Jim Gasperini

Fiery Emblems of an Alchemist

Books about alchemy from the late Renaissance sometimes include extraordinary images featuring fire. Though I plan to include a couple of these in my cultural history of fire, others wander too deeply into arcane philosophical backwaters to float in my main stream. Here are some delightfully strange images from Atalanta fugiens (The Flying Atalanta, or, Philosophical Emblems of the Secrets of Nature), a book of fifty discourses by Michael Maier (Michaelis Majeris) first published in Oppenheim (now in Rhineland-Palatinate) in 1617. An early example of “multimedia,” some of its images were collaged into an interactive multimedia work of my own published in 1995.

Though detractors later characterized alchemists as secretive mystics obsessed with turning other metals into gold, they pioneered many innovations in laboratory techniques, metallurgy, medicine, and chemical analysis, setting the stage for the Scientific Revolution. Some of the most important early scientists were alchemists, including Isaac Newton, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Robert Boyle (the first modern chemist). Secretive they certainly tended to be however, and mystics, searching for systems of meaning hidden within even deeper systems of meaning. Their works revel in multiple layers of symbolism and dense discursive allusions.

Presented in “emblem books,” a popular genre of the period, emblemata could represent moral concepts, allegories, or persons. Each discourse in Atalanta fugiens contains an engraved emblem by Matthias Merian, epigrammatic verse set to music, and text explicating the rest. These discourses allegorize, through many enciphered layers of allusion, the long sequence of metallurgic and spiritual steps alchemists used in the attempt to create the philosopher’s stone, a panacea capable of restoring humankind to Edenic health and longevity.

Emblem XXIV. A wolf devoured the king, and being burnt it restored him to life again.

The twenty-fourth discourse allegorizes the process of purifying gold (“the lion”) by firing a mineral containing gold and sulfur (“the king”) with a compound containing antimony (known as the “grey wolf” for its tendency to “devour” other metals into alloys). It can be difficult to make sense of Maier’s text. Like many emblem books, Atalanta presents its readers with intellectual puzzles, hiding (or extending) meaning within riddles and discursive stories. Unlike symbols, which embody ideas in ways designed to be widely understood, emblems hide their true significance in ways that challenge the sophistication of the viewer’s understanding.

After giving dubious accounts of the burial customs of various cultures (“The Hyrcanians nourished Doggs for no other Use but that they might cast their Dead Bodyes to be devoured by them”) Maier stretches the story out at great length, ostensibly telling stories of Indian kings, how the Wolf raised in cold regions works better because hungrier than those bred in Libya and Egypt—on and on. “From their King devoured by a wolf there will appear one that is Alive, Strong and Young, and the wolf must be burnt in his stead…” All of which makes little sense until you grasp the hidden metallurgic meaning of “wolf” and “king” and understand that the mysterious “one” ultimately produced is purified gold.

Emblem XXX: The Hermaphrodite, lying like a dead man in darknesse, wants Fire.

Here Maier recounts the many transformations heat and fire can effect, including stories of Trans men and women from Classical times. Pliny for example recounted two cases of women who, after getting married, grew beards and became men. Maier seems to believe that heat can trigger transition between genders. At times he can sound quite matter of fact and modern about such matters: “Nature being dubious whether she should generate a man or a woman expresses a woman outwardly, tho’ inwardly she intended a man.” Then however he asserts that “as heat and motion increase with Age the hidden parts break forth and become apparent.” He cites a famous Genoese surgeon who changed a “noble youth that was an Hermaphrodite…into a perfect man not uncapable of getting Children.”

Though these stories reveal surprisingly modern understanding of gender fluidity in real-world human beings, they are only surface analogs to Maier’s primary interest: a form of philosophical hermaphroditism that held great significance for alchemists. The action of fire can combine the female and the male, they believed. “The coldnesse and the moistnesse of the Moon” and “the heat and drynesse of the Sun” can together create a Rebis (from the Latin res bina, “double matter.”) This magnum opus (great work) of the alchemists produces a reconciliation of spirit and matter known as the “divine hermaphrodite.”

