Tori Amos once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that choosing her favorite song was like choosing a favorite child, and that whichever she didn’t choose would feel the rejection. That’s the way I feel about choosing just one book that has influenced me.
Before I tell you the winner, let me at least tell you who was in the running, so I don’t feel as guilty. On Writing by Stephen King, IT by Stephen King, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, and anything by Joyce Carol Oates.
I still feel guilty. So many of my favorites hung out to dry.
But there must be a winner. And that lucky book is . . . The Mists of Avalon!
For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it’s about the Arthurian legend, told predominantly from the point of view of Morgan le Fey (Morgaine as Bradley calls her) and focuses on the struggles and adventures of the women involved in this tale.
I read this book at two dramatically different times in my life. First as a 17-year old, and then as a 30-year old, and I must say that the second experience of reading it was as exhilarating and as meaningful as the first. This is a common concern: that I’ll revisit my favorite books, only to find them lackluster and wilted with the years. But not so in this case.
At 17, I was just beginning to come into my feminism. I wasn’t quite sure what that word meant to me, or how it would shape my life. When my best friend turned me on to MOA, the first thing that struck me was that this was a novel about women, told in their voices. At the time, that was a revolutionary thought, and it made sudden sense to me. Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin are all well and good, but there are so many women who play pivotal roles in the legend—let’s hear about them! I liked that Bradley doesn’t just give voice to Gwenhwyfar (who has always been a heavy-hitter), but she recasts Morgaine, exhumes her from the dustbin of witchery, haggery, deformity, and places her within that iconic triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Gwenhwyfar as a powerful character. In fact, Bradley crafts a whole mess of triangles (feminist, much?) and throws her characters from one to the other, showing that stories—and history, perhaps—are shaped and reshaped. Stories are malleable.
So, at 17, I was struck by the blatant woman-ness of the novel. It made me feel strong and wise, and it tapped into my feelings of sensuality and desire.
At 30, I had much the same reaction. I was just as excited to read the first few lines (“Morgaine speaks . . . In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen . . . ), I was just as tapped into that feeling of sensuality, I was just as interested in the range of women Bradley develops and in their public and private concerns. And I had the same distaste and frustration with the ending, which I won’t elaborate on here (in case you want to read the book yourself).
Besides affecting me in terms of my feminism, the book influenced my writing as well. First of all, MOA gave me permission (that I clearly needed) to write about women. Second, it showed me that even if I was writing about the Arthurian legend, or 19th century mining towns, or how I felt that day about a boy, there should be a running current of real, relatable, human concerns. Everything that goes on in MOA has to do with power, lust, hope, betrayal, love and forgiveness — despite what other fantastical things might be happening — and those are feelings/experiences we all know and can access. I learned (and am still learning) to use those big feelings, especially when I’m writing something that seems obscure or strange. Readers will relate if you give them something to relate to. Another thing I learned from MOA is something that I brought up in my introductory post; this thing about intentionally shifting focus from the heavy-hitters, the big guns, the main attraction, so to speak, and focusing instead on the periphery. For Bradley, Morgaine was peripheral, as was her mother, Igraine, and as were so many other women in the Arthurian legend. Peripheral, or nonexistent. Bradley chose to put these characters front and center, and create other characters that reflected common, relatable problems women (and men, for that matter) face.
Lastly, I learned that writing can interweave both fact and fiction, that I can take what serves me most in what is out there—news stories, legends, historical accounts— and zoom in on what interests me so that I can focus, shift, add to, and reshape them to make something new.