Change is the constant

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix

[Warning: What follows is a heavy, introspective post broken up with humorous gifs, because that’s how I roll. I’ve been writing this post over the past few weeks, as I am wont to do, but it got harder to resolve myself to its spirit yesterday, when I lost the feline companion who has been my best friend since I was thirteen years old. But then I remember her royal sassiness looking at me, those beautiful yellow-green eyes seeming to say, “I love you, but get it together, woman.” And so I think I must do even better than I promised myself, for her.]

In the summer of 2012, I launched something that I called the Bold New Me Initiative. It was two years after the end of an abusive relationship, though it had taken me most of those two years to stop mourning for it and instead to realize that what had happened had been abuse. And, having realized it, I was mad as hell and determined to refashion myself into someone who could never have “let herself” be treated that way. I had finished drafting and doing initial edits on what would become From Unseen Fire. I was going to go to a convention and pitch it, and then I was going to query, and by the gods I was going to be the novelist I’d always said I would be, come hell or high water. I was going to glitter and glow as I knew I was meant to. I was going to recreate myself as something astonishing.

It almost worked.

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My intentions were certainly good, but there were still things in my life I was blind to. Those things held me back from managing to evolve entirely into the sort of person I wanted to be.

It’s rough to look at yourself and know you have been susceptible to toxic people. To know that you still have that susceptibility, that that weakness will always be in you, however strong and independent-minded you want to think yourself. To know you will have to learn to vigilantly guard against it.

It’s only a little mollifying to know you’re not alone, but the internet does occasionally help in that regard. I don’t know what reasons other people have that give birth to that vulnerability, but for me, it’s entirely because of how badly I want to be liked. Gods, I wish I didn’t. Life would be so much better if I gave as few fucks as I sometimes pretend I have to spare. But that’s just not who I am.

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I want to be liked, to be loved, to belong. And it makes me horrifyingly susceptible to the love-bombing that toxic people open and often sustain damaging relationships with. In 2012, I had freed myself from one poison but didn’t realize I was drinking another on a daily basis. And that would lead to… a whole lot of bad. It would keep me from living up to the image I have of myself. It would trap me and encourage me to make myself small in ways I wouldn’t be able to see clearly for years. It would cause me to isolate myself more than I realized, ignoring opportunities for fulfilling friendships and letting slip some of those I already had. It would dial my anxiety disorder up to 11 on an almost-constant basis.

Living like that… the center cannot hold.

Last year, I tried again. I left the city I’d lived in for close to a decade, the stable job I’d gotten right out of grad school. It all felt right, at the time — cleansing. So many things happened all at the same time — the car I’d had since I was 16, for example, finally gave up the ghost. It seemed like a sign. Yes, move out and move on. Let go of everything that has so ill-defined you these past few years. Start over, entirely fresh.

I still think the time was right for it. I very clearly needed to make some changes, or I was going to lose my grip on sanity entirely.

But I didn’t stick the landing.

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In a few weeks, I’m going to be going back to my high school to talk about careers and adulting. I’m likely to be a bit too honest about it. One of the things I’m going to stress? Don’t make decisions in crisis mode. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Because that’s really what I can trace this past Lost Year to. I had let myself get so knotted up that the only way I saw to get out was hacking through everything with a sword. And, I mean, that works… but then you’re left with a bunch of frayed ends that don’t do anyone any good.

I spent the dark of the year in a very dark place (literally as much as figuratively). I started my self-imposed exile a few weeks before the autumn equinox; I returned to a familiar home a few weeks before the vernal. The symbolism is too much for a pagan to ignore. A cold, lonely hibernation. Everything folding in on itself, unfed by the sun, blasted by icy winds. A journey to the Underworld, bleak and grey.

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But spring always comes. Snows always melt.

As miserable as it was, I’m starting to think this year nonetheless had Purpose. Perhaps I had to go through this year in order to really and truly strip away all those things I don’t want to be. I think I had to die a little in order to figure out how I want to live.

The phoenix, after all, has to reduce herself entirely to ash before she can blaze again.