Emblem XXIX. As the Salamander lives in fire, so also the Stone.

A section of my chapter on “Creatures of Fire” traces the history of the belief that salamanders could live in fire. Even the scientific pioneer Leonardo da Vinci believed that the salamander “has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”

Amphibious salamanders find the damp interiors of hollow logs ideal places in which to hide—until some human rudely throws their cozy shelter onto a fire. The surprising sight of salamanders escaping from the midst of flames very likely gave rise to the belief that they actually live in fire.

Emblem XX: Nature teaches Nature how to subdue Fire.

After describing how birds teach their young to fly and other examples of learning from the animal kingdom, Maier draws analogies with the way certain substances “teach” others when combined in metallurgy. A special alchemist glaze called Eudica “will cure bodyes changed into Earth from any burning. For when bodyes do no longer retein their souls they are soon burnt.” After a long string of classical references and medical speculations, he recommends following this train of thought “as the most clear example of the Philosophickal Work.” Since for modern readers his examples will not be clear at all, Scottish expert Adam Maclean offers a year-long study course called How to read alchemical texts: An introductory study course for the perplexed.

Emblem X. Give Fire to fire, Mercury to Mercury, and you have enough.

Illustrator Mattias Merian has fun here showing a discomfited god Mercury letting his caduceus droop when introduced to another version of himself already sitting calmly by the alchemist’s hearth. In a chapter of my book entitled “What Is Fire?” I detail how the alchemists replaced the classical elements air, water, earth, and fire with a three-element primal triad consisting of the “philosophical” elements sulphur, mercury, and salt. These were not exactly the familiar substances known by those names, but rather idealized forms representing the fundamental principles combustibility, volatility, and fixity. The two gods being introduced to each other in this image may be the sort of mercury you can extract from cinnabar on the one hand and the philosophical principle of volatility on the other. Or maybe not… the text of this discourse runs particularly abstruse. For example:

Color was added in the 18th or 19th century to the first ten emblems of a 1618 copy of Atalanta fugiens. Science History Institute Museum and Library

“The internal Fire is Equivocally so cold because of its fiery qualities, virtue, & operation, but the External Fire is Univocally so. Therefore, External Fire & Mercury must be given to the internal Fire & Mercury, that so the intention of the Work may be completed… The Philosophical Infant must be nourished by Fire as with Milk, & the more plentiful that is, the more he grows.” Got that?

Emblem XXVIII The king bathes sitting in the water-bath [Laconicum], and he is freed from black bile by Pharut.

This emblem allegorizes a particular device in the alchemical laboratory apparatus: the vapor bath. The king represents matter held in a vessel above a source of steam so as to “sweat away” impurities. The text tells the story of how a physician named Pharut cured a certain King Deunech of melancholy by sweating out his “black bile” with steam.

Though not all the emblems in Atalanta fuguiens depict fire directly, fire is important throughout. Each of the seven metallurgic operations key to the alchemical process involves a specific type of flame and degree of heat. Through these “gates” or “keys” matter gets broken down into constituent elements, recombined, and purified.

Emblem XVII: The fourfold wheel of fire reigns over this work.

The four interlocking orbs in Emblem XVII, each of which contains enclosed flames, allegorize the process of Sublimation. After heat vaporizes a solid substance, cooling these vapors produces a more concentrated substance. The epigram and text draw concepts from several sources including the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbala (the Four Worlds or spiritual realms that comprise Creation) and classical mythology. The fire in the lowest sphere, produced by the craftsman god Vulcan, sublimates material that passes through an airy sphere of Mercury, then the watery sphere of Luna, and finally congeals again in the uppermost sphere of Apollo, associated with earth, gold, and the alchemist’s ultimate goal, the philosopher’s stone.

In addition to the typical combination used in many emblem books of image, epigram, and explicatory text, each of the fifty discourses in Atalanta fugiens also sets the epigram to music. Polyphonic vocal compositions, which Maier called “fugues,” weave together three voices: “Atalanta fleeing,” a Greek huntress, famously fleet of foot; “Hippomenes following,” the suitor who challenged her to a race and only managed to beat her with divine help; and “the Delaying Apple,” the golden apples Aphrodite gave Hippomenes so as to distract Atalanta, enabling him to win the race. Like everything else in Atalanta fugiens the three voices have multiple additional meanings, such as representing the tria prima: mercury, sulphur, and salt.

