Haunts: History, Storytelling, and the World of the Paranormal

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Last year, thanks to an August spent recovering from Covid and a September spent recovering from a hysterectomy, I discovered what my trash is. Some people love watching reality TV or soaps. Some have a “guilty pleasure” (scare quotes because nothing that gives you joy and pleasure should be connected with guilt) of binging Game of Thrones crime or CSI. But my trash is ghost stories.

I’ve Connected the Two Dots

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I watched practically every episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural over the course of August-September. Watching Shane and Ryan nonchalantly (for Shane) and anxiously (for Ryan) explore various haunted locales in the US and internationally made realize a few things.

  1. Generally, ghost hunters are not my favorite part of the ghost story genre, so to speak. I remember watching the TV show Ghost Adventures and being viscerally upset that the ghost hunters in that show seemed so much like frat boys tearing into a place, doing stuff for shock and awe, then splitting without really having learned much of anything about their location. I particularly remember the Venice episode where they’re lambasting ghosts who presumably died of the plague, which just seemed kind of foolish. My dudes, if you want ghosts to communicate to you, don’t be assholes. (And lampooning people who died of the plague feels real different in a pandemic, let me tell you).
  2. Buzzfeed Unsolved falls into a different category of ghost hunting. The first few seasons are particularly self-aware and feel more like a parody of ghost hunting shows. While the later seasons and the Shane and Ryan’s new show on Watcher feels more authentically ghost hunting and less parody, it’s still enjoyable for me because of charisma of the hosts and the interest in the locale. Research and information is collected before exploring the locale and, while it may not always be 100% accurate*, it’s still frames their visit in terms of history and people who once resided in the locale. (*In terms of inaccurate facts, I’m thinking of the visit to the Winchester Mystery House, which I don’t begrudge them – I only recently learned myself that much of the rationale given to why the house was built the way it was is probably made up to draw in tourists. It’s not the most readily available, especially for those who might be looking for haunts. If you’re looking for more information on this, several books mentioned below discuss the Winchester house as does this episode of Well There’s Your Problem.)
  3. I’e been immersed in ghost stories for a long, long time. As a kid, I watched a lot of Scooby Doo, Unsolved Mysteries (which was definitely not meant for kids, but that didn’t stop me despite one story about a family’s haunted apartment made me think my dad’s grad school apartment in Muncie, IN was haunted for some reasons. The only thing it was haunted by were silverfish in the bathtub), and one particularly creepy episode of Jonny Quest (which I don’t remember watching at any other point) where some guy pushed his wife off a cliff and her ghost came back to haunt him. What actually was the concept of Jonny Quest? Hold on… Okay, so now that I know more about this show, I can correct my childhood recollection and tell you that the man killed his fiance and then he died and then they were both ghosts and it was in fact very, very scary for a 6 year old (it’s the “Ghost Quest” episode of The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest from 1996 if you’re curious). Besides TV, there were plenty of other forms of ghost stories in the 1990s- Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and my particular favorites – The Ghost of Fossil Glen by Cynthia DeFelice and the books of Betty Ren Wright. I don’t know if other young kids in 1990s had an obsession with Wright’s books like I did but something about her characters that were free to express their emotions and explore the unknown that was extremely compelling to me.
  4. Ghost stories capture many aspects of the human experience I’m interested in as a writer – exploring history, pushing yourself to the edges of what you think is possible, dealing with the pains of life and the grief of death, seeking the truth, feeling fear as well as all other possible emotions, facing your fears and finding light in the darkness of the world… I could go on. Ghost stories also take a lot from folk and fairy tales and, sometimes, they were originally folk tales or fairy tales. They’re stories we tell to deal with the unknown, the inexplainable, to make sense of an experience that may make no sense otherwise.

True Ghost StoriesTM

With this background and understanding in mind, I want to explore the complex love-hate relationship I have with ghost stories, not in the books of Stephen King or the films of Guillermo Del Toro, which is where I would usually feel inclined to head – in a realm of art I am proud to admit I enjoy. Instead, we head into the little trash pile my raccoon hands have assembled of True Ghost StoriesTM (I give you the trademark symbol to differentiate this from other kinds of ghost stories and to imply a certain sardonic nature that a media and commercially-saturated millennial wants you to note. I’ve made up this term and am nudging you and winking at you saying, “I don’t know if they’re actually true, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.”)

True Ghost StoriesTM have a fraternal relationship to the True Crime genre. In some cases, they overlap (I’m thinking particularly of Elizabeth Short/the Black Dahlia and other slayings that lead to ghost stories being told about the victims and, all too often, the killers). I have a lot of thoughts on True Crime but this post is already going to be too long so, instead I direct you to this episode of the podcast Well There’s Your Problem (which also made me realize that large parts of the book Devil in the White City are actually fiction and I feel like that should have been clearer to high school Gina). What both of these genres have in common is searching for mysteries and stories that have gone unheard and trying to solve or prove some aspect of them. In the case of True Ghost StoriesTM, the thing that is generally is being proved is… “ghosts are real???”

It’s actually kind of complicated. In the case of Unsolved Mysteries (for the paranormal episodes at least) the storytellers appear to just want to be heard, to be believed, and see if others have had similar experiences or a way of finding out what happened or why. Ghost Adventures, amidst their fratboy antics, are looking to capture visual or auditory footage of ghosts. Buzzfeed Unsolved are doing the same with added feature of having skeptic Shane to provide scientific and “cold logic” rationale for phenomenon which adds a nice tasty layer to this snack cake. The mystery is never solved in the Buzzfeed show and it builds upon itself as Ryan upgrades his tools and tech to get better evidence and Shane becomes increasingly more chill and utterly unfazed by most things (I would honestly pay money for a pocket Shane in my psyche to combat my anxiety. Apparently the fandom “thinks” he’s a demon – some far more seriously than others – but I honestly vibe with hanging out in a dark building and being like “this is kind of chill, actually.” If you’re going to deal with spooky places, might was well be zen and enjoy it if you can, right?).

