by Janice Han

Every writer ferrets out inspiration differently, I suppose. I’m not one of those lucky individuals who finds a story idea lurking inside every spare sock or shadow. Actually, I’d go so far as to say that finding inspiration is the worst part of writing. It had been weeks, months, since I’d been able to write anything other than cardboard-stiff, weak-as-tea characters and grey, dead dialogue… although, to be honest, I often produced stuff like that even when I was inspired. Who knew why?

But finally, I’d grasped hold of an idea, an amazing one, while wandering through the stretch of wild, unfettered shrubbery and eucalypti by my house. The air had been so muggy and still, squeezing sweat from my pores and evaporating it away, that I wondered how I had captured anything in that heat.

There it was, inspiration caught as a brilliantly blue bolt of lightning in a bottle. I rolled the translucent flask over in my hand, the raw idea cracking and flashing and pulsing with energy inside. Silver, looping letters appeared and vanished every now and then as it thrashed against the glass sides: slipped through the black sea without a sound… Linda was face-down on the concrete, unsure of… the hot, arid wind…

Nonsensical, contextless phrases. Pushing myself up, I strolled to the fireplace, where a pile of strangely curved logs waited expectantly in a curved, broad shape rather like a loaf of bread. The right side was coated in thick, messy layers of colour, as if Santa had poured cans of paint down the chimney. The left had odd things sticking out from beneath the wood; calculators, rulers and the like. I uncorked the bottle and released the idea into the hearth.

Instantly, a fire sprang up.

The flames danced as I knelt, casting flickering, azure shadows on my face. The heat was so strong I could practically feel my nose drooping, my lids melting over my eyes as I liquefied. But I remained still as shining words spun outward and onto the floor beside me. A first sentence.

They never told me what was in the north.

Images began rising from the flames, too – a girl, her face indistinct. Linda… the protagonist. I reached in, my fingers unfurling as they reached for the passion of building a story-world, brick by brick, and scooped up a handful of the blue ashes that were raining down in the fireplace like snow. Packing them into her hair, her face, pressing them into her heart, I watched as words spilled out, clambering up my arms and squeezing themselves into my ears. “I grew up on the desert’s edge,” Linda’s voice whispered. “I’m the oldest of four…”

Her eyes formed properly, gleaming and brash. The jawline, too, set in a stubborn slant as her voice whispered introductions to me. And the blue-leafed trees and crimson-barked huts of her world appeared around her, side characters blurring in and out of focus as I tried to decide who to pick and who to cast aside.

And the story, too, was growing. Words became sentences, structuring themselves in an uneven heap at my feet. Sentences became paragraphs, paragraphs became chapters…

At dusk, the fire began to die.

I jerked back, gazing at the paling flames with my mouth agape – suddenly, they chilled my hands to the bone. And Linda was shrinking while her still-shadowy form broke apart and the silver words unravelled from my arms and fell, silently. Soon, they lay flat on the floor in a mess of a first draft and what had seemed so beautiful only moments before was now humiliating to reread, the letters spindly and the story melodramatic. Linda’s face now seemed obscenely, infuriatingly arrogant, the world around her unoriginal and ugly. I stared at her, my lips pressed together.

How was this the same, glowing flash of inspiration I’d released into the hearth, only hours ago? It was horrible… “If you want to keep me, you’ll have to stoke the fire again.” Linda’s voice cut into my thoughts. She crossed her arms. “The first flame has died. You decide if you’ll continue.”

Did I want to?

I exhaled slowly as the fire flickered lower and lower in the half-darkness, eyeing the doorway of my bedroom longingly. I could give up. I could stop here, start something else, get that euphoric rush of getting to know strange characters and creating another world again once I’d caught a new idea. I stretched my back as I kicked aside the heap of my first draft… yes, I would do that… start a new project… I didn’t really have much passion left for this one…

When I turned, I could still see a blue shadow wavering on the floorboards. I paused. Made to leave. Paused again. I forced my legs to move inside my room and had almost closed the door…

But in the darkness of my unlit room, I could still see the outline of the cerulean flames etched on the inside of my eyelids – fire and water, all at once.

Before I knew it, I was staggering back to the word-strewn fireside with armfuls of wood, throwing it onto the fire, fanning it desperately. Linda had vanished. There were only faint sparks of blue shimmering around the edges. “I’m not giving up on you,” I hissed, rushing for the stack of kindling I kept on my porch. I chucked it all on, then, gritting my teeth, I glared at the fireplace and willed it to alight. “Please, please…”

A gleaming tongue of blue heat wrapped itself around the logs.

Face glowing, I unravelled the tangle of my draft, ripping out parts and throwing them into the fire, using their ashes to craft something different but tied to what I’d had before, adding new sentences, restructuring it so that it was deeper, firmer, so the letters gained a kind of new dimension to their beauty. As Linda reappeared and I moulded her pigheaded nature into likeable stubbornness, shaping her interests and her personality, a thought occurred to me.

Perhaps finding inspiration wasn’t the hardest part of writing. After all, even though it had taken a while, I’d captured it in an instant. But this, clinging to the idea and developing and redeveloping it while the flames erred between scorching heat and subzero temperatures, my heart bleeding along with my characters’… it took all the strength I had. Surely that was what made the difference between the amateur work I’d produced before and the rich, warm words that were pouring out of the open hearth now – I’d kept going.