So from here on out, I blaze. (And if I say it to all of you, perhaps that will force me to be accountable to myself and actually land on my feet this time.) No more excuses. No more ducking my head. No more making myself small. From Unseen Fire comes out in a few weeks, and I think I have a few lessons to learn from my own heroine. Starting now, I walk with my head up and my core tight and my hips under me, rather than slouching my way through the world. (You know, like this). I’m going to go back to wearing clothes that say “pay attention to me” rather than “please ignore me”. I’m going to start wearing high heels again. I will be the lioness, not the mouse. I will take what is mine — with fire and blood, should that prove necessary.

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I will live up to the image I want to have of myself — and I will live up to the image that those who love me have of me, because bless them, that my friends can still think me worthy of affection seems a miracle, some days. I don’t want to let them down any longer. I will spend more time nurturing those friendships. I will remember that I am an extrovert, that avoiding people makes me unhappy, and so I will engage with the world rather than shutting it out.

And wherever I land next, I am going to summon every ounce of regality in me, and I will own that place.

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Bold New Me Initiative, v2.0.

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And, as is appropriate, an accompanying 2.0 playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1270613493/playlist/4Kk5oVSgDDLaIl9qf6KIho

Failing to Fawn: How early experiences shaped my ‘fight’ reflex

An interesting article ran across my eyes this afternoon: “The Cowardice of White Women”, by . It discusses the tendency of white women to want to fit in, to receive our power secondhand from white men, and to ingratiate and adapt in order to survive, and how that learned behavior often makes us poor allies to WOC. I found it fascinating, because while I understand that point of view, it is very far from my lived experiences.

The part that struck me was this:

I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy.

This was not the lesson I learned. Maybe it was the lesson the world was trying to teach me, but it was not what I synthesized.

I’ve always been a weirdo. I was a strange kid, but in a sort of a cute way (or so my parents assure me). I grew into a strange pre-teen and teenager, and at that point, idiosyncrasies of personality become less adorable and more a reason to get shoved into lockers. I developed quite early (hit my full height at age 12 and was a heavy B-edging-into-C cup by the same time), I had horrific acne for several years, I had no idea how to dress fashionably, I was intelligent and too proud to hide it, and I was obsessively into geeky things like Star Wars and role-playing games before the stigma against them had softened. As a result of all that, middle school was, quite frankly, hell.

I was a privileged child and no mistake: white, upper-middle-class, access to good education and a comfortable life. But I never felt that urge Leontiades talks about, to fawn in the hopes of fitting in, of getting a share of the power, possibly because it was made abundantly clear to me from the start that that was never going to be an option for me. Within that privileged sphere, during my formative pre-teen and early-teen years, I was so far at the bottom of the social power ladder that I knew it was useless to even try to reach for higher rungs. Fawning wasn’t going to do me any good no matter how much belly I exposed. Rejection and ostracization were just… givens.

So, instead, I chose fight. I snapped back. I unleashed verbal tirades, much good that it did me. It almost never worked, but I could at least console myself with the knowledge that I hadn’t rolled over and taken the abuse. I banded together with other kids who got picked on for similar reasons, and we made ourselves a tribe — and a tribe that I defended ferociously. (I am, as I have ever been, a pack animal at heart). I diverted bullies’ attention from my friends onto me. What I learned early on was that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them stop, no matter what people of a conciliatory nature might tell you. When you’re wearing a half-dozen targets, jerks are going to take aim at them no matter how small you try to make yourself.

I’m not sure I’ve consciously realized just how much that has shaped my somewhat pugnacious tendencies over the years. I did not learn to fawn; I learned that I might as well fight.

Would it have been different if I’d been prettier, more popular? Would I have learned the lesson of fawning, or is that temerity an intrinsic part of my personality? It’s hard to know. I hope that’s who I am at my core, but we’re all shaped by our experiences. If life had been easier for me during my most impressionable years, would I be more complacent? Assimilation is an adaptive trait; so is resistance.

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It took me many, many years to learn the lessons of “don’t read the comments” and “someone will always be wrong on the internet”, and let’s face it, I still backslide a few times a year and end up in vicious textual quarrels. But I’ve also had a few experiences that let me know that my response is fight in real life, too. I am someone who steps in. Between my friends and the guy that won’t stop following us down the street, between the lady in hijab on the subway and the jackass braying racial slurs, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her, between the drunk guy and the car he’s trying to get into the driver’s seat of. I confront. I don’t let things slide. I cannot just stand by and watch something terrible happen.

