Building a Creative Fire

The creative process is like building a wood fire. You have to build it over several stages, start small, and slowly make it grow. And you need to attend it, unattended it will die. On the other hand a good fire – and a good creative process – does not need obsessive attention, just a bit of awareness every so often.

Fire building is a wonderful analogy for the creative process. When you build a fire, you are taking actions toward a result. The circumstances are constantly changing, but these are distinct stages of development, from preparation to maturity. The type of actions you take in the beginning stages would not be suitable in the later stages, and vice versa. Also the initial stages have a big influence on how the later stages develop. If you don’t prepare the fire well from the beginning, it will later be difficult to keep it burning.

There is something primal and vital, while at the same time elegant, timeless, and almost scientific about building fires, just as there is with the creative process. Building and tending a fire requires a blend of human skill and knowledge.

Basically there are four stages in fire building. In the kindling stage, you ignite small amounts of highly flammable material, such as newspaper or twigs. Soon you will need to bring the fire to the next stage; otherwise the flame will quickly burn itself out. In the structuring stage, you begin to establish form to the fire. You build a little tower with larger sticks around the burning kindle. In the building stage you then add small logs and make sure to place them so that air will be sucked into the fire. Finally, during the tending stage, you every so often place new logs on the others. These will burn easily because of the already established fire and the build-up of glowing coal from the previous sticks and logs.

Creating also has a kindling stage. Easily taken steps add energy and lead to more involved steps. Smaller acts lead to larger acts in creating, just as in fire building. If you have not used proper kindling, the fire will be hard to light. If you do not take easy beginning steps, the creation will be harder to make. If, once you have ignited the kindling, you place a big log right in the middle of the small fire; the fire will go out before the log will be able to burn. The same happens in the creative process. Too often people want big results too fast. But if the supportive structure is not in place, the fire of the creative process will go out, too.

One of the wonders in a good fire is the amount of space there is in the structure. Logs do not fill the centre; air does. Although you cannot see the air, this invisible force is a major component in the success of the fire. In the creative processes there are many invisible forces, too. Like the interaction between the conscious and the subconscious mind, the tapping into the creative well or inspiration – without defining it here and now. The creative process includes just the right combination of visible and invisible forces.

When building a fire, if you use too much wood, the fire will go out. If you use too little wood, the fire will go out. If you use wood that does not burn well, the fire will be harder to get going and might go out. A good fire feeds on itself. A good creative process does this as well. Energy is generated by what has gone before. In the creative process, conscious choice, actions, learning, adjusting, an intuitive sense of timing and «lucky accidents» can combine in just the right proportions. It is true of both fire building and creating that you begin to get a «feel» for it after a while.


93 thoughts on “Building a Creative Fire

  1. Gosh, Otto, I feel like you have written this post especially for me… I am busy writing my final assignment for an online feature writing course, and these are exactly the kinds of steps I have had to go through too. This is truly profound – I particularly like the idea that there is air in the middle of the fire too, so that the fire can breathe… Thank you for this!

    1. It’s quite an encouraging feeling when you see that something you have written actually means something for at least some of the readers of the post. Thanks for those encouraging words – and good luck with the writing of the final assignment.

  2. Great analogy Otto. It reminds me of many decades ago when I was a boy scout …
    Yes, it’s true: a creative process has to be started, possibly in a simple way. Than comes the structure and in my opinion the important part is to keep it running. I’ll do read books and visit exhibition not only related to photography or visual art in order to keep what I call “the small child inside me” alive. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes more difficult but when it works it is a satisfaction. Thank you for this thread.

  3. It amazes me that when I face the computer 2x weekly to post, that something comes out and there is a product, a result. This is a wonderful analogy for projects large, small or continuing like a blog. I think many can return here for inspiration.

    1. The thing is if you don’t think too much about the end result, but just keep building the fire step by step, something – a product – will eventually come out of the creative process. It is indeed quite fascinating.

  4. Excellent post, and all so very true! Gathering the kindling is a bit like getting inspired to paint. Like the kindling, a good drawing is essential to the painting that will follow. Negative space is equally important to a good design, and thinking of that space as you so eloquently stated: ” the air, this invisible force is a major component in the success of the fire.”
    When you mentioned too much or too little air, I thought of my counsel to students, “You should always stop before you think you are finished,’ yet a beginning student will often hurry the process to see the end result or will stop too soon.
    From the beginning sentence to the final one, this post showcases your brilliance!
    Thank you for sharing! Z

    1. I think it takes some experience to be able to let the process develop slowly instead of hurrying to see the end result. It also has to do with understanding that the process itself is the reward for any creative person, not necessarily the end result, although we all want something to show for in the end.

