The Author's Corner
Queen of Shadows
TWPT: Everyone has some memories as to when they first felt the call of Wicca or Paganism in their lives, when was it that you began to realize that this path might be the one for you?
DS: I like to tell people that Mercedes Lackey made me a Pagan, though that isn't the whole story. The whole story is more like this: I grew up in a small Southern town in a Baptist household, and though we went to church regularly, I never felt the least bit spiritual.
The older I got, the less and less I cared about any of it; I was far more interested in fantasy novels and vampires.
About the time I turned sixteen, my parents sent me to a retreat weekend hoping it would put the church back in me. It was the kind of weekend where they take away your wristwatch and won't let you use the phone. One of my best friends went along too. She's a missionary in the Czech Republic now, and I'm a Wiccan priestess.
Strange how things work out.
I left that weekend feeling betrayed, but more importantly, I felt abandoned. Everyone there was "getting the spirit" and breaking down in tears, holding each other's hands to pray and singing their hearts out. I was empty. I couldn't understand what a sixteen year old could have done to make God ignore her. All I wanted to do was go outside and climb a tree, and I couldn't even do that; I had to sit in the pews and pretend that Jesus had called me too, and all the while I was wishing for...I donít know what. Or I didn't at the time.
Meanwhile, I had joined the Mercedes Lackey fan club. This was back before the Internet, so I had a lot of pen pals--on actual paper, not email. It was the good old days. One of those pen pals called herself a Witch, and I was pretty sure she was either crazy or trying to freak people out. I asked her what she meant, and she told me a little about this nature religion, about a Goddess and a God and a world where magic was more than just daydreams and novels, but something real that could change the world. She also gave me a list of books, but I laughed at that--there are no bookstores in my hometown, unless you count Wal-Mart.
TWPT: Do you think that it is a natural tendency of those who follow this path to enjoy the worlds created by fantasy authors? Why is that?
DS: I think so, though there are certainly Pagans who love all sorts of literature. I think the thing that draws us to fantasy is that we know in our hearts that magic is real, that the things we've dreamed and read about can happen, but our whole lives we're told the opposite. Most people have a very mundane upbringing--even devout Christians are told that God and saints, not average humans, can do miracles. We don't want to believe in a world without magic, so we seek refuge in fantasy novels where the rules we grew up with don't apply. Then some of us go on to find out that while there may not be talking horses and wizard schools, a lot of the magic we sensed in the world really does exist.
TWPT: Was there a pivotal moment when you stepped off of the path that you had been following and began your journey on your current path?
DS: That Fall I went to the Texas Renaissance Festival. They have a booth every year that sells books, mostly metaphysical titles. There, on the shelf, was Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. I had exactly enough money left to buy it. I stuck it in my bag and walked around the rest of the day feeling like a strange hybrid of fugitive and Queen of the World. It only took one reading--by flashlight, at night, under the covers--and the Goddess had me, no turning back.
TWPT: Was there any resistance that you remember from family or friends to this new choice in the direction your life was going to proceed?
DS: Almost no one in my family knows I'm a Pagan. Being out of the broom closet isn't that important to me, to be honest. I'm in the process of telling them individually. My brother thinks I'm kooky and probably going through a phase--of course, he doesn't know about the book yet. My missionary friend is adjusting to the idea; we've had some good discussions and will probably have a lot more. She's one of the few true Christians I know, living a life in the love of her God rather than the love of commercial religion.
TWPT: Were there any Wiccan/Pagan books that made a particularly strong impression on you back then?
DS: Of course there was the aforementioned Cunningham. I remember how devastated I was when I found out he died the year before I became Wiccan--I wanted so much to meet him one day. Later there was also The Spiral Dance, but for the first two years I only had the one book. No tools, just me and the gods. I'm thankful for that, actually, because I had a chance to figure out what I believed and what the sacred meant in my life without a lot of conflicting opinions. Sixteen is a very impressionable, and generally dumb, age.
