A long time ago I began a book about Mary Magdalene. I honestly don’t know why. I’d never given her much thought. I am not a Christian. Truthfully, I do not subscribe to any religion. Religion, to me, is not spiritual. It’s a human construct carefully designed to control and direct the human desire for meaning. I long for meaning as much as anyone, but have never sought it from other humans. Dogma is dogma, no matter which religion we speak of. As for the Magdalene…perhaps if I’d known it would absorb seven years of my life, I might have set it aside and written a sequel to The Saggy Baggy Elephant instead. But day after day went by and The Secret Magdalene grew word by word, sentence by sentence. And then, one amazing morning, I honestly believed I had finished.
But something niggled at me, whispering: You are not finished. More would have their say. So back I went to the keyboard and out came Flow Down Like Silver. I wish I could say it “flowed.” But I can’t. To slip under the skin of Hypatia of Alexandria was no easy thing…especially with so little truly known about her. Hopeful speculations, unsupported hopes, dogged assumptions, but facts? So few, so very few. Hypatia and I struggled for three years. Less time than the Magdalene only because in researching Mariamne I’d found so much that applied to Hypatia.
This time I knew I wasn’t finished. I thought the Magdalene had more to say. And back I went to the words, a letter at a time. I finished that book. It’s called The Woman Who Knew the All. But when the last word was typed and I’d lifted my hands from the keyboard, I already knew it wasn’t right. I’d known it as I wrote it. Some of it was. Some of it was very right. But as a whole, no. Something was very wrong. I could not offer it for publication. So I let it rest quietly by itself. Perhaps when I went back?
And while waiting I wrote Houdini Heart, absolutely nothing like I’d spent years of my life writing and feeling and thinking about. Houdini Heart came fast. It did flow. And then it too was finished.
Back I went to the last of my trilogy of the Divine Feminine…simply words allowing me a way to think about what I thought I was doing. I thought The Woman Who Knew the All could be “fixed.” She could be rewritten, re-felt. But something in me said: This is not the voice that would speak. A new voice awaits you. Listen for her. I trust my heart. I trust what it whispers to me. So I left the Magdalene in her file and waited. A month ago, She came, the woman who would speak the last of what needed to be said. By me? Through me? Does it matter? I don’t know her name yet. But I do know the name she would call her book. THE TIME OF THE BEE. And I know when it takes place: in the last moment of the Goddess, almost 12,000 years ago.
Not what I expected at all. But whatever is?
T’would be nice to know what I was doing. It seems that for the moment I drift. No particular place to go. Nothing in particular to do. No particular goal to achieve. (Except writing two books and co-writing a film script for a film that will most certainly get made…but enough of that. Such stuff doesn’t seem to count when one feels rootless.) I live in a charming little cabin in the deepy woods that could be taken away at any time. An interesting place to be. Like being weightless in a space capsule floating about in uncharted space. I could float off at any time. Yet I look out my tiny porthole with an eye just as it has always been: timeless, curious, eager, expectant, and fully believing in magic. Magic is nothing more than intent. I intend – ah, that’s how I started this paragraph.
To speak of freedom, one usually means freedom from the physical oppression of one’s fellow man (or woman…once us females get the chance and if we take it). Here I speak of a much more insidious lack of freedom, or slavery to come closer to the truth. To be burdened by something like our new corporate state is bad enough, but to be controlled by a system of belief is crippling. In Flow Down Like Silver, my true-life heroine, Hypatia of Alexandria, struggles against the blind beliefs of her students in the hope she can open their eyes to a broader deeper truth.
You and I, we all of us come dragging behind us as much “belief baggage,” and are weighted down with as many chains of unquestioned assumptions, as Jacob Marley’s ghost. We have to be. We’re human. And no human alive lives without a set of beliefs firmly embedded in their psyche, maybe even encoded in their DNA. Not only were we taught these belief-truths from the moment we opened our brand new eyes on this gorgeous world, we had them hard-wired in as a means to survival. Our assumptions about “truth” are the glue of our personal reality.
Come to Earth as humans, we all share human beliefs about reality–but modified if we are born, say, a Hindu. In other words, if born to Hindus, we should be Hindus. If born to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians or to atheists, we should all almost certainly be as they are. Arriving in a clutch of Born-Agains, we go through hell on earth–and pray for the Rapture to get us the heck out of here. Even born to the once-lovely Hippies, we come into this world trailing yards and yards of gauzy wide-eyed belief.
