Built on a skeleton of fallen branches, covered over with leaves and twigs, the sweat lodge looked positively eager to burst into flames. The surface tinder was necessary–I was told–to prevent passing forest rangers from seeing the illegal mound of old U-Haul blankets and fire fuel. Apparently, the rangers had already confiscated one such lodge and wouldn’t hesitate to lay claim to this one.
I couldn’t say I blamed them. In fact, part of me hoped a ranger would walk by right then and liberate me from the situation I’d gotten myself into.
This was back in 2000. I was in rural Virginia helping care for my sick grandfather while trying to write a novel. The only friend I’d made was a guy named Ray. We played racquetball together at the Y. He had invited me to join him for this sweat lodge.
He failed to say much about our host–a man named Ed who’d apparently done time in the state prison.
My first hint of this came when Ed told me one of the tricks he’d learned while apprenticing as a thief.
“If ya ever need to disable a guard dog, it’s real simple,” he said, “when they come runnin’ at’cha, just stick your arm down their gullet. When you feel somethin’ squishy, squeeze and yank for all yer worth.”
So. That was Ed.
He built these sweat lodges because he claimed to be 1/16th Cherokee and said his Indian heritage was what had saved his life and turned his crooked path toward the somewhat straighter and narrower.
The Wisdom of Ed
As we watched the fire burn, heating up the stones we would soon be lugging into the lodge, Ed asked me if I knew what Indians said about where fire came from.
I thought about replying that in my understanding Native Americans were a diverse people with a number of differing beliefs and worldviews, but that I was relatively certain most of them knew exactly where fire came from. Luckily, I was not quite so smarmy as that.
“Where?” I asked.
“They would say fire was what happened when all the sunlight the trees had gathered inside them over the years escaped back into the sky.”
This not only extinguished my youthful smarty-pantsness, but also planted a beautiful image in mind that would shape my sense of the mundane magic of this world for years to come.
In this blog series, I’ve been writing about the way positive feedback loops–when understood properly and tended carefully–can be leveraged to help overcome the huge invisible mountain (activation energy) blocking most writers, artists, and other creatives from realizing their dreams.
I’m calling this “magic,” because I believe the way these loops work–providing ever-larger returns from a relatively small initial input–is akin to the way magic works in fantasy novels. You learn a spell or tap into a source of power that allows you to create something from nothing and change your fate.
What I find so compelling about Ed’s description is that it identifies one of the most important elements in this magical system.
As mentioned in an earlier post, wildfires are great examples of positive feedback loops. A single ember from a campfire can burn down an entire forest. At first, the fire spreads slowly. The ember lights some surrounding leaves. The leaves light some twigs. The twigs set fire to a patch of dry underbrush. Etcetera etcetera. The loops turn. Within a few days, depending on conditions, thousands of acres may have gone up in smoke.
But what is it that allows such a small brushfire to ravage those thousands of acres?
What propels each turn of the feedback loop?
The answer is clear in Ed’s poetic statement. Each one of the trees that burns has been growing for years or even decades, soaking in energy like a spring being wound tighter and tighter. The fire releases that spring and all the stored up energy explodes at once.
This is what grants feedback loops their power. It’s like setting up an intricate web of dominos or mouse traps. As soon as you trigger the first spring, the others follow.
The key is to be mindful of these springs. Ensure that they’re properly aligned and only trigger them when the conditions are ripe.
The Feedback Fizzle
On the contrary, putting out lousy, error-riddled work that only appeals to yourself and perhaps your overly gentle closest friends, is the equivalent of doing a controlled burn on the underbrush of your potential.
Whatever small fuel you might have relied upon to light your career up (acquaintances and friends of friends) quickly burns out.
Once burned, twice shy, these readers probably won’t give you a second chance even if you put out a much better book later and they certainly won’t help you kick off the kind of feedback loop you need to reach a much wider audience right away.
How to Be a Successful Arsonist (in a good way)
Good, hard-hitting critiques are like a starter fire. If you want your little ember (a.k.a. your first book) to get good and hot, you best leave it in that fire for a decent stretch of time.
Ignoring the critiques you receive (or not seeking them out in the first place) is like pouring water on the fire.
That said, if you leave your ember in there too long, it will eventually burn out. Writers who revise their whole book every time they get a new suggestion are doing just that.
The trick is to find the perfect moment when your work is at its hottest. Fully refined, but not overcooked.
Of course, that’s far from enough.
Ex-con Ed didn’t burn the forest down. Instead, he very mindfully tended and extinguished the fire and then provided Ray and I with a wonderful sweat lodge experience. That said, the woods were pretty damp that day and probably wouldn’t have caught fire even if a raging hot ember got loose.
A writer who publishes a book without first building some kind of audience or tapping into an established community of readers is like an ember in a snow bank. It won’t ignite anything.
If you’re going to master the feedback loop that is your future career, you need to pay careful attention to what springs you will one day trigger with your book. Writing a blog and building an audience of readers is one spring you can slowly but surely wind up. It’s the equivalent of dragging together a pile of kindling to place your burning ember upon. But doing so takes patience and dedication. The early turns of the loop are by far the slowest and most difficult to generate. The best thing you can do is do the very best you can.
Think about who your book will most help, delight, or inspire. Start blogging to (and for) those people right away. Network with them. Listen to them. Support their lives and aspirations as much as you’re able. They will eventually be the springs that catapult you upward. But first, you have to wind them with your attention and care.
Remember that even raging fires start slowly and require much more than just a little pile of kindling to really get going. You also need dense, dry woods.
Let’s say you want to write all kinds of novels in all kinds of styles and not be limited by the strictures of any genre. That’s fine, but if you write your first book as some daring, cross-genre experiment, you’re essentially tossing your ember onto a pile of damp leaves and hoping it’ll burn.
That’s what I did with my first book. It was hot enough to get an agent, but strange and different enough to burn out when it made the rounds in New York.
The smarter move would have been to start where an audience was (while of course still creating something of true and lasting value).
You have a whole career to tweak conventions and try new things. Begin where the readers are. Deliver them something amazing and you may just catch fire.
Previous post in this series: The Invisible Mountain