What Fighting Fires Taught Me About Writing

I’ve crawled into smoke-filled houses, battled the blazes of wildfires, and doused the flames of burning buildings. I’ve operated the Jaws of Life, watching car metal twist and crumple like aluminum foil. During the course of nearly five years as a firefighter and EMT, I learned a host of exciting and even life-saving skills. And though the connections may not be immediately apparent, being a firefighter taught me some critical lessons that have made me a stronger writer.

I’ll save you the trouble of having to pile on forty-something pounds of bunker gear, boots, face mask, air pack, helmet, and axe. You don’t even have to climb a ladder. Here are some of the key things that fighting fires taught me about writing.

Clear. Simple. Strong.

In the face of any emergency, excellent communication is critical. Dispatch needs to let responders know what the problem is, and where it’s located. Responding units need to let others know they’re on the way, and what they see when they arrive. Operations on scene must stay coordinated and safe. In short, communication is the backbone of a smooth, safe emergency response.

With so many parts and players, there’s no room for fluff. When you’ve got information that others need, especially if you’re sharing it over the radio, keep it short and crystal clear. It’s no time for chit-chat. Get down to business.

This is a great habit when writing, too. Yes, context and style are important. But don’t take your readers on some lengthy, meandering journey of roundabout blathering before revealing the heart of the matter. Directness demonstrates confidence and authority, and compels readers’ attention.

Train like you mean it.

You can’t just hope that when you roll up to a burning building and hop off the engine you know how to get it right. Sure, you read the chapter. And, I mean, you’ve got the basic idea. How hard can it be? (Um… yikes.)

Writing is the same way. Practice is the only way to truly strengthen your skills. And don’t be lazy and just practice the easy stuff: challenge yourself. Find the edge of your comfort zone, take a deep breath, and then take a giant step forward. Try a new form, new tone, or writing from a different perspective.

When it comes time to really perform, you’ll be glad you trained hard.

Never stop learning.

Few statements are more cringe-inducing than “…but that’s how we’ve always done it.” The world is constantly evolving, and new challenges and tactics reliably emerge. If you stay stuck in one way of approaching a problem, with no willingness to grow, you can get left behind astonishingly quickly.

The world of storytelling and writing is similar in many respects; there are always new voices, new perspectives, and ways to push back against the way things have traditionally been done. Don’t fear evolution. Reflect on what conventions you feel constrain your work, and examine why. Don’t shy away from the inspiration to try a new approach, or learn from someone who has a different style. Ask questions. Get tenaciously curious. You never know what you’ll discover.

Some days are tough.

There’s no candy-coating it. Some calls just don’t end like you hope. But there’s always opportunity to learn, and there’s another chance tomorrow.

Whether it’s writers’ block, rejection, procrastination, a looming deadline, or an endless stream of distractions, some days are just hard. But, see above: there’s always opportunity to learn, and there’s another chance tomorrow. Ask for help when and where you need it, and don’t let a difficult day (or project) shake your confidence.

Here’s the take home, though: you don’t have to register for Fire Academy to benefit from these lessons, and become a stronger writer yourself. (Though if you’d like to, I would certainly encourage it.) Just keep these lessons in mind, and – most importantly – keep on writing.

Published by Melissa Thomasma

A rare Jackson Hole native, Melissa Thomasma earned degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Montana before returning to the Teton Mountains. Since declaring herself “into words” at the age of three, she’s made a career of arranging them on pages. As founder of Elevation Writing, she helps brands tell their unique stories through innovative, engaging digital and print content. When she’s not scribbling away, she loves cooking, fly fishing, and exploring with her husband and tiny humans.

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