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An episodic essay on writing, the elements, and the elements of writing her most recent novel
The elements: I like to imagine that it was the lightning that split the novel up into sections, each named after an element: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Perhaps even it was “red lightning,” a rare phenomena created by particles in the air that capture the light in a hue so bright that it’s not found anywhere else on earth. Or perhaps it was a simply writerly decision: to try to render a human worn down to the basic breath and bones by her own fiery soul. I was simply struck, one could say, with an idea on a particular day—that I’d make the form of the book inform the content of the book. Both humans and planet can be viewed from a distance such that they have no ornamentation, no particulars. Only the elements, whipping and drowning and burning away. That is the way that I wanted to begin.
Air: Three lines of Dean Young’s poem “Elemental” introduce the book: “This end won’t summarize our forever. / Some things can be fixed by fire, / some not. Dearheart, already we’re air.” Already we are air. Sometimes Tess, the main character, feels that she’s so close to death—so close to turning into air—that she can’t breathe, and her throat closes from anxiety, from the sorrows of life, of the need for redemption. Meanwhile, a fire rages in the mountains, gobbling up oxygen. The planet and her body share this basic requirement, this need for more air. The storyline is this: As a female levantona, she has failed to find her group of immigrants in the Colorado mountains, and dying of thirst, they have started a signal fire to be found, the wind has turned it into Colorado’s largest wildfire. Tess runs home to eastern Colorado to examine her heart, and what she discovers is this: it is the piercing of the limitations of the human heart that make it open to the final, most essential, fifth element–kindness.
Fire: During the writing of this novel, I was evacuated from my home for a wildfire. One good thing about that fire was that I could now get the details right in my writing. I awoke to winds, the police knocking on the doors, the reverse 9-1-1 call, the blur of smoke and haze, the helicopters and sirens. I awoke to ranchers painting their phone numbers on their horses before cutting fences, hoping the creatures could run to safety. I awoke to a glowing ball of fire eating up my mountains. One of the immigrants says to Tess: “Por favor, Tess, perdónanos. No nos odies por el fuego, nos estábamos muriendo de sed.” No, they didn’t mean to start the fire, they didn’t ask to be dying of thirst. They are not culpable any more than Tess, and yet we all are, to some degree.
Wind: The smoke from the wildfire is blown to the eastern plains of Colorado, as if the wind is following Tess—who also went in that direction. It is also as if the wind is trying to sweep up the mess of the mountains, just like Tess is trying to clean up the mess she left when she abandoned her infant with her sister long ago. As she puts it, she wants to be “a heartsweeper” and clean up the mess she’s made. For the first time in her life, she has paused to look around and accurately assess the damage she has done. Sometimes, during the course of the novel, during the course of this last attempt to clean, the breeze shifts her hair about, making it lift and dance. No más cruces en la frontera, she thinks. Time to clean up the mess.
Earth: Tess has given herself three days to do this cleaning. If she doesn’t, she’ll return herself to the earth, leave her skeleton out on bare land, just like a skeleton she found once, the one that changed her life, a skeleton of a woman with an unborn baby housed in her rib cage, in her nest of bones. A woman with a red plastic barrette holding back black hair. That skeleton somehow reminds Tess of our planet, and it’s true that out here in Colorado, our lives are influenced by the bare-boned elements, that despite our technological wizardry, we still move in response to snows and to winds more than perhaps we realize.
Water: Sometimes the memory of this woman’s bones makes Tess feel seasick and she walks across the earth looking for her landfeet, looking for “sunlight out of water,” from TS Eliot. The waves of grass move like the sea; Tess is a pirate of this wavy grassy substance. Tess tries to leave water on this land: she leaves old milkjugs filled with agua throughout the desert, but still: thirst nearly kills the immigrants, it nearly kills her, it nearly kills the earth. Later, Tess watches the clouds boiling up over the mountains in the distance, and sees they’re reluctant to leave the blue peaks. The earth remains parched, as parched as her soul. Until, that is, she lets the water in. In that way, she discovers the ancient impatience of water, right next to the ancient impatience of the human heart.
Kindness: And so, finally, another element is created. Kindness. “Kindness is actually a lot of work,” one of the characters tells Tess. “Kindness is like an elemental energy. Like wind, like fire, like water. And you know why we seek it? The same way we seek water and air? Because we get our butts kicked by life, and we realize we need people, and therefore they need us. Kindness is one of the basic elements.”
At the end of writing the novel, Tess knocked on my shoulder. She told me to write this: “There’s something I have always wanted to say, something about the vacuum of a realization . . . something about how if we listen harder, stare harder, focus harder, use our imaginations harder, the people at the other end of our sight, well, they morph from blurs on the horizon, something barely discernible at a distance, and become very clear, very detailed. We only need someone to see and to listen and to feel, and our shapes take form. The land is enough to hold us. All the land, it seems, is here to hold us.”
The planet—and all its elements—are here to hold us all, regardless of country or economic status or ethnicity. We writers listen. And in transcribing what we hear, we make the magic of books. Which connect us. They help us find what the elements offer. “We are plunked down to wonder and suffer,” Tess says. “Afraid because we don’t know how to live this life, and not certain if we’re being judged, and if we are, by what elements?” Danos la paz. Tess finally feels it, peace. In the end, she realizes, it’s the elements that grant us peace.
Laura Pritchett, a Lighthouse instructor and a Book Project mentor, will be having a reading and book release celebration at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on June 10 at 7 pm for her newest novel, Red Lightning. Her previous novel, Stars Go Blue, is currently a finalist for the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award and the Colorado Book Award. Learn more at laurapritchett.com. Follow her on Facebook or @authorlaura on Twitter.