This probably sounds self-congratulatory, and maybe it is, a bit. I like knowing that, yes, I am someone with the courage of my convictions. I also know that I had and still have a lot of work to do. I internalized a lot of misogyny in the “not like other girls” sort of way — again, a defense mechanism. I was never going to look like them, so it felt safer to reject entirely being like them. It felt good to try and raise myself up by putting them down. That was a rough lesson to un-learn. I also know for damn sure that I grew up marinated in the particular form of racism that gestates in white folk who want to think of themselves as liberal and “good”: embracing “colorblindness” — and wondering why POCs can’t just do the same and “get over it”. Another lesson I had to unlearn, and still one I have to check myself on from time to time. So not fawning certainly didn’t make me flawless. It did, though, shape a lot of who I am.

Another thing the article touches on is how fawning ties in to couple privilege and how that affects working women.

In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.

I think of ways boys and men (whether I was dating them or not, whether they professed to love me or not) have described me since the age of thirteen — difficult, high-maintenance, headstrong, independent, bitchy, scary-smart, terrifying, indomitable — and I wonder if failing to learn the lesson of fawning is also the reason I’m still femme sole.

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Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hell, I don’t know. I like living alone and being in charge of my own life, but I also wish I had more constant companionship than an LDR affords me. I’m proud of my ability to pay for and take care of myself, but I also get tired of the choices and sacrifices that can mean I have to make. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to my independence. And it would absolutely be easier to be a writer if I had a spouse to rely on financially. That’s just a fact. An annoying, regressive-feeling fact.

I don’t know that I have any particular point I could use to put a button on this post, but that article got me thinking about the ripples in my life now caused by pebbles thrown twenty years ago.

“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

Writing Our Own Deliverance

Once again, a Tumblr post has made me think thoughts.

This piece on geek girls/growing up female/becoming a female creator came across my feed recently, and the bit that struck me the most was this:

so we made it up. we gave barbie a cape and our spotted dog the ability to control the weather. we wrote barely-legible fanfiction about vampires who were also terribly in love with us – because we were perfect in this world, unlike the mess of what really was – we crafted entire sub-stories about how the main characters in our favorite universes were secretly girls in disguise. we made 17-year-old characters who would cut the throats of anyone who hurt them. we drew pictures of women in full, angry armor. we wrote bad poems about the girls we loved and the ones we were jealous of.

It got me thinking… Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all the women writers shared their first efforts? The heroines they created in youth, ludicrous and wonderful. The princess-superheroes, the werewolf-ninjas, the warrior goddesses. The shameless self-inserts who saved the day. The Mary Sues.

Mine started out as an Alderaanian refugee/X-Wing pilot/spy/Jedi knight who was, of course, fantastically beautiful, as tall as I never turned out to be, prodigiously talented and independent at 16 (which, when you’re 11, seems perfectly reasonably grown-up), and the epicenter of a totally kickass strike team/soap-opera-worthy drama. Everything I wanted to be, I poured into her. Every story I loved, I ended up filtering through her. Over the years she was also an actress, a courtesan, a sharpshooter, a bartender, a mother, a great lady. She was whatever I needed her to be at the time. Others of my wish-fulfillment heroines were lion-women with gorgeous snarls and pitiless claws. They were warrior queens, adored by their armies, who flew into berserker rages when faced with injustice. They were femme fatales with starlit eyes and no mercy for men who did wrong. That first one stuck with me, though, and she’s been reworked into a dozen heroines since.

As the world turned more violent towards me and my friends, as I learned just how ugly it can be towards women, particularly women who don’t match up to certain expectations, my heroines got more violent, too. Looking back, the theme of vengeance trails through so many of my stories. Something was taken from them — a kingdom, a child, their liberty, their choice — and they would fight through anything to get it back. They would land themselves in trouble, captive and deprived of agency, and they would slaughter their way back to freedom. Bruised and bloodied they might have been, but they were always survivors, always the last one standing. And like I’ve said before, it wasn’t as though any thing so truly heinous happened to me — but I was reacting to the permeating misogyny of culture I couldn’t escape.