According to scholar Donna Balik, this blending of different media makes Atalanta fugiens an early example of multimedia. She created a delightful online version that allows us to hear a recording of each musical fugue while contemplating its image and epigram.

Here the double-page layout of Emblem III, Go to the woman who washes sheets and do likewise,
displays the epigram in both Latin and German. Allegorizing Calcination, the first of seven steps or “keys” in the alchemical process of metallic transformation, this discourse instructs us, when cleansing philosophical matter of impurities, to follow the example of the washer-woman’s attention to the proper way to go about washing sheets.

I was surprised and delighted to find familiar imagery in Atalanta fugiens. In the early 1990’s collage artist Tennessee Rice Dixon incorporated several emblems, which she found at the New York Public Library, into an artist book she called ScruTiny in the Great Round. These included Emblem XV, Let the work of the Potter, consisting in drynesse and moisture, instruct you.

A page from the artist's book 𝘚𝘤𝘳𝘶𝘛𝘪𝘯𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘎𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵 𝘙𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 by Tennessee Rice Dixon

Some years later I worked with Tennessee to turn ScruTiny into a multimedia CD-ROM using Macromedia Director, an application for creating interactive multimedia presentations. We scanned the eleven main pages of the book into digital files and added animations, music and sound effects by composer Charlie Morrow, and navigational devices, including replacing the computer cursor with small images (sprites) representing the sun, the moon, and a fish. Published in 1995 by Calliope Media, the interactive multimedia ScruTiny won several awards, including  the Grand Prix d’Or at MILIA in Cannes.

So some of these images from a seventeenth-century book form of multimedia found their way to an twentieth-century artist book, then to a digital form of interactive multimedia. An alchemical transformation of sorts.

[An earlier blog post also features intriguing fire images that won’t make it into my book, as does my Instagram account.]


Bilak, Donna, “Chasing Atalanta: Maier, Steganography, and the Secrets of Nature” furnaceandfugue.org/essays/bilak

Bilak, Donna, “Atalanta fugiens (1618): Music-Image-Text”

Maclean, Adam, “Alchemical Texts: Atalanta fugiens”

Maier, Michael, Atalanta fugiens, hoc est, Emblemata Nova de Secretis Naturae Chymica (Theodoris de Bry, 1618) Science History Institute Museum and Library

Nummedal, Tara and Donna Bilak, Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1618) with Scholarly Commentary (University of Virginia Press, 2020) furnaceandfugue.org

I am still fiddling with the main title of my book. Fire in the Mind? Fire in the Imagination? Imagining Fire? Everyone seems to like the subtitle. Opinions welcome! Add a comment below.

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Playing with fire

I’ve decided to rename this occasional writing vehicle (blog? newsletter? both?) Playing with Fire—Thoughts about fire, writing, and life. The idea came out of a recent brainstorming session exploring possible titles for my book, in which the suggestion came up of renaming it “Playing with Fire.” I thought: “I bet that’s been used before.” Has it ever!

Titles cannot be copyrighted, and if Playing with Fire has not won the prize for most-used title of all time, it must be in the running. A search for the term in Amazon turns up 143 different books titled Playing with Fire just on the first ten pages of search results. I gave up counting after ten pages; there were still sixty-five pages to go. The phrase also serves as title for a jazz composition, nine music albums, over twenty songs, a music festival, and at least three music bands; nine films including early silents, family comedies, an X-rated movie, and a documentary; two television series and a half dozen episodes of other series; at least five podcasts and many podcast episodes; and a game played with dice and cards.

In my chapter about fire symbols and metaphors I claim that “fire is the most ubiquitous and multifaceted symbol in human culture.” We use fire metaphors to describe emotions; processes of transformation, transmission and contagion; ambiguity and power; and more. Fire “offers our earliest experience of contradiction and ambiguity,” says linguist Jonathan Charteris-Black. “Fire is inherently ambiguous. While it appears to be alive, it can also cause death: it is simultaneously safe and dangerous.”

