Talks to Lisa McSherry
TWPT: When was it that you first realized that the spiritual
path that you are currently on was the one for you and was there an event that
triggered this response?
LM: Yes and no. When I was a young girl, I was very interested
in being Catholic (to the dismay of my atheist father and ‘recovering Catholic’
mother) which I discovered when I attended one of their schools. I loved the
ritual, I loved the mystery, and I truly felt a connection with God. Even after
I started attending public school, I went on my own time to services and
although I didn’t have a cross in my room or anything remotely resembling a
regular worship practice, I did get into the habit of ‘reaching out’ to God and
talking with him when I was upset.
Just before I turned 13 an upsetting incident occurred, but
when I turned to God for comfort, he simply wasn’t there. A void existed and I
was plunged into despair. I spent about a year looking into alternate paths to
him – Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Anglican, Judaism, and a bit of ‘Left Hand’ stuff
(so seductive to an adolescent!).
But it was my mother’s copy of Spiral Dance that did it.
There was a nearly visceral ‘click’ when I started reading about the Goddess. I
didn’t hear the ‘hallelujah’ chorus or have a vision, but the feeling of
absolute rightness was palpable. At Samhain that year (just after I turned 13)
I held a simple ceremony in my room and dedicated myself to the Goddess as Her
TWPT: Prior to this point did you have any kind of spiritual
background or exposure to other spiritual paths?
LM: I think I covered that in #1. But I will add that my core
family is mostly Irish, with a hefty dose of Polish. So Catholicism was *the*
religion in our family. As far as I know, until my parent’s generation, no one
married outside the faith.
TWPT: What was it about this path's beliefs that first struck
you as being very unique and different from what you had been taught about
spirituality up to this point in your life?
LM: First and foremost – it was the direct connection. The fact
that I didn’t need to go to church to talk to God was already a part of my
experience. Finding a religion that made that the point was refreshing.
Secondly, it was finding a God that looked like me (if you
will). As an adolescent it was important for me to be able to find security in
a deity that knew, intimately, what it was like to be a woman. (I have a
slightly more refined vision now, but at the time it seemed to me that God’s
omniscience didn’t really cover things like menstruation and horny sex.)
TWPT: How did you go about learning about this path once you
had decided to follow it? Were there helpful books, organizations or people
that acted as guides during those formative years?
LM: Books were my guides for years. I was lucky, I grew up inSan Francisco and it was
relatively easy to find occult bookstores – even when they were called feminist
bookstores. Drawing Down the Moon was another book my mother already owned, but
I found Diane Mariechild and Shakti Gawain on my own. Sybil Leek and some crazy
male author (I forget who, but he had a very ‘Christian’ take on witchcraft
that I found appalling, even though I kept the book for a long time) were
others that I read.
In true solitary fashion, I did a lot of figuring out things
for myself. I’d try a ritual the way it was written, and the next time I would
alter it to something that was more my style, or where it seemed appropriate. I
didn’t do a lot of spell work (mostly because I couldn’t always see the ethics)
but I did a lot of magick.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I felt comfortable
enough to start talking to others about my practices and working with others.
TWPT: What were some of your first impressions of the
Wiccan/Pagan community at large once you started to meet some of the folks who
were walking the same path as you?
Sorry, but it’s true. Let me place that in context: I was
raised by hippies and even lived in a commune for awhile. We were composting
and raising our own food in the middle of SF for years. The house didn’t do the
‘free love’ thing, but there was certainly a lot of ‘find your path’ going on.
So, I finally step out into the Pagan world as an adult and
what do I find? Hippies. It didn’t take long to see that there were
people who looked like hippies, but had their act together, and those who
couldn’t find an act if it was scripted for them.
I felt like an oddball in an oddball community.
TWPT: On reflection back to that time did you see the community
as having a cohesiveness or was it pretty much just scattered
individuals/groups that occasionally met together during festivals and
gatherings? Do you see us as having made much progress since that time in
forming communities and seeing the larger picture?
