Trying to unravel one’s own motivations can be like looking down a deep, dark well. You drop a stone, you hear a splashy voice echo back, but by the time it reaches you you’re no longer sure whether it belongs to a Salmon of Knowledge or a warty toad. Most wells contain several of each.
Three weeks ago I took part in a charity event – the first time I’d done such a thing in many years. It was a firewalk, in which I took a stroll over six yards worth of glowing wood embers at around 500oC. As a confirmed physical coward, why did I do something so uncharacteristic?
Partly it was to raise money for a charity – St Peter’s Hospice. I’m an admirer of the hospice movement in any case, but I am also well aware that March (when the firewalk took place) marked the second anniversary of the death there of my friend, the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones. I visited her several times in the days before she died and was vastly impressed by the dedication of all the staff there – as was she.
That was probably the best reason for firewalking. But it wasn’t the only one. I’d also been feeling that I was overdue to do something that would shunt me out of my comfort zone – and this was as good a way as any. In the event the walk was surprisingly easy, and wholly pain-free – but it was definitely a change from my usual appointment with Eggheads. That’s got to be a good thing, right?
Then there was the other reason – the writer’s reason. I did the firewalk because it was an experience that I could file away, ready to use at some date when I might want it for a book.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of, I suppose. But I do feel slightly ashamed, all the same. Most writers will be familiar with the little Secretary who sits on their shoulders, even at moments of great emotion and personal drama, noting their reactions. Sometimes it feels extremely intrusive. “So, this is what it feels like to fall in love,” he says, dipping his quill and licking his lips. Or: “So, this is what it’s like to stand next to your own father’s body. You’ll be able to use that some time, won’t you?” Or: “So, this is what happens in A&E? How fortunate that your son fell off the slide.”
I’m trying to remember the name of the famous American novelist – Mailer? Updike? – who used to manufacture rows with his own family as a means of generating dialogue. I’ve never done anything quite so manipulative, but even when events just happen along there’s something disconcerting about the speed with which that Secretary whips out his notepad and waits, pen poised, ready to jot.
Someday I may write a novel in which a character walks over red-hot embers, and when I do it will have the smack of authenticity because of my firewalk. After all, I really know what it’s like. But for the same reason, I may feel a bit of a fraud for writing it. You just can't win.
(However, it’s not too late to donate! You can do so at my firewalking page, here.)