Unless we learn to ask questions.
Most of us have much to thank our parents for. Quite a few have a lot to complain about. As for me, I have really only this (which is both gift and curse): my parents taught me nothing. I missed out on the usual indoctrination. I can’t recall a single conversation about religion. Or one about social status, ie: racism. Or politics. Come to think, where the hell were my parents when I was growing up? Not parenting, that’s for sure. When they were around, I remember gossip. I recall fights. They weren’t exactly drunks, but the smell of liquor still makes me ill. There was always the television, and they certainly watched that. While they were doing all this, I was reading books. Even so, I had a roof over my head, and food more often than not. I had clothes and toys and whatever else a child needs to stay alive. What I did not have was cherishing. Or instruction.
All this became part of Houdini Heart, a book of supernatural horror heavily based on my youth.
As I said, this is a curse. But it’s also a blessing. I did not have to unlearn what was taught me as “truths.” I did not have to struggle to rid myself of my parent’s beliefs. I did not have to free myself from church or mosque or temple or even nude dancing in the woods. I held fast to no social dictum. I was born free of these things. And that includes the freedom to embrace any of them all by myself should they ever appeal. None of them have.
Which means I was born free to create myself out of nothing but my own thoughts and reactions to the Grand Mass Illusion I’d opened my illusory eyes on.
I paid a heavy price for this, but it was worth every anguish along the way.
I’m one of a dying breed: going the way of the Dodo, the tailfin, and the cocktail napkin. When people like me are gone (and we’re really going; I’ve finally reached the age where I can wrap my few remaining brain cells around that one), much of our world will go with us.
I love books. I love handling them, riffling their pages, admiring the design, the dust jacket, the binding, their smell, their feel, how they look with their sisters all-in-a-row on shelf after shelf.
I love arranging my own books. Six of them now. In English, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Swedish, Czech, French…bedad, I’ve lost count of the translations. I grieve that my books are all in storage, packed away in boxes, waiting in the dark for the day I once again own a shelf. Which implies owning a house. Or near enough. Which surely means having a home. Having a home is my New Years wish.
Enough of that.
I was given a Kindle for Christmas. A funny flat grey thing. With buttons.
With help (of course) I got it registered or assigned or acknowledged…surely it’s one of those. With help, I learned the rudiments. I can now download a book. Which has become two books, then five, then—have you any idea how many books are fa-fa-fa-free from amazon? Not the new ones, oh no, but the good ones: the classics, the forgotten gems, the newly discovered oddities, so many works of ancient philosophy. It’s an Alexandria of free books.
I press the button called Home and up comes a growing list of books I don’t have packed away. I found Talbot Mundy! Only known to me by one book long long ago found somewhere, old even then, I went crazy nuts for it. Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley. Which now resides in one of those cold dark boxes in cold dark storage.
Mundy was all the rage a hundred years or so ago. He sold then as much as yet another vampire book would today. The King of the Khyber Rifles. Black Light. The Winds of the World. Compared to these, vampires are dull stuff. Talbot Mundy was a veritable genius and to follow his ripping yarns highly spiced with dazzling mysticism made his readers only a little less so. It took imagination to write those books and it took imagination to read them.
Last night I found The Yellow Wallpaper. My own book, Houdini Heart, has been compared to it…favorably. So to see its name on offer made my ears ring. It’s very short but wonderfully disturbing. Written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it’s a strong, terrifying, symbolic tale of how women were once treated by “caring” men: their “devoted” husbands, fathers, brothers. That is, if they were rich. (For the poor female or a member of the lower classes, go directly to Charles Dickens.) Devouring Charlotte’s tale in one gulp, I found it amazingly similar to Houdini Heart in many ways. But the huge difference lies in the female narrator’s essential character. In The Yellow Wallpaper the woman is virtually helpless, in bondage to men and to how she is perceived by them. (Freud really helped out there. Be interesting to know how many women he drove to despair, insanity, even suicide.) In Houdini Heart, the woman is a creative master of her descent (or ascent) into, ah…your guess is as good as mine.
To read Gilman is to MUCH better understand the incredible strength it took to be an Emily Dickinson, a Jane Austin, a George Sand…and so many more. How should I have fared then? Would I have done as my Mary Magdalene did, dressed as a man so I might learn and survive?