And I know so many other women who did the same thing. This was how we claimed space for ourselves, even if it was only in our own hearts. Even if we only shared those stories with each other, in safe small groups, on email chains or whispered over laced fingers in the dead of night, because it didn’t take us long to figure out what response we’d get if we shared them more widely. But they were our characters, our stories. We owned them and we took power from them.

I shamelessly advocate fanfiction not just as excellent training for those who want to be writers, but as a worthy pasttime for anyone in need of an outlet — most particularly for young women. On the page, you can scream and rail and punch and claw and kick and do all the things you can’t do in life. On the page, you can have power that the world denies you. If you do become a writer, you get better at it. Your characters cease to be perfect and all-powerful; they develop flaws and weaknesses. They fit into their worlds, rather than bending existing worlds around them. But what can still live in there is the sense of the fight.

So that’s why I’d love to know, from all the female authors I adore, who their first heroines of shameless self-fulfillment were.

Bonus material: I’m a paper packrat who’s kept every writing notebook and sketchbook she ever had. Proof of concept right here:

Critiquing for a Cause: #MS4MI

Last March, my literary agency celebrated its birthday by holding a charity auction to benefit multiple sclerosis, and I wrote about why that was special to me, since I have a grandmother with the disease.

This year, they’re holding a similar auction to benefit mental health research — actually, several auctions throughout the month — and my reason for promoting it is even more personal.

This is a hard and weird blog post to write, because I’m still getting used to the idea of acknowledging it out loud. I strongly feel, though, that only openness will combat the stigma, and I have a responsibility to help that as much as I can. So here goes: Since last October, I’ve been in treatment for anxiety and depression.

Part of the challenge in treating mental health is that, even when folk come forward and ask for help, it can be hard to figure out what the cause-and-effect is. For me, I’ve got comorbid conditions, and in my case, anxiety seems to trigger depression. I get obsessively fixated on something — some problem, something that is going wrong or could go wrong, some person in my life, some scenario — and if I can’t fix it immediately, I end up in this destructive spiral where I can’t think of anything else. My brain tells lies. It magnifies problems far out of proportion, it tampers with my ability to moderate my emotional responses, and it convinces me that because I can’t handle one thing, I can’t handle anything. That’s where the depression starts, eating away at my sense of self-worth. It’s an ugly spiral, and I’ve never before been able to pull my nose up out of it. I’ve always just had to ride it out and hope that not too much got destroyed in the interim.

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Art by everybodyhasabrain.tumblr.com

I can look back at my life and know that I should’ve gotten this treatment a long, long time ago. I can see this pattern going back to high school. There have been months at a time, sometimes close together, sometimes years apart, where I just can’t brain correctly. Everything I think of is a worst-case scenario, and when your mind is doing that to you, it tends to have some pretty wretched effects on your emotions. My defence mechanism isn’t avoidance, as is often the case with anxiety disorders — rather, I steel myself to try and perform as perfectly as possible so that no one will guess anything’s wrong, sometimes re-exposing myself to stressors just to prove I can handle it. Neurologically, over time this quite literally shreds your brain’s ability to process correctly. If it goes on long enough, I start having panic attacks.

You would think that alone would be a signal that my body and brain were screaming for me to pay attention to them, but it was actually reading Wil Wheaton’s stuff about how depression lies that convinced me to go seek something out. I’m so glad I did. I walked in and, after discussing my various symptoms, told the doctor, “I think I may be approaching a nervous breakdown,” and she said, “Honey, you’re in the middle of one.” I was so determined to put on a strong face and stay positive for the sake of others that I couldn’t admit I was coming apart at the seams.

Why didn’t I seek help before? A lot of reasons. I didn’t think my problems were “bad enough”. I still managed to dress myself and go to work, after all. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Who was I to think that I needed anything special? So much was going so well in my life, what did I have to be worried or sad about? I was embarrassed (and still am, a bit). I was skeptical that anything could be done to help. I wasn’t sure I could handle the expense of office visits and medication. There were, in my head, a lot of reasons not to seek help, and they were loud enough that I couldn’t listen to the reasons to get it.

I’m not “better” — I still have bad days and emotional outbursts, as everyone does, and figuring out the correct medication cocktail can take some time — but I can handle things now. I can pull out of a nosedive. I don’t automatically assume the worst. I get less fixated on what I can’t control, and if my emotions do get the better of me, I recover more quickly.

