Have you ever wanted to thank someone, but you couldn’t? Has someone had an influence on you, helped you see the path, pointed you in the right direction, and they have no idea? I have one of those. I’m sure if I wrote to her, it would be just another fan letter in a pile, but to me it would be a heartfelt thank you. I remember that when I’m reading my own fan mail. I had no idea how my words would change the lives of others. I needed only to remember how Rita Mae Brown changed mine.
When I came out and started living the life I was meant to, I asked around about Lesbian Fiction books. I was 26 and had some catching up to do. I researched being a lesbian just like any other subject I was interested in. My wife, who had been out for a while, handed me her worn copy of Rubyfruit Jungle. I read it and found myself on most of the pages. It really helped me see things from my new perspective in a positive light. Rita Mae gave me the power of understanding. For that, I will always be grateful, but that isn’t how she changed my life.
I went to the gay bar with my new girl. I had been before, but as the straight friend. Boy, did it look different from my new perspective. Anyway, I picked up the gay newspaper on the way out of the bar. In the back was an advertisement for Naiad Press and a list of lesbian books. I got busy ordering books. My next lesbian book was Katherine Forrest’s Curious Wine. After that, I read a bunch of lesbian books. Okay, so there were other women out there who grew up like me, came out late like me, and found the love of their lives like me. Good to know.
In the meantime, I hunted down everything that Rita Mae Brown had written. I read it all, even the ones that didn’t interest me that much. (I haven’t read all the fox hunting books, but some of them.) Finding a copy of In Her Day was difficult, but I finally found it in a used bookstore in Richmond. I fell in love with the Runnymede series, Bingo, Six of One, and Loose Lips. High Hearts is a historical fiction novel and well worth the read. Whenever I drive through Virginia, I can see the cavalry jumping the fence. Rita Mae gave me that. Still, that isn’t why I owe her a thank you.
I’ve always written. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I just never sat down and completed a full manuscript. After my initial devouring of Lesbian Fiction and Rita Mae’s books, life happened. I was in grad school, raising a toddler, and beginning a new life. Writing and reading outside of schoolwork just didn’t happen. I read maybe one or two books a year for fun. Even after grad school was over and I had a job, I still only read job related things. I was a drama teacher, so my reading was mostly plays or research for those plays. My writing was for the stage also. I wrote a play and it won some awards. That was it, the extent of my reading and writing.
Then one day, my lovely wife came home with a book she saw while perusing a second hand store. She loves thrift stores. She hands me a copy of Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, by Rita Mae Brown. It sat on a shelf for a year and then one day I picked it up. My life changed that day. I sat down after reading that book and wrote my first novel in 14 days. Although the book wasn’t what induced me to write the novel, what Rita Mae gave me, again, was the pat on the back and the “you can do it” I felt when I first read Rubyfruit Jungle.
When I came out, it was not a pretty thing. It was three years of happiness tainted by child custody disputes and other family drama. Had I not read Rubyfruit Jungle, I don’t think I would have handled it as well as I did. I knew I was not weird, or so different from others. I knew I was living my life finally and Rita Mae’s book gave me the strength to get through it all. If Molly Bolt could do what she did, become the person she wanted to be, then I could, too.
Still, it was Starting from Scratch that had the most impact. Rita Mae lit a fire under me that had been smoldering for some time. My life is completely different now, and I owe Dr. Brown a million thanks for writing that book. I have returned to it many times. My first bad review trauma was washed away with her words. “The first thing I’ve learned is that very often people read their book, not your book. They read as though they were writing the book, and of course they would do things differently. Oftentimes these comments can be irritating but just as often they can be instructive. I am never bored at the variety of responses.” Brown, Rita Mae (2011-05-04). Starting from Scratch (p. 151). Bantam. Kindle Edition. (Yes, I bought it on Kindle too, so I could have it with me all the time.)
There are many other jewels like that in this book. It’s not only a manual of how to write, but how to handle being a writer. The act of writing the novel is personal; the rest is not. I learned from her how to deal with success and failure. If you’re a writer or want to be, I suggest you read this book. It’s old now, but most of it is still relevant. I hope it does for you what it did for me. I hope you say, “I can do this.”
So, thank you Dr. Rita Mae Brown. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your novels are some of my most highly valued treasures. Your take charge and full-steam-ahead attitude inspired me. Molly Bolt saved me and gave me courage. Starting from Scratch pushed me over the invisible wall that prevented me from doing what I really wanted. I’m a writer now, Dr. Brown, and I’m living that dream. Thank you, thank you so much.