“The fires of suffering become the light of consciousness.” – Eckhart Tolle
I’m one of those people who stands around fires and whom everyone calls a pyromaniac. I am not a pyromaniac, I should note, but I am fascinated and mystified by the process of starting a fire. I should also note I’m a self-trained Midwesterner who sort of stacks the wood only a little neatly and doesn’t mind cheating with some squirts of lighter fluid. I want to see that fire roar. I want to singe my finger hairs but not my facial hairs. I want to burn shit in that fire. I want to see old scripts I’ve printed burn. I want to see tin cans melt. I want to make lava. I want to eat a toasted marshmallow. I do not want to get cute with the s’mores recipe – the ritual and the simplicity of nostalgia do quite enough for me.
I’ve been around enough fires to know there are other people like me, the pseudo-pyromaniacs who also want to burn stuff. These people are useful and necessary. Party planners plan on having them, I promise you. The fire has to get started. It and the pyros are cheap entertainment. The fire entertains for a while and then the pyros take over. At first it’s the easy stuff, the sticks and split wood. But then a scavenger hunt begins, all over the campsite or the yard or the house, pyros looking for the cool stuff to burn. Old dolls. Coke cans. Coke bottles, if you’re lucky. Things that’ll cause little pops and fizzes, but not explosions. Later in the party, when the flames are down and the embers are glowing hot, the shit to burn burns slowly. Those things are the main feature at this point, esthetically speaking. Attendees in camp chairs, beers in hand, watch the slowly dissolving tin cans or whatever-it-is, enthralled. A strange thing happens at this time. The bodies of these humans at this fire are warm and lit on one side, cool and dark on the other, satellites drawn in by the gravity of this thing. The bodies are maybe buzzed or drunk. The bodies are full and fed. The dancing fire is doing its hypnotic work. The bodies are activated and safe, satisfied and occupied. And then the people show up. Their minds and hearts. Their selves. Their stories. Stories and Selves are capitalized here, primary in all senses of that word. The heat of excitement and celebration has slipped into the glow of this new, diaphanous thing. Reality is gauzy here, permeable. Shakespeare, speaking about something similar to this moment, refers to what it is: an insubstantial pageant.
Though I’ll get to talking about bonfires, what I really want to do is help you light your own. This book is a mess of stuff aimed at helping you do just that. I start by talking about other manners of fire – cautionary tales, perhaps, about how to prevent forest fires and burnout and housefires and all of that. I follow the old logic that in order to understand a thing, it’s helpful to understand what it isn’t. It is about this approach that I need to beg your forgiveness before you go further. You see, I am an expert at bonfires – at least the metaphorical kinds I’ll come to discuss. I am not an expert at the other kinds of figurative fires, even though I have experience with them, sometimes long, deep, hot experiences. This begins as a story – a drama – about fires, in which I am the thing that is on fire. Therefore, it is a drama about trauma. And for that reason, I probably have no business writing it. I am not a therapist. I am not a psychologist. I am barely a body expert. There is likely very little I have to say that is new or even terribly insightful about trauma or the ventures into recovery I’ll mention. Even my central image – fire – is not new. Phoenixes have risen from ashes for quite some time. What’s more, if I’m fuel for the bonfires I’ll describe later on, I’m still burning. But here we are. We might as well grab a beer and cook some hotdogs.
After we talk about these other kinds of fire, I’ve got a series of firestarters I’ll share with you – projects, essays, reflections, and other sundries that may help you thin out the ground a bit and make space for a fire of your own. These endeavors are mostly disconnected from any grand narrative you might encounter, but my hope is that they’ll prompt you in some artistic or poetical or embodied way to set your life on fire in a good way. These things worked for me to one degree or another. My thought is less that they will work for you and more that they might prompt something in you. Kindling, if you will.
Once these firestarters have done their work, I invite you to light some of your own fires. Perhaps it’s a tad ambitious, but all fires have ambitions.
Praise for Controlled Burn
“Controlled Burn is both a vulnerable memoir and a functional workbook centered on setting your life on fire (in a good way, as the author reminds us.) Fiebig uses fire as a flexible language for presenting kindling to the reader and, perhaps most importantly, invites the reader to light some fires of their own.”
—Adrienne Trego, Visual Artist & Arts Administrator
“Through his illuminated descriptions of his own experiences with ‘active burning’, the author allows us access to alternate perspectives and viewpoints into the duality of the nature of creation and destruction, and why both are necessary in order to find true balance in all aspects of one’s life.”
—Jessica Johnson, MA, MA, CCC-SLP, Artist, Scientist, & Humanist
“Jeremy’s book is a moving account of the sort of growing crisis that can creep into someone’s life unnoticed until they look around and realize it has become pervasive and debilitating. In describing his path out of his own unhappiness, Jeremy hits on a potent metaphor of burning and bonfires, and the healing power of creative energy, spiritual renewal, community, and carefully managed destruction. It is a valuable work of personal memoir and a helpful guide for anyone looking to break free from corrosive and unfulfilling patterns of behavior, and replace them with sources of warmth and renewal.”
—Robert John Gibbs, MFA, Screenwriter & Educator
About the Author
Jeremy Fiebig (he/him/his) is a maker of bonfires and the communities around them. As a working artist, teacher, organizer, coach, consultant, and seeker, he creates and facilitates moments of joy, reflection, and shared humanity. In his work, he helps folks delight their communities through transformational events, stories, design, and content that earn vibrancy, value, and investment. Having trained in theatre, cultural performance studies, Shakespeare, directing, dramaturgy, and a host of liberal arts, he is now Professor of Theatre & Directing at Fayetteville State University, and works professionally in the theatre as a director, actor, and singer, all while serving as Artistic Director and Playmaker at Sweet Tea Shakespeare, a small theatre company he founded in 2012.