However, it’s two shows on Netflix that really got me thinking about this genre again – despite having watched so much Buzzfeed Unsolved last summer and doing research for a ghost story novel I’m writing that might never see the light of day but dammit, it’ll have a good bibliography. The shows in question are 28 Days Haunted and Haunted. (Look, I didn’t name them. Send your complaints to Netflix.)

28 Days Haunted takes a theory from famous paranormal experts Lorraine and Ed Warren who surmised that it would take 28 days for to “pierce the veil between the living and the dead.” (Source: higgypop.com) Thanks to that reference link, I realized that even some ghost hunters might be at a loss over this theory. I’m no expert about the Warrens, but I became interested in them in my 20s after seeing The Conjuring and wondering how much truth there was in that movie (some days I’m more skeptical than others. My 20s were far less skeptical). I’d read and seen enough content that I felt like I should have seen that theory somewhere before and, while it sounded familiar, I guessed it more than likely echoed something from the movies than any actual research I did (according to HiggyPop, this theory has never been published in any of the Warrens’ writing. Curious).

Here, I’m tempted to give a whole recap of 28 Days Haunted but… lordy, there’s too much to unpack there. Spirit box audio that sounds clearer than some phone calls I’ve taken, newspaper articles suddenly appearing in the creepiest place in the house, a shot at the end of a demonologist giving a dark smile, suggesting he’s been possessed. I may be a skeptic, yet I don’t not believe in ghosts? I rule nothing out entirely and believe that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philsophies (yes, I realize this is literally Hamlet talking about ghosts. But it’s a good line). HOWEVER… and I cannot stress this enough… I trust nothing that has been heavily edited and sold as reality TV. This show so blatantly has the mark of editing and post-production on it that I don’t need a film degree to see how staged this entire show is – however, if you have a film degree and you’ve analyzed the edits and camera usage in this show, please let me know. I’m trying to figure out how this paranormal investigators could be “alone” in their locations but also have such clear footage. Yeah, GoPros are amazing but… I question everything. Especially demon possession.

Haunted, a completely different show on Netflix, follows a more traditional method of sharing stories – in a circle of friends. Here, people sharing True Ghost StoriesTM gather in a vaguely Victorian room to discuss a harrowing time in their life when they were haunted – specifically only by malignant ghosts or entities. Which bothers me. Even the child ghosts are nasty, biting and attempting to drown people which, I suppose if you were killed and trapped on Earth and dealing with trauma as an eight year old, you’d be pretty pissed off too. But things don’t add up. There’s so much reenactment added in that it becomes unclear what was actually said by the people sharing their stories. Are the intro scenes things that were actually found to be true or hypothesized by the storyteller or are they just shock-value filler to get people’s attention? (“In the Pines” and “Demon Cat” are the most gross, vile examples of this – and I do mean vile. I don’t need to see a naked woman being tortured or a cat being killed in the first 60 seconds of a show because it added absolutely nothing to the story, thanks Netflix). I will note that only the most recent season has these kinds of intros which makes me wonder if they’re trying some new shock tactic to get people to watch what’s otherwise a very drawn-out story, which I would be into except… there’s so much dead air (sorry for the pun) where you’re just watching the re-enactment. Then something spooky happens. We cut back to the storyteller and they talk and explain. And repeat. The problem with this show too is that it also feels scripted – clearly the stories have been written down before recording, which to some degree I understand – you want a coherent narrative. Yet… they’re too coherent. There are moments that feel lifted straight out of The Haunting of Hill House or *insert your Conjuring film franchise movie of choice*. But these people seem pretty put together most of the time, despite the stories they share. And then I started to wonder if they were actors. And then I started to wonder if the stories were true at all. (Put a pin in that.)

When I initially planned this post, I was going to write a list of things that I think are good or that I enjoy about True Ghost Stories TM and things that I think are harmful or complicated. But, the things I enjoy sometimes are harmful in certain ways and the things that are complicated are often good. So, we’re jumping into a very convoluted array of ideas full of contradictions, conflict, and things sure to make some people very upset with me. I want to stress that I am not trying to take a “skeptics are smart, believers in the supernatural are stooopid” because that’s rude and boring. Any other corner of the internet has that debate – you want that, find literally any Facebook group with “reason versus emotion” or “science versus belief” or what have you. This is more like “ghosts are real but they aren’t real in the way you might expect.” So let’s dive in.

Empathy and Fetishization

When I sat down to think about why I like ghost stories, I thought about empathy. Works like Ghosts Beneath Their Feet by Betty Ren Wright helped me understand that I wasn’t alone in moving to a new town and being unhappy about it. It also helped me learn to empathize with something that might shock or frighten you at first – in this case, dead girls (okay, not all of the ghosts in Wright’s books are girls, but the vast majority of them are). Protagonist would find a ghost, it would alarm them because- well, ghosts, that’s supposed to be impossible, right? Then they would uncover some dark secret that needed revealing and injustice that needed righted. Wright certainly helped pave the way for me to be outspoken about patriarchal oppression and workplace safety. It also helped contextualize the past as something that wasn’t all that long ago – ghosts might look different and dress different, but they’re still people. And they have stories to tell.

But sometimes this gets twisted. Sometimes, ghost stories fetishize the past. In his book Ghostland, Colin Dickey discusses how Salem, Massachusetts has a confusing relationship with the witch trials that took place there.

We conflate the dead with actual witches, we attribute actual supernatural powers to those killed, we revist their deaths for comedy and entertainment. Above all, we fail to apply the lessons we’ve supposedly learned from 1692, for by no means was this the last time in American history when a powerless minority was scapegoated, persecuted, and killed by an ignorant mass. We recall the events of Salem, but we can’t quite remember why they matter.