Books titled Playing with Fire apply the metaphor to a wide variety of subjects. Most include subtitles that give some hint of how a particular book uses the phrase, for example Playing with Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts. Other non-fiction books burn through topics of
·  history (Playing with Fire: A Story of the Soudan War )
·  politics (Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics)
·  finance (Playing with FIRE: Financial Independence Retire Early)
·  gender (Playing With Fire: Feminist Thought And Activism Through Seven Lives In India)
·  social justice (Playing with Fire: the Strange Case of Marine Shale Processors)
·  cooking (Playing with Fires: Firehouse Recipes and Their Chefs)
·  policy (Playing With Fire: Embracing Risk and Danger in Schools)
·  psychology (Playing With Fire: Creative Conflict Resolution for Young Adults)
·  memoir (Playing with Fire: One Woman’s Remarkable Odyssey)
·  art history (Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models, 1740 to 1840) and
·  religion (Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul).
In a book of advice to ministers about how to write sermons (Playing with Fire: Preaching Work as Kindling Art) “we discover that playing with fire is a sacred act indeed.”  

Literature shows up in
·  a play by August Strindberg
·  mythology (Playing With Fire: An Exploration of Loki Laufeyjarson), and
·  poetry (Playing With Fire: A Year of Love Letters and Poems, Set Ablaze, and Other Vulgar Lore Dedicated To You).
Fires play out in many types of genre fiction as well, including:
·  suspense (Playing with Fire: An Inspector Banks Novel of Suspense)
·  crime thriller (Playing with Fire: an absolutely addictive crime thriller with a huge twist)
·  fantasy (Playing With Fire: Dragons Of The Darkblood Secret Society—a Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance) and
·  mysteries (Playing with Fire: Arizona Guy – A Ted White Mystery).
Nancy Drew finds herself investigating arson at a luxury hotel in Playing with Fire (Nancy Drew Files Book 26). She “might find herself in some hot water along the way!” Other books for younger readers include a story about a “juvenile delinquent and budding pyromaniac” (Playing with Fire – A School for Spies Novel), a story about a girl with paranormal powers (Saranormal 9: Playing with Fire), and a graphic novel titled LEGO Legends of Chima #6: Playing With Fire!

By far the largest number of titles fall into one or another genre of romance, including entire series (“In the thrilling Playing with Fire series, dive into the tempestuous world of star-crossed lovers from feuding families.”) “Security romances” feature hot alpha-male bodyguards sworn to protect vulnerable women at all costs (Playing With Fire: A Reed Security Nightmare). Hunky firefighters inspire many romantic fantasies (Playing with Fire: A Friends-to-Lovers Firefighter Romance). “She’s secretly burned for him for years.” Some place their firemen in the context of other fantasy genres: Playing with Fire: a scorching firefighter & demon erotica—written by an actual firefighter. Though usually these romances cast the first responders as heroic dreamboats, one cautionary tale centers on a firefighting con man (Playing with Fire: The True Story of Fireman Scam).

In what seems to be an ever-Balkanizing genre, many romances spell out their sub-genre, sub-sub-genre and even sub-sub-sub-genre directly in their titles:
·  Playing with Fire: A Dark High School Bully Romance
·  P
laying With Fire—The Fire Trials (A Reverse Harem, University Romance)
·  Playing with Fire: A Single Dad and Nanny Romance
·  Playing With Fire: An Enemies to Lover Alpha Male Protector Romance
·  Daddy and Me Playing with Fire: A Taboo Forbidden Stepdaddies of Small Town Romance.
Strangest and most specialized of all perhaps is a work in the MPreg sub-genre:
·  Playing With Fire: A Bridgewater Bay MPREG Novel). MPreg books detail romantic fantasies about men who somehow can get pregnant.

Only one current book (at least, in the first ten pages of Amazon search results) addresses the real-world dangers of literally playing with fire. In Playing with Fire: How Bart learns his lesson about fire safety the hard way, a picture book for 5–6-year-olds, a cute animal that may or may not be a dog ignores the fire safety advice of his furry friends and carelessly sets a campfire that nearly burns down their forest home. He learns his lesson just in time.