TWPT: Fast forward to 2003 and the plethora of book titles that we currently have available that cover just about everything in the Wiccan/Pagan world, how is it that someone new to this path goes about finding the book or books that will help them best understand their growing spirituality?
DS: I wonder that myself, seeing some of what's out there. It takes the ability to read critically both with your mind and your heart, and unfortunately a lot of young people in particular haven't had time to develop that--or, they don't realize that not every author knows what she's talking about and that some people are just out to make a buck. I would never have believed that at sixteen. I was lucky. One advantage people have now, though, is the Internet--while there's a lot of conflicting information, there are plenty of people who agree in their "Must Read Booklists" so you can say to yourself, "Well, all ten of these sites liked Cunningham, so he's probably a safe bet."
You also have to listen to your Inner Crap Detector--if something sounds unethical or otherwise questionable, don't immediately think you're the one that's wrong. Do more research, find places online where people will answer your questions without treating you like an idiot, and trust the inner guidance of the Gods. That's the best advice I can give, really.
TWPT: When was it that your own writing began to bloom? Was this something that has always been with you or is this a recent development in your life?
DS: I've been writing since I could read. I started creating stories before I was even in kindergarten. Writing is the one thing I have always known I could excel at. It's my calling. I would write no matter what religion I was or what kind of life I led. My first love is fiction, but I realized that this gift the Goddess and God had given me could help other people find Their grace, so novels can wait. I have other work to do.
TWPT: What were your first impressions of the Wiccan/Pagan community once you began to acclimate yourself to your new path? Did you get out into the community and get to meet some of the members who walked the same path as you?
DS: I didn't meet a single Pagan in real life until I was eighteen and moved to Austin for college. My impressions were...mixed. I met some amazing people, and some total flakes. The first Witch I met thought she was a cat spirit in a human body, and spent an hour in the corner licking herself. I'm not kidding. I met her again five years later and she seems to have grown out of that, or learned to groom at home. Maybe someone bought her a lint roller.
The Community is a strange thing to me. On the one hand I have found the most influential and spiritual people I've ever known, and on the other hand I've had experiences that should have turned me off to the whole idea, if not to the whole human race. I had to come to understand that the Pagan Community is made up of human beings--clay-footed, strange, regular people just like me who find their way here through all sorts of channels. We have the same proportion of idiots and jerks as any other subculture, but our idiots and jerks wear black velvet cloaks in high Summer and call themselves CrystalWind SparklePony.
TWPT: When was it that the idea came to you to write about your Wiccan spirituality? Did you see a need that you might speak to with your words within the community?
DS: The longer I was in the Community, the more distressed I became with what I call "Festival Paganism," where people are only Wiccan or whatever eight times a year and then the robe goes back in the closet. There were a lot of people genuinely looking for Deity, but after the 101 level books on Wicca you have to forge your own path, and that can be overwhelming. Wiccans donít have a roadmap--there isn't anyone to tell us what to do to grow spiritually, and even in a coven situation the majority of your practice is at home, just you and your altar. We don't want to be babied or led by the hand, but we also need guideposts, suggestions. That was what I wanted to give people: tools to build their own practice. Maybe a little inspiration.
TWPT: So as a writer you are sort of a teacher/guide to those who buy your books. What kind of responsibility does that carry in your mind?
DS: It carries a huge responsibility, one I wish more authors would remember. A lot of writers are careless with their words, not realizing somewhere out there a newcomer will take what they said as gospel. It's hard for most seekers to realize (and some authors to admit) that we're just as human as anyone else, that we have bad hair days and lose our car keys and accidentally set things on fire during rituals just like everyone else does. Sometimes I feel I'm at a disadvantage being younger than your average Pagan author, since anyone under 30 automatically seems to get the "just a kid" treatment. People are always surprised when they meet me and find out I'm not older than I am.
TWPT: Tell me about the process that you go through when you first sit down with the seed of an idea that you would like to develop into a full fledged book.
DS: Well, considering this is the first time I've done it, I don't really have a process yet. The way it worked was, I had the idea, but it stayed on the back burner for months; I am the Queen of Procrastinators.
