Heroes Week: Roger Zelazny

I missed yesterday's entry in my self-declared People I Admire Week (more deftly called Heroes Week by my pal Tom Bridge). Sorry about that, folks; much of my life was temporarily disrupted over an amusing vignette involving my husband, a side-impact airbag, and a little old lady in a Chrysler Sebring*.

There's also a Facebook group for like minds now; please play along!

But enough meta-level stuff, let's get to the point, shall we? My next personal creative hero is Roger Zelazny. This one requires a bit of exposition first, so please bear with me.

When I was growing up, everybody was always telling me how I should grow up to be a writer. Teachers, relatives, friends. Me? I never really thought about it one way or the other, to be honest. And sure, I knew how to string words together to make my point in an essay, and I spent more than one summer writing incredibly embarrassing adolescent ElfQuest fanfic with and for a close friend, but I never had that moment when lightning strikes and you think: "THAT. That is what I want to be doing." It was my path of least resistance, and like any good electron, I went along for the ride. There was no element of volition for me.

I did have a different sort of moment, though, one sultry Florida summer when I was dawdling in the bath and reading a book, as was my habit. My mom had an occasional subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club, and this time around I was reading a book of short stories I'd read a few years before -- probably closer to when it came out. At the time I'd been too young to get the most out of it, but old enough to know bits of it were passing me by.

So there I was, maybe 13 or 14 years old, bored, wet, re-reading a book of shorts by Roger Zelazny. Unicorn Variations, to be precise. There's a story in it called Recital. The first time I found it... kind of dull, really. Excessively sentimental, and rough-hewn, not like the stuff I was used to reading at all. Recital starts in present tense, describing an older woman singing at a microphone. Then came my lightning bolt, starting in the second paragraph:

Let's call her Mary. I don't know that much about her yet, and the name has just occurred to me. I'm Roger Z., and I'm doing all of this on the spot, rather than in the standard smooth and clean fashion. This is because I want to watch it happen and find things out along the way.

So Mary is a character and this is a story, and I know that she is over the hill and fairly sick. I try to look through her eyes now and discover that I cannot. It occurs to me that she is probably blind and that the great hall in which she is singing is empty.

Why? And what is the matter with her eyes?

Were you struck by the bolt, too? Do you understand what happened to me?

Probably no. There are as many paths to enlightenment as there are people, yes? But there, explicitly there in the story, I saw something I'd never noticed before, something crucial to anyone who wants to make stuff up for a living. I saw a creative process in action. My bolt wasn't so much "I want to do THAT." No, it was more like "Oh, THAT'S how you do it!"

I did a lot of writing in school. I even did a lot of creative writing, equal measures tepid stories and vapid poetry. But it had honestly never occurred to me that you could make it up as you go along, so to speak. I thought the way to write a story was:

  1. Think up an idea

  2. Write it down

  3. Hand it in for your grade

This three-step process is sometimes still there in the back of my brain, and frankly, it's a terrible model. (Or for me it is, anyway.) I find some of my most magnificent ideas, some of my most subtle touches, they come when I work and let the ideas come from the mystic place where they spawn and swim down through my fingers without interference from that no-good meddlesome brain. And beyond that: "Think up an idea" is so huge, so intimidating, that if you wait on that step before starting to write, why, you might never write anything at all!

And here Zelazny published a rough-hewn bit of work -- he even says it's not "the standard smooth and clean fashion" -- and puts it out there where readers like me could see the raw process and have a revelation. So I admire Roger Zelazny, not just for being an amazing wordsmith and reputedly a magnificent human being, but for taking creative risks and pushing the envelope even after achieving recognition as a celebrated author.

Thanks, Roger, wherever you are now. I wish I could have met you.

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