LM: It felt like there was a pretty cohesive community, with
many individuals and smaller groups joining the larger for particular events,
but not on a regular occasion. (Just to place this in context, this was in theSacramento,CA
area, in the late 80s. Damn, I feel old when I think about how long ago that
I have to say that I just wasn’t enough past the
self-centeredness of adolescence to think about whether there were witches and
Pagans all over the country. Margot Adler told me there were, and that was
enough for me.
TWPT: Did you always enjoy writing or was that something that
started after you began to follow this path?
LM: That’s a bit tricky to answer since I started practicing
witchcraft so young. I can say that I always did well in my English classes and
enjoyed writing when I could find a good ‘hook’ to write about.
For me, writing is easiest when I stick to non-fiction, and
I write about what I know. (Which is the advice ‘they’ always give to new
writers.) I could, theoretically write about what I think I know, but I feel it
shows up in the writing – it just isn’t as solid as when I am talking about
what I know.
I also resisted the fact that I am a writer for a long time.
Even after I published a book I wouldn’t call myself a writer. Mostly because
it isn’t something I do full time, and because it can be difficult or me to
write on a regular basis. I have to have the Muse with me. If she isn’t there,
I’ve got nothing to say.
TWPT: Like you the internet was important to my finding and
learning about Wicca. Tell me about how you moved out onto the internet for the
first time looking for information about being Wiccan/Pagan and what it was
that you found when you got there.
LM: I was a latecomer to the Internet. I didn’t really get
online until late 1996, and I joined an online ‘wicca 101’ class in 1997. That
class evolved into one of the first cyber covens, ShadowMoon. Prior to that,
I’d dabbled a bit with Prodigy and the early AOL chat rooms, but I didn’t have
regular access and always felt weird about checking it out at work.
But ShadowMoon was perfect for me. After all of those years
of working solitary, I found a class that filled in all of the cracks and
details you just don’t easily get from books. My teacher (Mystara) had a solid
background in a traditional training system and she imparted a huge amount of
data in a short period of time.
TWPT: When was it that you decided that you'd like to share
your ideas and thoughts in book form and how did you go about approaching a
publisher with your proposal?
LM: Back in 1999 I was laid off from work, and it took about 6
months to find a new job. By then I was working towards my 2* and had
re-organized ShadowMoon’s class into a structured learning system; I’d also
created a data-intensive online Book of Shadows open to everyone. So I took the
gift of time and started writing about everything we were doing online –
training, rituals, spell work, all of it. I just wrote about what I knew.
That became CyberCoven.Org: Creating and Maintaining
Magickal Groups Online. When I felt I had a book, I researched how to write
book proposals (my grateful thanks to the Public Library system) and sent it
out, with sample chapters and a detailed Table of Contents to basically all of
the ‘Pagan’ publishers. Mostly I got rejection letters, but they were nice
Eventually, Red Wheel/Weiser accepted my manuscript and
published about half of it as The Virtual Pagan: Exploring Wicca and Paganism
Online. That is (in my mind the ‘beginner’s book.’ The second half of that
material I self-published as a PDF under the original title of CyberCoven.Org.
TWPT: Let's talk about your book Virtual Pagan. I was involved
in the early days of the Prodigy community Wiccan/Pagan boards/chat and into
irc chat. Do you look back on those mediums and other similar mediums as
foundational to becoming "virtual" communities?
LM: Absolutely! There is an essay I wrote a number of years ago
that traces the ‘history’ of paganism on the Internet. There were virtual
rituals held as early as the mid-80s, and the connections people made online
were incredibly important to the later surfacing of Pagans in theUnited States.
We are a very secretive religion, and we lack structure. It
is all too easy to feel that you are the only one in your geographic area that
worships as you do. But when you are no longer restricted by geography, there
can be a huge surge of confidence and growth as you reach out to find others
Howard Rheingold published the seminal work on virtual
community in his 1993 book of the same title. He was a founding member of WELL
and his discussions of how people create community online in the pre-WWW times
is fascinating. Of course, once the WWW was implemented everything got HUGE
very quickly. It was amazing.
