Friday, December 11, 2009

To Build a Fire

One of the earliest short stories you encountered, perhaps reaching as far back as not yet on the cusp of your teen years, was Jack London's "To Build a Fire," in which the narrator's goal was to build a fire the warmth of which would literally save his life against the Alaskan cold.  Over the years, you learned that this story and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations were written with alternate endings, endings in which the outcome was more wish fulfillment or reassuring outcome as opposed to the more noir and plausible freezing to death and having Mr. Pip's sense of future romantic fulfillment yanked from under him with a cruel sweep of event.

Both stories have become personal amulets for you, the short story symbolizing for you the fire of enthusiasm against the Arctic cold of isolation/recognition in the area of your choice, the novel coming to represent to you the personal equivalent of your procession through the process of growth, education, maturation, acquisition of some measure of skil, and the extent to which you could combine these stages in a way that brought you a livelihood.

By nature and temperament, you are at some distance from being a depressive sort.  You may depress others, but that is another matter.  Building a fire simply means having a procession of concepts that arrive on the doorsteps of your receptors, waiting to be transmogrified into a completed essay, short story, novel, book-length work of nonfiction; perhaps a drama.  So long as these arrive and you engage them, take them in, live with them, there is a chance for the enthusiasm of happiness, even the possibility of great expectations, where you see a succession of successful transformations of concept into finished work.  You live with the belief that each may be the last to arrive, whereupon you will be vulnerable to such undesirable neighbors as boredom, depression, bitterness, crankiness.  You sometimes recall times spent wandering bookstores, unable to find anything to read, your threshold of frustration exacerbated by the sure conviction that there is out there a transformative book that will once and for all make clear to you how to proceed with the career you have in mind, where the goal will not so much be stated as wanting to support yourself by your writing as it is supporting yourself with your writing.  In other words, you could endure reverting to your earlier job as box boy in a supermarket so long as you had interesting things to write about.  There have been times as well when you were browsing animal shelters, the keen grief of a recent loss still vibrating as you search for a new companion with whom to set forth afresh.  With a few idiosyncratic exceptions, any dog is a potential candidate but you want that particular spark of recognition, that particular chemistry between man and dog that lets you know this friendship will morph into an abiding partnership.  A short story is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  A dog is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  A friend is a fire against the cold, a great expectation.  A romance is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  All these partnerships evolve with the anticipation that a series of events will lead to an understanding and resolve, a trip toward a discovery, all powered by the fire of enthusiasm and the grandness of expectation.

It is a simple, even simplistic algebra for you:  if there were no more stories to come, the arctic cold would get to the human condition and it would die of boredom, bitterness, crankiness, and depression.  In one of the Jack London versions of the story, a dog survives after the human has died.  With humans and story gone, you wonder sometimes what new life form would evolve to do here what humans have done, and how long it would be before that species began working on a written language with which to archive the journey.


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