Colin Dickey, Ghostland. pg 35

There’s a sort of commercial appeal to going to Salem and experiencing the witchy vibes there (even I’ve expressed interest in visiting some Halloween, just be there in the spookiest season). But those witchy vibes are supplanted by tourism – because any real ideas of witchcraft cannot be separated from the terrible injustice that took place.

It isn’t just towns like Salem that become overtly saturated in fetishized story making to grapple with the events of a locale. There is a very specific kind of fetishization in ghost stories about people of color. The Myrtles Plantation, one of the first “haunted houses” I remember learning about, is best known for its ghost Chloe, a slave who was killed after poisoning and subsequently killing several members of the family she was owned by. Except she never existed. There is no record of a slave named Chloe at Myrtles and the family members it was said she poisoned definitely did not die at that time. Chloe’s story is made up for tourist fodder and, as Tiya Miles and Colin Dickey discuss, her ghost story is full of stereotypes about black women, in particular the “Jezebel”, the “mammy,” and the “mulatto.” Miles asks an essential question around this:

Were ghost tours actually getting behind history, especially with regard to African American history? Was it a good thing for our public understanding of what happened in the past, or for our development of historical empathy, or for the character of our contemporary social relations that the ghost tour has resuscitated the slave?

Tiya Miles, Tales from the Haunted South. pg 12

Miles later describes how ghost stories can call to find forgotten historic knowledge but can also make it unbelievable. How these narratives contend with ghosts of slaves becomes a public history discussion of how we in the US remember slavery. And if the stories that are told are about ghosts like Chloe that never existed, rather than actual people who lived and died at Myrtles, then a certain misrecognition, distance, and unwillingness to engage with historical truth is occurring. There’s much to be said on how tours, particularly ghost tours, deal with our ugly parts of American history and how much sanitization and veiling occurs. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend Miles’ book as well as How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (I’ll bring up this book later on but want to mention it now as he has a great section on the tours at Monticello and the Whitney Plantation).

It doesn’t much feel like empathy if the people who exist in ghost stories are not people at all but stereotypes and caricature. While I’ve focused on how African Americans under slavery feature in ghost tales, there are plenty of stories I remember hearing about American Indians as a child that are just as stereotype-based. Besides, how many horror stories can you thinking of that involve an “Indian burial ground?” Far too many, that’s for sure. In these instances, ghost stories deal with uncertainty and trying to make sense of nebulous land ownership, layers of violence and trauma perpetrated by ancestors of white Americans, and the sense that we haven’t resolved any of these issues in the 21st century. We’re haunted by our pasts and so we turn them into tales.

Truth and Truthiness

If you existed in the 2000s and you’re not a ghost, you’ve likely heard the term truthiness. Thanks to comedian Stephen Colbert, it was everywhere circa 2005.

Truthiness hasn’t gone away nearly twenty years later (excuse me a moment, I have to have an existential crisis about the fact that 2005 was almost 20 years ago). It’s changed forms but it’s there, ruining our ability to see eye to eye and making the Internet a pretty bad time.

Let’s get this out of the way – I’m an emotional person. I’m working to better understand and express my feelings. Using our emotions in decision making and personal formation is important. But as my therapist informed me, feelings are not facts. This is used to recognize that insecurities and self-doubt that exist in your mind have no evidence in your life and that Percy, your personal anxiety gremlin, is in fact a dirty rotten liar. However, the concept of “feelings are not facts” becomes a lot more difficult when combines with confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, a psychological term coined by Peter Wason, is the tendency to pick out information that supports one’s beliefs or values. We’re all guilty of confirmation bias from time to time (lord knows that my own research here likely is going to miss possible resources just from my own frame of references and not looking outside of that). Ghost hunting tends to be full of of confirmation bias or false consensus from what I’ve seen. A noise is heard in an empty room and the “believers” assume it’s a ghost while skeptics look for a more tangible source – an old radiator, camera equipment being dropped, etc.

Some of this is understandable – I’d be jumpy in a dark house and likely to make hasty conclusions, especially if a spirit box is screaming nonsense at me. But 28 Days Haunted and Haunted go beyond these moments – they use spirit boxes that have clearer audio than actual phone calls I’ve taken. They show mediums that don’t make a single misstep or miscalculation in feeling out the history of a place. They lean so hard into the “ghosts are real” they make it abundantly clear that they are staging so much of this. The final straw for me was the article that appeared in a tunnel at the end of 28 Days Haunted, proving the theory the mediums/sensitives had that a serial killer had killed two girls in the house, used the tunnel as a hideout, and claimed more victims. This article, somehow missed from the first journey into the tunnel, is not only spontaneously found but in perfect condition, despite being in a dirty, must tunnel since the 1970s when the serial killer, presumably, cut it out himself to… IDK, gloat? (I am deeply resisting the urge to soapbox about how serial killers are regarded with disgust but fascination in culture because that’s its own post and this one is already long enough). This and the final scene in the show, where the demonologist shares a dark smile with the camera, insinuating that he’s actually possessed is just… too on the nose. It feels like a movie, like a Blair Witch Project-influenced, found-footage piece, nothing that actually feels like non-ficiton.

And then there’s Haunted. The stories in this feel strongly pulled from movie, horror stories, and similar tropes (especially as two stories back to back have people killed in car accidents that are believed to be caused by ghosts and the odds of that seem like they should be a lot smaller). I’m not going to spend too much time discussing “Demon Cat” but this one broke me – a cat is killed by presumed Satanists (portrayed by teenagers dressed like punk rockers) and this cat, now a demon, is left in the house that the Santanists have abandoned. A family moves in and said demon cat shows up to break the mother’s legs by lifting her then dropping her down a flight of stairs and give the daughter a super rare form of typhus never seen in the US which, once the demon is exorcised from the house, the girl recovers and doctors are totally fine with her going home and not at all wanting to figure out how and where she got this super rare form of typhus. In short, it’s not even a good story. None of it makes a lick of sense – why is the cat a demon? Why does it want to harm a random family and why are the Satanists just yeeting themselves out after they do this? From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a real stinker.

