I read Stephen King’s novel Firestarter the summer after I turned 15. That summer I got the worst sunburn ever while lying on the sugar-white beaches of Pensacola watching the July 4 Blue Angels’ air show.
I. Was. Scorched.
Glowing and red, I took refuge from the 103-degree swelter in my Aunt’s ice-cold air conditioned living room, and with my collarbones shiny with Solarcaine, I devoured Firestarter.
A young girl named Charlie can kindle fires–not sparks, but instant 2000-degree infernos–with her mind. A pyrokinetic, King called her.
Charlie struggles to find a way to hold back the fire inside of her, which she can do in two ways.
She can either by draw it back toward her, risking death by incineration, or she can express the ability with trained precision. Those are the only two ways Charlie can spare the living things around her from going up in flames… mostly.
If you read Firestarter, this is as much an act of self-preservation as an act of mercy. She has to use the ability. And every time she does, it grows. If Charlie can’t find an outlet for the fire, it does not die… not ever… but will incinerate her alive.
Spontaneous human combustion.
Perhaps you’ve been there.
If you’re an artistic soul, you speak the language of ignition. That ability, that gift, is volatile and powerful, and it demands declaration.
If you’ve ever picked up a Gibson and pressed strings to fingerboard trying pull five true notes from the smoldering coals inside-
If you’ve ever rehearsed lines under blazing lights until sweat and makeup ran and you stepped completely out of yourself and into the soul of your character-
If you’ve ever depressed the shutter or dipped the brush again and again only to have the image fall woefully short of the vision branded onto your mind’s eye-
If you’ve ever punched a clock while feeling so out of place it was like choking in smoke, counting seconds until the break when your mind was free for 15 minutes, you know.
You know how hot it glows under the skin when it’s unexpressed. How you long to bring the inferno under your command and show the world what you see when the smoke gets in your eyes.
John Wesley knew. When asked about the passionate sermons that drew crowds in droves, the eighteenth-century theologian said: “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.”
Sometimes as I’m creating, I sense I’m standing in a power greater than myself, my fingertips white hot and silvery on the keyboard, the shutter button, the cutting board. The finished product is born in a serendipitous moment and radiant like a red satin dress, billowing and gorgeous, kindled into flame for such a time as this.
Other times, my mouth is glued firmly shut and for lack of expression I find myself assassinated by my own passions, breath absent from my lungs, mouth full of ashes, tears long since evaporated, skin charred and puckering on my shoulders, legs, stomach.
The unattended embers of a fallow dream can be death, death, death if you, the artist, let them take your heart.
Spontaneous human combustion.
Have you been there?
I’ve seen artists use their craft to do deliberate and honest things, things that provoke people to think and laugh and cry and fantasize and act and change.
I’ve watched other artists hide behind extravagant skill, burning brilliant as a meteor, painfully spectacular, but never tapping an ounce of the authenticity smoldering beneath the surface. As they deny and avoid and hide and fear instead of growing, recovering from rejection, and becoming self-aware, the truth incinerates them and the people they attempt to love. It seeps from their pores like gasoline and kerosene and saturates everything, making it volatile. Combustible.
Dust to dust.
Imagine the things these artists could have created to confront ideas, change minds, initiate connections, feed hungry people, and dispel personal demons.
So the question, singers, authors, designers, musicians, painters, engineers, photographers, cartoonists, filmmakers, comedians, ministers, chefs, dreamers, and workers… my little Firestarters… what will you do with the internal matchbook you’ve been given on this winter’s day?
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