I live in the mountains fifty miles east of San Diego, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. People are often surprised to learn it snows here in Southern California – not a lot, and not as heavily as twenty years ago – but we’ve had a couple of good storms over the years, and I like to name them. The Blizzard of ’06 dumped nearly two feet of snow overnight, downed every power line within five miles, and burst my water pipes. I had wine and a wood stove and didn’t have to go “down the hill” (as the locals say), so I was fine. That was an adventure. Other issues about living alone in the boondocks? Not so much.
The Cuyamaca Mountains are deadly firestorm country. We made national news in 2003 with the wicked Cedar Fire, which ignited in the Cleveland National Forest and burned everything in its path, from the desert to the coast. I packed my car to the hilt with stuff I thought I couldn’t live without. I watched the flames approach along with thousands of other terrified refuges, finally making my way to friends an hour closer to the coast – but not until the fire had threatened them and passed on to destroy precious lives and hundreds of homes.
It was the single most terrifying rollercoaster week of my life, beginning with the first report of smoke. I didn’t know my little cottage had survived for several days after the fire passed through this mountain community. It was a like a whisper from an angel when a friend on a cell phone a hundred miles away told me her husband (who snuck past firefighters) was standing in front of my cabin, and it was intact. Many of my neighbors were not so lucky.
I’ve evacuated at least three more times since then – all scary, and luckily, only one episode as horrifying as 2003. Every time I leave, my car is a little lighter. Finally, with my last decidedly un-panicky retreat, I simply looked at the dog and said, “Let’s blow this hotdog stand.” Homer, who passed away in ’08, was always enthusiastic about going for a ride.
In the car went my laptop and backup drive, a few pictures, a plastic container of mementos and a set of pre-packed files that comprised my entire financial history (however meager). Along with those items I stowed dog food, dog bed, leash, bowls and (human) clothing for a few days. And with that retreat, I didn’t cry. I didn’t look back. Everything I loved the most and needed to survive was either with me or already out of harm’s way.
And that is the most important lesson I have gleaned from my personal “test by fire.” Living with the certainty that everything could be gone in a virtual flash has taught me to be prepared for change, and to detach a bit from inanimate things. I’ve learned to be more flexible, to be able to set up shop and function in an unfamiliar place. I’ve learned to focus on what really matters; to be grateful for what I have, while I have it. And I’ve learned to say goodbye. I’m better at allowing people and things to pass through my life and not wail – so much – about their absence.
Fortunately, these lessons have translated well to writing a novel. As an author, I’ve been asked to delete scenes and characters and entire chapters that don’t move the story forward. Authors also need to set up shop in an unfamiliar place and function well, specifically, inside a character’s head so unlike ourselves. Our characters take us in unexpected directions and our stories are set in unfamiliar towns, cities, countries we’ve never visited. Our protagonists are successful in jobs we know nothing about. We learn to take all these new ideas on until they become part of us.
We cut, we revise, we rewrite over and over until only the essence remains, and we’ve said – through the folks who populate our stories – what we really want to communicate. We learn to say goodbye to what didn’t work and to be grateful for what we have left, which is sometimes even better than we planned, or could have imagined.
Through this process, just like other life experiences, we drive to the heart of what is most important. Writing is a mirror of a good – and challenging – life, and if we pay attention as we practice, the act of writing will be more than just an outpouring of what we hold inside, it will also point us in the direction of the people we want to become.