A similar lesson gets imparted in what must be the oldest book using the title, though its heroine does not fare as well as cute furry Bart. In Little Jane, or Playing with Fire (1833), a willful young girl purloins letters from her mother’s desk, rolls them into a makeshift torch, and lights it in the fireplace. “Flourishing the blaze,” the “foolish child” runs about the room having “fine fun” until she accidentally sets the bedclothes on fire. Trying to put the fire out, she ignites her own frock. Soon the entire house goes up in flames. Her father dies when a burning beam falls on him, her mother dies of grief, and in the end little Jane must “go begging about the country, wishing she had never played with fire.”


Perhaps I will likewise learn to rue the day I decided to use this exceptionally shopworn phrase as title for my blog-cum-newsletter. I don’t want to risk my book getting lost among hundreds of identical titles, but the competition in blogs seems much less fierce than for books. Playing with Fire blogs include several tied to the FIRE financial independence book, at least two about cooking, one about online dating on the Tinder platform, and one memoir using a double metaphor to recount tales of “Living Ablaze when Life Goes Up in Flames.”

I’m told that “it should be clear to new visitors what your blog is about and what they’re going to get from it… If your blog title is metaphorical, clever, or not clear… add a tagline that tells and sells the angle.” So: thoughts about fire, writing, and life. Have I sold you on my angle? Should the newsletter compile blog posts or offer something different that includes links to the blog? Suggestions welcome.

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Adventures in the public domain


An unexpected detour on the way to getting my book ready for publication took me deep into the fascinating, fun, but time-consuming world of image research.

The draft book proposal completed months ago promised that I would supply a list of possible illustrations on request, drawn from our rich heritage of beautiful, amusing, and intriguing depictions of fire. My book coach however suggested that I proactively research and select these illustrations, secure in advance the rights to use them, and make sure I have access to high-resolution digital files suitable for printing. The process, he predicted, would take much longer than I expected.

As usual, his advice was spot on. Though most of my selections are in the public domain, securing the right to use them requires careful research and can incur significant expense. Much depends on the policies of the institution that owns the original work.

Many great museums and libraries, fortunately, have chosen an “open access” policy, which allows you to freely copy, modify, and distribute images, even for commercial purposes. These include the Metropolitan Museum, the Wellcome Collection, Yale University Libraries, and the Getty Museum (but not Getty Image$, which charges the max.) The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has a wonderfully deep collection of old Dutch engravings in particular, even encourages you to create a “Rijksstudio” and fashion their images into something of your own. When you download a digital file, a dialog pops up prompting you: “What will you create? The image you just downloaded is supersharp. Sharp enough to turn a single detail into a shirt. Or a car. Or a phone case. Start creating your own masterpiece! View tips and examples…”


All things lie dead if not preserved by fire, for it vivifies all things by its heat. In an image packed with symbols, a female personification of fire, her head engulfed in flames, rides a chariot pulled by flaming salamanders. She sits on the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, while a personification of fertility rides as passenger. In the background, reminding us of the destructive side of fire, Aenaes saves his aged father from the burning city of Troy. Anton Wierix II (before 1604). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Other institutions keep tight control over the works in their collections, whether “public domain” or no. The Morgan Library “allows reproduction only from publication quality digital image files;” you need to pay them to create new artwork even if files of good quality can be found on their own website or elsewhere. This includes images from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. I would have liked to use a miniature from that work, “Souls in Purgatory Consoled with the Offering.” It depicts an angel delivering sacramental bread, made possible by the donations of people still living, to souls kneeling at a communion table in the flaming mouth of Hell. It beautifully illustrates much of what I say about Purgatory.

