How to build something and then watch it burn

Some tips on making fires, and living through the collapse of your professional life.

How to build something and then watch it burn

Some tips on making fires, and living through the collapse of your professional life.

I know a lot about what goes into building a good fire, in a fireplace or fire pit or probably even in a garbage can. I lost my dream job in a shrinking, dying industry a month ago; I have time to think about all of it.

There’s more to this than just the weather being cold and shitty. For seven years I wrote for Deadspin, the very stupid penis-and-sports (dick and ball?) website notably murdered by private-equity morons at the end of October. People who have been in this ludicrous failing industry longer than I have, who have cycled through different publications and companies, I think (or imagine) forge some sense of personal and professional stability amid the chaos by knowing what they do, individually: They are a writer, or a reporter, or an editor; they are a journalist. Right now they are doing writing or reporting or editing at Publication X, or they are doing freelance writing or reporting or editing; later they will do it somewhere else, or under some other conditions. The fixed thing is what they do. But I only became a writer because of Deadspin, and it has taken the death of that place and the evaporation of the only writing job I ever had for me to realize that for seven years, without thinking about it, I had invested all of my professional identity in the wrong part of the "writer at Deadspin" job description.

Writing wasn’t the vocation; Deadspin was, and writing blogs there was how I enacted it. The job of a day, a week, a year, was to make Deadspin, over and over and over again, as good and as dumb and as Deadspin as it could be. I got paid to do it, which was nice, because otherwise I was going to do it while neglecting some other job. Now I can’t do it at all, and on an alarmingly practical level, I just kind of don’t know what the fuck to do with myself. Now the reason to write stuff is supposed to be just... so that I can make money? That’s how this works?

I am me in the fireplace, fussily tending a thing, investing too much of myself in the particulars of how well it does, because I cannot be me at Deadspin.

This is all incredibly maudlin, probably, and also shriekingly naive; reading it back, I want to dive into a tar pit. But it’s the truth. For seven years I woke up every morning, got my kids off to school, and then set about trying to help make Deadspin. At the end of the workday, if Deadspin was a good or gloriously stupid website that day, then I had done a good job, even if — as on too many workdays — I hadn’t published anything under my own byline and the sum total of my visible work output was a handful of dumb headline ideas in Slack. What am I supposed to get up and make today? What am I supposed to tend to, as a vocation? How will I know I did a good job?

Ideally the answer to these questions would be, like, "You are supposed to tend to your career in the digital media industry, you doofus." But that is hopelessly abstract and vaporous. A job application might go months before delivering anything even vaguely like the payoff of hitting publish on a ranked list of popsicles; it might go forever. A freelance pitch is a little better — I might know within hours whether I did it well or poorly, at least, whether I have permission to begin writing the blog — but comes nowhere close to delivering the fix.

So I make a fire in my absurd log home’s absurd stone fireplace, and I tend it all day, and I have too-passionate opinions about it. I am me in the fireplace, fussily tending a thing, investing too much of myself in the particulars of how well it does, because I cannot be me at Deadspin telling you which young NBA players are butt. A fire is good for this. Here are some things I think about how to make one.

You see videos and instructional slideshows out there where some woodsy type ignites a little pile of dry tinder and gets a small flame going, then piles progressively larger pieces of kindling on that, and then later, once the kindling is burning happily, adds some big fuel logs. Like some kind of a cave person. This is hogwash. The wood pile is 30 yards from the door of my absurd log home and it is cold outside; that’s why I’m making a dang fire in the first place. Also I do not want to spend all morning sitting on the floor next to the fireplace, adding progressively larger pieces of wood to some sputtering little baby fire until it’s ready to sustain itself for a few hours. I demand a strong, independent fire! I am not coddling any puny weakling fires!

The thing to do instead is to build a structure of big logs and kindling at the beginning, then ram some dry tinder under the base of this structure, open the flue, light the fire, and walk away. If this is done correctly, it is the last time I will have to visit the fire for any non-recreational (butt-warming) purposes for at least an hour. As an unemployed middle-aged writer with an alarming beard who lives in a cabin in the woods, I feel this suits my dynamic, on-the-go schedule of sitting at a table 10 feet from the fireplace, launching doomed freelance pitches and sweaty job applications into the void.

Maybe you have your own opinions about what kind of log structure to build: A teepee, a frickin’ lean-to, Neuschwanstein. My ludicrous home came with an extremely heavy, inexplicable, and perverse wrought-iron fireplace grate with absurdly wide-spaced bars fanning outward from the back of the fireplace to the front; just you try to build a frickin’ teepee on this thing. It’s not possible. I lay two long logs parallel to each other across the grate, about six inches apart. Then I lay two thicker logs across these, running from the back of the fireplace to the front, and slightly fanned outward, to direct the radiant heat toward the room.

