This one I wrote a while ago, and it was snaffled up at the time in several different versions by various eccleisiastical markets who loved the Christmas angle and just wen crazy with it. It was perhaps not themost widely distributed short story I ever wrote, but it was certainly amongst the most widely sold ones (it was even broadcast on radio…) However, as I said, this was a good many years ago, and since I found it again knocking around my hard drive, and since it’s THAT time of the year again, I’d like to share it with all y’all. Consider it my Christmas gift. So, with no further ado – it’s on to…
When the Virgin Mary came down with chickenpox the day before the Sunday School Nativity, there was a Christmas crisis at St. Michael’s. They had been short on cast anyway; they only had two girls in the class, and the other had been slated to play the Archangel Gabriel. Now perforce she had to slip into Mrs Anderson’s blue chiffon scarf and would be left holding the baby, so to speak. That left the key role of the Archangel vacant.
“But we have to have an angel,” fussed the Reverend. His glasses had quite misted up with emotion.
“Well, we can’t touch the Three Wise Men,” said Peter Wilcox practically. He was the new curate, and it was his daughter Melissa who’d stepped into the Virgin Mary’s shoes. They’d been with the community only just over a month; the gossips hinted at a tragedy, with the young Mrs Wilcox dying dreadfully in some sort of accident… or was it of some thoroughly romantic incurable disease?… and Peter had come here with his daughter to get away from the memories. “And we only have two shepherds as it is. Take one away, and the Archangel would have had a pretty useless job, coming down to warn a solitary shepherd of the great event.”
And that was the trouble. With Jeannie Garnet out of the running, there were only seven other kids in the Nativity – and they all seemed to be essential right where they were.
“Perhaps we should cancel it this year,” suggested Mrs Grace, the organist, morosely.
“Oh, no!” said the Reverend, starting up with shock, his eyes quite wide behind the spectacles. “Why, it would be like… like cancelling Christmas.”
“And the children, they’ll be so disappointed,” murmured Anne de la Harpe. In her Sunday guise she was the new Sunday School teacher, after her weekly stint in the classroom proper of the local primary. “They’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”
“Well, I can’t see what else to do,” said Mrs Grace, determined as ever to put the most pessimistic face on things.
“But we must think of something,” said Anne.
“Well, dear, unless you play the angel…” began Mrs Grace.
Anne shot her a startled look. “I?” she said. “But it’s the children’s show. It’s silly. How can I possibly…”
“No, hang on,” said Peter slowly, “it’s not such a bad idea. It is the Sunday School Nativity, and you’re technically part of the Sunday School. And the kids would love it. And besides, it would give the Archangel the proper perspective as the messenger of God.”
Anne laughed self-consciously, her cheeks going scarlet. “No. No, I couldn’t possibly.”
“But you’d be saving the Nativity,” said the Reverend.
She shook her head. “No, really. What would I wear, for a start? The angel’s costume was made for someone a tad smaller than me.”
“That’s not a problem,” said Mrs Grace, going into an unexpected reverse. “I could run you up a simple white gown in a jiffy. And a bit of silver paint on cardboard… who’s to carp about wings at a time like this? Peter could do it. He painted my front door beautifully last weekend, he’s quite a master with the brush.”
“And whoever saw an archangel with a chignon?” muttered Anne as a last defence, and then clutched at the back of her head as Mrs Grace suddenly and artfully pulled out the master pin and she felt her long fair hair coming loose. “Or with hair streaming any which way like this?” she added, blushing, swiftly collecting it into a tight twist and sitting, undecided, with the thick mass of it held between her palms.
“I couldn’t even imagine an Archangel,” said Peter slowly, his eyes wide an bright, “until today.”
It was the first time any of them there had ever seen her hair in any state except its usual neat French twist at the nape of her neck. Mrs Grace seemed faintly startled by what she had unleashed, the Reverend glancing away as though embarrassed, but Peter looked at her as though she had been a revelation and Anne dropped her gaze onto the rope of hair she held over her shoulder in a sudden attack of shyness. But Peter had recovered his poise almost immediately.
“You’d be perfect,” he said, and it was back to his old practical tone which made Anne feel herself again. “And it would save the day.”