  5. Great metaphor, Otto…I’ve been working on some photo collages for over a year and although I don’t have the time (or patience) to work on them continuously, they continue to burn in my creative consciousness…but I do worry that they will burn out of I don’t get to it soon…and there is a bit of guilt attached to that…so thanks for the reminder that they will still be smoldering when I get there…:)

    1. We all have that guilt associated with the creative process. That we are not doing enough or aren’t creative enough. Somehow we ought to see beyond the guild and just keep doing whatever we are doing – a be happy with that, as long as we actually do the work. Good luck with the photo collages, which I hope we will see one day on your blog.

  6. Love your analogy, Otto! This is absolutely true, and have experienced this myself. My passion for photography started out as a spark, and had I not taken the time to kindle that spark and build from it, I probably wouldn’t have learned a lot through the years, and would not see any progress/improvement on my craft.

    1. It is nice to recognise the process from the first spark to where we stand at any given moment in our creative process. As long as we keep working, there will always be a development.

  7. Nicely articulated! I loved reading the post. Something I needed to understand, at this point. Thanks to you, Munchow! 🙂

  8. A wonderful post with an insight that is good for all of us involved in the creative process. I think that the beginning days of my 365 project were the kindling that was that base for my desire to keep the fire burning for my beginning photograpy.

  9. That’s a very interesting analogy, one I’d not considered before. Creativity is such a nebulous thing, and hard to write about and define. Most of the books on creativity are focussed on the problem solving element of creativity, rather than the acts of seeing, imagination and inspiration that we photographers use to produce our work. I enjoy reading your writings on creativity as it’s nice to see something from a photographers viewpoint.

    1. It is indeed hard to write about creativity – at least in a way that makes sense and doesn’t get all wishy wooshy. But I think it’s really rewarding to try to understand how the creative process works, both spiritually, mentally and physiologically.

  10. Photo . . . Amazing. And the post is wonderful. I follow your blog because I think I learn so much about not only photography, but as the title states, the creative side behind it. Your writing helps me with my interest in photos. In addition, I will be sharing this post with my son, who is a wood-fire potter. Much for him to consider. Thanks again!

    1. Would be fun to know how you son sees it. I am really glad I am able to get you interested in photography, it’s such a wonderful expressive art form (and forgive me for being maybe too passionate about it…).

  11. Wonderful Photo! I enjoyed your analogy of building a fire. Having a wood stove I have built a lot of fires so I appreciated your knowledge of the art of building a fire as well. I think you are right that creativity has it’s own timing. I think for myself some things take a longer than I think they should and that I have to look at the over all big picture.

    1. I am not only very interested in the creative process. I really do like a good wood fire – always have. Nothing like sitting there and star into the mystery of the flames.

  12. This is a great analogy, Otto. If only I can start thinking like this all the time about creativity. It is interesting how powerful your fire image is in black and white. I will have to work on building better fires.

  13. What a perfect post for me to read this morning, Otto. I love the fire building analogy, and that will stick with me. I purchased a new very nice camera for my birthday in the spring and I take better pictures with the automatic settings than ever before, so it’s been easy for me to rest with that. With time being so tight (all this blogging, you know, 🙂 ) I haven’t put any time into enjoying the camera and learning more about it. I made a decision this past weekend that if I must cut back on other things, then that’s what I must do, but it’s my desire to learn more about photography and to be more intentional in taking steps to stoke those creative fires. Like I said…perfect encouragement for me today! Thank you! Debra

    1. I think you made a right choice, though, just going with automatic settings. It’s so much better to get the picture instead of getting caught up in technicalities while the picture disappears for you. But then at some point it’s also good to learn more about how to get more out of the camera. Like building a fire, indeed.

  14. An excellent and very appropriate analogy. There is also the thought that the fire generates creative ideas – for example, the thoughts that spring to mind when we become absorbed in the patterns of flames, in wisps or clouds of ascending smoke etc. It really is a very productive image you have suggested.

  15. Funny (do I begin all my posts on your blog that way?) building a fire is exactly how I feel about building a blog or any creative venture. I prefer the ‘slow burn’ approach so that there is a good bed of embers waiting for the breath to create a sustained heat. Oh there are times when I wish the fire would rise faster, give off more heat … and there are accelerants for that but they make fast and unsustainable blazes.

    1. As with everything in life, it’s a fine balance between a steady, slow burn and faster rising and warmer fire. We do want to find that point that sustains the fire.

  16. So much truth and inspiration for me in this one line:
    If you don’t prepare the fire well from the beginning, it will later be difficult to keep it burning.