But then there’s Haunted by Henry. This one caught my attention (I started with season three and, yes, I admit, gave up part way through season two) and stood out against the rest of the episodes in feeling better structured. Perhaps because it felt a lot like The Haunting of Hill House. A family moves (surprise, surprise) into an old house on Vancouver Island that once belonged to Henry Croft, a lumber and mining magnate. Croft’s ghost haunts the house and the family discovers he hates children and perhaps drove someone to suicide who previously lived in the home. The story culminates in a night when the children are home alone with friends and things go crazy, with objects being thrown at them and one of the children’s friends being hit by a car on their way home.

This story, if true, would be the most compelling anecdotal evidence for haunting I’ve ever heard. If it’s true, being the key word. I did some cursory research on Henry Croft and couldn’t find much about his house or its perceived hauntings. There was a Reddit post where the original poster has deleted it and all I have left are some not very helpful comments. Nothing on the Wiki page about Croft or the other limited information about him mentioned anything about someone killing themselves in his house or that he was responsible for a lot of cruelty to miners (that’s certainly possible, but at least the articles that were discussed in the show don’t exist online). Things just didn’t add up the way I expected. And I couldn’t get the nagging sensation that, with all the others stories in this show, perhaps none of these are actually true, but created for dramatic purposes for a very specific audience.

Then again, maybe it’s something else. Maybe there’s a real story or experience that producers leapt on and built into something much larger. The dead space in the stories giving room for reenactments to portray things that the speakers never tell or describe makes it very possible for this to be the case. It’s hard to know if these people in these scenes are actors or people who lived these experiences, and Netflix doesn’t want show the man behind the curtain too much. But it leaves me with a gross feeling.

The farther down the rabbit hole I get, the more I try to find some bit of truth, the more I find lies or, at best, misunderstandings or misremembered history. Our brains want desperately to make sense out of the insensible, and so there will be some degree of inaccuracy to these (especially because trauma and harrowing situations messes with our ability to make memories). But when the stories are insensible and I’m expected to just blindly trust production companies who are making things for entertainment… yeah, the skeptic in me gets a lot more confident.

At the end of the day, I still love ghost stories. I think they’re compelling ways to learn about places and about how people deal with impossible situations. However, I still have a difficult relationship with ghost hunting shows. There’s a very limited circle of what I like and it grows all the tighter. But it’s helped me better understand storytelling and taking advantage of you audience. There’s is a certain advantage to having fancy equipment and ability to reenact things to convince people that what you’re seeing could be real. And it frustrates me because, at the end of the day. ghosts are real. We’re all haunted by trauma of some kind. But those manifest far differently than we might think and I personally don’t believe a spirit box can capture that. We don’t need to see ghosts to know that our country is seeped with restless spirits, restless stories, that still need to be explored and shared. I can’t explain what people say they experience in haunted houses or locations. I’m don’t want to try and explain that. But I do want continue to poke and pick at what interests me in True Ghost StoriesTM and discover what works for me in them and what doesn’t, what use they can be to history seekers and what they do to continue the spread of misinformation.

Thank you for joining me on this wild ride. I originally planned on writing a whole third act of this, discussing ghosts and demons… but I just recently (finally, FINALLY) got around to watching Midnight Mass (look, I was afraid the religious trauma of it would be triggering so I kept putting it off. It was triggering, but like in a good way???) Instead of making this post even longer, I’m working on a piece about Midnight Mass. because I love Mike Flanagan’s work and I wish I’d written that damn thing. So tune in for more chaos when that gets posted. 😀

I Made You Some Content: A Look at Image Control by Patrick Nathan

I feel it’s wrong to not recognize just how long it’s been since I wrote here. To be fair, there have been some things going on. To be more fair, blogging is not exactly the trendiest of things these days. Tiktok and Instagram are where it’s at and, while I have accounts with both of them, I’m not on them all that much. I use Instagram mainly to share photos of my cats and baking attempts. Tiktok I have so I could watch videos my partner and a friend send me but I haven’t been on there in so long I’m honestly terrified and overwhelmed by how many unviewed videos are waiting for me there. Let’s just say these days that I have a tenuous relationship with the Internet and social media.

Why then return to this theater view blog-turned library exploration blog-turned unpublished writer talks about stuff? Because I want to be a writer and everyone (and by everyone, I mean people from my MFA program, my partner’s MFA program, and the authors of the Poet and Writers’ Complete Guide to Being a Writer) says you should have an online presence and maintain that online presence, not abandon your website because the pandemic got too real. (To be fair, the Poets and Writers book was published in 2020 so… maybe they’d be a little more understanding these days.) I am, in short, resurrecting this hodgepodge of scribbles like a necromancer creating a lich so that I can at least award myself the “you tried” meme while I continue navigating the world of writing as someone who got their MFA in playwriting and finds the world of publishing frankly confusing has heck.

Thanks to my partner, Avery, the writing world is a little less confusing. He’s in Hamline’s MFA program and I’ve been living vicariously through his experiences, trying to soak up all the information I foolishly forgot or ignored from my low-residency program or wasn’t included in any of our summer residencies. Thanks to a current class he’s in, I went along for a book event at Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Uptown at the beginning of October, featuring one of his professors, Will McGrath, and Patrick Nathan, author of the nonfiction book Image Control: Social Media, Fascism, and the Dismantling of Democracy.

