A Raging Fire...
A RAGING FIRE…
A dear friend of mine is a writer who, in these days, lives in western North Carolina. He is a tenured professor, teaching American history at a beautiful college nestled in the mountains around Montreat, about twenty miles east of Asheville. I met him while I was in college. His name is Bill…
Bill was doing his graduate work while I was doing my undergraduate, a long time ago. He was one of the more unique individuals I’ve ever known…perhaps odd would better define him. But somehow, we became good friends...no doubt because I was a good listener in those days and Bill was an exceptionally talented storyteller.
Bill was also a most animated figure. His hair was blond, and he wore it long and straggled…sweeping over one eye of his perpetually smudged aviator lens eyeglasses. He was super tall and super thin and super pale, with a larger than normal Adam’s apple. His clothes hung on him as if he were a scarecrow. I gave him the nickname Ichabod. He reminded me of the character in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Bill had an obsession with the Civil War and its intricate history. And when I say obsession, I am putting it mildly. He was convinced that he fought and died at the battle of Gettysburg on the 2nd day of July in 1863. I must be honest with, after coming to know Bill as well as I did, I too am convinced of his claim.
A quick Bill story if you don’t mind. Then we will get on with this month’s blog...
The story takes place on the 4th of July back in 1959 when Bill was 9 years old. His father (a chemical engineer at Dow) and his mother (a professor at Princeton) made the life-altering decision (for him at least) to take him and his sister to tour the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, traveling from the dirty and busy city of Newark New Jersey into the pristine and idyllic countryside of south-central Pennsylvania.
Once in Gettysburg, the family boarded a bus at the Visitor’s Center and started out into the National Park, listening all the while to a Park Ranger on a microphone who was beginning to set the stage for what they were about to see. He was starting to describe what happened there from the 1st of July to the 3rd of July back in 1863.
From time to time the bus would stop and everyone would get off to assemble at a particular place or monument where the ranger would then go into somewhat shallow detail of what happened there. It was at the Devil’s Den near Culp’s Hill where Bill’s destiny first emerged from his 9-year-old memory.
He interrupted the park ranger to point out a few inconsistencies in the story being told. Now keep in mind, young Bill had never been to Gettysburg before. Yet he took control of everyone’s attention as he walked out into the battlefield, explaining in graphic detail how the Confederate General Longstreet’s men, riding in from the north, met up with General Ewells’ forces assembling in the east, and opened fire on the Union General Daniel Sickle and his men who were entrenched in the boulders of Devil’s Den. Their ranks stretched out through a peach orchard and into a wheat field on the slopes of a hill called Little Round Top.
Though the peach orchard was long gone, and the wheat field was then merely a spreading meadow of tall grasses, Bill walked briskly through it…speaking passionately. Pointing here. Gesturing there...telling a story that only someone who fought such a battle could have known.
This nine-year-old boy ended saying something that made even himself stop and question what the heck was going on...
“Thanks to the fierce fighting by one Minnesota regiment, of which I myself proudly served,” he said, “we were able to hold Little Round Top for the Union Army. However, we lost the orchard and the wheat field. General Sickles himself was seriously wounded as the Johnny Reb’s over-ran the Devil’s Den.”
Everyone, including the park ranger and Bill’s parents, were mesmerized by the young boy’s story. When he finished, he simply boarded the bus, sat back down in his seat beside his sister, took a bite from his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and waited for the battlefield tour to continue.
I met Bill many years after that incident had occurred, but I can assure you he was still just as convincing and just as knowledgeable with the stories he was telling as a grad student.
As a matter of fact, to put himself through grad school, Bull started a one-man business that he called Living History Programs. He would go into high schools, dressed as that Minnesota Regiment soldier he spoke about, replete with a uniform he had himself sewn and a musket rifle from which he could indeed shoot a heavy ball for a hundred yards with darn good accuracy. The students loved his programs, and I would bet more than a few went on to become history teachers themselves…all because of my friend Bill.
My friend Bill had a dream. He wanted nothing more in his life than to be a writer. But Bill had a problem. He had no idea how to get started.
I don’t mean he didn’t know how to write. He was a superb storyteller. But the business of finding an agent who believed enough in him to get his manuscripts onto an editor’s desk and then on to a publisher who could eventually get them into a bookstore display...well let’s just say it was just this side of impossible for him.