They were all looking at her, the Reverend expectantly, Mrs Grace with an I-told-you-so look looming which Anne suddenly itched to quash right there, and Peter with a gaze that was kind but curiously impersonal. She imagined the Nativity, with her poised over the hapless Sunday School class like some sort of giant, clad in what would probably be some kind of nightgown shift, cardboard wings and the tinsel halo lovingly made by Melissa Wilcox for her own angelic debut, and couldn’t help grinning. It would look ludicrous, totally silly… And yet…
“All right, then,” she heard herself saying. “It’s only for one night.”
Mrs Grace provided a gown which was almost good enough to wear in public, and the children were thrilled at the idea of their teacher playing the Archangel. They all pitched in to strap on the wings, which were indeed a small masterpiece; Melissa helped fix on the halo she had made for herself, stopping to shyly finger a strand of Anne’s thick fair hair.
“It’s so pretty,” she said. “I never knew you had really, really long hair.” She sounded faintly envious, her own dark shiny bob, underneath the chiffon scarf, swinging just below her ears.
“Shhh,” said Anne, maneuvering her into position. “I think we’re almost on.”
They had set up behind improvised curtains in the little side-chapel of the old church, and could hear the congregation cough and murmur in the main hall. They knew that the Reverend would introduce them with a few words, and then the makeshift curtain would be drawn aside.
There were to be two tableaux – first Anne, in her starring role, would be seen towering over the two shepherds, giving them the good news; and then the nativity proper, with the children grouped around one of Melissa’s favourite dolls in a little wooden cradle. But moments before they were due to go on, the curtain twitched and Peter Wilcox, in full ecclesiastical regalia, slipped inside.
“Sorry,” he hissed apologetically, “change of plans. Lighting’s gone all awry. Only one tableau; set it all up around the crib, Anne, and you say your piece over that. Kids, you go on as rehearsed, okay?”
“Peter!” Anne called in a panic, trying to shout in a whisper as he started to slip away again. But he was already gone. “Okay,” she said, guiding the ‘shepherds’ to the cradle through the thick straw strewn all over the floor of the chapel. “We’ll skip your words, Mickey and Robin. When they open the curtain, I’ll say what I have to, and then you carry on as we practised. All right?” And then they were out of time as the curtain slowly drew back and they were bathed in the one spotlight that still worked, a brilliant white light that suddenly blazed on Anne’s hair making of it a halo even greater than the puny tinsel gleam that nestled somewhere above her head. Her eyes dazzled by the light, blinded to the audience, Anne instinctively raised her hands… and could have sworn she heard the rustle of wings, real wings, as she did so.
The words that rose to her mouth were not the scaled-down ones they had culled for a child, but the sonorous, ringing phrases from the old Bibles where angels were still awesome and terrible – and yet the words rang with a simplicity all their own: “Behold, today was born unto you a Saviour in the City of David.” She spoke in a voice which was entirely unlike her own quiet one, a voice dark and smoky, very soft and yet intensely penetrating, and there wasn’t a soul there who did not hear every word that she said, and tremble at her words through some irrational and primeval awe which told everyone they were suddenly in the presence of the extraordinary. And when she had finished, there was somehow a sudden shadow behind her and into that she withdrew and vanished.
The Wise Child-Men came up with their gifts and the shepherds bowed deeply over their cardboard crooks in the direction of a Melissa lambent in blue over whom hovered protectively the six-year-old Joseph with a bright striped kitchen cloth wrapped Eastern-style around his head. The curtain had been meant to close again after they had finished, but every pair of hands was busy clapping, and so it was that the flushed and excited children ran straight off the straw-strewn “stage” into the waiting arms of their parents; Peter Wilcox, who manned the lights, had at least had the presence of mind to switch off the reflector, and when Anne emerged into the diminished, workaday church light it was as an ordinary mortal once again, her wings as firmly cardboard as when Peter had painted them the previous day. She couldn’t seem to decide whether to laugh or to cry, and was still so high from the rush that had shaken her that she was largely unaware of the bright-eyed, clapping congregation who had risen to their collective feet. Peter hurried over.
“Let me help you with those,” he said, reaching for the wings.
She smiled at him in a way that made his heart turn over, and shrugged obligingly out of the shoulder harness the wings had been attached to. In the process, her hymnbook and a battered old Bible slipped from her hand, and they both bent to retrieve them. She came up with the hymnbook, he with the Bible. There were faded initials embossed in the brown leather cover: A. G. H.