I’m that person who went to this book event having not read the book (Avery was reading it for class, he got first dibs obviously) but I’ve read it since then and wanted to take an opportunity to highlight some of the conversation that was had at the event as well as the topics in the book. Because this book hit me hard. Not just because I learned that night at Magers and Quinn that Italy had elected a fascist prime minister. Not just because I’m continuing to navigate a very important midterm election while harboring a total ennui and frustration towards political campaigns and politicians in general. But also because I feel a whole chapter of my life as a person and a writer coming full circle.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I took a course in the Cultural Studies department called Reading History. My professor, Ben, renamed the course Reading Hitler, and we focused on how people had tried to make meaning out of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. We talked about Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and BOOK, we read excerpts of Hannah Arendt’s and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (the later which made me chuck my photocopy of the text across my apartment multiple times). We talked about the Producers and etc and I learned a lot about fascism and how it was making a new appearance amongst the Tea Party and others with conservative leanings, and I hoped and believed that my knowledge of recognizing and resisting fascism would remain an interesting time capsule of the politics of 2011, not actual knowledge I would need to navigate every day of my life.

I have been proven wrong since then. Knowledge of fascism and how to fight it has become a daily need. Patrick Nathan’s book concisely outlines this need while also grappling with what it’s like to be a writer in a world that claims it needs authors (citing Jennifer Egan writing in Time magazine in 2018) while treating them “little more than someone’s rigorously trained pet” (202).

This book is full of heavy gut punches. It’s difficult to pull quotes because each sentence builds on the previous and builds into the next. When Avery shared it with me before I read it, he needed to give large summaries of sections and read whole paragraphs so that I could understand the full array of ideas present. It’s a masterful piece, written by an author who is deeply troubled by what he sees in the world around him and hopes to make others more aware before it is too late.

You could say this book stands on the shoulders of other important texts discussing fascism – Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, of course (which it refers to), but it also captures the ideas of other books I’ve encountered recently but far more succinctly. I read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff initially for writing research (only to discover it affected a million parts of my daily life, including writing on this site). That book is important but it is long (and a bit repetitive). Nathan deals with the same topics and takes it a step further – Zuboff’s insight is important but she doesn’t got so far as to tie surveillance capitalism to fascism. Nathan not only ties in surveillance capitalism but outlines how our entire economic structure profits on boxing people into marketable categories, treats images like currency, makes us suspicious of everyone and everything, and profits off of our misery and trauma.

Source: tenor.com

We use images to express ourselves, gifs to respond to conversation (as exampled above). Images are a part of our language and, because fascism is a sneaky beast that has found ways to evolve its rhetoric, its pushed its themes (that never change) into new modes of expression and new avenues. Below are couple of examples I’ve recently seen on Youtube of the ways in which fascism subtly and not so subtly shows up in our lives.

Thought Slime, the YouTube channel of Mildred/Matt (pronouns: any/all) recently posted the above video where Mildred struggles with their appearance and weight and describes how an economic system seeks to profit off of people who want to be “fit” or “thin” or look like Chris Hemsworth and fully alienates people as never being good enough. This video is a lot – extremely, extremely good and important, but a lot. Mildred gives content warnings at the beginning of the video.

As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and is still fighting to embrace my body as it is rather than how society tells me it should be, I appreciate this video more than I can say. It also hits on the darkness that lurks whenever I worry about calories or the amount I exercise, the dread I feel when New Year’s Resolutions are discussed/advertised. Bodies, particularly fat bodies, queer bodies, and/or POC bodies are criticized and shown as undesirable, or only shown as desirable if you fit a certain (marketable) category of fat/queer/person of color. Any that cannot be categorized and maximized for profits, consumption or productivity will be eradicated.

Those who are profitable or productive may find themselves sucked into a mlm that seeks to harm those lured in by hustle culture, passive income, or other forms of gig economy that are parasitic and unethical.

The channel Folding Ideas, run by Dan Olsen (pronouns: he/him) researched a mlm that he saw advertised featuring the Mikkelsen twins, who promise income by creating audio books. However, these are books not written or recorded by those profiting off of them (if any profit is actually gained). Olsen does some fantastic investigative reporting that reveals the (thinly veiled) lies of such mlm scams as well as some serious issues within the world of publishing and writing. These sort of scenarios also rely on people either desperate for income to try them or those willing to do anything to be rich and successful. They’re driven by an economy that tells us we should always be hustling, always be looking for fame or fortune, and, as exhibited by the rhetoric in the marketing of the Mikkelsens, if you don’t take this opportunity, you’ll experience the fear of missing out, of “wanting an experience you aren’t having, not to mention the little kernel of consumerist shame that you weren’t asked, that you weren’t good enough, to join” (Nathan 115).

And while we’re talking about writing and the publishing industry, I’d be remiss not to include writers practicing fascism right before our very eyes.

Shaun (pronouns: he/him) discusses the issues of JK Rowling’s work in a previous video but focuses here on the connections she has to many transphobic, racist, and flat-out fascist figures. At this point, I’m no longer afraid of retaliation from internet trolls or anyone I know for condemning Rowling’s actions and hate speech. Nothing about Shaun’s video is particularly surprising to me now (and if you are surprised or shocked, I recommend watching James Somerton’s video on being a fan and dealing with what Rowling has done). But it is alarming – especially given the number of followers she still has on Twitter and the presence and renown she’s gained as a writer. Writers have certain ethical responsibilities to their public and when they show their true colors, we should listen. Rowling has loudly announced what she really thinks by who she allies herself with. Nathan refers to Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse in the last third of his book. Schulman’s argument centers around abuse that is actually perpetuated in the world versus conflict that happens between individuals and is claimed to be abuse. Fascism, as Schulman and Nathan illustrate, relies on acting like those who ascribe to its politics are the victims, that they are the ones being harmed. Those who resist fascism, however, have struggled with how to deal with fascism because there is no way to use conflict resolution and communication to resolve these issues. “The error here is to call fascism a conflict,” Nathan states (156). Fascism itself is abuse, as much as the double think makes its followers believe the reverse. Furthermore, “fascism trades in death. Its currency is death… So fixed in our places, we are imagined dead before dying; our deaths ‘make sense.’ As concerns the United States of America in the twenty-first century, here is where Schulman’s distinction between conflict and abuse becomes the greatest societal urgency in human history” (217).