It also helps me as a writer. I know that some people fear medicating mental health issues because they worry it will somehow deaden their sensibilities, stem the flow of creativity, grey things out. But what it can do is clear the clouds. Getting help has allowed me to focus and to re-access the willpower and the determination I need to finish projects. Writing is hard enough without having to clear extra hurdles before I even sit down at the computer!

generalizedanxiety.pngStill, though, the stigma — I know that when I finish writing this blog post, I’m going to hem and haw for days before posting it. Which is ridiculous, really — I don’t feel shame because I’m nearsighted and have to go to a doctor and buy medical aides to fix that. I don’t feel shame for taking vitamins to help my body function well. I shouldn’t feel any shame just because my brain needs some help, too. I also know I’ll end up deleting and re-writing the more personal bits about how the anxiety and depression feel to me, thinking, “No one cares” or “That exposes vulnerability, don’t do that.” But I also know that… it might help someone else, to read it and recognize it. That’s the real thing that will get me to post it, in the end.

Mental health research won’t just give science better ways to help those who are struggling, it will also help to de-stigmatize the diseases so that more people feel comfortable getting help. I’m so, so glad that Fuse Literary has decided to make this the focus of this year’s charity auctions.

So – if you’re in the writing and querying trenches, or if you want a great present for someone who is, I encourage you to bid on a critique! All of the money will go to a truly excellent cause, and one that affects so many of us — if not you, then absolutely someone you know. Multiple someones. Too many someones.

But it can get better.

For Bear

From my yearbook, 2002

Everyone — if they’re lucky — has that teacher. The one who manages to send a hook into your soul and pluck out something you didn’t even know was there — who challenges and encourages and supports in equal measure.

For me, and for hundreds of other students who have passed through the Thomas Jefferson/Maggie L Walker Governor’s School since the late ’90s, that teacher was Bear O’Bryan. We lost him, suddenly and shockingly, this past weekend.

Bear taught American literature and creative writing at the Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia. As an educator now, I tell stories about him all the time — how he never had to raise his voice to settle his students, how his classroom was a refuge and a comfort, how much we all wanted to impress him. He set high bars and expected us to clear them — and no one wanted to disappoint him. Anglophile and genre-fiction-lover that I am, I’m not really the biggest fan of a lot of “classic” American literature, but by heaven, I tried for him. For Bear, I read every damn word of Moby Dick and Fountainhead. In his class, we engaged in Socratic seminars that taught us more about how to use our brains than about the books we were discussing. We put Thoreau on trial for tax evasion (I’m still mad that I, as the prosecution, lost just because my co-counsel totally flubbed the cross-examination, but I also still remember Bear catching up to me in the lunch line later to tell me that had “aced it” even though the jury hadn’t gone my way). We put together personal anthologies — a legendary project in the school, that you spent your freshman and sophomore years hearing about from the juniors and seniors. Each student had to pick a personal theme (mine was “Identity”) and assemble a compendium of essays, poetry, prose, artwork, and such relating to that theme, then write personal responses to them. It was such a special thing — at the end of the year, we traded them in class and read from each others’. We could block out things that were too personal, if we wanted, and though I’d let my heart spill in all its gruesome glory all over those pages, I decided not to censor anything. Through that bravery, I ended up finding out how much I had in common with a girl I hadn’t really bothered to get to know up until then, who I definitely would’ve pegged as too cool and pulled-together to be facing the same tangled identity issues I was struggling through. He made us open our hearts not just to ourselves but to each other, fostering that awareness of a world outside yourself that is so critical to growing up.

I looked back on my personal anthology recently, and while some of it is pretty embarrassing to recall (as is true, I think, for most things from most people’s teenage years), it also provoked a strange fondness in me for the girl I was then, tumultuous and melodramatic though she was. Someone on Facebook commented that he’d done the same thing recently, and suggested that maybe it’s time for a new one, to reflect where he is now — I wonder if that might not be a great collective project for his former students to undertake, revisiting his signature project in his honor.

