Writing the Hot Coals

Missouri backyard after hunting season.

Famous spiritual healers past and present talk about “letting go” of the past. Holding on to traumas of the past is like holding onto a hot coal. Just drop the hot coal, they say. How can a writer reconcile this with spending years writing a memoir or semiautobiographical novel? Not only are you not letting go of the hot coal, you’re studying it from all angles, describing it, even delving into the exact nature of how it’s searing the flesh of the palm of your hand.

Ten years ago, I first grappled with this spiritual concept of letting go and the fact that I was writing my first novel Earth, which is based in Missouri and looks at some of the traumas I faced as a child. I have never been able to come to a suitable explanation or conclusion on how I should feel about this concept of letting go, both as a writer and as a coach.

In the past week, the spriitual message has come back to me in different ways: from reading Spiritual Emergency, a book of essays edited by Stanislav and Christina Grof, and in a shamanic healing session in Portland with Nepalese shaman Bohla N. Banstola. Again and again, the message was that spiritual enlightenment comes from fully letting go. Of course, this means more than just letting go of our childhood traumas. It means letting go of our connection to our roles, our families, our cultures. It’s a journey that goes through many many lifetimes, the Buddhists say.

Receiving the same message three times in one week makes one stop and listen. I have no answers for any of this, but realized it may be good to put some thoughts out there about the topic. First, let me say that I’ve helped dozens if not hundreds of writers as a coach who felt an overwhelming need to tell their story, an almost life or death need. Whether it’s memoir or fiction, they need to write about their fathers, mothers, the events of a difficult childhood. I couldn’t imagine telling those people to just let it go. “Oh, so you were held against your will during the invasion. They tortured you? Oh, just let it go. Don’t dwell, for god sake.” Most of the time, if we say this to a person needing to write their story it’s because we have a hard time hearing what they have to say. I can’t imagine that squelching these stories that we have a very human need to tell is what the spiritual gurus have meant about letting go…but still I grapple with it.

Many people need to write their stories as a way to understand what happened to them, as a way to come to the understanding that it was not their fault, to come to a place of compassion even for the perpetrator. Telling them to let go of the hot coal may pre-empt a process that helps us all spiritually evolve. I’ve also found the authentic self is buried beneath the debris of traumatic events. I found my visual artist self down there while writing Earth, and my love of food and organic gardener self came out when Earth was finally finished. I worry that people who drop the hot coal too quickly may be opting for denial, may just be putting icing on a burnt out cake and calling it a birthday party.

Still, I do believe the spiritual message. Letting go…it’s been touted by too many great leaders for too many centuries. I do know now that Earth is done, it’s time to let go, not just of the novel, but obessing about the wrong. I’m so tired of the pain.

What is the benefit a person could get from holding onto hot coals? Look at me, I’ve been WOUNDED. I define myself by this wound, and you will give me special favors, and allow me my excuses and make room for my rage. And if I let that all go, then I’m just me with nothing to hold over anyone. I’m just grappling with the other side of the argument here. As I’ve said, I don’t have any answers.

Perhaps the spiritual message is this; spend all the time you want analyzing the hot coals, but don’t analyze them forever. Write your novel, your story, but then let it go. Maybe dropping the hot coal is also a centuries’ long process, a path of many many lifetimes.

I am a writing coach. Contact me for a free initial consultation, www.artofstorytellingonline.com

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2 thoughts on “Writing the Hot Coals

  1. Dear Caroline, Thank you so much for this. I have addressed this situation a number of times–and my response is that we live in a patriarchal world–all of us–even those so-called “spiritual teachers”–additionally, most of them are males. Very few women ‘spiritual teachers” or more appropriately very few MATERNAL spiritual teachers. I don’t think a loving or thoughtful mother would say, ” oh stop dwelling on your pain or sorrows. Move on!” Do you? I think a loving maternal “teacher’ would walk through your pain with you–with compassion for the little child you once were who was so unlovingly treated . . so that one might grieve this hurt, and perhaps then heal – -and be able to truly move on – -with wisdom, still honoring the child within . . .. .
    thank you again for your thoughtful writing on a very important subject, . . . . blessings, Janie

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    1. Janie,
      What an amazing comment you’ve just written. I’m working on my second novel Air now and one of its themes is how the protagonist can’t really get into Buddha and Buddhism because it’s still all about men and their spirituality and their wisdom. What serendipity! Thank you. Caroline

      Like

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