So then… what do we do? How can we resist and fight back against this grinding machine that wants to wear us down into synthesized consuming copies or destroy what cannot be assimilated? Nathan states in his book that, “We are too busy being productive, too involved in managing our time, to participate as citizens in our own democracy” (91). Our lives are crammed full of jobs and tasks that never end. I think about how difficult it is to go vote on election day for many people. I have the luxury of having a job that allows me to take time off if needed but, as I don’t have any childcare needs, I can go early in the morning before work (and even walk to my voting station in my neighborhood, an even greater rarity).

Our society has constructed itself so that we are too busy, too tired, or too cynical to really get involved in citizenship. This is not a criticism – because I am exactly in the same space. I continually try to get more involved with organizations, only to end up on their email list and feel like I can do little more than donate (and, with not having the largest disposable income, this is frequently not an option for me). I’ve signed up to volunteer with the same organization twice now, only to quietly drift away after I go through the volunteer training (I won’t say which organization – they do extremely important work, but it’s never ended up being the right place for me, based on their volunteer opportunities).

I’ve been challenging myself to be better about building community. Nathan and others who’ve written about resisting fascism often emphasize the importance of community – of not being isolated, of not letting other people or companies or organizations think for you and speak for you. Nathan also mentions the importance of queerness in this resistance – speaking of the queer community and the way many people within that community resists sameness and flattening. “Queerness is the ultimate protest against fascist binaries,” he states in the book, “including those established and enriched by capitalism.” The queer community faces its own struggles with being manipulated by capitalism – as Nathan mentioned during the Q&A at Magers and Quinn, there’s a certain homogeneity across gay bars after Ru Paul’s Drag Race became popular. The need for equity has been mistranslated into the want of being seen or recognized or personally branded. It isn’t wrong to want these things – all Americans are expected to want these things. But it makes pushing back against the hands that wishes to mold us into the perfect consumer all the harder.

The pandemic has added many challenges of connecting with others, ones that have only been exacerbated with the already overwhelming struggle to have sincere bonds. We’re bombarded by spam calls, junk mail, and other assortments of messaging trying to take advantage of us. It’s easy to become jaded, to feel burned out and fed up and just shut down. But if I do that, if we all do that, I worry what will become of those I have managed to keep close to me.

In Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam discusses what comes after hope, what alternatives exist to “cynical resignation on the one hand and naive optimism on the other” (1). His book envisions a new kind of optimism, one that doesn’t “rely on positive thinking as an explanatory engine for social order, nor one that insists upon the bright side at all costs; rather this is a little ray of sunshine that produces shade and light in equal measure and knows that the meaning of one always depends upon the meaning of the other” (5).. When looking for ways to use queerness to resist, I always turn back to this book. I read it in college, when I was writing my senior undergrad thesis on fandoms (in what truly felt like a different time and space). I wasn’t out yet but it let baby queer me investigate what it might mean to live differently, to accept that my ideas of success and being a femme person didn’t align with what was largely expected of me. Instead of sulking further in the toxic “I’m not like other girls” media that was everywhere circa 2012 (which I can cringe about now and recognize as yet another mode to tell people they aren’t good enough), I read this book. This book focuses on the joy of being a loser, of ignoring the rules of the game and not playing them at all and how these can be read in certain films and images.

It’s hard at first to think of oneself as failing or losing. It feels wrong and defeatist. But that’s the kind of losing that our toxic system wants us to believe in now. This is unconventional, nonbinary, queer. This accepts many ways of being, of living, of experiencing the world. This is failure only in the eyes of a world that cares so much about success.

Nathan describes this success-driven world where “our neighbors are suspicious and our co-workers are competitors” (55). In this space, there is no room to grow, to explore, to foster true connection. The only way out? Perhaps its failure. Perhaps its accepting that we’re anxiety-ridden electrified meat sacks that have been hugely traumatized by our world and don’t know how to socially interact with anyone because we’ve been quarantining for months upon months and we may never have been so good at social interaction in the first place (speaking only of myself here). Perhaps it’s seeing that we are not in conflict, but abuse, with those who willingly want to harm others. Perhaps it’s recognizing that our two party electoral system is a mess beyond words but voting still matters, dammit, especially in this midterm and no amount of bricks in a cynical wall can protect you from those who would rather hammer you down like a stubborn nail.

It sucks. It’s terrifying. I’d much rather hide under a pile of blankets and escape into my favorite book or video game instead of face this – and I do this, perhaps more often than I should. A certain amount of escapism is necessary – no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality, after all (yeah, it’s nearly Halloween, I needed a Shirley Jackson reference). But I can’t continue as if I’m not thinking about this every day, wondering how to resist better, how to connect and support better, how to fail better. After all, fascism’s “deepest appeal is a schism from reality” (Nathan 67-68). A certain amount of painful reality is necessary right along with the escapism. We’re all looking for answers, and I don’t have any here. But perhaps rereading authors like Halberstam, or continuing to support and encourage writers like Nathan, maybe we’ll find some.

Also, support your independent bookstore and attend author events like the one with Patrick Nathan. Because a lot of these events are free and absolutely fantastic.

Works Cited

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press: 2011. Print.

Nathan, Patrick. Image Control: Social Media, Fascism, and the Dismantling of Democracy. Counterpoint: 2021. Print (2022 paperback edition).

Welcome to the Internet, or: Being An Artist in a Virtual World, Part 2

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Originally, this post was going to be a long, thoughtful look at a single topic. I then realized I wasn’t as knowledgable about the topic as I wanted to. Before I could actually dig into the research, a Youtuber made a far more thought-provoking and in-depth video than I ever could have done in my writing. And so, I’m undertaking a hybrid project here, which can only exist because of the better work of others.

