Year on Fire

by | Jan 1, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Hi! It feels like a weird time to say “Happy New Year!” so let’s just go with…Hi! It’s 2021! To commemorate the end of 2020, the start of 2021, and the start of Write Away Weekly, this week’s theme is the old year and the new year.

Do you have a writing resolution for the new year? If you do, reply to this email and share it with me! My writing resolution for 2021 is to complete a(nother) revision of my novel manuscript. But that’s really just a resolution for January because I want to finish it before our second child is born in February. 

Because I love the whole new year thing–the possibility, the glitter, the new car smell–I add in another couple of practices besides a resolution. One is inspired by the Lunar New Year: I give the year a theme. I started in 2007: The Year of the Fact. Sometimes, it takes me until the first or second week of January to divine what The Year Of will be, but this time, I started 2021 in May of 2020 (since what is time, really?), so I’m going to carry it forward into actual 2021: The Year of Dialogue and Discernment. 

And I begin every new year with this poem: “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye. It evokes bonfires and sweeping up holiday crumbs, unfinished projects, bits of confetti, and torn out pages:

Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

Here, Nye is not describing the sturdy logs that provide the sustaining fuel of the fire. She’s not even describing kindling. These are the incidentals, the scraps you toss in, the ones that become fine glowing strands that float into the night. 

“I begin again with the smallest numbers.” 1/1. Scratching together a tiny start to a new project or habit or practice, hopeful, again, of seeing it through to the next 12/31. 

Published 25 years ago, “Burning the Old Year” can’t possibly be more timely as we close the book on 2020. “So much of any year”–perhaps, but dang, 2020 is so much more than any year. “Only the things I didn’t do.” So much we didn’t do, couldn’t do, still can’t quite imagine doing again. 

So much to burn about 2020. 


What of the old year are you burning? What are those things that still “crackle after the blazing dies?” 

Start with a list. Conjure all that flammable detritus with the kind of sparkling imagery that sizzles in Nye’s poem. Think small. It would be easy, in burning 2020, to go big–and general. To avoid that, and turn to the specific, imagine there’s already a communal fire ablaze, turning to ash all that we collectively rue about the year. You aren’t responsible for burning all that yourself, so gather your own private scraps and slips. The lingering regrets or resentments. 

If you write fiction, write what your character would burn. Doesn’t have to be 2020 or the new year.

And sure, even if you write nonfiction or poetry, the dates on the calendar are really just numbers. Arbitrary, unmeaning. Nothing is really solved; the crisis of 2020 heaves forward into 2021. If only the numbers that matter–the cases, the death count–were really the smallest as the date becomes small again. So what would you burn now? Not when “this is all over,” but today. 

You could make this literal: write it, build a fire, burn it up. Let yourself make the meaning and observe the shift. Feel the heat of the fire against the chill of the new. Mark the contrast. Write it.