“A. G.?” he queried lightly, handing it back. “What does the G stand for?”
And then he suddenly smiled, knowing in the split second before she spoke what she was going to say. It was as inevitable as the future. He impulsively reached out and took her hand, and she did not withdraw it as she looked at him from within that wealth of golden hair.
“Gabrielle,” she said, very softly. “It stands for Gabrielle.”
And if you want to put a little something under MY (virtual) tree, you may do so here
What If … ? What if you could make a different choice at a critical moment in your life? What if you had married someone else, turned right instead of left, had taken that job you rejected? What if you had been born a man instead of a woman?
Take a look at the book trailer here
On Aug. 1, it will also be available at Amazon, and Smashwords. Details of the paperback edition will be announced later this year.
What it is all about: On the eve of the end of the world, Dec. 20, 2012, five friends meet in Spanish Gardens, the restaurant where they had celebrated their college graduation 20 years before. Over Irish coffees, they reminisce – and reveal long-held and disturbing secrets.
Each friend in turn is given a curious set of instructions by an enigmatic bartender named Ariel: “Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door takes away all choices except two — the choice to live a different life, or return to this one.”
All of them pass through the portal and into drastically changed lives. They change occupations and families; one changes gender; a woman falls in love — with another woman. In the end, four choose to return to their original lives.
One of the perennial items tossed at every living writer in almost every interview is “Where do you get your ideas?”
One well-known writer famously provided an address for an Ideas Shop in Schenectady (and had people TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY). I usually say that I have an Ideas Tree growing out back (and I’ve had people take THAT semi-seriously).
Most writers, though, when confronted with the Question, simply fling their arms up in resignation and say “EVERYWHERE!” And they are, of course, right. Look at the last week of news.
First we had the Fairy Tale – the dashing young man in the scarlet uniform, the blushing bride with the tiara, the Kiss on the Balcony. The fairy tale of marriage, enacted Grand Scale – the horses, the carriages, the gorgeous dresses (and the unbelievable hats), the pageant and the panoply. The couple roared off in an Aston Martin. This is the way stories are born, and built, and accreted to, tales like barnacles on hoary old original stories which are falling apart with age and antiquity. We add things, new things like the Aston Martin. But we still grow misty-eyed at young love, at the Prince and Princess on their wedding day, and we still spin fairy tales.
Then, days after the Wedding Story, we have the story of War, and Death, and Revenge. The so-called “mastermind” of the 9/11 tragedy – and I use the word advisedly, and I do not mean just the falling towers in New York – Osama bin Laden is reported dead. America dissolves into triumph. At last, the smear on American pride is avenged, and the man who dared to attack the Greatest Nation on Earth has met his end at American hands.
And was buried post-haste. The Internet spouts something about Muslim tradition… and a *sea burial.* Which is on the face of it ridiculous. There are backtrackings saying that there was a mis-speak somewhere that all anybody meant to say is that bin Laden was buried “within 24 hours, as per Muslim tradition”. Whatever the story, I don’t think there’s a body there to be seen, a death there to confirm. The conspiracy theorists can now start lining up, please, with various and increasingly outlandish reasons as to why this is all a whitewash and Osama isn’t REALLY dead, etc etc etc. The mundane details just get in the way of a good legend being born.
The ostensible reason for American wars being waged on the Afghanistan and Pakistan fronts was supposedly bin Laden (and man, it took them TEN YEARS TO FIND THE DUDE?…) One would think that now this is over the troops over there are going to be brought home post-haste. I wouldn’t hold my breath. There’s a story here that’s now greater than the sum of its parts. The holy war is going to be hard to rein in, particularly since even the gung-ho triumphalists parading about wrapped in flags and screaming “Mission REALLY accomplished!” are aware, have GOT to be aware on some fundamental level, that this is a head cut off a Hydra. At least until now the Americans KNEW who the enemy was; he was the bogeyman who flung the planes at the New York towers. But who’s going to take his place? OF COURSE America will have to remain in the back country of the ‘stans, until further notice, because they have to find out who the NEW Face of the Enemy is, track him down, and cut another head off the Hydra. But it never ends, and the thing about the Hydra of Greek Mythology, is that it tends to regrow its chopped-off heads on a regular basis. War without end. Amen.
