The Day I Got Set On Fire (Metaphorically)
Humans evolve across their lives, and most epiphanies turn out to be less life-shattering than they feel in the moment. But there was one learning process that ignited a fire, and I am still feeling that burn.
Do you ever wonder how it felt when Prometheus rose to Olympus to steal the fire of the gods? Was there a rush of power? The stomach-lurching feeling of slipping over the edge of a roller-coaster, feeling momentum take control?
I believe that Prometheus's heart pounded and his legs shook, and no matter how hard he tried to suppress it, a smile twisted his lips. And in that moment, if you had told Prometheus that he would end up being tortured for his efforts, he would have gone along with his plan anyways.
Touching the gods' fire is just too much of a thrill.
Like most people who have found themselves obsessed with words, I was a bookish teenager. I read for school, I read for pleasure, and I read because I thought it would impress the cute girl I had a crush on. I read because I thought it would make me more interesting, and I read to fill my time, and I read because I just loved books.
But I didn't write words of my own.
Sometimes I went for walks, and I got caught up in my own thoughts. Again, I was a bookish teen, and I experienced the standard experiences of bookish teens everywhere. I wondered what would have happened if characters in books had made other choices, or if they were set in other places.
Remember walking through libraries and bookstores, feeling the sheer weight of the words buzzing all around you? There was an electric energy. Ideas pressed against the edges of the physical space, almost choking the air out of those narrow paths between overstuffed shelves.
When I think back to that teenager, I remember a sleeper-walker, moving through the world and barely changing a thing. A zombie, following impulses almost mindlessly. Automatically. My ideas existed on one plane, and my body existed on another, and no one who met my body gained access to my mind.
And when I read, those books felt like ancient artefacts made by superhumans, as if I could stumble across the Necronomicon at the local library. They had authority and insight. Power.
They were my Olympians.
And the day would come when I would be sent to steal the fire of the gods.
What did it feel like to steal that fire?
I think you probably already know. The details were different, but if you're on this site reading these stories, I would be willing to guess that a day came when you stole the fire of the gods too. When I first sat down at a blank page, and I realised that I could make anything in the entire realm of imagination unfold on that page, I felt a thrill and a terror.
Sometimes when I sit down with a blank manuscript, I still feel that thrill and that terror.
There was the purest form of power I've ever experienced: potential.
I first wrote a work of fiction at the very end of high school. I had one of those teachers who really believed in the importance of what they taught. He believed that stories and fiction were the most powerful things in the universe. They were the basis of knowledge and wisdom and insight, and he wanted us to see it too. He wanted everyone in his class to write, not so that they could become pro writers, but because he wanted to give us access to that realm of power.
But ultimately, he couldn't be our Prometheus. The blank page has to be conquered one word and one writer at a time. Prometheus brought fire to humans, but all my teacher could do was point the way to Olympus and say, "Go."
"This is how a story works," he said, like he was mapping out the perilous territory we'd have to navigate. "This is a protagonist, this is an antagonist, this is an ally, this is a story goal. This is an outline, this is a character arc, this is a theme."
And then, when he said what he had to say, he directed us: "Go."
The first time I sat down to write, I was terrified. I was thrilled. I had never loved anything so much or feared anything so much. When I wrote The End I leaned back in my seat and stared at what my own hands and mind had created
All those books on my shelves? They weren't created by Olympians. Or, if they were, I had sneaked my way up Mount Olympus, and I had stolen some of their fire. It had spread to me, and I had been engulfed by it.
I was awake.
It didn't change my life through hefty publishing contracts or weighty awards. It changed my life because I was awake. I was seeing the world, describing it to myself, my senses heightened by the wild, unrestricted access to power. It was a power that was mine. It had been stoked by a teacher, but it was mine.
Awake, I watched the same thing happen to others: a young man realising he had talent as a teacher. Another realising he had the capacity to become a nurse. I saw people who intuitively connected with numbers or computers or paintbrushes or a chef's knife. Each of them found their own capacity, their own power.
But this was mine:
Once upon a time, a teacher asked a class, "What makes a story a story?"
And before he was done with his class, I had attacked a blank page, and I was burning with the fire of the gods.