A few things I’ve been considering before we dig ing: I am not famous on the internet. I have never been famous on the internet and, unless I happen to publish a very successful novel, I will never be famous on the internet. There was a time in my life where I very much wanted to be famous on the internet because I wanted an easy way to make money, feel like I was valuable to society, and receive love and attention I was woefully devoid of in my personal life. I am very much concerned for the person I used to be and will discuss that at length later (likely in a following post).

I write all this to note that writing on the internet about the internet is weird. Social media and communication on the internet is all about intent – there is some reason to be using this medium over others. I write on a blog because it allows me creative control and instant publishing ability. Yes, the quality is inconsistent and my audience is limited to people who know about the blog, are searching to read about topics and a search engine’s ability to connect my blog to those topics, and the relevancy of blogs compared to other mediums is a big old question mark. One day I’ll move into a podcast format but until then – y’all are stuck with text.

First, the video around the issue that started it all: the Internet’s relationship with three podcasting brothers. This video is long, but worth it. (Also, it probably goes without saying that I don’t necessarily agree with every opinion shared in these videos but I’ve selected them because I greatly appreciate the perspective, agree with the YouTuber’s overall message, and probably also subscribe to their channel.)

The Podcasting Brothers

I was introduced to the McElroys (their content, not them personally) by my now partner, Avery. They mentioned a couple of D&D podcasts they listened to, highlighting that The Adventure Zone featured a wizard named Taako, and I knew I had to listen. Previously, I didn’t listen to a lot of podcasts. I’d dabbled in a few when I spent a year walking to and from my theater job and stopped listening when my headphone cord froze in the winter. But at the beginning of 2020 I was starting an office job where I wanted to occupy my brain with something interesting while I did data entry and course transfers for a higher ed institution. I plowed through a couple of podcasts, Bombarded and The Adventure Zone, admiring how an audio medium could tell such rich stories. I was hooked.

Then the pandemic hit and I was working from home, not socializing with anyone, and feeling pretty lonely. What did I do? Filled my time with podcasts. After I wrapped up with the newest episodes of The Adventure Zone in their new arc, “Graduation”, I dove into My Brother, My Brother, and Me (henceforth known as MBMBaM), going back in time to episode one hundred something. I listened to all of Shmanners, Sawbones, and Wonderful, the podcasts the McElroys do with their relative spouses. I watched the short-lived but very funny TV show of MBMBam. One could say I’ve spent the last year becoming quite the connoisseur of McElory products (and boy, there are a lot of them).

I could write an entire post about why I enjoy their work, but for now I’ll keep it short. The three brothers have a lovely, wholesome relationship you don’t often see between adult family members mixed with an irreverent, ridiculous humor that mixes improvisation with reoccurring themes as well as a certain amount of playing with language that makes the most of puns and colloquialisms. They also have a knack for creating memorable, heartfelt characters that make you laugh as much as they make you cry. That sort of creative power is something I yearn to be able to do.

Seeing the critiques of their work as well as the struggle they have with their Internet community and balancing being a small family podcast while also being entrepreneurs with a marketable brand is something I keep going back to. I’ve been working on my “personal brand” at my day job and it’s something that’s been a large part of my writing. Every query letter I write and any project proposal I wrote in my playwriting days required a certain amount of branding. We live in a complicated world and every choice we make can reflect upon our characters – especially if the Internet is watching.

Lindsey Ellis is Cancelled (Again)

I’ve been watching Lindsey Ellis videos for probably about a year now and her film theory videos (which I would have loved to have had during my time as a Cultural Studies major at the U), reviews, and reflections are really marvelous.

I’m really going to let this video just sit on its own and speak for itself. The strength it takes to voice the mistakes you’ve made and admit them to thousands of unknown viewers and to be vulnerable like this… it’s incredible. It’s also a really good look at what cancel culture has morphed into. What was something that was meant to be used by the less privileged to address issues of white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and ableism, is now being used to silence advocates and allies. Why? It’s the Internet. Nothing gold can stay.

Daddy Made You Your Favorite; Open Wide

At some point in processing all these thoughts about Internet fame, my partner and I found Bo Burnham’s new special on Netflix. It deals heavily with creating in the pandemic, feeling responsible for creating content for viewers, struggling to make comedy in our current world and with mental illness, and the ways in which the Internet has completely changed how people interact with one another (as shown in the above video, a song which has not left my brain since I heard it). There’s a lot of layers to this show and a lot of insightful discussions out there about it, so I encourage you to find them.

I feel like these videos are all linked by common themes – obviously, creating content on the Internet. But there are also themes of vulnerability, parasocial relationships, criticism, and misunderstanding. All of these things are enough to write a dissertation about. However, I’m going to try to wrap things up here.

What Does it Mean to be Internet Famous?

“Hi, I’m Hank Green, and I’m famous on the internet.”

There’s an essay at then of the edition of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing I have where Hank Green, scientist, YouTuber, podcaster, and author, discusses a podcast he created with his wife in which they discuss tweets he’s posted. Green’s novel focuses on a young protagonist who becomes famous overnight after posting a video about a strange sculpture she stumbles across that appeared out of nowhere and has replicas across the world. It’s a sci-fi story but it’s also a powerful look at the powers and dangers of social media.

Being famous on the Internet is different than other kinds of fame. You may not be recognized walking down the street by most people but the people who know you expect the most of you. I have been one of those people, who simultaneously yearned to meet their heroes and were terrified of being disappointed. But everyone on the Internet is a person – we all have our flaws and quirks and wonderful qualities. We are all going to make mistakes. But in a space where content piles up like snow in a blizzard, it can be overwhelming for both content creators and content imbibers to deal with this onslaught. It’s hard to humanize the billions of characters in each Tweet, in each Insta post, in each Tik-Tok. Part of social media is resistant of that kind of humanization – building a performance, a curated idea of what each person is. Being any kind of authentic requires inconsistency and understanding that you will lose followers or have a low number of them. And when money is the bottom line, often users choose or are persuaded to do things that will conform to more hits and more likes.