You can make a story for that. A Story. There it is, lying there right at your feet, ripe for picking up.
What else has been happening in the world lately? Elections in Canada? Only a little further back in the timeline, the tsunami in Japan? Human beings, living every day. Dealing with death and taxes, weddings, tragedies and joys, triumph and revenge, hypocrisy, making mistakes, casting votes, traveling in airplanes, winning prizes, paying bills, cooking meals, burying loved ones or welcoming new ones into the world, falling down and picking themselves up and starting all over again.
We’ll take that with us, when we take our first steps towards the stars. This capacity for making lives into legends, people into archetypes, history into myth.
We are a race that is built of Story. And there are stories… everywhere.
Alison Goodman defines a Talisman Book as “one of those novels that you read over and over again, a book that seems to resonate through you, that wards off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”
My Talisman Books are the ones I’d rescue from a burning building. For example:
– My dogeared paperback copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’. This book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realise that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization. It’s a talisman not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.
– ‘Tigana’ by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read. The writing and the story make this amazing for me and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.
– ‘Nine Princes in Amber,’ the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS.
– A volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.
– And because it’s irreplaceable, a really ancient and ill-favored book with dull gray covers – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone these twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.
Those are Talisman Books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.
– But forgive me if I add another to my Talisman Book list, a book that I wrote. A hardcover edition of “Secrets of Jin Shei”, the book to remind me what I am, what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit. I’ll take a copy with me and show it to people if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this Talisman.
There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work), Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.
Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.
And there are the comfort books I return to because I know I can find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.
So – what are YOUR Talisman Books?
It begins. Somewhere. An insignificant trickle of water that grows and changes, gathers a history, becomes the River, and finally reaches the sea, and vanishes into its vastness.
The River. Full of life. Full of mystery. Full of stories.
Rivers have always been very important to humankind. They’ve been explored. They’ve been navigated. They’ve been called gods. They’ve been blessed and cursed and venerated and used and enjoyed and exploited and polluted since the beginning of recorded history. They’ve been sung about and dreamed about and followed on epic journeys of discovery. The capitals of empires have risen on banks of rivers – and so have a thousand fishing villages, and river landings, and water mills.
There is only one River. Really. And it’s all of them. Every river is different – and yet they’re all the same, vast and full of life and death and mystery and history and adventure and quiet dreams.
River, an anthology I am putting together for Dark Quest Books, will be out in the fall. Look for it.
I’ve always been in love with notebooks. When I was younger it was hardcover notebooks in which I would write ENTIRE NOVELS, by hand, often in pencil. Later, especially when I graduated to the computer as a primary writing tool, they became smaller things I toted around in various purses and in which I scribbled quotes, ideas and half-finished poetry.
Some were set aside as dedicated “research journals” for particular projects, and are filled with scrawled notes culled from various research books read along the way, thoughts and ideas on applying facts discovered during research. As it got closer to the writing something, these notebooks often blossomed into colorful and chaotic proliferation of multi-hued Post-it tabs which guided me as to which bits belong in which chapter or section of the actual story I was trying to write.
I currently have a stash of these notebooks, bound in interesting textured covers, sitting in a small pile on a side table and waiting for their turn at glory. They don’t know yet what they are going to be, what they are going to build.
In a sense, this defines a writer. Scratch through a writer’s pockets or bags and you’ll always find these things, full of chicken scratches of half formed and barely coherent ideas, sometimes in shorthand which even the writer is hard-pressed to recognize a week or a month or a year after they had scritched it down for remembrance. If not a notebook, you’ll find old envelopes with scribbles on the back, napkins from fast-food restaurants, sale slips from stores which went out of business six months before but whose ghosts haunt the bottom of someone’s handbag because the back of of them contain the first inklings of a deathless idea.
I take my notebooks everywhere. I take them traveling and write down the things I see and hear and experience and taste. I write down the things that leave me gaping in awe and the things that make me laugh and the things that make me annoyed. I take them out to restaurants with friends, and scribble furtively in them when I happen to notice a strange character sitting at a table a little way away and am suddenly mugged by that person’s life story (or my version of it, anyway) which I just have to jot down and preserve because some day I might need a character JUST LIKE THAT for a story not yet born. I leave them lying by my bed when I go to sleep at night because who knows what dreams may come and need to be nailed down in ink on paper before they vanish like the ephemera that they are.