In his creative writing class and on the literary magazine, we learned a lot more about what the act of writing can do for the human soul. Bear’s guidance nudged me out of the fairly narrow confines I’d written in up to that point and got me exploring new avenues, new viewpoints. I even gave poetry a try (I’m not much good at it, but once again — I tried for him). Across that year, we learned about narrative structure, point of view, tone, and voice. And we learned to work together creatively, evaluating each others’ strengths as writers and finding the ways to make the most of them. At the end of that class, each student assembled a portfolio of work — the things we’d done that year that we were most proud of. I cried when he gave me mine back with an A+ and a note saying, “We’ll be studying you someday.” He was so sure. He knew I’d be a success as a writer, at a time when I was far from that confident in myself. That this man I admired so much had so much faith in me… it’s been an inspiration and an instigation to this day, to live up to that potential that he saw and to make him proud. I still have that note, tucked away somewhere in my notebooks and papers.

The 2001-2002 MLWGS lit mag crew

Bear provoked my intellect and my creativity, but he was also unfailingly kind and patient with chaotic teenage emotions. Two moments in particular stick out for me. One was on 9/11. The news about New York came just as second period was ending — but no one knew anything at the time. For a while we weren’t even sure if it was terrorism or a horrible accident. My next class was creative writing. Bear came in, switched on the radio, and said, “Take notes. Write.” No one talked. We just listened, as the second plane hit, as the towers fell, as the stories of death and devotion rolled in. We listened as a plane hit the Pentagon. And that’s when I started, very quietly, freaking out — because my father, who worked in public safety and national security, had been on his way to the Pentagon for a meeting that morning. I didn’t want to say anything, but Bear noticed that something was wrong. He came up behind me and quietly asked if there was someone I needed to call. Gratefully, I nodded, ran out to my locker and the illicit cell phone I had stashed there, and confirmed that my father had only gotten halfway up 95 before word about the WTC hit and the governor called him back to Richmond. I was able to return to class much calmer than I’d left it.

Another was much less epic in scale, but also telling of the empathy he had for his students. When I wandered in to lit class once, teary-eyed after a particularly dramatic lunch period, he quietly gestured for me to go out and take a few more minutes to compose myself, if I needed them — with no condemnation, no warning about missing the start of class, without drawing any embarrassing attention to me. It was such a simple little thing, but such a tremendous gesture of kindness to a 16 year old who had way more emotions than she had yet learned to negotiate.

There’s always an element of selfishness to mourning, I think, and I’m keenly aware of it as I write this post. I want to honor the man, to tell everyone what an astonishingly good teacher he was, how many students he reached over the years. And at the same time, I’m just eaten up with guilt, that I hadn’t talked to him in a while, not since running into him at the Playhouse when he was chaperoning a trip. He was so happy to see me, so proud that I was working for the ASC, doing something he knew I love. I’m glad I got to see him then, but I’m so sad that I never got the chance to tell him about my book. I thought about writing him to tell him about how things were progressing, but I wanted to wait until there was something real to tell, y’know? Until it was a sure thing, a sale, a preorder-able physical object. Now I feel dumb for holding back.

I’m heartbroken that now I won’t get to send it to him, like I was planning to, inscribed with a note so that he’d know just how much his encouragement meant to me. My mother and I were just talking on Friday about how much I was looking forward to doing that. Over a decade later, I still wanted so much for him to be proud of me.

5 Fandom Friday

The idea for this post comes from The Nerdy Girlie, by way of Gail Carriger.

What five fandoms were my gateway into the reader and writer I am today? This was actually really easy for me to suss out, though I did decide not to include some of the earlier childhood obsessions that, while I’m sure Tumblr might call them fandoms today, weren’t thought of in that way then — or, at least, I never conceived of them that way. I spent years obsessed with dinosaurs, for instance, or my early fixation with The Last Unicorn, or my life-long love affair with Disney — none of those were formative fandom experiences, though, as they were mostly private. So for the purposes of this post, I’m not counting “gateway fandoms” as “things I liked a lot”, but I’m thinking about the things where I really got involved with discussion, fanfic, RPGs, etc on a public level.

