At the mouth of the Catatumbo River, where it meets Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, a weather phenomenon occurs that is so powerful, frightening and mysterious, it draws thrill-seeking scientists and photographers from all over the world, birthing myths and lore about its origin and cause.  Every night, in the exact place, one hour after dawn, storm clouds gather into an intense cluster of energy and hover over the flowing water below.

Around 260 days a year, the storm appears at the mouth of the river, and what it produces is one of the most perplexing weather phenomenon in the world.

It is called the Catatumbo Lightning. It is a never-ending storm.

From it falls 3,600 rapid-fire bolts of lightning—one per second sometimes—at voltage rates not experienced anywhere else on earth, which in turn creates a nine-hour light show so bright it can be seen from 250 miles away—nature’s own lighthouse.

This dazzling display of meteorological fury—called the River of Fire by those native to the area—could be considered a work of art by mother nature, perhaps even a beacon of hope, if it weren’t so deadly.  Depending on the level of humidity in the air, the lightning changes hues, sometimes several times a night.  Surrounding the electrifying sky is the low, monstrous, rampaging roar of rolling thunder that pulls a sense of terror through the air.

Ever since I first read about the Catatumbo Lightning I’ve been enthralled by it, searching out pictures and videos everywhere I can.  But this weather phenomenon also reminds me of a writing technique that my friend calls “storming.”

The reason I connect the Catatumbo Lightning with the technique of storming (besides the fact that I’m a weather watching fanatic) is because if storm writing could be visualized, I think it would look a lot like raging, powerful, fast lightning strikes, pounding not the earth but instead a keyboard.

There is a sense of creative electricity that can be felt when words and ideas are flowing out of your fingers faster than your brain can keep up with, hitting with stunning accuracy the place where your river of ideas meets the lake of your well-nurtured dreams.

Over the years, I’ve had many incidents of “storming.”  They’re amazing moments of creative levitation and clarity that make me believe in myself in ways no other human can–lightning straight out of my fingertips and right onto the page, a deluge of words and ideas that flood the white space.

But, in January of 2010, something remarkable happened to the Catatumbo Lightning.

It stopped.

Baffling scientists, the indigenous people, and everyone else drawn to the phenomenon,  the mouth of the river flowed quietly and without interruption—not a storm cloud in sight.  In over one hundred years, this had never been seen.  Global warming was blamed, then drought, but whatever the cause, nearly everyone was convinced the never-ending storm had ended.

In your writing life, after a season of storming, have you gazed up into the sky for the electrifying inspiration you were so used to drawing from, only to be met with unexpected silence?  Just the week before, your fingers were blazing across the keys, the white page hardly standing a chance against the unleashing of your creative mind.  Now, the clouds are gone. The thunder silent.  The blinding, crackling white light of electricity simply gone.

What do you do?

In my early years of writing, I had the luxury of quiet seasons.  Nobody expected anything from me. I wrote what my heart desired—nothing more, nothing less. When the electricity vanished from the air, so be it.  I somehow had the easy and perhaps indulgent faith that it would return, in its own time.

But as my professional writing life grew, the luxury of cloudless, storm-free days was a luxury I could no longer afford. I suddenly had deadlines and demands.  An unrelenting white page was met with hard life circumstances.  When I desperately needed a creative storm, there was nothing there.

What was I? A weather maker?  How could I bring this about all on my own?

I have learned over the years that perhaps I do not need 3,600 rapid-fire bolts of creative lightning in a single sit-down at my computer.  Maybe a quiet rain shower will do. Maybe storming, while spectacular to gaze at, is overrated.  Maybe instead of looking up at the sky, I should look down at the river.  There’s energy there too.  Moving water, after all, can produce 800 times more energy than wind.

I’ve found that not relying upon a single source of creative inspiration is the key to being able to consistently produce.  Most of the time, I can sit down at a coffee house, order my coffee, draw from the energy around me, and get some good words on that white paper. Those are my storming days.

There are other times, though, that as much as I sit, gaze, sip and try to create, there isn’t anything there.

My best advice is to not panic.

The well is not dry. The storm may be gone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ideas to be found.

A paragraph on the paper, rather than an entire chapter, is not a loss. It’s just a rain shower. And rain showers are underrated. Certainly nobody’s coming to photograph them.  But they get the job done. They water the garden without killing anybody.

So when you find yourself at the mouth of the river, and your never-ending storm has inexplicably vanished, look around you.  Something as simple as ordering a different drink could spur a few new ideas.  Always working at your desk?  Try your back deck today.  Used to writing late at night?  Try a few early mornings to see what happens. Chained to your computer? Get out a notepad.

Just. Don’t. Panic.  Because nothing breeds creative starvation like fear.

As suddenly as the Catatumbo Lightning stopped, it started once again in late March of 2010.  No one knows why it stopped, or why it started again.

Such is the creative life.  It can be one of the most mysterious elements in your world.  Why is so much there one day?  And so little the next?

Like the never-ending storm of Venezuela, your creative mind will refuse to follow the laws of nature. The less you expect it to, the better off you’ll be.  Don’t be shackled to the idea that “storming” is the only way to get something down on paper.

Pounding on those keys even when the lightning doesn’t fall will get you there too. And you may be surprised at how much you enjoy a little rain shower to grow the grass.

Image: Fernando Flores

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  1. I’ve never heard of Catatumbo Lightning. Fascinating. And I love the parallels you draw. Most of my writing life, when I’m writing consistently, could be described as gentle rain. Rarely do I have storms of inspiration and words anymore. I appreciate the predictability of the daily rain, but when the storms come and the words pour down, I love it.