  17. What a perfect analogy. It helped me understand a lot of the problems I’ve had over the years.. I tend to get fires started and then forget to keep feeding it. I’ve also been guilty of plopping that big log down in the middle too early in the game. Thank you so much for this – another wonderful, thought-provoking post!

    1. I am happy if it can help getting your fire burning in a long run. It takes a little practise, but it really isn’t that difficult. Thank you for the nice feedback.

  18. Loved the last line of the first paragraph; can very much relate.

    Then again I think there are people that just NEED to be creative in order to just live out there life. The ones that go from one project to the next in different forms of different arts just to scratch that creative itch, just to feel fulfilled.

    I’m one of those. Then again, the doc did say he thinks I have adult ADHD, so that might be it…

  19. As a child I was always so interested in making a fire at the fireplace. At times the damp wood never lit up and I ended up frustrated and all smoked up. Reading this lovely analogy helps me think about those ‘failures’ in a very new way!

    The damp wood should then stand for unprepared and semi baked ideas crafted before a task is to be taken up?? Whatsay?

    Loved this post so much!

    1. So many interesting thoughts that can be developed from the fire analogue. Damp wood could certainly be standing for unprepared and semi baked ideas. If only the fire is well established and burning well the damp wood will also lit – just like unprepared ideas will take off if only they have be care for before you try to light them.

  20. Great Analogy. I loved this post. You words are always inspiring. My favorite lines are-
    1. If you don’t prepare the fire well from the beginning, it will later be difficult to keep it burning.
    2.In the creative process, conscious choice, actions, learning, adjusting, an intuitive sense of timing and «lucky accidents» can combine in just the right proportions.
    But does this lucky accidents happens to everyone?

    1. It’s a good question, and I don’t think they necessarily happen to everyone. But we can all go about in life to increase the possibility to have those lucky accidents come to us.

  21. hello, sir… i like this post, very much… i love the analogy used, the explanation and the ease with which you tackled the creative process, something that does not come about easily… ^^

    once i also did a post about kindlings, fuel and building a fire. and, curiously, i found most of the things said in that post here, in your write-up as well, ahaha. that one was advising people on the need for patience when building a fire. ^^ twas written last year, in my suspended Tagalog site.

    you must have spent some amount of time outdoors, I guess. curiously, I find outdoor-inclined people rather creative, patient and more open to discoveries. and not the traditional variety, i dare think, ahaha… thank you for this post. hello, Sir Munchow! 😉

    1. You are right, I have spent quite some time outdoor – and I have always loved the fire at night. But I don’t know if outdoor people necessarily are more creative than others. The outdoor does give a lot of inspiration, though.

  22. I love this. Recently, I’ve been thinking of how to write that book I’ve been thinking and dreaming about for ages. I started once, but expected too much too fast. I have recently been researching writing coaches as I think they would be great for that ever so important kindling stage and I am rather airy… so having a stable foundation from which to begin and create an outline sounds ideal for me.

    …. but they cost money…. SO in the meantime I’m going to fill myself with memoirs and the book, “Bird by Bird” and have faith that the means to pay for a coach will find me. 🙂 Got a good tip on a job today… so who knows…. maybe my dream is closer than I think.

    I really appreciated this post. Thank you.

    1. Yes, just start writing. Trust yourself, and don’t worry about the result. I can really recommend this book, which is not about the written language, but about the process of writing: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (It’s available second-hand at Amazon for a few dollars). Good luck with the job – and with the writing.

  23. Great read, Otto. Very good analogy too. You have always honed in your craft and described the creative process so well. I am inspired now.

  24. Wonderful. There cannot be a better simile to describe the process. You have explained it with so much lucidity. Are you a teacher? If yes, blessed are your students.

  25. I love this analogy…so true. Often we are quick to get to the end point in any process, we forget many steps along the way. Great post.

    1. We all have the urge to see the end product – whatever it is, but then too often forget to actually enjoy the whole process. Thanks for stopping by.

  26. This analogy is very good! I will borrow it to tell my students. Maybe it will light a fire under some of them! Thanks for visiting my blog and have a great day!

  27. Such a wonderful post. ‘The joy is in the journey’ it seems, and the creative process should be that journey too, including conscious choices, balance and awareness. I loved the way you broke it down into the 4 stages, and analogized using the ‘fire’ metaphor. Thank you for this Otto! ~RL

  28. Love the inclusion of the concept of “happy accidents” here. Would add that your creative fires can be ignited by these as well! Great stuff! Thanks for contributing to my comments as well. I so enjoy your work. -Renee

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