Between these two logs I pile a bunch of kindling, suspended across the space between the bottom logs. This way the kindling won’t just fall down through the spaces in the fireplace grate. The kindling is just dry sticks. The trees bounce hundreds of these off the roof of my house every time the wind blows; they’re easy to collect. I put two more logs across the top of this structure, slightly closer together than the ones below. Then I put two more logs on top of those, like a real fuckin’ maverick. The result is a ramshackle tower with gaps on the sides and a column of empty space in the middle. That column is where the fire will live, feeding on the wood around it. The idea is, once the kindling is lit, it will heat and eventually ignite the logs above it, but the ones next to or below it will burn more slowly, because the fire is mostly above them. That way they will be able to support the fire for a long time, instead of withering and falling down through the fireplace grate.

All of these logs must be old, or seasoned, as the Fire Knowers put it. A freshly cut log is made of sturdy green fibers filled with water; any heat applied to it must first boil away that water before it can move in and replace the water with fire. You might just as well try to ignite a head of cabbage. All the water has evaporated out of an old log; its fibers are withered and stringy and have air between them. It will burn hotter and more efficiently than a young log; it will do a better job of warming a space, which after all is what it’s for. This isn’t a metaphor for anything! If you are a hiring manager out there in digital media and you are choosing from between a bunch of bushy-tailed youngsters and, say, a decrepit doofus with no college degree, I promise that the younger ones are much better choices for literally, non-metaphorically, lighting on fire.

I don’t know if I’m ready to be the unemployed writer who lives in a ramshackle log house in the woods and collects buckets of his family’s dryer lint for burning.

Then there is tinder: This is the dry, crackly, combustible stuff that lights right away and ignites the other stuff. There is the question of what makes the best tinder. Where I live I cannot get good Korean food within two hours of craving it, but on the other hand I have lots of tinder options. Dry fallen leaves are good. I could use dry fallen leaves to light 20 fires a day every day between now and May without visibly shrinking the number of dry fallen leaves piled around my home.

Some other good tinders are: Cotton balls, dry birch bark (the curly kind of bark that peels off of birch trees), dry pine needles, dry grass clippings, extremely dry twigs thinner than your finger. Some kind of weird stringy weed grew out between the stones of a retaining wall uphill of my house over the summer and is all dried up and dead now and splays out stiffly like the crazy white hair of a spooky witch; this stuff makes great tinder. Dryer lint bursts into flames if you look at it sideways and makes terrific tinder if you have enough of it. It burns away extremely quickly, though, so you need a lot of it if you’re hoping to ignite anything more stubborn than a candle wick. I don’t know if I’m ready to be the unemployed writer who lives in a ramshackle log house in the woods and collects buckets of his family’s dryer lint for burning. Not yet, goddammit.

Commercial fire-starter logs are fine as both tinder and kindling, but it feels deeply stupid to buy expensive packaged combustible products when one of the biggest day-to-day home maintenance challenges of living where I live is that I am outnumbered 700 trillion to one by fallen autumn leaves. They are my enemies, they cost infinitely less than Duraflame Firestart logs or whatever, and I ought to incinerate them. That is natural law.

Whatever the tinder, a great big wad of it goes under the fireplace grate. And then, oh, what the hell, maybe some more of it gets crammed in there with the bundle of kindling in the middle. The goal here is to light this sucker down at the bottom and walk away — possibly in slow motion, silhouetted sexily by the roaring flames behind me (again, to the table roughly 10 feet away). More tinder can only help.

If I have done a good job of this, then I can light one dry oak leaf or corner of newsprint or wad of dryer lint down below this big dumb Jenga tower of ragged old wood, walk away, leave it alone, and have a fire that will burn until long after all eight initial logs have been reduced to nothing but a bed of glowing coals on the floor of the fireplace, and will consume as many more logs as I pile in there over the course of the rest of the day. But of course I will not actually walk away or leave it alone. I will tend it all day, poking and prodding the logs to make sure they are burning as completely and efficiently as possible, anticipating how the tower will collapse as the logs burn away and shifting things around to keep it as hot as possible. Something in the room needs that, even if the fire doesn’t. The morning’s drift of white ash will testify that I did everything I could, and more; the chilly room will demand that I clear away the mess, gather more wood, and start over.

Albert Burneko is a writer from Maryland. His work has appeared at Deadspin, Jezebel, HuffPost, and VICE.