Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Woman

Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of my icons. The Mists of Avalon is truly amazing, but I read it long after my greatest literary experience. I actually discovered MZB through another writer: Jennifer Roberson. I read JR's Cheysuli series in high school.

I was riveted. She was the first writer that ripped the rug out from under me, over and over. She killed beloved characters and I'd never see it coming. Repeatedly, I threw the book across the room, screaming, or I'd sit, clinching the book, tears running down my cheeks. It was a world I wanted to join. The characters were my friends and family. Life was so much more interesting and fulfilling between those pages. I read the last book in the series, #8 A Tapestry of Lions, in a single day so hungry was I to read the conclusion. I have the original eight (which I had to replace after I lost them in a fire in 2005), and still feel a connection that I hope never to lose.

After I finished that series, I grabbed anything written by Jennifer Roberson. (I will lavish attention on my favorites by her another time.) This included anthologies. Fantasy anthologies are wonderful. I discovered MZB and Mercedes Lackey, among many others. If I didn't need a whole book (too much going on with school), I could grab one of the anthologies and lose myself in another world without becoming consumed as I was with the Cheysuli.

Not only was a voracious reader, I wanted to create such a world. So I decided to enter a contest. I wrote a short fantasy story featuring a dragon (of course). It was really terrible and the original work was also lost in the fire, but I know the plot, setting, and characters intimately. They were burned into my soul, so someday I will resurrect that story and make it what it ought to be.

After that, I wrote another story, The Lady of the Forest. Imagine a young girl, devoted to her favorite author, writing her heart into an adventure quest story. Oh there were some wonderful elements to that original story. In fact, I experienced a truth known by writers and taught in classes--you will almost always eliminate the original nugget, kernel, idea from your story. And so I did. It had to go and I was okay with that. I remember the process was tough but my devotion was greater.

Now, imagine this young girl visiting her favorite bookstore and seeing in the new releases a book by her most beloved author, Jennifer Roberson. And the book was titled, The Lady of the Forest. I sank to my knees in elation and with a broken heart. That was my title! But I did what I had to do. I bought the book (loved it!) and changed the title of my little story to The Lady of Lachrymose.

When I was about 18 I decided if I really wanted to be a writer, I had to submit my short story. But where? I went to the library and timidly asked for help. The only useful thing the librarian found was Marion Zimmer Bradley's, Fantasy Magazine.

WOW!!!! MZB? By now I'd read a few stories by her, and was well aware of her greatness. What an amazing opportunity! So with all the confidence and impatience of an 18 year old girl, I did little research and less preparation before sending my baby to the great Marion Zimmer Bradley.

My self-addressed envelope returned, thick and bulky with a form rejection letter. Basically, I was thanked for submitting and offered a list of submission suggestions for my next attempt. But included on that form letter was a hand written note from Marion. Zimmer. Bradley.

She told me several things. First, don't ever send a submission that is single spaced and printed on both sides, ever again. She also said that my "short story" was much too long. It might be a novella, but she thought my premise could be better suited to a novel. Lastly, she informed me that I used a particular word incorrectly.

The moment I read that note, my heart sinking to my knees, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote a poem. That poem was later published in a national collegiate poetry anthology. It is one of two poems I am proud to let people read. (It's been submitted to a site or I would post it here. It'll be up somewhere, soon.)

But in that moment, at 18, I was mostly annoyed and deeply discouraged by the process. And yet, I was strangely encouraged by MZB's handwritten note. It meant so much to me and I treasured that letter, especially after I read The Mists of Avalon. OMG. After I read that, I thought, HOLY SHIT.

I'd love to scan and share it with you, but the fire that consumed some of my original work and the eight Cheysuli books, also stole proof of my greatest literary experience--advice from Marion Zimmer Bradley.

I learned many things from that experience. Number one: double space. Number two: print on one side. Number three: don't give up.

I took that gigantic short story and let it simmer while I pursued other writings. On a train between the Isle of Elba and Florence, I bore forth a great back story. During my senior project in college, I developed characters and mythology. Since I put aside The Lady of Lachrymose, I've read more novels, exposing myself to more styles, depth, scope. I've also journeyed through writing a full novel to the best of my abilities.

Now I can see unfolding before me the MZB version of my sweet little story. It's a trilogy and it will exhaust me to write. It's enormous in scope and intention. The world is familiar to fantasy and yet (hopefully) new. I  believe it will be my greatest achievement.