Now that cold weather has come here in central Ohio, our orange tabby, Stella the Cat, often hovers over a heat vent waiting for the furnace to kick on. She’s a heat seeker, our girl, and she knows the parts of the house that heat up the quickest. She’s patient, knowing from experience that sooner or later forced hot air will be warming her.
When we write, we may find ourselves passing over the parts of the fiction, nonfiction, or poetry that contain the most heat. What do I mean by heat in writing? Heat comes in the form of unspoken tensions finally articulated, in resonant images, or by way of making room for a depth of thought or emotion that brings us closer to the truth of something. Heat rises with the use of language, or the close observation of a character or a situation, or in the attention paid to detail or image. Heat always comes from writers who have the courage to fully engage with the worlds of their own making, and this often means the writers have located themselves—their secrets, their contradictions, their mysteries—in the work itself and haven’t looked away, choosing instead to run into the fire rather than away from it.
Here, then, are some prompts to help us do exactly that.
Think/Remember. If you’re a fiction writer, ask yourself what you share with your main character. Begin a free write by saying, “When I think of my character, I remember. . . .” Fill in the blank with something specific from your past. Zero in on memories that keep you up at night, things you did or said—or things you should have done or said—that still fill you with regret. Choose one memory and quickly tell that story. Then continue with a letter written to your past self, a letter of forgiveness: “I forgive you for. . . .” “You couldn’t have known. . . .” “You would have been a better person if only you’d. . . .” These are some examples to get you started or restarted if you get stuck. The objective is to practice empathy for your younger self as you admit the worst and the best parts of you. Doing this should give you a better appreciation of your main character’s contradictions as well as a more nuanced understanding of what led to their poor choices.
Hide/Reveal. If you’re a fiction writer or a writer of personal narratives, get comfortable with opposites co-existing in your characters and their situations. Start a free write with this prompt, “It was my habit (or the habit of one of your characters) to. . . .” Then offer a variation that at first seems unlikely. “But one day, I (or one of your characters). . . .” Look for a narrative event in which you or one of your characters acted out of character, doing or saying something surprising, something opposed to what we would expect from you or your character. The idea is to let heat emerge from the layers within characters.
Expand/Leap. If you’re a poet or a lyric essayist or a prose writer who believes in the power of the detail or image, start with something from the literal world—a peach, a cement block, a perfume, etc.—and offer a description that uses sensory details. Tell us how that detail makes you feel. Then leap to an association. Don’t say something is like the original detail. Let the reader do that work. Just jump to something else. Then return to the original detail and write it in slightly different terms, showing us how the associative leap has allowed the detail to evolve. Finish with a pivot to something more abstract, something you’ve been called to think about. Utilize the skills obtained from the previous two prompts—empathy and the acceptance of contradictions—as you write a few lines that show you thinking on the page. End with a return to the first image or the association with it or perhaps a new image altogether that connects to the first two. The objective is to start small with a detail and then to grow it into something rich and complex.
Emily Dickinson famously said, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry.” Exactly. The writing that resonates, that stays with us, is always the writing with the most heat. I hope the three prompts I’ve offered will help you find the sources of heat in your own writing, and within yourself.