Then I had this really ridiculous dream involving Spider, essentially telling me now was the time and that I was officially being nagged by a Higher Power. I always know there's trouble brewing when Spider appears in my life--she means business. After that, though, all the problems I was having with focus and discipline fell away, and I wrote the entire thing in three months. As cheesy as it will probably sound, the whole thing was like a long continuous Drawing Down; I don't remember much of it, and to this day sometimes I read passages from the book and wonder, "Did I write that?" I just hope Spider doesn't decide to sue for copyright one of these days.
TWPT: Could you explain Spider and what this represents to you?
DS: Spider is what you might call my spirit nag. She isn't a totem for me as such, since she only appears at very specific times--when there's something I should be writing. Spiders have in some traditions been seen as the recordkeepers, who created the alphabet and who weave the history of the universe in their webs. Spider is also one of the sacred creatures of my particular Goddess, who is Herself a Weaver. I don't go to Spider in meditation or anything like that; she brings me messages and then goes her merry way...or sticks around until I get the point. I'll see web images and actual spiders everywhere for months until I realize what she expects of me. I talk more about her influence in the preface of The Circle Within.
TWPT: Do you think that a lot of the current book titles that are available to the Pagan community could be characterized as introductory books? Are there reasons why this might not be such a good thing?
DS: I think a good seventy percent of the titles out right now could be called introductory. Many barely even skim the surface. There are so many new seekers every year, and so few groups and teachers available compared to that number, that people have to turn to books to get the basics. That means that introductory level books sell very well, and publishing companies are just that--companies. In order to sell the intermediate and advanced titles (what few there are) they have to stay afloat financially, so it makes sense to me that there has been a glut of 101-level books for the past few years. Now, though, those of us who came to Paganism in the 90's are maturing past that level, so there is a new and widening market for more advanced books. Publishers are just now starting to respond to that demand, but if the trend continues I think the 101 craze will fade out eventually.
TWPT: Your new book The Circle Within is described as not being a book on beginning Wicca. As you were writing this book was having it aimed at an intermediate level of practitioner a conscious decision on your part?
DS: It was definitely a conscious decision. I had no interest in rehashing the same old beginning information; there are plenty of places to find that in print and on the Internet. My interest is in those who have already learned the vocabulary words, and who want to deepen their spirituality but arenít sure how to go about it.
TWPT: When considering the content of a work in progress what is it that makes something beginner level or intermediate or advanced material? Do you use your own experiences as a measuring stick for whether the information you are imparting is beginner or intermediate?
DS: I use my own experience and that of the people I know. Sometimes I think if I see one more correspondence table Iíll go stark raving mad. To me, beginner level books all seem to have certain things in common: charts of Elemental associations, glossaries and pictures of ritual tools, and endless lists of what Deity ďgoes withĒ what magical operation. A lot of them use what I call ďplug and play mythology,Ē where you pick a god or goddess to invoke entirely based on what you want out of the ritual, not out of a deeper spiritual connection with that deity. That upsets me--whether you view them as archetypes or discrete individuals, the gods are not magical tools.
Beginner books also almost always have the obligatory Love Spell Rant--never do love spells on specific people, yadda yadda yadda.
The ethics in such books are usually very cut and dried, without a lot of philosophical exploration. Deity gets maybe one chapter out of the whole book, usually after the ďHistory of WiccaĒ (donít get me started on that) and right before the chapter on Tools. Theyíre all very cookie-cutter these days.
An advanced book, in my mind, asks more questions than it answers.
It makes you think, makes you reconsider what you learned in the 101 books. What makes spiritual sense to you? Why do you do things the way you do? How could you do them better, to get more out of them?
How can the practices youíve learned, or new ones, enrich your relationship with Deity?
TWPT: Could you give our readers some idea as to what they can expect from your book The Circle Within.
