One day the music teacher for the elementary school walked into my second or third room classroom and said she was going to play us a piece of classical music. She instructed us to use our imaginations and draw a picture of what we saw as the music was playing. I drew a picture of a princess in a tower with a knight on horseback coming to her rescue. The teacher saw my drawing and said, “How silly,” as if she expected a child to produce a Picasso. She followed that pronouncement with words to the effect that my imagination was trite. Those aren’t the exact words she used, but I got the idea. Even at that young age I knew my ideas weren’t original, but I thought the music was romantic, so I drew my view of a romantic scene. Many of my classmates loved the music teacher. I did not. Years later in seventh grade, she told me to “just mouth the words,” because she told me I sang so poorly. I was horrified because I came from a family where nobody was musically trained but we all sang. We sang a lot. I still remember a recording of my grandfather singing, “After the Ball is over.” My dad sang, his sister sang, his brother sang. And we thought we sang just fine.
Two blows to my sweet fantasy life in the short span of five years. She couldn’t have known she had brought into question the world I created to get away from the difficulties of my home life. I was an only child who often played alone, creating stories in which I was loved, I was the heroine, I could overcome all problems. After the event at school I kept my romantic fantasies to myself and turned my attention to reading Nancy Drew books and Agatha Christie. I was grateful for those escapes. In high school when all my classmates joined the school chorus, I did not. Yet visions of handsome young men surrounding an astoundingly beautiful me flitted through my brain, fantasies never to be revealed to anyone. Sometimes I was the lead singer in a band or a movie star. All young children and teens have dreams. Mine formed the bedrock of home life. Leaving for college became the real as well as the ideal escape.
As my adult life filled with college and graduate school, those romantic fantasies had become a habit and remained with me so that by the time I graduated with my doctorate I had been the mistress or wife of any number of screen legends: Yul Brynner was my favorite. I preferred the exotic. I liked to think of life in an Indian tribe, possibly because I was informed I had a Native-American ancestor, a story that DNA later proved to be false. I was always the blonde haired, blue-eyed, terribly smart woman who turned even the most evil (but handsome) of men’s heads and turned them into good guys. Silly stuff, yes, but how heady. What power I had in those day dreams.
In my late thirties I began to read some romantic fiction. My favorite writer was Kathleen Woodiwiss—strong, hunky men; strong, beautiful women. It was as if she peered into my brain and unleashed what had been brewing there for years. And then, suddenly, in my early forties, wrapped up in concerns about my ticking biological clock, I stopped reading her and all other romantic fiction. And strangely, my fantasy life, for years so rich and constant, disappeared. I can remember being aware of how I had stopped fantasizing. I even tried on some of my old stories, or attempted new ones, but it didn’t work. I gave them up.
When I retired, I found my way back to my earliest literary love: murder mysteries. I gobbled them up, finding that I had all the time in the world to read as much as I wanted. Not only did I want to read about murder. I wanted to write about it. I had stories in my head that had to come out. A close friend to whom I confided that I was trying my hand at writing gave me a book on how to write romance novels. “You don’t understand,” I told her. “I want to write mysteries.” She dismissed my assertion with a flip of her hand. “It’s all the same,” she said. Not to me. I knew what I wanted to write. I think she believed I’d never make a writer of any kind and was surprised when I got my first book contract. She wanted me to write romance. That was her fantasy. It wasn’t mine. I wasn’t about to let my writing be shaped by others. It was mine, my new fantasy where the heroine pursued the killer and took him down. How satisfying. How powerful.
With many books to my name, I still have stories to write. The princess in the castle tower of many years ago has been rescued by…me.
Does fantasy play a role in your life? How important is it to you?