TWPT: Do you see the virtual as something that can fully
displace the physical in some instances and still meet the needs of the
LM: Fully displace? Hmmmm . . . Technically, yes, and in some
instances. There is a phrase that runs through our community to the effect that
“a good magick-user can Work naked in the desert with no tools.” That, to me,
is an example of virtual working. But in reality, there is almost always
something physical, even if it is just the use of a computer to interface with
the astral/cyber plane.
I have done healing rituals, initiations, sabbats and esbats
online, so I know that if it is done on the physical plane, it can be done on
the virtual. But Working virtually is easier (or more focused) if it
incorporates physical elements. For example, one abundance ritual we do
involves cinnamon and eggs – infused with healing energy during the ritual and
then eaten (with intent) the next morning. That, to me, is a good Working.
Some people won’t find virtual work satisfying, and I think
it is wise of them to recognize that and go with it. Personally, I’ll take any
virtual ritual over some of the lackluster physical rituals I’ve attended over
TWPT: Tell me about your efforts to work cyber rituals, to
hold cyber meetings, to offer cyber teachings or just to run a cyber coven all
LM: (laughing) I’m tempted just to point you to my website full
of essays and The Virtual Pagan.
My coven holds an open Full Moon ritual each year (usually
in April) and it is a wonderful experience. One advantage we have is that since
we’ve been holding rituals online for 10 years now (including my pre-JaguarMoon
time) we are really good at it. We know how to prep people, how to set the
mood, and how to hold the energy. In fact, I think it is MUCH easier to shape
energy online than physically, although the energy is usually not as intense.
For us, it is important to keep the technology as minimal
and as ‘low’ as possible. I understand those who desire to create entire
virtual environments via graphics and avatars – and I think it’s a lovely idea.
I’d certainly be interested in participating. But I have no interest in
creating such an environment (I’m an absolute end user when it comes to
technology. I don’t understand why or how it works; I just know the result I
want to get). As a result, we can usually get even technological newbies to
join us on IRC (where we hold ‘real time’ meetings, lessons, and rituals). So its
more of a timing issue (what time is it where you are and where I am?) than
Cyber work has its good points and bad. It is incredibly
easy to start a cyber group, but not so easy to have it continue through the
years. My ‘mother’ coven, ShadowMoon doesn’t exist anymore, for example and it
took us more than five years to birth a daughter coven. I’ve been working
online for about 10 years now, and my life has a certain rhythm to it as a
I am blessed to have great people to work with – I don’t do
it alone (at least not anymore). I have a wonderful High Priest who leads
rituals, works with me on re-creating rituals and does a damn good job of
mentoring. He’s also our webweaver. The other two coven members share ritual
responsibilities, administrative duties, mentoring and are starting to lead
rituals as well. Although I am the primary teacher, we are all going to be
teaching more-or-less equally through next year’s cycle of classes.
I am fully aware that it is not for everyone, and I don’t
mind that I am (once again) a minority in a group of minorities.
TWPT: What are the shortcomings and what are the advantages
of working this way?
LM: The shortcomings all have to do with text-based
communication, which is far less fluid and informative than face-to-face
communication. Online, no one can tell if you are feeling blue, or want a hug.
You have to say ‘I feel blue.’ Which can be very difficult. It is also easy to
misunderstand someone. Calling someone an idiot can be teasing if accompanied by
a laugh, but in print even a ‘smilie’ (:)) might not reduce the ‘ouch factor’.
It takes a lot of self-responsibility and awareness to
communicate well online. And let me hasten to add that although I do all right,
I am by no means perfect at it! Mostly, if there is even a little negative
emotion happening, I check my writing with another person – a coven mate, or my
partner. Just to make sure I don’t have a snarky undertone or that the point I
am trying to make comes through.