DS: The Circle Within is a small book, but I think it gives a lot of food for thought. It discusses how to create a daily, meaningful spiritual practice that will bring you closer to your gods, Whoever They might be. Itís not aimed at a particular tradition or pantheon, but at anyone looking to grow spiritually. Itís not for those who want to be spoon-fed religion. I hope it will challenge people at least a little bit. The second section of the book is a sort of Book of Shadows, samples of prayers and rituals to spark peopleís imaginations. I wanted readers to see that a devotional practice doesnít have to involve prostration and humiliation, but can be built of joy and reverence. Wicca is a joyful religion, or at least it should be.
TWPT: Do you think that enough of the material that has come out in the last few years has focused sufficiently on the spirituality of Wicca?
DS: Absolutely not. Spells and bells are easier--not only do they sell well, but they are simpler to write about. It takes a certain balance of pragmatism and poetry to speak effectively about Deity; you have to be able to communicate the experience of religious passion without sounding like a total zealot. I donít know if I accomplish that, but it was my goal. Even those who write about spirituality often sound like theyíre talking about Uncle Pan and Aunt Freya, rather than the awesome beauty and radiance I have felt in Circle. Granted, there are notable exceptions. The Spiral Dance still stands out as an inspirational work in that regard; Phyllis Curottís work is also wonderful. Those are two of a handful of authors still writing that have been my greatest influences.
TWPT: Why is it important to be more than a "Sabbat only Wiccan"?
DS: For the same reason itís important not to be a fair-weather friend.
You will only get out of a relationship what you put into it; it stands to reason that, in order to experience the full spectrum of Divine love and grace, you have to work at it, be present. Many of us were raised going to church once a week--a few had prayers at mealtimes, but rarely more than that. My upbringing was religious: we did things with the church. It wasnít spiritual. I had no personal relationship with God. No one ever told me that was possible. Once you have sown that relationship, however, you have to water and feed and care for it or it will never thrive.
TWPT: Your book also takes a look at ethics and standards of behavior. With such an eclectic group like we have within our community how in the world does anyone figure out just what is acceptable or not?
DS: I canít speak for the entire Pagan community; Wiccans have the Rede, which is a good start, but it only gives you a goal to work toward, not a lot in the way of practical advice. In The Circle Within I discuss a concept I call ďThe Wiccan Graces.Ē These are concepts that the individual chooses as his or her own spiritual and ethical ideals: things like compassion, integrity, even humor. These Graces can then be applied to everyday life: what did I do today that showed the world my integrity? How can I best embody the Goddess and God through my ideals? No two people will have exactly the same Graces; compassion might not be as important to you as, say, strength. The important thing is to remember that, as we enact these ideals, we are acting as the Earthly manifestations of Deity. I do think that people have an inherent sense of right and wrong; they may choose to ignore it, as is our right as free-thinking human beings.
Wiccans view the universe as Goddess and God incarnate; we should, then, have high standards for our own behavior. We are a religion of clergy, not blind followers, and deep down we know how to act accordingly.
Weíll all screw up, of course. Thatís the beauty of Wicca--this isnít our only shot, and there isnít a final judgment waiting to tally up all our wrongs against us. We have many chances to set things right, and every day we get 24 new hours to be a positive force in the world. We do the best with what we know and try to do better every day. Wicca operates from a basic belief in the decency of people, as well as our ability to learn and evolve.
TWPT: You mentioned in an earlier question that you were relatively young for a Wiccan author, do you think that this might work to your advantage in the sense that you are approaching the subject with a new perspective?
DS: As big a challenge as my age can be, itís also a great asset. A lot of the older folk in the community are very Traditionalist and can occasionally be close-minded. Some are overtly threatened by anyone who comes along trying to shake things up. I love being part of a religion thatís still evolving; Wicca is young and still unsteady on its feet, and everyone has the opportunity to help shape its future.
Coming at it with youth and idealism on my side I feel I can really have an effect on my religion, and thatís at once humbling and wonderful. Iíve seen how it can backfire; my coven sister and dear friend published a book that has been ripped up one side and down the other by a lot of Traditionalists, even to the point that her personal life has been attacked online by adults who should know better. There is a lot of fear in the community of what is in my mind inevitable: the religion that Gardner helped create canít stay the same forever.
