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.

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.

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79 thoughts on “Building a Creative Fire

    1. When it’s raining, you can still build a fire indoors i.e. another location. It’s all in the mind. If at first you can’t see how it can work, choose another angle/location.

        1. I appreciated your humour 🙂 but thought some other readers might think you were speaking literally. I wanted to add that one could always find a different way/location (to light that creative fire). When writing on the internet I often add emoticoms so readers understand I am writing with a smile on my face (but I read an article recently that said ‘we’ overuse emoticoms – but how else do we convey facial expressions and hand gestures ?).

          I’m sure your comment was totally appropriate and Otto would have known exactly what you meant 🙂

          (I wish I was in a location and had the finances to attend one of Otto’s workshops – I know I would get an enormous amount out of it, particularly in the area of street photography and camera settings).

  1. Hello Otto,
    What brilliant analogy and supporting words for your thoughts on creativity.
    It makes such sense and thank you for the lovely way of teaching us about this topic.
    Best regards,
    Di 🙋🏻💐

  2. i had to teach my hubby to build a fire, even tho he spent his youth on the traplines up north… i make a teepee with the larger pieces of wood… is that how you do it?

    sorry haha, for taking fire advice out of this wonderful article haha

  3. An excellent analogy! I really like the “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.”. This process in and of itself is very difficult step and much need a lot of practice!!!

  4. i like your analogy. those who have not had to depend on wood to heat their home may have more of an appreciation now that you’ve described it so well. perhaps though, until you’ve had to do it, a person may not realize it’s quite an art and some people are better at it than others.

    like photography : – )

  5. I love this, Otto. It resonates in so many ways. I’ve got a draft in my files that deals with the process that precedes fire building and tending: “Building a Better Word-Pile.” With the woodpile itself as the metaphor, I intend some day to consider everything from collecting kindling (vocabulary) to properly drying the wood (the editorial process).

    Your post also brought to mind a line from one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, “Dancing In The Dark. Each chorus ends with the line, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Then, in the last chorus, he adds the line, “You can’t start a fire, worrying about your new world falling apart.” Indeed.

  6. Dear Otto,
    that’s a great analogy. We build every day during the winter time our open fire in the drawing room. To get the fire really hot with great flames we can close the doors of our fireplace. If we follow your analogy that’s the time when we have to shut up to all outside contacts to concentrate on our aim.
    We noticed that, at least in the English book market, quite a lot of books about the art of fire making were published recently. Back to the roots …
    Wishing you a happy rest of this week
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  7. Loved your analogy, Otto. I also smiled at the thread here in the comments about firebuilding in the rain. There are times when life “rains” on our creativity, too. That’s when we need to get the fire started more than ever, maybe with some new fuel or techniques or just plain stubborn persistence!

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