Or would I have shot myself?
Must get back to searching for free books. Oh, how a Luddite loves her Kindle. Never thought it could happen to me. But then I resisted computers too. And classes in Creative Writing. That last one was a good idea.
I hope this causes a wee spot of outrage, since, as my now temporarily out-of-body husband, the wonderfully outrageous Vivian Stanshall, used to say, “An outrage a day keeps complaisance at bay.” (He also said, once he’d gotten over the shock of his unexpected Viking death: “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”)
Once upon a time, the very first people who followed the teachings of Jesus were Pagan. Who Jesus actually was is a matter of much debate; that he actually was, is also a matter of debate. But that a religion formed in his name is a matter of accepted fact. But what becomes increasingly evident to those paying attention is Christianity is what became of a Pagan Mystery religion called Gnosticism. Gnosis, a Greek word meaning knowledge” (but not any knowledge: “intimate personal knowledge of the divine”), lay at the very heart of this new Mystery religion, just as it lies at the center of all Mystery religions.
Before Rome and the Catholic Church spent three hundred violent years changing history, and with it human values and expectations, there were at least two dozen life-death-rebirth deities throughout the world, some of whom were female, and the most famous of whom are: Osiris of the Egyptians, Tammuz of the Akkadians (to the horror of Jewish priests, Tammuz was beloved of Jewish women before and during the life of Jesus), Atunis of the Etruscans, Adonis (who was born of a virgin in a cave in the sacred grove called Bethlehem), Dionysus of the Greeks, Vishnu of the Indians, Attis of the Phrygians, Aeneas of the Romans, Mithras of the Persians, and the sweet shepherd of Sumer, who was the dying god Dumuzi. Even the Celts had a Godman: Cernunnos, the Horn-ed One, Lord of the Wild Things.
Many of these Godmen were born of a virgin whose name was often Mary, or a form of Mari, Queen of Heaven. They came forth in a cave in the deepest darkest part of the winter (December 25th was the birthday of the Persian Godman Mithras which is why at the First Council of Nicaea this birth-date was given to Jesus: a way to silence Mithraism, the only religion to challenge Catholicism for the official blessing of Rome), each Godman was tortured and then brutally slain for our sins, very often hung on a tree or a stake, and was then interred or buried—but rose again on the third day. All this derives from observing the skies: especially the truly ancient twelve signs of the Zodiac, the constellation of Orion (then called Osiris), and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (known as Sopdet in ancient Egypt, meaning Isis of Ten Thousand Names)…for all of this is symbolic of the Sun, our first God. (The Moon was our first Goddess who predated the Sun God by many thousands of years, but now is not the time.) In Christianity, astrological astronomy is everywhere…not that many seem to notice: twelve disciples, twelve loaves, twelve days of Christmas, twelve tribes.
Jesus Christ was the Godman of Gnosticism who in every important way was a copy of Osiris, the Pagan Godman who died each year in The Passion of Osiris so that Egyptians might live. But Jesus was tailored specifically for the Jews by the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus, as well as by a few of his friends throughout the range of the Jewish diaspora. The only difference between Osiris and the new Christ—and this difference turned out to be fatal for Pagans—was that Jesus was a Jewish Godman. Tailored for Jews, Philo and his friends were required to weave in the potent strands of the Jewish Messiah myth in order to “sell” him to the Jews. (Just as Pythagoras, wishing to bring the Passion of Osiris to the Greeks, made a minor Greek god called Dionysus into a Greek Godman.) The big glitch in Philo’s plans was this: the Jews expected the Messiah to come “in the flesh”. They expected him to arrive as their living King and to sweep the Romans from Judaea, the Arabic sons of the great Herod from their palaces, and the lax and unLawful Priests from the Temple. Forced to combine the usual Godman with this Messiah turned what had been a perfectly good, tried-and-true concept into something that had never been before: a living Godman. Over the course of the next few centuries a smattering of converts to Jesus Christ began to clumsily blend together the Gnostic teacher, Jesus the Nazorean, the new Jewish Godman, and the Messiah. It was a messy process and remains messy, especially as so soon as they accomplished this, they forgot the symbolic meaning of Gnostic teaching, and became preoccupied with the supposed “facts” of the life of Jesus, a life now mirroring the myth of any Godman’s “life” and “death.”
