There’s a phenomenon in the realm of creatives that few folks could appreciate unless they themselves had experienced it. Harlan Ellison gave this oddment a name: ‘the white heat’. It refers, simply put, to those rare times when a storyteller or artist of any other discipline sits down and belts out a singular work, in its entirety, in a very short period of time, working exclusively on that project until it sits completed before them. Plenty of short story authors have been touched by the white heat, since the medium uses a smaller word count than the heft of a novel or the mid-ranged length of a novella. Ellison coined the term, in fact, when discussing in an interview his process in writing quite possibly his most powerful short story, ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’. If you’ve never read it, you owe it to the gods of literature to do so as proper tribute, as the tale is one of the most brilliant and soul-searing shorts available, and doesn’t clock in much over 10k words.
Anyhow, building upon the framework of this phenomenon, I should like to posit that there is a close cousin to the white heat, which I shall rather unimaginatively dub ‘the gray heat’. I can already hear the groans of my fellow storytellers who can see where I’m going with this from a mile off, without the assistance of a telescope or binoculars. I beg them to hang in there with me for the sake of our friends and relations who aren’t as personally vested in the techniques of tale weaving and who might just be reading this blog post.
The gray heat seems to be the practice of taking a longer work and fixing a schedule for its construction, and sticking to that schedule for the most part. The storyteller starts at a predetermined time of day, working diligently on their tale, referring to whatever outlines or notes they have arranged in advance to aid in keeping the story as free of errors as possible, and usually reaches the word count or time limit that they had set aside as a measure of progress for the day’s efforts. Under the influence of the gray heat, they occasionally go a little off-track, writing for more time or adding just one more scene, because while working within the confines of their structured schedule, they found themselves guided by an unseen force that demanded they put in just that little bit more, just for today, then back to normal tomorrow, Tom/Gwen/Insert Name Here.
Much like its more potent cousin, the gray heat causes the storyteller or creative to shun work on all other projects until this piece is finished, or at least brought to the completion of the rough work phase. Any other consideration they might have had, the storyteller simply reassigns to another time to be tended to. Those items or obligations are not forgot outright, as they would be under the influence of the white heat, no; instead, merely put upon the back burner.
The question storytellers and other creatives must ask themselves when experiencing either phenomenon, ultimately, is this: ‘Do I trust what is happening to me right now?’ Mr. Ellison trusted it, and to the eternal benefit of anybody who has read his works. That doesn’t mean it will prove out for all who do, but I suspect that all creatives should allow themselves to be swept up by the white heat or gray heat at least once. Taking those kinds of chances is part of what life is all about, and is not life itself supposed to be something we infuse into our efforts?