How Star Wars Changed My Life

I mentioned a while ago that I really ought to tell this story on this blog at some point, and since I’m sitting here watching this movie on my parents’ enormous-screen TV, cozied up on the couch with the company of two terriers, basking in the warm glow of a Christmas tree while torrential rains fall outside, I thought… sure? Why not today?esbbest_11

I somehow made it through much of my childhood without seeing Star Wars. I’m not sure why. I watched a lot of Disney as a kid, but not to the exclusion of quite everything else, and I was definitely getting into live-action sci-fi by the time my age reached double digits. I was eleven years old in January of 1997, when the movies were re-released in theatres. I was already of pretty persistently geeky inclination, but it hadn’t yet found its true channels. I was, at that point, mostly just an unfortunate and awkward sixth-grader. In social studies class, I sat in front of a boy who would eventually become many things to me — friend, arch nemesis, boyfriend. We were discussing movies one day before class when he turned to me with a horrified expression and exclaimed loudly, “You haven’t seen Star Wars?!” His incredulity was so perfect, and tinged with such a mixture of disdain and taking-of-offense, that I promptly decided I must have been missing something tremendous. I convinced my mother to take me that weekend.

I was entranced. Despite the five-year-old kicking my seat the entire 121 minutes, I could not have been more enraptured. Afterwards, I sat there in the theatre, watching the credits roll. I’d never paid much attention to end titles before, yet there I was, thinking, This is it. This is what I’m meant to do.

I don’t know that I even knew what I meant by that at the time. I’d always been creative, always a natural storyteller, but something about Star Wars crystalized it — perhaps just making me consciously aware as I hadn’t been before that that sort of creation really is something a person can do for a living. But why that movie, and not something else? Something about it was magical to me, captivating and alluring. I loved the majesty of it, the galaxy-wide stakes, the sheer scope of the epic. I loved the high drama, the interplay of love and hate and friendship and betrayal. I loved the little moments of unexpected humor caught up in all ofthat. But I think what I liked best was the completeness of that universe — how big it was, how much room there was to play in, how many stories there were yet to tell. I wanted to create, and I wanted to create things like that: stories and characters that people would love, worlds they would want to live in.SW on set

In the meantime, though, I started playing in the universe already set-up for me. I started buying the novels and visiting the online forums. I devoured every supplementary material there was to find. I learned the reference guides by heart, memorized thousands of facts and details that are still locked somewhere in the recesses of my brain (and which I’m pretty sure are the reason there was no memorial space left for trigonometry). When I found fanfic and role-playing, it was really just all over. There was no extricating myself after that. The character I created then, in AOL RPG chat rooms at the tender age of eleven, became the heroine of my first novel, and traces of her certainly still surface in my current works. It was pretty cringe-inducing to start with, but I’ve still kept all my old notebooks — however embarrassing they might be now, I also still have a great deal of affection for those early days.  I can look back and see so much growth, from the self-insert instincts and derivative styles that I think all young writers start with, progressing to more and more creativity, more sophisticated storytelling. I can see how Leia Organa and Han Solo informed not only my ideas of heroines and heroes, but of love stories. I can see how my obsession with learning all the trivia helped me to keep world-building details straight once I started creating my own universes to play in. And it’s while I’ll never disparage fanfic and other derivative activities, either as purely recreational activities or as training for something more. I owe Star Wars and its derivative worlds too much.

I eventually moved on to other genres and other obsessions, but Star Wars was what started it. In the full throes of captivation as a teenager, I watched at least one of the trilogy at least once a week. Now it’s probably not much more than once a year — but I still return there for inspiration when I feel like my creativity needs a kick-start. It still works. Something about these movies gives me a shove between the shoulderblades. And, as today is proving, while a lot of the trivia I absorbed in those early years has been relegated to my brain’s archive folders, I can still recite pretty much the entire movie start-to-finish. I’ve gotten sixteen years’ worth of joy, entertainment, and inspiration out of this series, and I’m sure I’ll get many more. After all, A New Hope‘s 40th anniversary is coming up soon — and it’ll be my 20th anniversary as a fan. I’m sure there will be all kinds of celebrations, and I intend to find a way to take part in them.

Hanwink

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.

I have access to the OED and I’m not afraid to use it

The thing about writing historical novels is that you have to be really careful about your diction. Word choice matters a lot — you don’t want to choose words that are too obviously modern or that refer to concepts that would have been alien to your characters. I often find myself running into walls where medical and technological terms are concerned, even if they’re only used metaphorically.  You can’t have your Tudor-era heroine say, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” the way a modern heroine could, since the term “heart attack” doesn’t come into use until 1836. Other problems might involve geographical details. A Roman novel I read recently had Mark Antony referring to pumpkins — a squash only found in the New World. Apart from just plain being inaccurate, those slip-ups can jerk a reader out of the world of the narrative, and we never want that.

The situation’s more complicated when you’re not writing in the language your characters speak — especially when your characters speak, say, Latin. How do you translate linguistic intent out of a dead language? How to make dialogue sound colloquial without crossing that threshold of modernity? What to do about metaphors? All well and good for Shakespeare to have Cassius referring to the clock striking three, but you can’t get away with that sort of slipshod work in today’s industry of fiction. It’s particularly hard when it comes to idiomatic speech. If the word itself didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, because the language didn’t — could the concept for those words exist? Yesterday, for instance, I realized I had a character referring to needing an outlet for her energy — and it gave me pause. Did the word “outlet” pre-date electricity? Oh dear.

outletOEDThe OED is one of my best friends. I love that, since I work for an institution affiliated with a college, I retain my access to its wonderful online compendium. It means that it only takes me a few clicks to verify that, yes, the word “outlet” is older than electricity, and its original usage refers to the movement of water. (If I’d thought about it for a few minutes, I probably would’ve realized that on my own, but… this way I get to use the OED!) The word dates to the 13th century as a noun, all the way back to Old English as a verb, and comes to us via Dutch, but its concept is certainly something the Romans would’ve had familiarity with. Admittedly, the emotional sense of the word didn’t come in to English until the mid-17th century, but I think the metaphor translates reasonably well for my purposes. (Latona’s own word for it, incidentally, probably would’ve been emissarium, or else egressus, exitus, or even porta, the gate — though if she were speaking literally of a water-channel rather than figuratively of her emotions, it would’ve been effluvium).

Something I once looked up for another project was “automatic”. Initially, I thought this might date only about to the time of clockwork — but  no! Both the Greeks and Romans had the concept of the automaton! The root words refer more to plants, strangely enough, with more of a sense of “spontaneous, happening by itself” than the more mechanical connotation we give it today — though when you look at things like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s certainly plausible that, at some point in time, at least in some parts of Greece, they might’ve had the concept in the mechanical sense as well.

Words are fantastic. I’m so happy I have access to a resource that lets me in on their secrets.