Blank journals represent a restless, exciting state of possibility and of Things To Come. They tremble with the yet-unborn spirits of stories still to be told. They whisper out of that inviting emptiness calling to me to come and fulfill them, to help them find their destinies, and along the way, pursue my own.
They are physical links to that place that lies Between, where the stories live and fly.
write4kids Editor’s note: Audrey is a 13-year-old student from California who is currently working on her own novel between school, sports and choir. She’s also a Contributing Editor to Write4Kids, focusing on middle grade and YA literature.
AUDREY — I’ve interviewed Alma Alexander. Ms. Alexander has published the YA fantasy series Worldweavers from HarperTeen. She wrote a novel as a 14 year old, and she has been editing it and revising it on a website: http://heritageofclan.wordpress.com/
Your writing style is super evocative. Do you have any tips on making the story come to life? You seem to strike a good balance between description and action—how do you do it?
ALMA: I have this odd way of “seeing” things as I write, as if I was seeing a movie projected on the inside of my brain. There’s always a context to this – a setting – and I am detail-oriented enough to immerse myself in this completely. But it’s as though as the visual component of it is the last to fall into place in this sensurround projection that I’m plunged into. First I’ll smell the salt on the breeze, or step onto a stray seashell and crunch it underfoot, or hear the distant sound of breaking surf – and only then will I truly open my eyes and confirm that I am standing beside an ocean. You have more senses than just your sight – trust them to guide you, trust them to open sensations you may not have realized were there before you closed your eyes to the relentless pressure of what you can SEE.
On the other tentacle, just because something is present is no reason to shoehorn it into the story.
It’s important to know WHICH details are important. Not everything is. And this really comes with practice. It’s also important to know when to STOP describing, and focus on what a character in this detailed setting is about to DO – because now you’re writing the STORY. The story is a forward motion, with the character in the midst of action. Yes, defining the setting is part of the battle – but now you have to let the character go, and see what that character DOES with that setting.
Read the rest at:
I don’t know when I first REALLy encountered J.R.R.Tolkien, and Middle Earth. They have simply been a part of my life forever.
I fell into “Lord of the Rings” and it closed over my head, and I’ve been breathing it through silver ever since, its words and worlds often as real to me – and sometimes far more real to me – than the ones I was physically contained in. It was the worlds of my heart and my spirit and my mind that have always mattered to me; all the rest is merely existing. THIS world is not where I LIVE. It’s where my physical body is, it’s where people I love can hug me or hold my hand or smile at me, it’s where I can eat chocolate and drink coffee… but when I close my eyes I am always somewhere else entirely, and my dreams are always of times and places that have no truck with this everyday world at all.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born Jan. 4, 1892. So many years ago. So much has happened in the time that has passed since. I wonder what Professor Tolkien would have made of the iPad and the e-book readers – the slim little tablets which can contain all of his hundreds of thousands, his millions, of published words without raising a sweat, which can allow his readers to carry ALL of his thick volumes with them at all times.
I read him in the original paper tomes, of course. My much-loved and literally falling apart omnibus paperback edition of “Lord of the Rings” is as familiar to me as a friend I have known from the cradle.
Tolkien was never MY professor, at anything, but Tolkien has taught me so much of my craft.
From him, I have learned how to build a secondary world so that it rises living and breathing and more real than the armchair in which the reader who is encountering it is sitting in. From him, I learned that characters are never wholly black or white but that there are always shades of gray and that it pays to explore the shadows. From him, I learned that trees can talk. From him, I learned that dreams have power. From him, I have learned that size is irrelevant and that the smallest of creatures – a fur-footed hobbit – can be counted on to topple the greatest towers that the Evil Overlord can dream of building. From him I learned of the power of language, and of other tongues, and from him I learned how much it matters to know, and believe in, history and legend and myth because of how fundamentally they shape our present and our future.
From him, I learned how to be epic and to see the big – the BIGGEST – picture; from him, I learned the strength and power of paying attention to details, and not losing sight of things others might think insignificant or irrelevant. From him, I learned what I know of patience. From him, I learned how to make people laugh; from him, I learned how to make people cry; from him, I learned how to make people remember.
