They were lighting fires in Darwin, Australia. I wasn't there--I watched on a satellite link, on the other side of the world at an unholy hour of the night. It wasn't very exciting at first--small, grainy images of beige-clad people wandering around with tin boxes labeled "controlled combustibles." After an hour or so, the trucks and cars rolled back and a low wall of flame appeared in the picture. The white smoke traveled slowly up into the air. There was no sound, and of course no smell, but I imagined the crackle of the leaves and the dry roar of the fire. I'd been told before that the smell was intoxicating--eucalyptus burns like incense, filling the air with a rich odor.
I´d helped fund this destructive act. I worked for a charity researching staple food crops around the world, and the slash-and-burn system being used in Darwin was a new approach, a mixture of modern technology and indigenous wisdom. Why? Because many Eucalypts need fire to germinate--new trees grow only where old trees have been put to the flame.
As I watched the silent fire on my tiny television screen, I had no idea that in a decade's time, I would see metaphors for creativity in this hot and dangerous exercise.
Margaret Atwood, in her excellent book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, mentions the dubious role historically given to women writers striving for excellence. Their careers were sad and their deaths frequently grim. To be a female artist seemed to mean that you had to accept, relish, and finally invite your doom. We honor the creativity of male writers, and they are lauded in their rich old age. Magazines carry articles showing them surrounded by adoring children, often with a sexy younger spouse, and heaped with glittering literary prizes. Women writers are expected to die young or, at least, to age badly.
No, women who write always have been expected to pay full price for their creativity. They must allow the conflagration of their art to burn them up. Like Sylvia Plath, they should accept "the blood jet that is poetry," sleep in a coffin from adolescence like Sarah Bernhardt, or, like Emily Dickenson, seal themselves up so that only death releases their hoarded talent.
Being female and touched by genius, in this mythology, is like being touched by the flame. It's not good enough just to warm your toes; if you're a woman, you've got to accept the total flambé.
I fear this is still seen as true. When I talk to women writers, I constantly hear similar refrains. They worry whether they have talent, and then they worry about what will happen if they do. If they don't have talent, then they're wasting time, depriving their families, their co-workers, friends, and household animals of quality time. If they do have talent then they fear the consuming fires of ability--the scorching power of creation that will turn them into either a sex-crazed, blood-drinking succubus or a shrinking, death-obsessed wraith. There doesn't seem to be a middle line between the two.
The Darwin fires burned fast, but with control. Firefighters and environmentalists patrolled the edges of the burn, making sure that the fire neither settled in, nor leapt the firebreaks. I watched as acres of scrubland changed from mottled green to charcoal. It looked like a disaster. If I hadn't known the planning that went into that day, I would have been horrified. Our funding helped set up the shiny foil scarers that prevented the indigenous bird population from nesting in this scrubby woodland. It paid for the scythe work that kept the firebreaks clear of growth, and it hired the conservationists who removed mammals from the burn area by stomping through, waving football rattles, and blowing whistles several times a day--and night. It was a comprehensive exercise in damage limitation--and a learning experience not only for Australia. A video about the project would help agricultural communities worldwide make better use of this ancient agricultural technique.
Women need to learn from this Australian experiment--planned destruction can be productive, and lighting a fire under old wood can produce new growth. We don't have to burn up alongside our creativity. Fire is just a tool--we can use it to help us be more creative, and I don't just mean in the kitchen.
Start today: make a list of all the things that stop you from being creative, whether it's your demanding job or your teething baby, your duty to your church or those incredibly funny but exhausting friends. Write it all down. Take that list outside and safely set fire to it. Watch that list of distractions go up in smoke and disintegrate in the flames. Don't you feel better? Now make another list, describing what kind of creative growth will develop from the burned scrub of your personal forest. Those new seedlings may be small and weak at first, but if you give them space and care, they will flourish.
From the ashes of your wasteland, you can grow a thousand flowers.
BIO: KAY SEXTON has an overdeveloped work ethic and a fig tree in her garden. She finds it hard to reconcile the two. In the past twelve months she has been published by E2K, Literary Potpourri, MiPo, Pierian Springs, SaucyVox.com, Smokelong Quarterly, The Sidewalk's End, Thought Magazine, Wired Art for Wired Hearts, and Yankee Pot Roast. The fig tree is also flourishing.
Email Kay at: email@example.com