Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When there's fire, save the writing

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What are the first things you would grab if there was a fire in your building, or in your house?

With fire being one of my biggest fears, I’ve kept a mental list about this since I was a kid. It’s often updated, of course, changing in time with my priorities.

When I was a kid, I used to worry that our house might burn down while we were at the mall. I didn’t want my stuffed animals to die, but realizing I couldn’t take all of them with me, I would pack up my favourites of the moment – usually ranging from one to seven on any given trip – and put them all in the car. I did this until I was about eight. Our older neighbour, seeing me with so many toys one day, said, “baby? Are you a baby?” I knew he was trying to make fun of me but didn’t care, just thought he was too stupid to know the danger I was saving my animals from.

Later, as I got a bit older, there were certain pieces of jewelry I wouldn’t leave the house without wearing, just in case.

Now, I never leave the house without checking that the stove is off, or that my hair straightener is unplugged. Candles and incense are triple-checked to make sure they aren’t still smouldering.

For three years, I lived in an apartment that had major electric issues. My neighbour’s living room outlets sparked and popped. The roof was leaking into a light fixture in main hallway, right outside my door. A year and a half went by until the slumlord finally fixed it. Even though we kept the light off, just in case, and shuffled around in the dark for our keys, I went to sleep every night worried that a few hours later, the smoke alarms would be going off and there’d be a fire right at my door.

Back then, I had an idea that, if I had to scramble out of there fast, I’d grab my one and only copy of Daniel Jones’ 1978 (which hadn’t been reissued yet, and which I knew I would be very sad if I could never, ever read again) and a necklace and earring set that I got as a Christmas gift from my dad during a particularly tough time for our family. I always keep a notebook with my latest ideas, notes, and poems in my bag, and my bag is always by the door, so I could just grab that on my way out.

Luckily, I never had to put my plan into place.

And then, when I moved to an apartment that didn't feel so threatening, I started to relax a little. I still check to make sure the stove's off and the candles are out and all that, which is just common sense, but I liked that I was finally in a place where I could fall asleep without worrying about dying in the middle of the night.

At around 5am, a smell woke me up. It smelled like, oddly enough, cat food. I thought someone must be cooking, even though that was unusual. In the death trap I used to live, the ventilation was so awful that everyone’s cooking smells mixed through each apartment. Not the case where I live now, though.

I also heard a bit of banging or dragging. Also unusual, since this place is miraculously quiet throughout the night and early morning. At 5am on a Tuesday, you don’t expect to have to deal with too many annoyances.

So I did what a lot of trouble sleepers do when a building gets a bit restless: I put in some earplugs and tried to go back to dreaming. The smell was getting worse, though, and it was grossing me out.

My apartment has a smoke detector as well as one of those big red fire alarms that screams like a nightmare alarm clock. I’d heard it being tested about two months ago, but the test run didn’t prepare me at all for how awful it sounded when it went off a couple minutes after I put those earplugs in. (For anyone who’s never worn earplugs before, you’re probably wondering if they could make you miss something like a fire alarm. They don’t make you deaf, just soften sounds, which is why people who wear them at concerts can still hear the band, just at a lower volume. Fire alarms are hard to shut out – those things cannot be tuned out.)

After years of planning what to grab in just this kind of emergency, I blanked, probably from getting comfortable in a place I felt safe in.

I didn’t know what was on fire, where it was coming from, how bad it was, how much time I had. My legs felt too bare in the shorts I'd been sleeping in, so I grabbed some jeans from the floor and pulled them on.

Then I grabbed a big, beautiful notebook off the bedroom floor. It was something a friend had given me as a birthday gift two years ago, where I’d been sketching out some ideas last night before going to sleep. My laptop seemed too cumbersome to try to squeeze into my bag, so I grabbed the USB key that I’ve using to backup for the novel I’m working on; it currently holds eight months’ worth of work.

In my purse, I had another, smaller notebook, the one I always carry. I grabbed my keys and opened my door, saw a couple other neighbours on their way out.

My building is small; most of the people that live there are younger and childless. We stood in a row on the far end of the driveway and waited in flip flops and torn pyjamas, old housecoats, rumpled t-shirts. The fire trucks were already there and there was smoke coming from an apartment on the third floor.

No big damage to the building, no other apartments affected but the one. We were all back inside by 5:30.

Of course, I was wide awake by then. Adrenaline and outside air will do that to you. I took advantage of having the extra time, the alertness, and got to work on my novel.

Later, when I was getting ready for the rest of the day, I kept thinking about how my writing was all I could think to take this morning. If things had been worse – if the whole building had been on fire – my writing could have been all I had left.

If there was ever any doubt that the book I’m working on isn’t important to me, that doubt is gone now.

I know what I need in my life.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page