Things now get complicated, only growing more complicated over the years as more and more voices added their clamor to the once symbolic Passion and the once simple Gnostic teachings. And here’s where the Gnostics, beginning without the burden of priests or a hierarchy of Papal Power, and once embracing women and the Goddess, began to splinter and shatter into literalist groups espousing beliefs antithetical to any true Pagan, and—had he been there—to Jesus himself.
But to go back one thousand nine hundred and a few dozen years ago, the first scattered groups of what could be called proto-Christians knew their new Godman Jesus Christ was a form of deity already in existence. They knew he was a Godman amongst other Godmen. They knew also that Mary Magdalene was his consort as Isis was the consort of Osiris, and that she was the Goddess. They did not believe that Jesus Christ was God made flesh. They did not believe he was the only Son of God. They called themselves “Gnostics” because at the heart of this new movement (although in truth a movement as old as time) was the quest for gnosis, or divine insight.
This is what Saul of Tarsus (Paul in Latin) taught. Although there are fifteen or so letters by Paul in the New Testament, only eight (maybe less) of these letters are authentic. All the rest are forgeries written many years later by early church fathers to claim him for Christianity. But Paul was a Gnostic. He was not an anti-Semite, nor was he a woman hater. These are “qualities” given him later in the forged letters. In truth, he traveled with a woman called Thecla, who baptized and preached at his side. Nowhere in Paul’s letters to the various Gnostic groups he was trying to organize, does he mention the “life” of Jesus Christ, for nothing about Jesus interests Paul save his crucifixion. Since Paul’s authentic letters were the earliest documents claimed by the Catholic Church as evidence of the historical truth of Jesus, it would seem odd he does not write of Christ’s life. It ceases to be odd when you realize that for Paul, whilst Jesus may or may not have existed, the “Christ” was the Jewish Godman. Paul’s interest was in the suffering and death of the Godman, and that’s because the crucifixion is The Passion of Osiris or Dionysus remade for new ears. Ironically, those new ears were expected by Philo and his friends to be Jewish, but the Jews rejected Philo’s new Godman and they rejected Paul and his Jewish/Pagan Gnostic teaching. (To this day, for observant Jews, the Messiah is yet to come.) In despair and anger, Paul turned to Gentiles. He died a disappointed man, and, at the time, a forgotten figure in Gnosticism. Doubly ironic, those who did not reject Paul’s message of the “Christ,” by which he meant divine insight, or enlightenment (for that’s what happened to him on the Road to Damascus: he was filled with Christ Consciousness or the God Realization or Nirvana or what-have-you) were simple Gentile peasants, who increasingly took the message “literally.” And gradually, over the next few hundred years, it was these non-Jewish literalists who created Christianity by their very insistence on taking what was meant as outer symbol for historical truth.
But they did not create Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. That was the work of the Emperor Constantine and a gathering of Literalist Bishops at the First Counsel of Nicaea in 325 CE. From this came the Nicene Creed, or “the profession of faith.” It was here that the central beliefs of Christianity were set down, and virtually none of these beliefs stemmed from the very first Jewish Gnostics, or from the symbolic Godman teachings of Paul, or from the probable earlier teaching of Jesus. It was also here that the newly Rome-accepted Catholic Church was granted the use of the Roman army to suppress by any means necessary the Gnostic Pagans who also claimed Jesus Christ as their own. If you’ve all grown up, as I have, hearing about the terrible tribulations of the early Christians, I am here to state boldly: it was not the literalist Christians who were suppressed so much as it was the literalist Christians, now become the Catholic Church, who tortured and killed the Gnostics, and destroyed their work…which is why the Western World is not Pagan today, or Gnostic, but Christian. More irony, the four gospels accepted by the Church (out of thousands once extant) are Gnostic gospels (very evident in the Gospel of John which begins with a direct quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and are entirely symbolic. To read them today is to read Pagan teaching if we realize we are not reading history, but symbolism.