Some years ago I actually visited the Wolverhampton Cemetery in Oxford where he is buried. A Catholic, his grave lies in the part of the cemetery which is devoted to the dearly departed of that faith – which, in this instance, means wading through gravestone after gravestone of Polish names until you finally stumble on the unassuming gray marble headstone which bears his name, and his wife’s, and their dates of birth and death – and two things more. Beneath her name, the word “Luthien”. Beneath his, the word “Beren”. The names of two characters who shared an undying love in the world of his books.
I stood at his graveside, mute, not knowing what I could offer other than a simple thank you for… for EVERYTHING… and it was at this moment that the stillness of the summer day was broken by a breath, just a single breath, of wind. It came swirling around the Polish gravestones, spiralled around the gray marble of Tolkien’s own, and briefly ruffled my hair, as though with the gentle touch of a hand, a soft blessing. And then it was gone again, and I was alone in the summer silence.
Thank you, Professor. For everything, and above all for that touch of wind in my hair.
I know it came down to me from the forests and mountains and valleys of Middle Earth, that world you created with such meticulous care, the world in which I have spent so much of my youth – and to which I still so often and so happily return, because it still has things left to teach me.
I’ve had a bunch of writer friends admit to falling prey to this thing called the Impostor Syndrome at least once in the course of their writing lives and careers.
It’s the perennial “I’m here under false pretenses – there are so many who are so much more qualified to be here or deserve to be here so much more than me…” kind of response. It’s feeling the urge to slink away into the shadows because you’ve somehow been “unmasked” as being at the ball wearing another’s robes of honor.
Time was, back when I wrote everything by hand, that I had a badge of honor by which I could identify myself as an honest-to-goodness writer. I had an ink-stained callus on the third finger of my right hand and I could show that mark; it would announce to all and sundry that here stood a writer who had earned the name – look at my hand. I bore the Mark of the Scribe that you only get when you’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months plying that pen across the virgin page, creating words and worlds. It was a physical sign – better than a tattoo – it showed the world exactly who or what you were.
Oh, the Impostor Syndrome was still around and no less strong and powerful than it is today – but you could offer this particular disfigurement as proof that you were, in fact, deserving of a place where a writer should go.
My callus is long gone, since I started writing everything via keyboard. I could be anybody now. An accountant. A taxidermist. A doctor. A lawyer. A Bloomingdale salesgirl.
And the Impostor Syndrome persists – I can’t tell you if the ones at the VERY top of the pyramid in my craft feel it in quite the same way, but I know I still feel the pangs of it every so often, particularly if I”m offered a compliment on something I’ve produced. I’ve put in the years, paid the dues, I’ve practiced diligently and produced (at a rough estimate) about 3 million words in print to date. But I’ve no callus. And I still think I should turn and look behind me if somebody comes up to me in a corridor at a convention and says something nice about a book or story of mine.
I don’t think you ever quite get over that. That some stranger has read your words, and liked them, and what’s more liked them enough to come and tell you so. It’s the best feeling in the WORLD, mind you, to hear your heart’s children being praised in your presence – but every so often many of us have to MAKE ourselves remember the ink-stained callus on our finger, the ghost that lingers like an aura around our hand. You never quite get over Impostor Syndrome – but you might, in time, make peace with it – and learn how to channel that gracious writer who’s always standing behind you, and smile, and offer a sincere thank you to the person who just gave your work the gift of their approval and regard.
There’s a part of every writer which NEVER believes that it’s all right to just accept the mantle of WRITER flung around our shoulders and cultivate that sense of what seems like entitlement; there is another part that lurks in us all that has never believed that life could have turned out otherwise. Sometimes it’s hard to see the road that lies between these two conflicting impulses.
But we walk it. And try to keep our balance as best we are able.
Ask a writer sometime about that writer’s callus on the third finger, the one long gone. Most of us will know it, know of it. Most of us will smile when we tell you about it, and stop believing, if only just for a moment, that you could have only meant the question for somebody a lot more exalted than we could ever be.
I suffer from occasional attacks of chutzpah.
Back in the mid-eighties, London Magazine, the grand, the venerable, had been in more-or-less constant publication for SEVERAL CENTURIES. It had a Reputation. It had a Renown.
