fiction) that I’m able to inspire others. Thanks for your comment!

  2. says

    An excellent thought, and analogy, Erika!
    I agree. I’m not one for tight spaces. But in the hands of a trustworthy guide, you’re right. It changes things.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

  3. says

    Beautiful! Such a great analogy. Even in this very post, I loved being in a cold, damp pokey cave with you, the fearless writer.

    I suppose we can all add Tour Guide of the Uncomfortable and New and Strange and Fascinating to our resumes. Thank you!

  4. says

    I’ve enjoyed a few cave tours and recall them vividly. You’ve captured that push-pull of fear and excitement in this piece. Wonderful writing metaphor, too.

  5. says

    Others have a fear of wide open spaces. Public speaking, airplanes, insects…there are as many fears as there are people. For writers the point is to crawl into that cave, find out what’s there and use it. Easier said than done, of couse, but its obvious to me in manuscripts when it hasn’t been done.

    Well put, Erika.

    • says

      Don–That’s such a great reminder to use those fear experiences in fiction. If we break out into a cold sweat writing it, chances are, our readers will do the same.

      Thanks so much!

  6. says

    “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.”

    Wow. I wasn’t sure where this was going — my guess was a workspace post — but I love that analogy. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Vaughn Roycroft says

    I just want to echo (heh) what other commenters have said. As Liz said, gorgeously written, and as Kristan said, could not guess where you were going. And I was delighted by where you took me. Really unique, fun, and useful post, Erika!

  8. says

    Wow. This is an amazing post. I did a similar cave tour when I was young (although it was in Carlsbad Caverns), complete with the total darkness and everything, but never thought to compare it to writing. Like Kristan above me, I thought this was going to be another workspace post, too, but I like the different direction you took. You’re right; writers are guides leading others through the story, and just as your guide created moments of tension and suspense and wonder, so too must we for our readers.

    • says

      Kristan and Kristin–I’m glad I took you somewhere unexpected.

      I’d love to explore the Carlsbad Caverns. It looks like there’s a bit more breathing room down there.

  9. Anna says

    Oh, wow! This sounds amazing! You, writers, as our (readers’) guides who give us strength to discover (and survive) places we never dared to go. I simply love how you are explaining this.

  10. says

    I like to tackle venures I want to know more about, to delve more deeply (to borrow your analogy). Now tied down with an injured family member, it’s my way to visit and know the world. I’m currently working on an adventure set in Iceland. Not as dramatic as spelunking but a voyage of discovery nonetheless. Good perspective, Erika.

  11. says

    Great post. This resonates with me on several levels. First of all, I have a cave phobia. I did not know this about myself until I was on a cave tour with my husband. Oh Lord. That was hard.

    And I call my writing space my writing cave. I don’t have a phobia for this small, lonely cave space though sometimes I stall entering.

    Great analogy about the guide. Blogs like this and writers like you are my cave guides!

  12. says

    Well done, Erika! I could feel my lungs closing in with you as you descended. And then you fell in love with the place – exactly what I love in a book. Fear-inspiring when Donald Maass says it’s obvious when the writer hasn’t crawled into their subject’s cave. Yeep! Back to work on my WIP. Great post!!

  13. says

    Oh, I am so claustrophobic. I was cringing at your descriptions of those tunnels. As others have said, I couldn’t tell where you were going, but I loved following along — a great demonstration of the point you were making. I also love the way you wove together fear and passion. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling, as a writer, that I shift between them both while I’m working on a project. In the end I hope the passion is a bit stronger than the fear, for writer and reader both.

  14. says

    Flawlessly written with such a good message. I have a touch of claustrophobia myself so I could relate. What a gift it is to read compelling writing. And what a delight it is to be the writer of it. :)

  15. says

    The cave makes me think of dark corridors of the mind, where the author leads the reader into deeper and deeper uncertainty, sucking out all hope of light at the end of the tunnel. When the plot has reached the darkest point – utter blackness – we find that there is still one more plunge into the belly of despair to go through. We would put the book down, unable to go on, if it weren’t for the fact that the author has convinced us of her trustworthiness. So we persevere, biting our nails and breathing so shallowly that we become light-headed, believing that somehow, somewhere, there will be a chink of light and a breeze of cool, fresh air that will reassure us that we have almost reached the other end of the grotto. Oh, to be a guide like that!

  16. says

    What a beautiful post, Erika! I loved this part especially: “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.”

    Novelists I’ve admired have done that for me — and I’ve always been so grateful for the perspective and insight they’ve shared simply because they loved what they were writing about so much.

  17. Ellie says

    Excellent article and excellent analogy. I can especially relate to your struggle with panic while first in the cave. Anxiety attacks are a part of my life that I have not yet been able to overcome. I am pleased you were able to do so.