...after Marion Zimmer Bradley tried to kill it.
This statement is not as random as it may appear.
I've been writing stories since I was about five. My mother still has some of those first efforts written out in wobbly pencil on Big Chief tablet paper; they were usually about animals, and often illustrated. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I had compiled binders full of story bits, folders full of essays marked "Excellent!" and a hunger for writing that saw me through those awkward middle-school years when I hid behind my hair and worked in the library to avoid PE.
My sophomore year I got a fantasy story printed in a Mercedes Lackey fanzine, and I thought I was hot shit. Actually, I was hot shit; I was talented and I knew it, and I had plans for novel after novel dancing in my head. My English teacher loved me--in fact he read the entire 26 page story out loud to our class over the course of a week.
My junior year everything changed.
Our teacher gave us a fairly simple assignment: write a short story and send it to a magazine, anthology, or other publishing outfit just for the experience of rejection. (She didn't say that last bit, but even at 16 I knew how the publishing business works.) Since I wrote almost exclusively pretentious high fantasy with female protagonists, there was really only one person to send it to: Marion Zimmer Bradley, editor of the Sword and Sorceress series as well as her own fantasy magazine.
Now, keep in mind that I had no illusions about this story getting published. Grownup professionals jockey for slots in fantasy anthologies. The genre is ridiculously slim, sexist, and cutthroat, and like any fiction no novel will ever see print without an agent lobbying hard for it. I knew that. In fact, I was embarrassed at having to do the assignment, and I made sure to tell MZB in my cover letter that I was doing this for a high school project and that I was only 16. (My teacher didn't see the cover letter.) To this day I don't even remember what the story was about; I'm sure it was awful by my current standards, but pretty good for a teenager.
The rejection arrived, but it wasn't the form letter I expected. MZB, a respected crone of the fantasy world, had written me a personal reply.
The letter told me I was a terrible writer and that I should stop wasting her time.
I'm not kidding.
It went on at some length about how horrible the story was, how unbelievable; the characters were shallow, the plot nonexistent, and I should give up writing right now.
If I hadn't burned the letter years ago I would scan it to show I'm telling the truth, but this was 15 years ago, and I was so upset that I had to get the letter out of my sight. I cried for days. I vacillated between rage and shame for months.
And I quit writing.
I did class assignments without bothering to polish them to my former shine. I threw away my binders of notes and scenes. Every time I tried to start a story I just kept seeing those words in my mind, and all the inspiration drained out of me.
I hated that woman for a very long time. In fact, I'm ashamed to say that I laughed when I heard she died.
It wasn't until I was 20 that I tried again, and I did it in secret, like a sticky-fingered teenager at the mall. I was living alone for the first time in my life and battling one of many depressive episodes when I discovered something on the internet: fan fiction.
As a teenager I had devoured any and all young adult novels connecting romance and vampires. There were certain books and series that I adored beyond all reason. All of them had fandoms. I started reading the fics, and had two realizations:
One: 80% of fan fiction sucks.
Two: I could do much, much better.
Before long I was knee-deep in a world I'd abandoned, and I had my own following complete with awards and teenage girls emailing me daily wanting new installments. I was hooked. The gratification and the creative outlet were like a drug.
(They still are, actually.)
Meanwhile I was a young Witch in the midst of her first formal training and her first experiences with OMG!RealLivePagans, and I was finally free to buy whatever books I wanted, so I was also reading every book on Wicca I could find--the good, the bad, and the spectacularly bad. I found myself creating the first verison of Dancing Down the Moon, writing essays on what I thought were the dos and don'ts of Wicca. I spent hours on websites (including one called Alaine's Circle of Wicca that would turn out to be authored by my eventual good friend and fellow writer Amber) and saw both the glut of 101 material and the need for a different focus in the literature.
Good god, Pagan websites used to suck. Remember MIDI files of Enya and spinning flaming pentacles? Black star-flecked background with violent purple lettering in 20 point font? Remember when cut-and-pasting Scott Cunningham was all you had to do to make your Geocities site popular?
Anyway, in a matter of months the first infant versions of The Circle Within had already begun to form, although it started out as a very different book, focused on creating one's own tradition, a much broader topic than a personal spiritual practice. That's where the subtitle came from, actually, the original version of the book. When I was finally ready to write the real thing, I sat down at the computer and barely moved for three months. I sent it to Llewellyn, they went ape over it, and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
I can't imagine my life without writing. It's so much a part of who I am, what I do, and how I relate to the world. I even narrate things as they happen in my life (she said) and scrawl down interesting turns of phrase on napkins to stuff into my purse. I haven't written a novel yet, but I write fiction constantly, and yes, it's still about vampires, but you have to start somewhere.
To think that I almost let some mean old woman stop me from doing the one thing I loved above all else--the thought makes me shudder. Maybe MZB was having a bad day and took it out on me; maybe she skimmed the part where I said I was sixteen and wasn't really trying to dash the aspirations of a young writer. Or maybe she was just a bitch--I don't know. I never met her personally and I certainly never tried to contact her again.
What brought this story out tonight, you ask? Well, a few years ago I decided to bite the bullet and read The Mists of Avalon. I figured it was considered gospel by so many feminist Pagans out there I ought to at least have read it. Not to mention, I liked the miniseries in spite of its wobbly acting and atrocious dialogue (I told S1ren we should create a drinking game where every time Morgaine says "my little brother Arthur" you have to take a shot); seeing Goddess worship on screen, especially embodied by the regal and beautiful Anjelica Huston, was surprisingly affecting. I've always had a deep longing for a college of priestesses or a Pagan monastery, and the story met that longing with homemade forehead tattoos and nifty dip-dyed costumes.
I never did finish the book--I got about halfway through it and lost interest. Tonight, however, I was at Half Price and found a copy for two dollars, and something made me want to give it another try. I think I'm tired of holding grudges--fifteen years is a long time to be angry about something, even if it was that traumatic. Those formative adolescent experiences can really fuck you up, can't they? But I decided that I wanted to make MZB a peace offering, even posthumously; I want to see if distance and time allow me to enjoy the book without my personal prejudices. It's part of my letting go program, I guess you could say. I'll be sure and mention how it turns out when I've finished the book, assuming I do this time.
(Just keep in mind that if you wrong me I'll still be out to spite you fifteen years later. It's a Scorpio thing, just like putting arsenic in your fruit punch and poking holes in your condoms.)
Back to the alphabet next post.