Images from Catherine of Cleves do appear in Wikimedia Commons. According to the official position of the Wikimedia Foundation, I have the right to use them: “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain.” A publisher however will very likely require that I get permission from the Morgan, which not only requires that I pay for photo reproduction but will charge a fee based on who the publisher will be for my book, how many copies will be printed, how many “specific languages” it will be printed in, what media, how many editions etc. This permission will be good for three years, after which I must apply again. I filled out their form hoping to get a ballpark idea of the cost, noting that I don’t yet have answers to these questions. They responded with an invoice for a $60 reproduction fee “for research only” and another form to fill out when I have answers to all these specifics. They will then determine the fee. Fortunately, there are plenty of other great images I can use to illustrate my chapter on the fires of Purgatory.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France, thankfully, has a much simpler policy: they charge a one-time Tarif of 60€ for use of an image on an interior page of a book. I like this clearly defined cost, since I would very much like to use a unique image from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript in their collection.

It depicts priests blessing a pilgrim entering a famous cave in Ireland known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory. For centuries, believers came from all over Christendom to spend a night in this cave, where they would be seized by demons and endure fiery tortures until morning—if they managed to survive at all. Why would anyone choose to spend a night in a cave, risking death at the hands of fire-wielding demons? Because such a visit works like a vaccination for the soul: if you survive, you will be spared much worse tortures in the afterlife.

Other institutions, such as the British Museum, allow free use of their works in the public domain except for “commercial use,” which includes books like mine. I sent an inquiry to their sales department about a 16th-century German etching sometimes called The Revenge of the Sorcerer Virgil. It illustrates a popular bawdy medieval story about how the Roman poet Virgil fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the Emperor. She embarrassed him, leaving him dangling in a basket while trying to get up to her chambers (depicted in the background).

The amorous poet, also a sorcerer, magically extinguished all fires in Rome. The Roman citizenry could only light them again when Princess Febilla stood naked in the Forum while they rekindled their torches from the fiery focus of her erotic allure.


Of the several copies of this print I found in museums around the world, the British Museum had the only one downloadable in suitable resolution that I could find. How much would it cost to license it? They too require the name of the publisher, the unit run (both printed copies and e-book downloads), language(s), territorial distribution, reproduction size (1/4, 1/2, or full page), and expected audience of the publication. Oh, and they don’t consider the file on their site to be of “commercial quality,” so I should also pay £60 for new photography.

Annoyed, I dug a little further and found an even better copy at the Biblioteka Narodowa in Poland. With the help of Google Translate I determined that “It is allowed to reproduce, change and distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, without having to ask for permission.”

Aside from the occasional frustration with such bureaucratic obstacles, I had great fun curating my collection of digital images. In addition to the selection that I will propose to publishers for inclusion in the book, I came across many more beautiful, evocative, and downright weird images. Some of these I will post to Instagram and elsewhere in this blog.

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Fumigating miasmas and burning love letters

While researching illustrations for 𝘍𝘪𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 Imagination, I came across striking images that don’t suit the book but deserve attention somewhere. I’ll post some of them here.

Solomon Eagle, or Eccles, was a composer of note until he became a Quaker, decided church music was sinful, and burned all his compositions. Mentioned in Daniel Defoe’s 𝘑𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘭𝘢𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳, he also appears in the 29 July 1667 entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary: “…a man, a Quaker, came naked through the [Westminster] Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head… crying, “Repent! repent!”

A common belief at the time held that diseases such as plague were caused by miasmas (from the Greek for “to pollute”), poisonous vapors containing particles of decomposing matter. Fire featured in many schemes to evade noxious miasmas. A note in the source calls the device on his head a “burnace,” but I have not been able to find other references to this term.

Solomon Eagle striding through plague-ridden London with burning coals on his head, trying to fumigate the air. Chalk drawing by E.M. Ward, 1848 (Wellcome Collection)
Wikimedia Commons

An advertisement from the 50s by Al Moore could perhaps illustrate a chapter in Fire in the Imagination about the persistence of fire rituals, but would take too long to explain.

It seems that this woman, her era’s epitome of beautiful upper-class babe, is unaware of a fatal flaw. The man of her dreams, after writing beautiful letters from Rio full of plans and hopes for their future, stepped off the plane full of ardor. But soon he seemed to change. His ardor became indifference, his tenderness “merely formal courtesy.” Now she has come back from his wedding to another woman, dressed to the nines. Before burning his letters, she reads them, searching for an answer. What had happened to change his feeling for her? “She would never know…”

But we know. “A case of halitosis (bad breath) can cause a rift in a promising romance.” Don’t let this happen to you!

