Keeping The Light On

When speaking to a local writing group, some people might talk grammar or style. Others might get into characterization or even publishing contracts.

I talked about light bulbs.


You might have even heard of this one: the undying light bulb of the Livermore, Calif. fire department. Built by a competitor of Thomas Edison’s, the bulb has yet to burn out. After 110 years.

There have been a lot of news articles and just as many theories as to why the bulb still works, I told the Longmont Writer’s Club a few mornings back. Some think the bulb is exceptionally well built,  maybe possessing an unusual filament. Some note that the bulb doesn’t run brightly, maybe four watts out of a possible 60, which may help extend its life. Finally, there’s the fact that it’s rarely ever turned off.

“In all honesty, ” I said, “I can’t think of a better metaphor for the writer’s life.”

I’ve kept at this curious trade for 13 years. I haven’t burned out yet. Some of it may be talent or good training. Some of it may be that I shoot things out 500 or 600 words at a time instead of trying to bite off a full 50,000-word novel at a go.

But I really think the biggest part is that I’m never “off.” I’m still curious. Still interested. And still caring.

At its heart, writing is caring. Nothing less.

I first really learned that in sixth grade, in a writer’s workshop with Dan Simmons. Now a bestselling novelist, Dan was a teacher then, and had given us a basic opening assignment: write a descriptive scene. It could be fiction. It could be non-fiction. But it had to be well-described.

So I wrote about our living room.

Never before or since has a living room been written about in such detail. The number of chairs. The color of the couch. The bean bags, just a hop and a jump from the TV. It was a verbal photograph and, as it turned out, the only non-fiction assignment to be turned in.

Dan took one look and pronounced it boring.

“I want to know a story,” he told us. “What happened here? Is there a bean bag that swallowed someone up, never to be seen again?”

He was right. It was flat. It was dull. It was a homework assignment, slapped together that morning.

It could have detailed any number of things the room had seen. Our terrifying and tragic dog, Daisy. My father’s brief obsession with Atari video games. The sewing needles that my sisters accidentally left in the carpet at times, waiting for an unwary foot. Those had been things that excited fear, or amusement, or memories.

Instead, I didn’t care. And because I didn’t, a reader had no reason to.

It was a lesson that lasted.

To this day, I will often start a column by typing the words WHY DO I CARE? As a reporter, discovering someone else’s answer to that question is one of my great delights in life. Few things are more wonderful to hear someone explain a passion, whether it’s for teaching World War II or building art from cardboard boxes.

They care.

Listening to them, I do, too.

The science fiction editor Ben Bova once said that no one can pay people enough money to do a job they hate. The converse is true as well: no amount of money can beat the satisfaction of a job that is loved. (Though I’d love to make that experiment some time.)

And the best part is, it’s contagious – when a writer, or a doctor, or a pizza maker likes what they do, some of that satisfaction passes outward. To this day, I still remember a chocolatier in Georgetown who sang with delight as he worked, whose shop I could never leave without a smile.

Why do you care?

Find that answer. Pass it on.

And in the end, everyone’s light bulb will burn just a little bit longer.

One Reply to “Keeping The Light On”

  1. Forgot to ask at the Workshop, when you spoke of headlines and coming up with good ones was your forte, how and when did you come up with Rochat, Can you See? for your column?

    I do like it; it is original. Guess you care.

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