1. Star Wars

just a short little girl with a gun

This can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or has been following this blog. I’ve talked about how Star Wars changed my life. I have strong feelings about its future. But it was also the first real fandom I participated in publicly. This was where I realized that you could share your geekery with people other than your cousins or next-door neighbors. The original trilogy was re-released right as AOL was becoming a big thing, and man alive, did I jump in head first. At 13, I had unquestioned dominance of an RPG chat board and room, and I had the high score on AOL’s Star Wars trivia for several months running in the late 90s. I played X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (badly), dressed as a Rebel agent for Halloween twice, and drove a LARPing campaign in my middle school before we even knew what LARPing was. (And when I tell people about the contorted tricks, convoluted schemes, and nefarious double-crossing I came up with in that game, most find it somewhat alarming and wonder why I didn’t become a CIA agent). The obsession eventually waned, replaced by other items on this list, but my love is no less. I still watch the movies several times a year (and am waiting with apprehensive optimism for Episode VII), and just a few weeks ago, I joined a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG group and am enjoying myself immensely.

2. Broadway

fun dresses

Bless anyone who knew me from the ages of about 13-17, because they had to listen to more off-key belting than anyone should ever have inflicted on them. I’ve loved musical theatre my entire life — one of my earliest memories is of seeing Cats when I was three, learning difficult vocabulary just so I could read the entire libretto, and dancing to “The Jellicle Ball” with my mother when she got home from work. But when I was a teenager, it turned into a whole other thing. My friends and I went through a series of fixated obsessions on particular musicals — The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, Aida, Chess, Wicked — and sang them. Everywhere. Living Room Musicals were a staple of our entertainment. We attached fierce meaning to various songs, communicated in quotes via our AIM away messages, used them as weapons in intra-group feuding. And we wrote fanfic. So. Much. Fanfic. I am so damn grateful that YouTube wasn’t a thing yet for most of that time, because there would be some seriously blackmail-worthy material out there if it had been. But the thing is — musical theatre can teach you a lot about the heights and depths of emotion. I build playlists for books and characters that I’m working on, and most of them are still dominated by showtunes.

3. X-Men

XM24

This is something I’ve flitted in and out of throughout my life. I got hooked early, with the 90s animated series. I distinctly recall the Pizza Hut tie-ins, and I think I still have one of those comics you used to get with Personal Pans. As a teenager, I came back to it with a mania. My favorite was, is, and always has been Rogue — and believe me, I’ve done all sorts of psychological soul-searching as to why I feel such a strong connection to the untouchable Southern spitfire. When I was 16, I even managed to convince my parents to let me bleach a white streak into my then-auburn hair so I could be her for Halloween. I’ve actually been more out of than in this fandom for a while, mostly because I started getting so ticked off about what the series I’d typically followed were doing with my favorite characters — but I’m sure I’ll come back someday, when new writers take over, and in the meantime, I’ve been branching out into some new material (it helps to have a friend who edits at Marvel and another who writes for DC to nudge me towards different titles). Because comics are such an ongoing medium, I feel like this fandom introduced me more than any other to the idea of writing being subject to the various pressures of the time. Just since I was a kid, the X-men have diversified a lot. They’ve been as subject as everything else in fiction to the “dark and gritty” treatment that’s been so popular the past few years. They’ve dealt with shifting perceptions and philosophies in regard to feminism, race relations, LGBTQ, terrorism, the economy, and so forth. Writing never takes place in a vacuum, and pretty much all published works are subject to a lot of different influences, from those within the writer’s own head to those imposed by the industry. I feel like those influences are more public in comic books than they are in other forms.

4. Harry Potter

harry-potter-2013-uk-adult-covers

This fandom dominated late high school and pretty much all of college. It took no time at all after reading the books (up through Goblet of Fire, when I got into it) to start costuming, writing fanfic, and joining RPGs (now on LiveJournal rather than the dying AOL or other forums). HP fandom is a lot of why I am so positive on fanfic in general. There is really no better way for young writers to get feedback than writing in a popular fandom. It’s really, really hard to get people to read original works, especially when you’re an inexperienced teenager (who, let’s face it, is probably not that great a writer yet) — but fanfic brings folk in. You get reinforcement and you get concrit. For me, it ended up building a really tight group of friends, many of whom I still chat with regularly. I certainly won’t claim that there isn’t a lot of nastiness, competition, and trolling out there, but if you pick your cohorts well, you end up with a great support system that can last for years. HP was and remains the most public of all my fandom loves, too. I was a founding member and the social chair of Wizards and Muggles, William and Mary’s HP fan club (which is now thought to be the largest in the nation), and I now co-run Virginia is for Wizards. All the cons I’ve been to so far have been HP-themed, and I’ve easily costumed in this fandom more than in any other.