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Killing monstrous darlings

Wanyūdō (“wheel priest”) from Konjaku zoku hyakki, a supernatural bestiary by Toriyama Sekien (1779).

I have been relentlessly combing through the draft of Fire in the Mind, trimming it down by over 3000 words in recent weeks. In the process I have had to “kill my darlings,” as the saying goes. Perhaps they will still be of interest presented piecemeal here.

Several beta readers thought I was overly fond of fiery yokai in Japanese folklore, for example. The monstrous darlings I decided to kill include the wanyudo, which rolls along mountain roads and through village streets in the form of a giant, angry monk’s head framed by a flaming ox-cart wheel, hunting for souls to drag to Hell. A female version, katawaguruma, features a tormented, naked woman also riding a giant burning wheel.

Many yokai feature monks or other religious figures. Kazenbo (“monk in the flames”) resemble monks burning alive. In the tenth century CE, the story goes, a group of monks decided to leap into fire as a shortcut to achieving enlightenment. This experiment failed, and ever since their spirits haunt a mountain in Kyoto, wrapped in the fires of ignorance and sinful attachment.

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San Francisco Writers Conference

I spent a productive few days at the San Francisco Writers Conference, attending for free after winning the Grand Prize in their 2022 writing contest. Highlights were the many informative “breakout sessions” with agents, acquiring editors, independent editors, writing coaches, and book publicists. Aside from a few useful contacts, the conference gave me good ideas for honing my book proposal, which I continue to carefully craft.

As a full participant (last year I attended as a volunteer) I could schedule eight-minute consultations with editors and other industry professionals. Every fifteen minutes a group of attendees with appointments were ushered into a “holding room” consisting of a single long row of chairs. At the appointed time we swept into a hotel ballroom dotted with dozens of experts spread twenty or so feet apart, each seated at a little white-clothed table with a vase of flowers. At the time of my first appointment the arrangement of tables was random; we had to recognize our consultants from head shots set up on boards by the registration table. This led to people wandering about calling “Linda?” “Mr. Jones?” By my next session, fortunately, they had arranged the tables alphabetically.

I found I could get a surprising number of questions usefully answered in eight minutes. I had a good session with a guy who would be an excellent choice for an agent, once I decide to send out pitches. He thought I had a good subject and had made a good choice in a “comp” (a successful book with similarities to mine. At the top of my list is Salt by Mark Kurlansky.)

The advice I heard was not always consistent. I asked one “book coach” and literary lawyer about permissions. I have a few epigraphs to which I may need to track down rights, including a D.H. Lawrence poem (set to enter the public domain in about three years) and a couple verses from the 1948 song Ghost Riders in the Sky (“’Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky/on horses snorting fire/as they ride on hear them cry…”) He advised that not only would I need to secure the rights to all of these creative excerpts but also get permission from every last scholar from whose works I include a quote. That surprised and dismayed me. I could risk not doing this work, he said, but that would not be his advice. “It depends on your tolerance for risk. We lawyers are conservative.”

Many careers ago I had experience on the other end of the permissions game when I briefly worked for a well-known literary agency in Manhattan. Among my early responsibilities were lugging home fat manuscripts of bad novels from the slush pile and handling permissions. Requests would come in for permission to use a story by Ken Kesey, say, or Erica Jong, and I would write back saying how much it would cost. Here was a chance to shine! $100 for a chapter in an anthology? No! I’d ask for $200. I doubt I impressed anyone by driving hard bargains as the Permissions Department, but now, with some trepidation, I imagine someone like my 22-year-old self reviewing my requests.

I brought up the same issue later with the acquiring editor of a publishing house that would be a good home for my book. To my relief, she thought there would be no problem quoting scholars without permission. Even short quotes in epigraphs should be OK, though for an entire poem or a song lyric I might err on the side of caution.

