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March 07, 2008

How To Become A Fire-Breathing Writing Dragon

...sometimes I think of writing (I hope this isn't too fanciful) as breathing out fire. And when I coach people it's because I want to help them breathe out that fire too.

Maybe I am being fanciful.  Maybe not.  Bear with me.

When I was mulling over the theme for this month I was also talking about breath - the breath of life that we can work, no, breathe into our writing.  We know when it's there.  And most of us can tell when it's not.

At the same time I was reading your contributions to the group writing project.  Noticing how many stories touched on the inspiration and encouragement you were gifted (or cheated of) in childhood  (more on that next week).  Amy Palko from Lives Less Ordinary shared the story of two very different teachers who'd influenced her writing career, including the encouraging words that her headteacher had written into a book.  "Dear Amy - just remember to keep your head out of the clouds and I’m sure someday you’ll write your wonderful book."

Now this prompted another interesting conversation about head in clouds vs feet on ground and which was best for writing... but what also intrigued me was the teacher's choice of book.  It was Everyone Knows What A Dragon Looks Like.

I haven't read the book, but Amy was good enough to describe the story - and her response to it - in a follow up post.  It's about Han, a young street-sweeper, and an old, fat, balding man who claims to be a dragon - and to have the power to save the city from attack.  He's thrown out of the city on the grounds of false pretences, but the street-sweeper believes in him, and puts him up.  In return the old, fat, balding man takes a deep breath, blows away the enemies of the city, and shows Han what a dragon 'really' looks like before disappearing.

As Amy says, it's the boy's open mind that allows him to tap into this power:

Although Han was unable to see the true form of the dragon, he was willing to believe that there was more to the little old man than his appearance suggested. In that sense, he was open to an alteration of perception; he was open to the possibility of a life less ordinary.

And of course this is a frame of mind that isn't just useful for writing...

But I was also struck by the hidden power of the old, fat, balding man and his eventual decision, his choice, to use it. 

To become a fire-breathing dragon.

Fire-Breathing Writing Dragons

The old man reminded me of so many people (myself included at times) who are afraid of their own power - to speak out, to make a difference, to tell it the way it is, to free our words, to find our own voice, to toot sweetly, to realize the power of our words.

The story made me think about the blinkers we look through and the labels we apply.  Most of us are even better at labelling ourselves than we are at defining other people.  Limiting our sense of what's possible.

"Oh, but I'm not a writer" I hear people say.  What does that matter?  Neither am I.  It's what you write, what you say, what you do with your power that counts.  I know a lot of professional writers who know how to turn a trick - but not how to breathe fire.

I guess this is what inspiration means for me.  It's the invitation, the challenge, the spark that gives me fire-breathing powers.  That makes me feel like I'm breathing in, deep, and breathing out, hard.  Telling a truth, sharing something essential, using my power.  And the writing that comes from that place, well it does have the power to change things, even if it's just changing me. (And sometimes changing ourselves is more than enough.)

We don't need to wait for permission to do this. Hope that someone will come along who has faith, who believes in us, who'll spot our hidden potential. 

We just need to know our own power.  The ability to breathe out fire.

And then decide to use it.

This piece is a contribution to a month long exploration of inspiration and writing.  If you enjoyed the post, maybe you'd give it a Stumble?  Thanks :-)

Please help yourself to the (free) feed if you'd like to follow the rest of the series.

Other material that might be of interest:

When You Can't Find Your Voice

Authentic Writing: The Courage To Hear Yourself Sing (free e-book - pdf download)

Toot Sweetly: Create Your Distinction by Rosa Say writing at Joyful Jubilant Learning

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

Photo Credit for Bejing Dragon: Oldtasty at Flickr


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Oh my, what a wonderful post, Joanna! I was going to call it breath-taking, but I fear that's the wrong adjective ;-)

Seriously though, I am so pleased that my post on Everyone Knows What A Dragon Looks Like has inspired you in this way. I've had this book almost as long as I can remember, and I always assumed that the 'message' my teacher meant me to take away from it was tied to the little boy's actions. It has taken yet another inspirational teacher to show me that the message is perhaps more than just one character's actions. I find it so empowering to know that I can be the dragon!