5. Kushiel’s Legacy

Kushiel's_Chosen

This fandom is so niche. The others on this list are all pretty huge names, so it’s not really surprising that they were what I’d consider gateway fandoms, but Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy has never gotten much mainstream attention. It’s easy to see why — the masochist heroine, the frank sexuality that imbues the entire culture, the overt paganism, as well as a lot of other darker themes and experiences that aren’t quite middle-America-friendly. It’s sort of just slightly more beyond the pale than A Song of Ice and Fire (which merely shocks, but all the alarming things there are overtly bad — the pearl-clutching bits in Kushiel are often the things held up as good, one of the reasons I like it so much). I didn’t find this until college, making it the latest addition to the list, but it definitely had an impact on me as a writer. Aven owes a lot to the complex interplay of politics, fantasy, history, and sexuality displayed in Kushiel’s Legacy. I think it influenced some of my writing vices as well — It’s a cast of thousands, which I love (though I know not everyone does), and it definitely has moments where it doesn’t move as swiftly as it might, choosing instead to luxuriate in character studies and world-building — but I’m okay with that. My fandom involvement here was mostly online, in a tight-knit group (that had a lot of overlap with HP and ASoIaF groups).

So — Those were the five fandoms that I think had the biggest influence on me, as a geek and as a writer. How about you? What were your starting fandoms?

A Progression of Heroines

Some reflective thoughts today:

When I was a teenager, the heroines I wrote tended to fall into a very certain mold. Lady Rebels and Golden Queens, butt-kicking leaders who defied all expectations and restrictions, who were full of fire and glory. Their lives were tumultuous, with soap-opera-worthy romantic tangles and nefarious villains to challenge them, but they always came out on top in the end. A lot of this, so early in my development as a writer, was imitative of the tropes and the women I adored in other stories — Princess Leia, Xena, Eleanor of Aquitaine. They were also all unrealistically prodigious at various skills, particularly when it came to warfare and to the arts.

Looking back, I can clearly see where all of this came from. I was angry and full of emotions I didn’t have a clue how to control, and so were my heroines. I yearned for approval and admiration, and so my heroines got those things. I feared reprisal and condemnation, so my heroines never suffered such. Writing is, I think, almost always wish fulfillment on a certain level, but when you’re young, even moreso. And I don’t judge myself for that. It was part of a process, not only of becoming a better writer, but of becoming myself.

And, as such things are wont to do, it evolved. By my college years, my heroines were turning a lot darker. Sorceresses who not only dabbled in black magic, but sometimes dove in head-first. Ruthless imperial majesties. The real “all shall love me and despair” types, or else the half-mad exiles brooding away in their dilapidated strongholds. Moral ambiguity was the name of the game. And that made perfect sense, for years when I was trying to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, and how to get there. I spent a lot of time feeling lost and confused, I had a fair bit of existential dread, and I went to a school where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1693 — so the stress came out in the writing. I scared myself sometimes, so I wrote heroines who scared other people.

And it continues to evolve.

The most recent heroines, the ones I’ve written since getting out of grad school, are women who’ve let cages build around their hearts. They’ve deliberately shrunk themselves and their expectations of life. They haven’t stretched their wings in so long, they’ve forgotten they have them. They strive to live up to the vision of themselves placed upon them by society, by family, by lovers and husbands. They tamp down their emotions and they never lose their tempers… anymore.

But eventually, they snap. They remember what it is to be bright and burning. The path towards reclamation isn’t easy, but they grit their teeth and brave their way through it.

I know damn well where this impulse comes from. I’ve been writing my way through recovery. It wasn’t an intentional thing, but rather a trend I’ve noticed in retrospect. I can see the detritus of an emotionally abusive relationship, and I can see where I’ve been writing my way free of it. Which isn’t to say that I’m done, or that the process is complete — I know full well I’m still sloughing off the chains, and there’s still plenty of authorial juice to be squeezed out of this self-evaluation.

But, with that awareness, I do wonder who my next heroines will be.

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