What I am saying is that Christmas is a pure Pagan holiday. By this, I don’t mean that it’s based on a Pagan Winter Solstice celebration, and I don’t mean that it was “stolen” from Pagans since Christianity hasn’t one single thing about it that is original, and I don’t mean that it contains within itself countless hidden Pagan references—although all these things are true. No, I mean a flat-out: Christmas is Pagan. I mean there’s nothing “Christian” about it. What I really mean is that Jesus Christ was and remains a Pagan Godman. I mean that Mary Magdalene was and remains his consort, his mother, and the old woman who stood under his cross. She is The Triple Goddess in the guise of the seemingly separate Mary, Martha, and the Magdalene: maiden, mother, crone. (From the Gospel of Philip, discovered amongst the Gnostic codices dug up in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, sometime in 1945: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”)
To go deeper: by its very nature the secret heart of a Mystery religion is unknowable. It is beyond that which can be expressed in words. But it does express itself in sacred symbols and secret rites which confer spiritual and magical benefits. To follow a Gnostic Mystery religion is to travel a path leading to a blessed and beatific understanding.
The highest promise for the exoteric initiates was to share, and therefore to feel, the natural life-death-rebirth cycle as it was evoked through the life-death-rebirth of a Godman, and in some cases, Godwoman. (Persephone of the Greeks is an example of this, as is Innana of the Sumerians.) But the true highest promise, that one given to the esoteric “inner” initiates, was to achieve gnosis, or divine insight. In the tradition of the Buddha, and as Jesus taught, this is called enlightenment and is a state of personal rapture allowing the one so blessed to Know the All.
Contrary to popular thought, Enlightenment or gnosis does not make a person “perfect.” It does not erase the Ego. It does not exalt them above all other people. But it does allow the “enlightened” person, or Gnostic, to Know the All.
What is there to “know”? That we are all One. That we are all Loved. That we are all Eternal and we are all Safe. Therefore we do not require “saving” or “redeeming” since we are not lost. This world is not lesser or evil or fallen or failed. There is no male God sitting in judgment over us. We do not have to “behave.” There is nothing that is not blessed in Consciousness for all is Experience. We each and every one of us create what we think of as “reality” making us all, by definition, creators. We are all Divine. What could be further from Christian belief?
But as all esoteric members of a Mystery religion understood, divine insight cannot be taught, it is not an understanding of the intellect. It must be felt. And it must be felt with the whole of the self through the arousal of terror, pity, horror, sorrow, joy. Mel Gibson with his “Passion of Christ” seems to me and to perhaps many others a misguided soul, but he also seems innately, and without knowing it, to have grasped the deepest intent behind the Passion, which is to make people feel. In the original Passion, that of Osiris, which took place once a year in front of thousands of devotees, this is exactly what was intended…for people to feel and to feel deeply. First, pity as Osiris the Godman was tortured, then terror as he was hung up to die in terrible pain, then reverence as he was tenderly taken down by the Triple Goddess and placed in a tomb. And then awe as he rose on the third day—and finally, hopefully, to know gnosis.
Basically, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is a spiritual allegory, Pagan in source, encapsulating a profound philosophy that leads to mythical enlightenment. Therefore, the Jewish Gnostic teacher, Jesus the Nazorean, is Pagan. The Godman, Jesus Christ, is Pagan. Early Gnosticism is Pagan.
And with that, I wish you all a very merry Pagan Christmas, and an eternal New Year.
* Holiday = Holy Day = Heli = Sun = all adding up to Day of the Sun. Not to mention that the Holy Land is the land over which the First God Sun rises each day, meaning the East.
Drawing from so many works on this subject, enough to fill an entire library (it certainly fills mine), I offer only mine. (So many others upon request.)
“The Secret Magdalene” found online in the usual places and in bookstores.
(Trimmed from an article written long ago. It certainly seems long ago.)
A writer sits alone. Or in my case (as well as Proust’s), reclines alone. If someone chanced to pass by, they might think us doing nothing. They might even think us alone and lonely. Our lives seem so motionless, so lacking in adventure. But they would be wrong. A writer’s life is lived as vividly as Oscar Wilde’s life was lived. When the character pushing out from under my hand is afraid, I am afraid. When ill, I feel ill. Her or his sights and sounds and smells are mine. For so long as this new book takes to write, I live thousands of years ago as well as in the Now.
A writer tries to catch all this in netted words.