The advantages are largely geographic. We don’t have to
leave our house to attend a coven meeting, or a ritual. Talking with a friend
or creating spontaneous ritual is as easy as logging on and making the
connection. Communication happens throughout the day, not just once a week (or month
or sabbat). If we truly are the only Pagan in our town, we don’t have to
This can be enormously helpful to those who are physically
challenged. Some of the biggest difficulties of getting to and participating in
ritual are simply not a factor when working online. If you can be at a computer
for 1-2 hours (and not necessarily sitting), you can do ritual or participate
in a lesson.
TWPT: The ultimate question would be for those heavily
involved in the cyber world is do we need face to face contact at all to be
able to be a fully functioning member of the Wiccan/Pagan community?
LM: I think so. Not so much to be a fully functioning member,
but if you are going to do anything outside of your circle, eventually you need
to go look at people. Besides, its fun to dance around a circle occasionally.
I’m not a fan of extremes and so I (perhaps surprisingly)
don’t advocate a 100% cyber practice. If nothing else, we are Pagans and we do
need to get outside and ‘hang’ with nature.
Personally, I’m incredibly shy and meeting new people
(strangers!) is enormously difficult for me. This always makes people laugh
because I’m friendly and go out to pagan gatherings all over the place and talk
about what I know. My inclination is more along the lines of never leaving the
house. But it isn’t healthy for me to be so introspective and so I make myself
get out and talk. But I probably, no definitely, wouldn’t do it if I didn’t
feel like it was a part of my service to the community.
TWPT: Your latest book is called Magickal Connections and is
about creating a lasting and healthy spiritual group. Was there something in
particular that motivated you to write this book?
LM: A few years ago, at one of my speaking engagements, I got
into a discussion with a well-known Witch who absolutely ranted about how awful
the witch community was about gossip, slander and creating ‘witch wars.’ It was
this person’s opinion that not only are we our own worst enemies, but that the
Fundamentalists were actively targeting us. It got me to thinking about the
training we receive (personal and non-personal). I realized that my background
in psychology and sociology had been a great help to me in leading my own
group, but that many of us lacked this training.
And lo, Magickal Connections was born.
TWPT: What are some of the main problems with forming and
maintaining a functional group that meets the needs of the members over the
LM: First and foremost, a lack of serious introspection and
self-awareness on the part of the leader(s). I see a lot of groups, especially
online, that are formed with essentially no thought beyond how fun (or cool) it
would be to be a High Priest/ess.
Secondly, a lack of serious thought for the current and
future plans. A group based around doing ritual has very different needs than
one based on teaching, for example. Everything is different: Who you look to
recruit, or accept into the group; when you meet; who takes on which roles;
Third, and finally, the ability to deal with conflict.
Conflict can be healthy and useful, but we more often see it as absolutely
destructive. It takes a healthy ego to be able to accept criticism and create
positive change (see my first point, above). It also takes guts to be able to
transform a destructive situation into a constructive one. As well, there is a
time when a healthy group must undergo a period of conflict to remain healthy.
TWPT: Is the information contained in Magickal Connections
drawn from your own experiences of being involved with a variety of groups?
LM: Absolutely. As I said, I write about what I know.
TWPT: If you could only offer one piece of advice through this
interview to those who are contemplating joining or forming a magickal group
what would it be?
LM: Be sure of what you want, and (if starting a group) that it
is what the God/dess wants for you. If you are in it for ego you will be
TWPT: I've often seen seminars, workshops and courses offered
in leadership training. How important is this kind of training as it relates to
running a group of your own? Does this need to be taught by elders and others
who are qualified teachers or can you just pick it up from reading books about
leadership and applying the ideas? Can leadership be taught?
LM: I think leadership training, no matter where you get it
from, can only help. For magickal groups, being able to work with a leader -–
good OR bad – is enormously valuable. (Being able to say to yourself ‘I will
NOT do that’ is as useful as ‘I have to remember that.’) You can pick up a lot
from books and they can be great reminders of principles and techniques. But if
you get your training from reading, remember that you will very likely need to
use it before it really becomes a skill. (Although, that is true for me – I
have a hard time truly understanding something until I do it/see it done. It’s
a slow way to learn, but I never forget a lesson.)