Thank you, Joanna, for showing me that, to know what a dragon really looks like, all I need do is look up into the reflective vistas my words create.

Amy, your last sentence here has just blown me away. That's it, in a nutshell.


Thank you so much. I was stumbling a way and came across this at a time of need. I don't know what else to say but thank you a thousand times over.


Today you have breathed fire on the enemies of my creativity and saved my writing. I echo Amy's comments that it took another inspirational teacher to show me another aspect to writing. I thank you and Amy for showing me what a dragon really looks like.


Hello Robert,

I am glad that the power of Stumble helped you to find us, and you found the words you needed to hear.

All best wishes, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.



I'm glad we've chased the enemies away from the city of your creativity!

I loved writing this post - so many strands to it, the book, Amy's story, the creative energy that is Amy, my own ideas about breath and breathing fire... I'm glad it struck a chord with you.


Great post. I can't say I'd ever thought of my inspiration being a dragon (I tend to think my muse is a little quieter than that), but . . . who knows? Maybe she's got some fire-breathing in there anyway, hiding behind that serene surface.

Hi --Deb

She probably does, somewhere :-)

I think my muse is mainly a bit quieter than a dragon too, but there are times when I just know, somehow, that I'm drawing from a deeper space or place to write - and that's when it feels like I'm breathing fire.

I'm glad you didn't all think I'd lost it anyway, sometimes it's hard to know if a metaphor or allegory will work on the page in the same way it does in your head! (By the way is that one you could consider at punctuality rules - the difference between a metaphor and an allegory - maybe a simile too?)


....open to the possibility of a life less ordinary....

Great post and snippet from the story. I know many creative souls who are afraid of their own power. I'll be looking for chances to 'warm up' my writing with my power this week.

I'm delighted to have found you.

Hi DebMc

Thanks for stopping by. Amy's been a good teacher to me about creativity and shifting perspective - I love how we can all learn from each other like this.

I'm sure you're teaching and inspiring many people too to live a more creative life in an uncreative world :-)

I'm glad you've found us too - pop back any time!


Hi Joanna, breathing fire into my words is a real challenge. It's sort of like writing on the wild side. And, one has to be careful not to get burned!

Robyn, you do need to watch you don't get burned, or burn other people :-)

That's not the kind of fire I mean or imagine when I'm picturing it - more like a breath, a powerful, transformative breath.

Maybe there's a different metaphor or image that would work for you - for those times when you really want to tell it like it is?


Being multi-skilled appears to frighten people so they hide behind the self-imposed boxes of amature or hobbyist. People also tend to take the snooty art gallery approach to their identity by defining themselves by only one facet. usually that facet is their job, but a job is not you its something you do.

Not being paid for or acknowleged for what you have done does not put you in a league that is inferior to those that are professionals.

Was Grandma Moses less of a painter before she was discovered?

Robert A. Heinlein said it best, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Daz, that's a fabulous quote, thanks for sharing it - but also quite a challenging thought. Part of me yearns to specialize, be really good at, totally excellent at just one thing... though another part of me loves to play and experiment. It's a bit of a push and pull between the two.

I'm guessing you're saying we should embrace the messiness of exploring, experimenting with, being good at lots of things?


Telling a deep personal truth in an authentic, captivating way (Dragon way) may be different
for women (especially those raised to be nice
and good and to support others...
opening one's mouth to let the flame out.

As a former journalist I still find it easier to cover or talk about others than myself

Thank you for this thoughtful post! And, if you ever visit the S.F. Bay Area over here, do tell. Love to host you for a walk and tea here in Sausalito
- Kare
Remember the many
compartments of the heart,
the seed of what is
possible. So much of who
we are is defined by
the places we hold for each
other. For it is not our ingenuity
that sets us apart, but our
capacity for love, the
possibility our way will
be lit by grace. Our hearts
prisms, chiseling out the
colors of pure light.


- Kare

Kare, thank you for this most thoughtful, heartfelt comment.

I think there is something in what you say about women's voices, and how we learn to be flexible and accommodating to others - that learning to write like a dragon is different for us.

I'm glad my metaphor struck a chord with you anyway! And thank you so much for the invitation - I don't know when I'll get there, but I have a feeling that I will :-)

Where does the verse at the end come from - is it yours?


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