Update from the Trenches

It’s now half-way through the semester at USC, and I’ve written four essays in varying states of readability for my thesis.  The process of writing, writing, writing without looking back is difficult for me – I’m the type of writer who can’t move forward until she’s fixed earlier mistakes. (I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month at least four times and haven’t finished once.)

It’s important to keep reminding myself that these are just drafts, basically word vomit on the page, and they don’t have to stay awful.

I was doing pretty well, until I pulled an Orpheus. Orpheus, for those of you who aren’t Greek mythology fanatics, is a musician who plays his way into Hades to rescue Eurydice, the woman he loves, and is told that he can take her back to the world of the living so long as he leads the way and doesn’t look back until they’re up on solid ground. He almost makes it, but not quite, and Eurydice heads back to the Underworld.

Actually, in this metaphor, I’m not sure whether I’m Orpheus or Eurydice, since my “looking back” got me stuck in a writing purgatory. Fortunately, it was only temporary.

I just couldn’t leave my Harry Potter essay in such a terrible state of lousy writing. And now I figure I’ll share a little of the revised result.

From “Fictionally Yours”:

Though we hadn’t yet reached the point where we were spending our free time together, Irina and I shared 5th period P.E. in the second semester of tenth grade, the final semester we were forced to endure the physical torment. While a rare Los Angeles thunderstorm raged outside, we sat in lines inside the small gymnasium, home to collapsible bleachers and basketball championship banners from the seventies.

“Fan fiction,” Irina repeated, hitching up her blue polyester sweat-shorts, her too-small grey t-shirt – emblazoned with the school’s dolphin logo – stretched tight across her chest.

“People write stories about what would happen if Buffy and Angel stayed together,” she continued, “or if Mulder and Scully got married, or stories where Dawson meets Donna from 90210. Anything’s possible!”

In fan fiction, as she described it, I could change the ending to Titanic, write a crossover between Friends and CSI, or create a world where Susan Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia went back in time and prevented the train wreck that sent her entire family to Heaven. (I always thought it was extremely unfair that she was the only one who didn’t get to return to Narnia just because she liked make-up and boys.) I could do anything I wanted.

I had always taken comfort from fictional worlds, wanted more than anything to live a fictional life where everything worked out in the end, good triumphed over evil, and people behaved according to predictable patterns. In a sense, I had been writing fan fiction since I was a little girl – I just didn’t know it had a name. (Whenever I had trouble falling asleep, I would act out various scenarios with the characters from The Babysitter’s Club, pretending that they sought me out for advice on their melodramatic lives.)

I’d left the poorly written Babysitter’s Club behind long ago, but in the tenth grade there was another series of books that had caught my eye. After explaining the fandoms that she herself indulged in, Irina told me that there was fan fiction for Harry Potter, too.

The Potter craze was only just beginning in the United States and I was already hooked on the tales of the boy wizard with the lightning bolt scar. I had a glittering Hogwarts crest t-shirt from the now-defunct Warner Brothers store, had been ‘Sorted’ by numerous online quizzes into the house of Gryffindor (where dwelled “the brave at heart/Their daring, nerve and chivalry/Set Gryffindors apart”), and spread my addiction to several others including Jeanette – Harry was the catalyst for our friendship.

But unlike the devoted fans of Buffy or The X-Files, I couldn’t expect a new Harry Potter story every week. It would be a long, dry spell before Order of the Phoenix arrived in my local Barnes & Noble, and in the meantime, I needed a fix.

I joined the online community at the age of fifteen, starting – as most novices did – with a place called FanFiction.net. An archive of fan-written stories, it was like venturing into a tween’s typo-ridden, bodice-ripper fantasy collection and occasionally stumbling over a copy of Jane Austen.

At first I was content to be a reader, picking up stories on recommendations from the more experienced fans, people who’d been around at least several months longer than I had. (Experience online was measured in dog years.) In addition to the actual books written by J.K. Rowling (the texts referred to as canon, i.e. immutable fact), there were several online pieces considered must-read primers on the world of fanon – widely held beliefs of what would come, or should come, to pass in the series. The line between canon and fanon was so blurred that some concepts, such as the gender of  Blaise Zabini – a character who’d only been mentioned once – became a part of the collective consciousness. (This created a sense of entitlement in the community, which in turn bred disappointment and resentment when the author herself dared to write something other than what we expected.)

While I followed many multi-chaptered fan sagas with consistent devotion, it wasn’t long before I felt ready to write my own adventures for Harry and his friends. In looking for an escape from boredom at school – particularly in English – I turned to writing, where anything was possible.

I developed a thirteen-chapter novella about an American witch with special psychic powers who went to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and rocked Harry’s world. When I uploaded the last chapter, I sat back and waited for the accolades to flood in.

An anonymous commenter left a review composed of six words: <Congratulations, your character’s a Mary Sue.>

<What’s a Mary Sue?> I was confused since my character’s name was J.D. – short for Jasmine Delilah. I thought I was being accused of plagiarism.

<A monster of perfection who is universally adored, with a few too many extra-curricular talents and preternatural beauty, who may or may not resemble the author. She has an eye color that doesn’t occur in nature and a ridiculous name. It’s a bad thing.>

And a common rookie mistake. One warning was enough: it was a sin I was careful not to commit again.

My first attempt failed to rocket me to internet stardom, but it was my own fault. I’d tried to make my voice heard in a world that was notoriously overcrowded, sub-standard, and flooded with newbie missteps. Anyone could (and did) join FanFiction.net, so it was all too easy to get lost amongst the million or so fan fics on site. There was no delineation between the talented and the talentless. But I wasn’t going to give up; bad reviews were still reviews.

The more I wrote, the better grasp I had on comma placement and sentence structure – my mother read each chapter and corrected the grammar before sending it back to me. (I learned more about usage from that practice than any of my high school English classes.) After nearly a year, I decided it was time to move on to greener pastures where I had a greater chance of being noticed.

I certainly wasn’t getting recognition in the real world where my only claim to fame was that the school librarian knew me by name. I wasn’t allowed to take part in the one activity I truly had a passion for, and no matter how much I told myself I didn’t care, I hated the kids who kept me from the theatre.

The figurehead of the drama department handed the power of deciding who performed and who didn’t to the privileged students, in their mini-skirts and lambswool boots, preppy polos and designer jeans. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that each time I stepped on that stage I was auditioning for more than a part in a play, and foolishly revealed myself to be a teetotal, virginal bibliophile – the antithesis of everything they were looking for.

It didn’t matter that I looked down my nose at their underage drinking and inappropriate personal relationships, that I thought the snobs were largely a waste of talent and wouldn’t have spent time in their company voluntarily. It was high school – I wanted them to want me.

And they didn’t give a damn.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Very nice! I like it. Now I want to read the rest of the story, and see how the Harry Potter fan fiction and trying to be in the theater group was resolved (or not).

    In my high school, the drama group was a really laid back bunch of people–quirky, but very accepting. Everyone who auditioned got into the fall musical, so you had a few people who were pretty talented in the main roles, but the rest of us were just there because it was fun. No divas. Anyway, it’s funny because when I went to college, my roommate from L.A. said that the drama people in her school had been really snobby and obnoxious, which was the opposite of how I pictured drama people. I guess that in the L.A. area (and maybe NYC, too), theater people have a different status because of the local opportunities available to people with acting talent–opportunities that aren’t so present in, say, the suburbs of Boston.

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