Leadership can definitely be taught. Some people are lucky
to be born leaders – they have charisma and intuition and are just good at it.
Others, like me, need to be taught (and are often reluctant to recognize their
abilities). One of the best things I did for myself when taking on the role of
leader was that I surrounded myself with people I trusted to tell me the truth,
even when (especially when!) I was making a mistake. Having that support got me
through the years when I really felt like I was making it all up. Then I
learned enough to start asking better questions and seeking out training from
other sources and people.
I’m still learning, and I feel that I always will be.
TWPT: Does writing get easier the more you do it? What did you
learn from writing your first book that you applied to your second book?
LM: Remember that there was a five year gap between books (and
it will likely be about five years before my next one is published, even though
I already know what I want to say). In between the two I’d started writing much
more frequently for magazines and online publications. I’d also been an editor
at The Beltane Papers for a number of years. So my skills as a writer and
editor had developed dramatically. (Before TVP my last writing had been in
college.) So it was more a matter of refinement for me.
I knew how to write a book proposal (and I got the same
number of rejections for book 2 as 1) but my marketing proposal was better
developed since I’d learned a lot about that aspect. Interestingly, the 2nd
book took about half as long to edit – there just wasn’t that much for the
editor to do! (I couldn’t believe it at first, I kept asking her when she was
going to tell me to re-format whole sections or something.)
TWPT: When you make appearances at conferences what is the
most positive outcome that you can imagine from someone taking your class and
listening to you teach? What is it that
you personally get out of the interaction that you have with those who come to
hear you speak?
LM: That they learned something. Which happens a lot. Every
class I’ve given I have people nodding their heads, laughing as they recognize
an example I give, and offering their own examples. It is great!
I’ve been speaking for years and I regard it as part of my
community service. When I talk with people about what I’ve learned and they say
‘Oh, that is JUST what is going on in my group’ I know I’ve opened a door and
helped and otherwise total stranger.
TWPT: Tell me about the writing that you do outside of writing
books. Is this shorter form writing as fulfilling for you as putting out a new
LM: Absolutely. I like completing tasks and writing shorter
pieces gets me fulfilled faster.
TWPT: Will you be out on the road during 2007 doing some of
the conferences and festivals? Anything that you are particularly looking
LM: I had a great time at the Toronto Pagan Conference in early
March, and we’ve already talked about my coming back for a couple of talks
again next year. In late April I’ll be at the Ecumenicon interfaith Conference
(http://ecumenicon.org/conference/details ) in Baltimore doing my trademark
talks on group dynamics. After that I am heading to London, UK where I hope to
set up a few talks or at least meetings.
That is all I have planned, but I am always looking to find
new groups or events to attend.
TWPT: What are your hopes for the Wiccan/Pagan community
(virtual and physical) in the coming years? What are some of the critical
things that we should all be working on or towards?
LM: It looks like we are coming out of a rough period where we
were growing and going public and there was a lot of ‘fire’ energy we had to
work through. We seem to be doing a lot better, at least on the surface. I
still hear stories of negative politics, but they don’t seem to be tearing
whole communities apart like they once did.
I think we need to deal with the ramifications of growing
faster than one-to-one training can cope with, and people who are ‘earning’
degrees through reading and passing multiple choice exams with no ritual or
I also think we need to work on the problem of predators in
our community. Aspects of the Pagan lifestyle and belief system(s) are
vulnerable nasty people who only care about satisfying themselves. We need to
get better about sharing information and protecting the newcomers.
TWPT: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with your readers
as we close out this interview?
LM: I view my writing and sharing my thoughts with the community
as a participative process. I speak, others speak and we all learn more than we
knew before. Although facingnorth.net is the review site I created as a
community resource, and jaguarmoon.org is my coven’s site, my main website is
cybercoven.org, and that is where a lot of my writing can be found.
Thank you for such an enjoyable interview.