In China Blues, my first ever published book (Harper Collins and Doubleday and whoever else in whatever language, plus a new edition coming soon), it’s 1906 in San Francisco and I race through the streets as the city burns. Then, older, I live in the city as it is in 1923…a spoiled rich girl caught up between the Chinese tongs and white bootleggers. In my second novel, Chasing Women, it’s the last few months of 1929. I’m a New York City reporter, working alongside Damon Runyon ringside as I write the only sport’s column in town penned by a woman…but I have to use a name that could be a man’s to do it: Teddy O’Rourke. As Teddy, I’m caught up in a killing that comes much too close to the man I love/hate, a fellow reporter after the same scoop as me. In the as yet unpublished Walks Away Woman, it’s last week or this week or next week and I live in the suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. My kids are grown and away, my husband has a woman in town. I watch the soaps. And then one day I set down the groceries I’ve just bought, walk past my car fading in the beating sun, and stride out into the desert to die. Amazing what a despairing housewife can find alone in a world of heat. In Houdini Heart I am part of me, the part that feels small and lost. And I’ve done something very very bad. Knowing there’s little time left me, I’m holed up in a once grand hotel in Vermont writing one last book for better or for worse and then…then, things begin to get very strange. Am I haunted by what I’ve done or by the failure of a life poorly lived, or is it the hotel I hide in? Great artists have been here before me. Alfred Hitchcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Louise Brooks, Shirley Jackson. Is it their art that threatens me: better truer art than mine? Do I go mad or merely madder?
Bloody hell. My life as a writer is crowded with event, with people who use my mouth to speak and my heart to feel. Sometimes it gets so crowded inside there seems no room left for me. Whoever that is.
Dear you and me,
Since we barely know ourselves, it’s hardly surprising to find we don’t know anyone else at all. We pretend we do, but in our hearts we know we don’t. And just as we create ourselves on the fly, we create others; those we invest the most in are those who make us feel very good or very bad. To some we give all the wonder we deny ourselves. And to some we accord all we think ourselves guilty of.
And to some we give divinity. We call them saints or gurus or avatars or a hundred other names. We are sure they know what we can never know, that they are what we can never be. And to them we hand over our very souls.
Writing Flow Down Like Silver,” I went looking for Hypatia of Alexandria…and found a dozen Hypatias, two dozen. Were any Hypatia herself? Were any even close? I doubt it. Those who have heard of her, revere her. And those who revere her do so for reasons that may never have had a single thing to do with the woman who knew herself as the daughter of Theon of Alexandria. Was she chaste as so many want her to be? Was she a “pure” scientist as those who believe in pure science insist she was? Was she young when she died? And lovely? Or was she, as others confidently assert, older, fading, no beauty at all, at best a commentator on the work of her betters come before her?
Known facts are like bone. If there are enough, we have a skeleton on which we can hang all the flesh we wish. But there are few known facts about Hypatia. Her date of birth, her physicality, her family beyond her father, whether she traveled or never left Alexandria, whether she was a Hellentist in body as well as mind, her actual work…none of these things are ours.
I muse on this as I remember my Hypatia. What do I know? What does anyone know? But as one of my heroes, Socrates, said: “To know one knows nothing is the beginning of wisdom.”
Oh, how wise I am.
Dear you and me,
I want to write mysteries like Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries. Chandler created an LA I look for even now in the shabby streets of Hollywood. Or in the oiled ooze of Long Beach or La Jolla’s shadier sections…not that La Jolla has any. His world isn’t there. It never was. But I see it anyway because Chandler made us all see it that way.
I want to write horror that trails its fingers along the spine as Shirley Jackson’s did. Shirley was not a happy woman. She ate and chain smoked her life away writing her strange and perfect sentences.
I want to write poems as precise as Emily Dickinson’s and as lyrical as a line by Dylan Thomas. Emily wrote like silver bullets shot from a small caliber gun, her words drilling precise holes in the mind and in the holes bulleted worlds of intense meaning. Emily’s subject was “Eternity,” her name for divine reality. Her subject is my subject.
I want to write literature that lasts as Vladimir Nabokov’s will last. I want to write like Flann O’Brien, wee coy disappointed man that he was. I want to leave something of myth in the world. An Oz of my own.
In short, I want to write in any genre as one of the greats. Instead, it has always been my curse to suffer “for my art” as sensationally as Poe ever did and yet never to be Poe. The hell with it. I write anyway. I wrote Houdini Heart. A surprise to me: supernatural horror. It just came and I let it.