The secrecy is over--for better or for worse, Wicca has passed into American hands, and thereís no going back. I think the older generation is such a valuable resource and has so much to offer all of us here on the ďfrontierĒ that it saddens me to see many older folk (by older I mean people who have been practicing for decades, not just people of a particular age) throw their hands up in disgust rather than helping make sure the past remains a vital part of the future. They can say that only coven-trained lineaged Gardnerians are real Wiccans, and maybe that's true, but theyíre fighting a losing battle. That which does not grow and change will stagnate and eventually die. I would rather help create something that I know will help people live better and more fulfilling lives than sit on the sidelines wishing things were still like they used to be. But then, what do I know? I've only been Wiccan for ten years. *laugh*
TWPT: You mentioned in a previous answer that there were always going to be more students than teachers because of the large influx of new people following this path, what kind of advice would you offer for those who get most of their information out of the books that are found at their local libraries or the few titles that they can afford to buy?
DS: I always say there are three important parts of learning Wicca: study, experience, and common sense. First of all, read everything you can get your hands on--but more importantly, read critically. As I said, there are a few authors that are pretty well recommended by most of the websites out there--and if you get one book you like, it will most likely have a bibliography or reading list at the back that can be helpful. Second, just reading isn't enough; you have to do the exercises, do the rituals, meditate. Establish some kind of regular practice; even ten minutes a day can change your life. Books are nothing but paper and ink; their power lies in what you do with the words.
Third, don't check your brain at the door. Just as in any religion there will always be people who want to exploit your belief--just because someone says he's a Wiccan doesn't mean he is. There's no central regulating agency that issues Wicca licenses. If people or ideas make you uncomfortable, that's your subconscious warning you about something. Maybe it's just prior conditioning you have to grow past, but then again maybe not. Donít rush into joining a coven just because you think you canít be a Witch alone--study on your own for a while, or find a study group that doesnít ask for an initiatory commitment. Also, donít become a Wiccan just because you arenít a Christian. If youíve been called away from the faith of your birth, do some exploring before choosing a new one and decide for yourself if Wicca is right for you, and youíre right for it. God reveals him/herself to everyone differently. Now, if the Goddess comes to you and says "Okay, youíre Mine now, break out the candles and incense and letís go," that narrows your choices a little.
TWPT: What are your thoughts on the whole process of taking your ideas from conception to finished book on a shelf? Are there things that you might do differently for the 2nd or 3rd books that you write?
DS: My writing process is very loose and free. I stew over an idea for months sometimes before putting a single word on paper. Then I outline very haphazardly, decide what each chapter will deal with, and just start writing. I revise as I go, so that the first "draft" is really the only draft until an editor has a go at it. The publishing process is really fascinating to me; I had no idea how any of it worked, or why it takes so long to get a book on the shelf.
Now it makes sense. I donít know any other way to write, thoughómy way involves a lot of late nights and aching fingers. The first book was finished before anyone saw it, so Iíve never written a book under contract; that would probably be a different story. More late nights, more caffeine.
TWPT: What are your thoughts of taking your ideas on the road and teaching to live audiences at festivals or conferences? Is that something that you can see yourself doing in a few years?
DS: I have a mortal dread of public speaking, but thatís slowly, slowly changing. I became a writer in part because I couldnít express myself verbally, so suddenly having to do book signings and so forth has been hard for me. Now, though, a friend--the coven sister I mentioned earlier--and I are starting an organization here in Austin to teach and provide further study and fellowship for people who donít want to join covens, so Iím having to take a more active role as a priestess than ever before. Iíve always been painfully shy, but I knew deep down from the beginning that I was going to have to get over myself in order to fulfill the role the Lord and Lady have set before me. So I can see myself doing a lot of that sort of thing in a few years--I can also see myself freaking out and hiding under the furniture, but that will change as I gain more confidence in myself. Itís still really hard to believe that when people come to these events theyíre actually there to hear me talk.
