Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's Elementary, Dear Readers

I've told you guys a lot about myself over the past 18 months. You've heard about my trauma, my dysfunctions, my sex life, my abusive relationship, my misadventures with drugs. But somehow, I'm more nervous about writing this post than I've been about most of the others.

Those were mostly about things that happened to me. This one cuts a little closer to to the bone than that: it's about the person I am, irrespective of all of that. The real me, underneath it all.

I am, at my core, a writer.

I don't mean that in a functional way. Writers don't always function as writers. Lord knows I haven't, for most of my life. I mean it in a "born this way" sort of way. I was born with a writer's sensibility. I'm a natural observer, a collector of anecdotes. I see people's motivations behind their facades. I have a sensitivity to the narrative of things. And my preferred output is words.

It's an orientation to the world, really. It's the way I process information; the way my brain makes order from chaos. I've thought this way all my life.

I'm a natural writer for the same reason I'm a natural teacher, I realized recently. I think of everything in terms of how I would convey it clearly and convincingly to someone else. This idea, this process, this experience: how can I describe it best, in the way most likely to convince, entertain,  illuminate, instruct?

I haven't ever usually had the courage discipline to write or to teach as my main purpose, but when I have (and I have!), I've been pretty good at it. Really good at it, even. 

In my shame-prone way, I usually manage to convince myself during those times that I'm cheating-- it doesn't count, somehow, because it isn't hard. I haven't earned the right to be proud of it because an orientation to the world isn't anything I can take credit for. It just is.

This usually results in an extraordinary amount of anxiety over what I'm doing, because then it isn't just my work that's on the line, it's me, and then everything actually becomes difficult, and then I feel threatened, and then I get triggered, and then I get paralyzed, and then I get the hell out of there before any more damage is done.

Because that makes sense. Doesn't it? 

<sigh> The things we do to ourselves.

Anyway, this is just me. I'm that girl. During my more socially-connected moments, I've been known as a storyteller. Renowned, even. These days, my Facebook statuses have gained a bit of an enthusiastic following because Facebook is the perfect medium for my particular set of skills and abilities: flair for anecdote, audience to entertain, no need to actually talk to anyone.


So... why am I telling you about this?

Well. It's important to establish context for this next thing, so that it makes sense to you why it makes SO much sense for me.

As a person with a writer's orientation to the world, I tend to see things in story form. My imagination just goes that way. I write myself into the constant narrative going on in my head. And when I come across other stories that turn my crank, I write myself into those, too, and entertain myself with them in idle moments. As I've said many times in this blog, I tend to see myself from a third-person perspective-- a player on a stage-- and this, I think, is why. It's just another example of the pre-established frameworks that made it very easy for PTSD to slot itself so deeply into my consciousness.

But it has its up-sides, too. This is one of them.

If you are of this writer's disposition-- and you very well may be, whether you write or not-- you'll know what I mean when I say that everything has the potential to become the next running narrative. Stories are everywhere, waiting to be picked up and continued. 

Maybe it's a story I want to be a part of, so I put myself into it. Or it's a story I want to continue, so I imagine what happens next, or what would happen if

I've always been a voracious reader and film-watcher for this reason. The characters and plots and scenery are established; the seeds have been planted and all you have to do is help them grow. And seeing a fellow storyteller's turn of phrase or angle of shot or interpretation of character or nuance of plot is always inspiring (all art is borrowing and re-imagining, after all). And my response to stories and movies I love has always been to make more of it. 

This meant that I was a four-year old who played out scenarios involving the characters from Planet of the Apes and The Wizard of Oz. A six-year old who imagined herself into M*A*S*H episodes. A nine-year old who saw herself running around with the characters from Annie. An 11-year old whose alter-ego was someone's tag-along cousin on Fame, a mischievous orphan character on The A Team and Simon and Simon and Magnum PI.

A 15-year old who filled notebooks with pages of what would happen if about a 15-year old girl in the fictional universes of The Sting and 21 Jump Street.

My tastes were eclectic, what can I say.

(A side-note for my fellow storytellers out there: I've noticed, as I've cataloged the various fictional alter-egos I've had over the years, that all of them were orphaned, displaced, self-contained, escaping a dubious past through extraordinary achievement. It was the Superhero Myth. I was enacting, over and over, the Superhero Myth. OMG.)

Although I didn't know it at the time, there was a word for what I was doing when I was writing piles of 21 Jump Street episodes (which began when I was still so naive, I didn't even consider making my alter-ego Johnny Depp's love interest. A year later, however... well, let's just say I had considered it quite a lot). Back then, before the internet, I had no way of knowing that I was joining a well-established tradition that others of my orientation had been carrying on in relative secret for decades. Centuries, even. 

I was writing fanfiction.

At some point in the 90's, I heard that term used for the first time. It was in an article about the most well-known fanfiction-writing fandom of all time: Trekkies. Star Trek fans, a notoriously obsessed bunch, popularized fanfiction as "an expression of fandom and fan interaction" (quote from the wiki article linked above).

They'd started fanzines in the 60s that contained fan-created Star Trek stories and art. In the later incarnations of the Star Trek TV series, the shows' writers actually accepted ideas for episodes from fans.

