- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

The Fire of Obsession

Obsession is a writer’s way.  We are hard-wired for it, to collect details and study a subject with great intensity, like a four year old who [1]memorizes all the names of all the dinosaurs in all the ages and can recite their diets and sizes and probable colors for hours if you let him.  (And if you let him, you will be his friend for LIFE.)

That does not always mean it’s comfortable.  I have been crazy in love with the ancient Irish and the Black Death and Titanic, with weaving and dyeing, with Faulkner and England and faeries and crop circles and tornados…well, a zillion other things that drove my family and friends crazy. With time, you learn to cover your tracks a bit, cover the twitch, the green glimmer of the eye.

The thing is, you can’t help it.  You don’t say to yourself, “hmm, I think I’ll find out absolutely every single thing I can about black soldiers in World War II, and meanwhile learn 12 billion details about the landing at Normandy, and then drive everyone crazy for six months reciting all the facts I’ve discovered until they wave their hands if anyone so much as mentions 1944 or Jim Crow or Dachau.”  Don’t get her started!

No, it happens because your brain is ripe for a seed.  You find out that we fought Hitler with a segregated freaking Army and your brain says, “WHAT? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!”   And you’re off.

I’m thinking about this because I am currently really obsessed with the Waldo Canyon Fire.  I mean, really, really, really obsessed.  You may have heard about the fire in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago.  A lot of people did.  It was a big fire. It was a fierce fire.  It burned a lot of homes, and devoured one of the most beloved canyons around here (and one of my favorite hiking trails, dang it!)

The thing is, despite the near certainty of what happened happening, none of us were very well educated about fire, and I learned more in five days than I’ve ever learned about anything in my life.

And the girls in the basement are obsessed.  I’m embarrassed, creeping around collecting facts and photos and stories, stashing them away, but I know what this is, and it’s not going away.   It wasn’t just this fire, actually, it’s a few things coming together.  When I visited Australia a few years ago, I was struck by the depth of fear people had for bush fires.  I climbed a mountain that was still scarred badly from a fire that had burned in the late sixties and thought about how fiercely that fire must have burned.  Shortly after I came home, the terrible terrible Black Saturday fires erupted there.  [2]

Layered atop the fire thoughts is–weirdly–the tornado in Joplin, Missouri.  It obsessed me a bit, too.  How do people live with a threat like that, knowing a major storm can just knock down your entire town in a single hour?  I mean, really? How? Freaks me out.

And then fire broke out in my town.  Right outside my office window.  We all watched it like it was tv, smoke billowing up in pink and orange loveliness.  Scary, but not so much, really.

Until it was. Until the fire swept over the mountains and into the city and wiped out a whole neighborhood in twelve hours.

(WHAT? The brain says. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! I like, know that neighborhood.  It’s a lot like mine, same houses, same eras, same kitchen cabinets. I spent many an evening on a balcony there, many more in a garden beside it.  I know the streets. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE.)

As everyone (except those who lost homes) begin to move on, the girls in the basement are still piling up zillions of details—terms and techniques and careers related to fighting fires (there was the most appealing African American woman with the forestry service who gave reports every day–we all fell in love with her a little bit).  I’m fascinated with a scientific aspect of the fire called a pyrocumulus cloud, which one firefighter said “exploded like a watermelon,” essentially dropping fire over a wide area.  I keep going over the what-ifs: what if the wind had shifted this way or that?  What if the whole front of Pikes Peak burned instead?  What if, what if, what if….?  What if the fire crossed the big road that stopped it, and kept rolling east?  Long ago, entire cities burned, but we don’t think it can happen now, really.  It’s shocking to realize that it actually could.

I think about the firemen, trying valiantly to hold that ridge, and failing dramatically when the wind and that cloud combined to create an absolutely uncontainable fire. I imagine how they swore, how fearful they were, how angry. What is that like, to be the guy trying to hold the line?

I’m peering at the mountains, tracing the serpentine path of fire, how it burns some things and not others, and how a patch of green can stand right in the middle of an entire mountainside that burned, whole and complete.  A woman told me about a squirrel on her street that has a burned foot.  A man told the story of how the fire came right to the edge of his patio and stopped.   My cousin fretted about some deer who finally came back. She feared they had singed fur.

I have a bucket of absolute, cold-sweat terror I collected when the fire exploded.  I have a memory of a woman in a Subaru with a guitar and a dog and her car packed to the brim, creeping along beside me on a street so thick with smoke that ashes as big as dollar bills were falling on our windshields.  I wonder if her house still stands.  What her life is like now. Is she, like the woman who told me about the squirrel with the burned foot, living in a hotel as she awaits word on renovations?  Is her house one that stands along on a street where the others all burned?  Is her house gone entirely, along with her forks and that book she was reading and a necklace she picked up in Brazil?

I want to know what happens next, to the ones who stay and the ones who go and the ones who rebuild and the ones who will not recover.  I want to write about bears invading a mountain town when all the people were evacuated and the little arcade in Manitou that was spared, and the line that held.  I want to go to the top of Pikes Peak and look down on the scar, get a feeling of the spatial aspects.  I want to plant flowers in Waldo Canyon, someday, when it’s open again, because I did love it madly and whatever it was is now gone, something else.

I’ll write about all of it in some way, at some point.  Not for a long time, not until the blood of my obsession has subsided a bit, when the scientist and observer can reassert herself, sort through the vast material the Girls have collected, and decide what matters most to this writer’s mind.  Until then, I’ll try to keep a mask of dignity over my obsession, respect those who are grieving (maybe including me), and let the Girls collect the data they need.

I’m a writer. This is what we do.

Have you ever written about a cataclysmic event in your world? Have you ever obsessed about something to the point that you drove family crazy?  Do your muses collect particular things?  

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].