TWPT: You talk about the change that is happening to Wicca being inevitable so what kind of suggestions do you have for how the current elders of this community might bridge the gap between those who will be the next generation of Wiccans and themselves?
DS: Since Wiccans donít have Scripture, we have three major sources of learning: how-to books, experience, and elders. Community elders are so vital both to share knowledge and to give us a sense of history, even if that history is no more than fifty years. We all want to feel connected to something greater, otherwise we would have no community at all, and itís of utmost importance that those who have been around more than five or ten years be willing to share their knowledge with the younger generation. That doesnít have to mean teaching classes or taking students. It could just be teaching by example, showing the younger folk what it really means to live your life as a Wiccan, and above all to walk the talk. There are many, many elders who do this already--Iím not in any way saying that everyone out there is some narrow-minded FundamentaPagan. The trend, however, seems to be that elders disappear from the community because there are so many flakes and idiots, but that leaves the true seekers, those who would one day be elders themselves, with very little guidance. I would say to the elders, donít give up on the community. Donít give up on the young. If only one in every ten new Wiccans turns out to be serious, isnít that one worth the effort of offering a friendly hand?
TWPT: Have you gotten any feedback from the community about your book The Circle Within or is it still a little too soon for that? What's the consensus so far?
DS: I get at least two emails a week right now telling me the book has influenced someoneís practice, or that they were so glad to finally see this kind of work on the shelves. They say the most wonderful things. I was so nervous before the book went into print; itís kind of that sending-your-child-off-to-kindergarten feeling, where youíve worked so hard to raise and nurture someone or something and then the world gets its paws on it and all bets are off. The feedback so far has been absolutely postitive. Itís still very soon, but I have two five-star reviews on Amazon.com that sent my heart through the roof when I read them. Itís being used in study groups and book discussions already, which is amazing. Word of mouth is a great thing.
TWPT: Within the community where is it that you would like to see some changes take place over the next few years?
DS: Iíd like to see Wicca taken seriously by the greater religious community, but Iím afraid that might be a long time coming. Iíd also like to see more community building--real community, not just one night a month to get drunk together or eight festivals that arenít much better than clothing-optional frat parties. Like it or not, every last one of us is a representative of our religion; the minute someone finds out Iím Wiccan they start forming an opinion of us based on my behavior. That holds true for all of us. We are the hands of the God and Goddess; that means so much more than cool tools and spells and taking off from work for Samhain. It means we donít practice our religion, we are our religion, from dawn to dusk and from blood to bones.
TWPT: Are you going to be promoting your book at a any bookstores or events over the next few months? Do you have another book in mind :at this point or are you going to wait and see how this all works out with the current title before moving along to the next?
DS: Right now I only have one event planned at a Pagan store here in Austin, Natural Magic. I think itís December 6. Iím sure Llewellyn will have other fun things for me to do in the future. Iím a newcomer so it may be a while before people have any idea who I am, but that doesnít bother me. Iím a lot more interested in people reading the book and getting something out of it. The idea of being a ďPagan CelebrityĒ terrifies me.
I did have another book idea in the works, but I found out someone else is already writing it, so Iím back to the drawing board. I will most likely still use the idea in some form, but it needs to have a bit of an overhaul. I think my next project, aside from the class Iím co-teaching and the organization I mentioned earlier, will be revamping my website and creating new content for it. The next book will come when itís good and ready to be born, I suppose.
TWPT: Any final thoughts that you might like to share with our readers in regards to some of the key points of your book?
DS: I can only hope that Iíve managed to communicate to people the elegance and beauty that I find in Wicca. To misquote Chesterton, to me itís less a religion and more of a love affair of the soul. There is a depth and grace to Wicca that isnít obvious on the surface; the only way to find it is to nurture your connection with Deity and let Them lead you in the dance. They are the music, and itís up to us to find the steps that bring us closer together.
TWPT: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to us. Even though this is only the beginning for you I'm sure that we will be hearing more from you in the coming years. Good luck.