I learned a lot from workshops with book publicists, a role I had not looked into much before. These days, even if you do find a traditional publisher, most authors are expected to do a lot of (even all) a book’s promotion themselves. Some experts gave advice about how to choose, hire, and work with a professional publicist, others on the sorts of things you can do yourself. One tip produced a flash of inspiration: I plan to design a custom Fire in the Mind matchbook, like the ones restaurants once gave out to their “matchless friends.” Now that smoking no longer takes place inside restaurants you don’t see this much, but dozens of vendors still make them, for weddings and other events. Something fun to give out in lieu of business cards.

A little ceremony after the Saturday “banquet” honored us writing contest winners. Here I am with honorees in various categories (poetry, adult fiction, young adult, etc.) Yes, we guys were distinctly in the minority at this conference.

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Fire in the Mind wins SFWC Grand Prize

Fire in the Mind won the Grand Prize in the 2022 San Francisco Writers Conference Writing Contest. For this annual contest, literary agent judges read excerpts from unpublished manuscripts and choose First Prize Winners in four categories. The Grand Prize Winner is then selected from among the four winners. Fire in the Mind took top honors in Adult Non-Fiction. The Grand Prize includes free entry to the next conference, which will take place in February.

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On procrastination

In starting this blog, I might also congratulate myself (he said with a sigh) for launching what may well prove to be the most alluring method of procrastination yet.

Though I constantly tell myself that the book is my first priority, I just as constantly find “little things that need doing so why don’t I get them out of the way first.” So I water the plants, check how the stocks in my IRAs are doing, work on replacing the broken passenger side mirror, and soon enough most of the day is somehow gone.

The best I have been able to do is construct a hierarchy of procrastinations, so that I procrastinate from doing the thing that should be first priority by doing something else I do need to do but a little further down the list. While writing a chapter on the story of the four elements, I came across a great source about the tarot which could be mined for a quick addition to an already drafted chapter, about divination with fire. It’s just so tempting to take a little detour… it shouldn’t take long to research and repair a minor gap in a web already woven, rather than pick through and select threads of sources and concept about something new… Soon a day or so has gone by, I have read most of two books on the history of the tarot and yes, made the “finished” chapter a little tighter, but all the threads about how Greek atomists alchemists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Cartesians and scientists conceived the elements that had been gathered in my head ready to be stitched together lie jumbled in a heap of broken neurons.

Oh well. Whatever the flaws in my process, it reflects something in my character that I need to just accept and get on with it.

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Origins of my book about fire

So now I have decided to write a blog about the process of writing my book about fire, and here is the first entry. I hope it will be a useful exercise to step back and scrutinize my process at some level of abstraction, and even result in something of interest to anyone who stumbles across these musings.

This project grew out of my work as Worship Associate at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, California. Offered the opportunity to lead a worship service, I asked myself what subject I might address in a sermon. Having attended the Burning Man festival over a dozen times, an event where many attendees use fire as a celebratory spiritual practice, I decided to center my service on fire. In preparation I looked for books about fire and spirituality, or the meanings humans have imagined for fire over the centuries.

To my great surprise, no such book exists. Though plenty of books have been written about fire, they primarily focus on the history of practical uses of fire, fire prevention, famous fire disasters, and fire in particular cultural traditions. No author has comprehensively addressed the subject of fire and the human imagination. Toni Morrison once said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it yourself.” So here I am six years later, fourteen chapters drafted of a planned nineteen, beginning to look for a publisher.

It may be that no-one has ever taken on the subject in such breadth because no-one with any credentials to write about some aspect of the subject would imagine tackling such an ambitious project, inevitably requiring venturing well outside any particular field. in researching this book I have had to educate myself in many disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, theology, history of religion, mythology, cosmogony, eschatology, and the history of science. I have no real credentials in any of these fields; the audacity of the outsider may be my main advantage. Though I have many published (and unpublished) writing projects to my credit, as detailed on the Selected projects page, this will be my first full-length book. The process has been exhilarating and fulfilling. As the prospect nears of completing the project, I look forward to seeing it make its way in the world.

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