Trekkies are also, as you probably know, notorious for their devotion and their conventions and their show-as-lifestyle commitment to Star Fleet principles and Klingon dialects. At the time I was reading this particular article, this kind of fandom seemed unhinged. And I realized, rather shamefully, that I was one of those types, the relative superiority of Johnny Depp to Leonard Nimoy notwithstanding.

My mom was a Trekkie.** My version of teenage rebellion was to eschew all things sci-fi. So fanfiction and Trekkiedom were inextricably linked in my mind, and the connection was not favorable. So I went even further underground with my secret hobby. I never told another living soul about it.

** no children were harmed during the making of this childhood. No Klingon was spoken, either (no filthy cosmic barbarians, we!) But I do admit to knowing that the proper response to the iconic Vulcan farewell, "Live long and prosper," is a raised hand, split into a V between the middle and ring fingers, and the phrase, "Peace and long life." Some things just stick, no matter how hard you try to shake them off.

Not much to report about my fanfiction for many years after that. I was in college, writing my poems and vampire stories (it's all a form of fanfiction, really, isn't it?), and then in grad school, writing my New Yorker-approved general fiction, and then, and then, and then. Not a lot of time for penning 21 Jump Street episodes, although it remained my favorite idle daydream subject for years and years, and the stories continued in my head.

Several years ago, I was poking around online one day and thought of my old fanfiction, and I thought, I wonder if anyone has ever posted fanfiction online?

<google search>


Yes. As a matter of fact, yes, someone had. Many, many someones. In fact, after seeing the quantity of fanfiction that had been posted, it was difficult to imagine that anyone had the time or bandwidth to post anything else. Ever. I'm serious. I could go on...

The internet, as it turns out, was MADE for dorks people like me.

So I read a bit of 21 Jump Street fanfic, found it interesting but not particularly noteworthy, and moved on.

Fast forward to about two years ago. I was puttering around one day while my daughters were napping, and decided to finally try watching that BBC Sherlock show that had come out a few months before. I'd had it sitting on my Tivo forever and never got around to it-- I was never a Sherlock Holmes fan-- and had eventually deleted it from lack of interest.

But I saw it on Netflix, and had nothing better to do, so I queued it up and hit play.

Five minutes later, I was riveted. By the time the first episode was over, I knew I'd found something special. It was the best thing I'd ever seen on TV. The writing was gloriously smart and current and funny, the characters were perfect, the acting: amazing. 

I found myself officially obsessed.

It didn't take long before I wondered if anyone had written any Sherlock fanfiction. So one day, I went to FanFiction.net, the largest archive of fanfiction on the internet (at the time, at least), and looked it up.

And what I found was... wonderful!

First of all, there were stories. Two thousand or so. Some of them were great. Some of them were not-so-great. 

And some of them were SPECTACULAR. 

I'll talk a bit more about why I read fanfiction in a bit, but the upshot of this part of the story is this: I read some stories, and then I read some more, and then I thought I might try to read ALL of them, and while I was doing that, more stories kept getting posted, and pretty soon there were five thousand, then eight, then ten.**

**as of this writing, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000. Daaaamn.

A lot of the writing I was seeing there-- a disproportionate amount, really, considering the milieu-- was so incredibly good that I just couldn't believe my good fortune. It was like finding your new all-time-favorite novel, and never, ever, ever getting to the end of it. 

So much of the writing was of such high caliber, I began to feel compelled to leave comments for the authors. So I opened an account and joined the community of writers and readers who support each others' work by leaving reviews on stories they like.

Shortly after that, I realized that I was qualified to give high-caliber reviews as well, and that the writing I was reading deserved my best efforts in response. So I put my MFA to good use and dialed up my rhetoric a bit, and started leaving comments worthy of the writing that inspired them. 

Instead of the ubiquitous "Loved this piece! Can't wait to see more from you," I started talking shop, writer to writer. "Here's how you're using language to develop character/ create tension/ control pacing/ convey atmosphere/ shock/ soothe /convince/ provoke/  entertain/ titillate. Here's what I see you doing, here's how I see it working, here's the impact it's having on me as a reader. Here's how you're being successful. Here's how you're making me a fan. Here's how you're awesome."

And somewhere in there, though I didn't know it yet, something inside me woke up.

Sorry for the cliffhanger! I didn't intend it to happen this way, but this post has become a lot longer than I expected and my move is consuming a lot more of my time than I'd hoped, and I didn't want to miss any more deadlines! So here you go. To be continued. In the meantime: LOOK! FANFICTION!**

**both links are to general fanfic archives, which contain fanfiction written about just about anything you can think, from TV shows to books to paintings to rock bands to the Bible. Pick yer poison. I dare you.


  1. Noooooooo! I hate cliffhangers. Oh, well, I'll have to be patient (I'm not very patient, lol).

  2. "A side-note for my fellow storytellers out there: I've noticed, as I've cataloged the various fictional alter-egos I've had over the years, that all of them were orphaned, displaced, self-contained, escaping a dubious past through extraordinary achievement. It was the Superhero Myth."

    Wait. That's the Superhero Myth? Far out! Because I read that synopsis and thought "Dickens." OK, things don't always work out well in his books, but that man never met an orphan he didn't like. Or write a 400-page book about. Pip, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Nell. The boys all get that happy, self-made ending you mention. Not so much Nell, who croaks.

    21 Jump Street fan fiction starring a young and nubile Johnny Depp? Links or it didn't happen. We, your discerning readership, demand proof.