It took years to get his first book published. But one thing you should know about my friend Bill. He was undaunted...he never stopped writing. By the time his first book was selling, he had five more ready for the publisher!
The years and miles have separated my friend Bill and me. We ended up losing touch with each other. I’d heard he gotten his doctorate at Purdue and was now a professor of history at a college in the western Carolina mountains. I’d thought about reaching out to him several times, but something kept me from writing the letter or picking up the phone.
It was quite a few years after I began my own writing career, that I was having the same problems he’d experienced getting started. I was a little fish in a big pond and no agent wanted to take on a freshman writer, especially one in his late fifties, especially one writing Italian stories. I will admit...I almost gave up and went back to motivational speaking. I don’t know what it was, but something was telling me to persevere.
Whatever that something was, was also urging me to reach out to my old friend Bill. I felt guilty when we finally spoke…asking for his advice and opinions after vanishing like I’d done. But he took my call! And within a mere few minutes our friendship had rekindled and would soon burst ablaze, quite literally.
“Can you get away for a few days?” he asked. “I have a cabin in the mountains south of Asheville. We can go there and catch up. Maybe I can answer a few of your questions.”
I’d barely hung up with him when I started packing a bag and looking at the maps for how I would get there. It was over 700 miles from where I was in Florida to his cabin in North Carolina…
“I don’t know how you do it,” I said to him as we sat on two Adirondack chairs, in front of an outside stone fireplace. The sun had already set in the western sky and twilight had enveloped us.
A fire raged in the fireplace, keeping us both warm against the cold November evening and illuminating our faces. He was calmly whittling a piece of wood and smoking an old meerschaum pipe as I rattled on and on about my frustration.
“Do what?” he asked nonchalantly. “You don’t know how to write? Why do you want to be a writer then?”
“I know how to write,” I answered. “But I don’t know how you stay motivated. “You can’t imagine how many rejection letters I’ve received. More than a hundred! Do you know what rejection like that can do to a man’s spirit?”
“Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?” he answered, without missing a stroke of his whittling knife. “What would you do if I told you I’d received 1009 rejection letters before I sold my first manuscript?”
Then he exhaled a huge cloud of smoke…
“I made exactly $150 for a year’s worth of writing!” he said.
“I feel like giving up,” I moaned, “and I’ve hardly started.”
“Can you blow out that candle for me?” Bill asked.
“Sure,” I answered, not knowing why he was asking.
“Thanks!” he said. “Now, can you blow out this fire?”
“Are you nuts?” I asked, dismissing whatever absurd lesson he was going to try to foist upon me. “Of course, I can’t.”
That is when he put down his knife and his piece of wood. He turned and looked right at me...
“When your motivation is as small as that candle’s flame,” he said. “It’s pretty damn easy to snuff out. But once you can get it to rage, like the fire...trust me my old friend, nothing…nothing in the world will stop you!"
He went back to whittling. I went back to watching the embers float out of the flames, dancing for a few moments before disappearing into the blackness that surrounded us. He’d opened my eyes! I left two days later, much more secure in my belief that I not only could become a writer...I would become a damn fine one!
Most people spend their lives working at a job they hate, married to a person they’ve stopped loving...waking every morning and going to bed every night experiencing frustration and failure. It's a terrible way to live and even sadder to watch someone you love enduring it. But it is the reality of life for many.
The good news is this…it does not have to be that way. These people have just convinced themselves there is no way out. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Life is hard, I’ll give you that. And unwittingly we make it harder. Whether you want to believe it or not, your fate and your destiny is for the most part, completely within your control.
If you are really and truly motivated and really and truly want to be somebody or something in this world, you have a much better chance of fulfilling that destiny if you don’t spend all your time sitting around whining and complaining...like most people do.
In my own experience, motivation played a bigger role in achievement and success than anything else. If you're driven and willing to put yourself out there, the rest will follow. You'll be exposed to new opportunities, meet new people, develop incredible knowledge and skills, gain confidence and wisdom beyond your expectations. And the rest, as they say, will be history.
So let me pose a question to you if I might…
Is your motivation level like that of a candle flame…or of a raging fire? What are you willing to do to keep your flame from dying down?
My challenge to you is to find a reason for doing what you truly want to do. I challenge you to be so motivated that your dreams can’t be extinguished when you get tired...when you come up against obstacles or when you don’t feel as though you are making any progress. If you can’t find a compelling reason to press on, I suggest you don’t even start.