Writing: A Candle that Touches Tinder

I’ve been struggling for a few days with finding something to say. Not exactly writer’s block – maybe – but instead a sort of blankness. Fatigue. I’m using the excuse of a ‘rest’, my 3rd novel just came out; people who aren’t writers don’t know what a prodigious task getting a novel to print is. Finding inspiration, researching, writing. And the editing – oh the editing. I must have read “Lords of Misrule” fifteen times. Cover copy, cover art – finding a title that impacts.

“Your book is too expensive,” I was recently told, an off-the-cuff comment – ignorant but not malicious; I had to laugh, so as to not cry. As if a novel appears in the morning before breakfast, spontaneously materializing beside the television overnight. As if it’s not a full time job for those lucky enough to actually make money by writing. A hobby, that’s what writing has been relegated to. The whim of people who have nothing better to do – vanity.

So I’m a little tired – my act of valor, Frodo gazing up the ‘Endless Stair’ – is completed; not the end of a writer’s journey but the end of one exertion, before beginning the next. At least that’s my excuse. Not a very good one.

Chinua Achebe once went twenty-one years without a novel. And he was already famous; he didn’t have to juggle family and work and fixing the toilet and taking the car in for an oil change. He blamed frustration at the lack of progress in his home of country of Nigeria – but we all blame something. Maybe he ‘rested’ after one of his great novels – and that hour extended. Perhaps he just focused on the mundane; playing with his children, teaching at his school. Or he became overwhelmed and the words fled. That at least I can certainly understand. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in a world that is, well, overwhelming. Evil that seems lately cyclopean. Bulging acts of stupidity. Cartoon characters atop the world stage – lecturing at us with sense that has not been common in a long time.

What can one writer do, facing that breed of madness? Best be silent, perhaps. Our singular voices will not withstand the coming maelstrom.

I was recently ‘messaged’, asking if I was a travel writer. Again, I had to laugh. The kind of travel I do is not what people imagine, nor something to feel especially good about. “Eat, Pray, Love” – that hasn’t been my experience. Whitewashed houses atop a hill over an expansive blue ocean; the Masai Mara spread out as far as the eye can see, teaming with animals; ceviche cooked in lemon, tangy and delicate, washed down with pisco on a hot Peruvian night; pretty people with frivolous problems – emptiness, sex, banality upon the backdrop of a five star hotel. Alas, not for me – when I travel (that is to say when I leave home – because ‘home’ is also in a faraway land), I spend my nights in crappy hotels, trying not to complain – because the days I spend in camps. Flies, the smell of raw sewage running beside unfinished latrines. Children sitting on a plastic sheet in the sun, ‘learning’ from a teacher without books, without pens, without paper – but oddly, not without hope.


Maybe that’s why Achebe stopped writing. He was from Africa, maybe lending words to the mess became too much. The tidal waves of war that wash over this continent never seem to abate. Great evil has limitless energy – feeding off of hate and violence in the dark; and simple acts of putting pen to paper, a hesitant candlelight to illuminate the lunacy are too easily snuffed out. Nevertheless, sometimes it happens that the candle touches the right tinder igniting a great pyre that the wicked cannot extinguish.

That is why we write – ignoring the blockages, the ignorance and the danger; we lend our small voices to try and make sense of the mess. Hope, while not a very good strategy, is nevertheless a splendid motivator.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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