I do have this: that I write at all is all my own doing. I am not the spawn of greats or semi-greats or even half a great. My stepfather could barely read much less write. I never saw a book in my mother’s hands. There were no books in my houses. (Imagine what Cicero would have said.) So many Navy houses and Duty Ports when you get dragged around by a pint-sized sailor and a frantic woman who’s just biding her time until she thinks you’re old enough to get along without her. I could always have gotten along without her, and though she was almost there, I did get along without her. And yet I wrote my first book, a fantasy, when I was four. Come to think, I was also a publisher at four. I wrote and illustrated my little book; then, like Emily, made a tidy packet of it and hid it. I don’t recall much before the age of 7 or 8 but I do remember that. I have a strong feeling there’s a good reason I forgot everything else.
I have a stronger feeling that writing, at least for me, is a place to go just to be somewhere I belong.
I AM, therefore I write.
Over the last few years things have changed radically in the world of the writer. For a hundred years or so, the publisher has been mightier than the pen. A tremendous industry grew up around us. They told us what we could write and how to write it. They designed our covers. They pushed us into bookstores. Or out. If we would not or could not comply, we simply weren’t published. That is, unless we dared to publish ourselves. And oh, what an outcry from the “industry”. Vanity press, they called it. Conceit and folly! Only worthless writers need publish themselves, said they. Writers like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot, Deepak Chopra, Margaret Atwood…and other such worthless ilk. They sneered, they laughed. And we bought it. Everyone bought it.
They broke our hearts.
And for those they “allowed” to join them, those they considered “real” writers? For those, they cooked the books.
Wee sidebar: I’ll never forget being shunted into a rather shabby, rather useless little room at the London offices of Harper Collins (my first publisher) and being told by the receptionist, oh so secretly: “They think you writers are nuisances. We’re told to keep you in here so you won’t wander about and bother people.”
But ah, the internet has changed all that, oh lordy has it. The industry that lived off us for so long is scrambling for its very life. Just as the rapacious music “industry” went down, the publishing industry is going down. One by one, the houses disappear, or get bought by Bertelsmann, the German behemoth. I think there are seven majors left. As I write this, we could be down to six. We writers are supposed to mourn this. We’re supposed to feel we are bobbing like small wee boats on a tossing sea with nowhere to land. And I do admit that the cache of standing on the decks of a great and venerable ship like Random House or Doubleday (I’ve stood there; it’s cold) still has its romantic grip on an unpublished writer’s mind. But that will pass. It’s passing now. And all because of the internet which spawned Amazon and those who would be Amazon like Barnes & Noble. It gave birth to the ebook.
A revolution has taken place in the world of publishing, one that’s been stewing for quite some time, one only recently taken seriously by the industry. And for them it might be too late. Amazon has announced it is hiring editors and other publishing professionals to launch its own in-house publishing business. They now are not only selling more books than anyone else, they may soon be publishing more.
What does this mean to writers? Without fear of snide remarks, we can publish ourselves. We can promote ourselves. Bedad, we can design our own covers! In the day of the Big Publisher, we weren’t allowed a single word about how our book would look. I always thought that how my books looked meant that the door in a big publishing house with a sign that read: Art Department opened into a broom closet.
If our work is worthy, we will sell. Maybe not quickly, maybe not to the masses, but it will pass into the hands of that truly beloved person out there waiting, a reader. And maybe it will sell quickly and to the masses. You never know. If it’s not worthy, we can still look at our work, bound or kindled or nooked, and know that we wrote it. It’s ours. No one can send us those horrid form letters writers used to paper their walls with. “We’re sorry, but your book isn’t suitable for us at this time.”
I’ve been lucky. I have an agent and it’s your agent who sees such things and doesn’t tell you. I’ve also known what it’s like to be published by the big names, quite a few of them. A moment’s heady rush and then the frustrating truth. If your book doesn’t sell well enough in its allotted time span (a matter of weeks), it’s literally trashed. Every unsold copy is destroyed.
But that too has changed. If you publish yourself you will never go out of print. Your books will never wind up on a tacky remand table for a buck a copy. My latest book, my one and only (so far) tale of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, will live as long as I do. And hopefully a lot longer.
As I said, the industry built on our hopes and our dreams and our talent once had the power to break our hearts. Only our writing, published or not, read or not, could mend it. But now their power is waning. Publish and be damned. Publish and be blessed. But bloody hell, publish. They can’t stop you. And they can’t trash you.