I was in my early-to-mid-twenties at the time it and I crossed paths. It was edited by Alan Ross, who had been at the helm for decades, who was synonymous with the magazine at this point in time. So we had a daunting double barrier here – a famous literary magazine which would have no real reason to deal with a wet-behind-the-ears newbie because big names were piling at their doors like driftwood and they could pick and choose from those, and a venerable editor who’d seen plenty of knucklehead wannabes like me before and would have no reason to be anything but brusquely dismissive of them. If he ever saw their pathetic efforts at all, himself, without their being culled out by underlings whose sole task in life it was to do just this unpalatable task.
Of course, it was the obvious thing for me to do to pack up a short story of which I was inordinately proud of at the time, and send it in for consideration – HERE. Of all places, here.
Alan Ross had a fairly odd way of responding to submissions. No rote responses for himl no circular letters. Every submission received a personal response … on a quirky vintage postcard. I received one such card as a reply to my story submission. It bore, in HANDWRITING, only a few words as a response: “Like it, but not enough background. Alan Ross”
Kids, don’t try this at home – but I was deep in the throes of that chutzpah attack. I replied, “What kind of background would you like? I can put more of it in.”
Back came another postcard in return.
“We’ll take it. Alan Ross”
London Magazine was going to publish my story.
Not too long after that, another card came to query if I minded (!) if they put the story, not in the magazine itself, but in a hardcover anthology they were preparing to celebrate LM’s 30th anniversary. Head spinning still harder, I acquiesced to this. The book, called “Signals”, was published in the UK in 1991.
I met up with the editor of that anthology, on a visit to London not too long after the book’s publication. I recall being taken out to lunch, and then, on the way out, losing the combs from my hair in the process, and crawling around for one of them while being handed the other by the laughing editor in question. It’s a tiny little disembodied gem of a memory, connecting with nothing at all, and yet somehow treasured as an instant of innocence and pure glowing joy. This anthology editor never bought anything more from me – but he introduced me to an agent in London, who became my first agent, who sold “Dolphin’s Daughters” for me to Longman in 1995, and that is a slim little book which was reprinted NINE TIMES and still brings in a trickle of royalties every so often.
I met Alan at London Magazine’s offices in South Kensington sometime in the early nineties. I still remember – you rang an unobtrusive little bell by the front door of an unobtrusive London townhouse; the door let you into a corridor; the corridor led you out into a back courtyard overgrown with things that really looked like they needed a careful gardener’s hand to guide them but hadn’t seen one for at least a brace of years; you went down a curved flight of stairs with an iron balustrade into a tiny paved area from which a door opened into what turned out to be a cluttered room with high and stuffed bookshelves, two desks wedged in in a manner which promised grievous difficulty if EITHER was ever to be removed from there ever again and overflowing with papers (manuscripts, artwork, galleys), and a couple of typewriters. No computers for Alan – not then, not, I suspect, EVER. Not by choice, anyway. He belonged to a different age, a slower age, a gilded age, a glowing age where he could take the time to write to his writers on the backs of old postcards and cultivate relationships rather than quickies (wham, bam, here’s your check, ma’am, next…?)
He took me out for a pint to the pub round the corner. He bought a book review from me which saw the light of day in LM not too long after that.
But only a handful of years after this chance encounter with this extraordinary character, he was gone, and LM was a different animal without him. I never submitted anything there again.
There were many things about Alan Ross that I didn’t know – some of them I learned only now, YEARS later, from his obit, and others, like the fact that I wasn’t the only one whom he reached out to in other places.
I did not know him well enough to say that I miss him today. That would be presumptuous. But I miss people like him, the characters, the unique individuals whose like we will never see repeated. And yes, I miss the great editors of the past whose role was not just to buy and to send to press but to nurture, and to care, and to take young and unknown writers and shape them into something special. Alan Ross may not have had much time for the plants in his office courtyard – but he watered and pruned and pored over his writers like the most special of orchids – and although his legacy may not be immediately obvious or in-your-face, it is nevertheless real, and the flowers that bloomed under his hand were sometimes… awe-inspiring. And some might never have bloomed at all but for his tender care of the fragile young plant.
So, then. Here’s to great editors. Raise whatever you’re drinking, and toast them all.
We writers, we shouldn’t forget what we owe them.