I believe there is a way to be human on the Internet. However, I’m not very good at it. It’s something I am continually working at and struggle with continually (hence this post). As I continue these reflections as I go forward in my work, I want to leave you here with a quote from Jonathan Van Ness from his memoir Over the Top: “Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?” JVN goes on to discuss researcher Brene Brown and that these feelings come from shame. JVN advocates resisting shame and being vulnerable with those who earn it. I can only endeavor to do the same thing here.

Critiquing Patrick Rothfuss and JK Rowling, or: Being a Writer in Virtual World

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Well, y’all… it’s been a while. Too long a while. I meant to start writing on here again ages ago but between the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the last year just generally being what it was for me personally and for the world, it just didn’t happen.

But I’m back now. Why? Because I stumbled across an article featuring two writers that have influenced me that I couldn’t avoid talking about.

This morning, I stumbled across this article about author Patrick Rothfuss (author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, aka The Name of the Wind and its successive books). During a recent Twitch stream, he stated he’d long had issues with the ethics of Rowling’s books before it became “fashionable” to hate on her.

My reaction to this is… well, to put it in Minnesotan terms, uffda. There’s a lot to unpack here. So let’s start at the top. I stumbled across this article on a Rothfuss fan page I follow on Facebook. The comments were full of people defending Rowling and, despite it being a fan page, people criticizing Rothfuss for taking so long to finish his next book (for context, it’s been ten years since the most recent book in the Kingkiller Chronicles was released). I had a sudden jumble of emotional reactions to this, which I’ll outline below.

  • I’ve critiqued and criticized JK Rowling plenty in the last months (not here but on other social media and among friends and fellow writers). My partner is trans and Rowling’s stance is problematic, to say the very least. I personally am having a difficult time remaining a Harry Potter fan given what she represents now (thankfully, things like StarKid’s Very Potter Musical exist, which is where my appreciation for Harry Potter now lies). That being said, anyone who defends Rowling so vehemently makes me… uneasy. It’s one thing to still appreciate her writing and what she’s created, it’s another to say she’s a misunderstood person. I’m not here to talk about Rowling though – honestly, the less said the better. If you want to talk about Rowling though, can I please direct you to some wonderful Youtubers who are killing it with giving a powerful explanation of why Rowling’s words matter so much. Contrapoints and Lindsey Ellis are queens and watching their videos have been a wonderful discovery in the otherwise dumpster-fiery last year. Also, if you’re about to argue with me and say anything transphobic or TERF-y, just don’t And if you comment about it, know said comments will be ignored. 🙂
  • Rothfuss’ mention that he’s been critiquing Rowling before it was “fashionable” to do so is… not great. Ignoring the hipster vibes it emits, the core of it is bad vibes. Like banding together to hold Rowling responsible for transphobic remarks is somehow doing it to be trendy not because trans rights matter (“cancel culture” has made things complicated and so has performative activism via social media but those are essays for another time). It very reductionist and not helpful.
  • Yes, Rowling’s books have flaws. I will bemoan how Hufflepuffs deserve better for the rest of my life but I’m curious what criticism Rothfuss is really trying to make. I don’t begrudge him for making the criticism – I appreciate writers who can critique one another. But his criticism felt… well, maybe it felt a little out of left field. What brought this on? Why now? Why on this stream? And why about her books and not directly about the transphobia? We can’t know. But it did lead me down the rabbit hole of something entirely different…

What is it like to be a writer in the 21st century with a social media presence? This is something I’ve been contemplating a lot in the last few months. I’m nowhere near being a published writer, but as someone who’s waffled between addictive social media use and wanting to delete all accounts forever, it’s something I certainly feel conflicted about. And so, I’ve decide to discuss it in a blog (the irony is not lost on me, I can assure you).

There was a time, not long ago, when writers were not expected to engage with fans. They could be as social or reclusive as they wished. Now, however, there seems to be a focus on authors engaging with fans online, representing their work, and showing they’re working in a craft that really doesn’t provide a lot of visibility to the creation process.

What changed? Is it simply the advent of social media becoming more popular? Is it authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman among many, many others having strong social media presences? I certainly don’t have the answer here. I could do some researching but I threw my researching into… something else.

The thing about having a social media presence is that social media and media in general can also reflect upon you. As I thought about Rothfuss’ criticisms of Rowling I began to wonder, what critiques are out there on Rothfuss? I majored in Cultural Studies and Psychology in undergrad, and even though criticism exhausts me, it’s an important part of writing, cultural understanding, and personal growth. Even Rothfuss mentions he hasn’t done the best representing diverse characters (though unlike Rowling, he says, he hasn’t revised characters after the completion of a series). So I did some digging into criticism of Rothfuss’s work.

  • Swan Tower has an in-depth critique of The Name of the Wind in terms of how it represents women. It lists every female character that is introduced, how much time is given to them (speaking-wise and other), and whether they play a significant role to the plot. The results are disappointing – as is the case with far too much of sci-fi/fantasy, most of the women have limited roles and the roles that are prominent are to aid the main character or be desirable objects. Overall, the main takeaway is why? Why do men keep writing women like this? Why don’t they write more female characters and why don’t they do it better? I have to admit that I was taken back by the stark lack of women in this book when reading this post – I sensed it when I’ve read it previously, but I don’t think it really hit me until now. It does help explain why I’ve been unable to shake connecting this book to the less-than-feminist ex I gifted it to…
  • The Cozy Scholar considers whether Kvothe (the protagonist of the Kingkiller Chronicles) is actually a Mary Sue, if the flowery beautiful language is written not in earnest but as an ironic, cynical joke, and if overly long fantasy novels might be about… something of a different size. The answer in their eyes is yes.
  • Evidently Rothfuss’ had some conflict with his editor and she alleged he hadn’t written anything for year (info from Newsweek and Kirkus Reviews). This was shared over Facebook and soon taken down but it had an impact, especially on those already believing the last installment int he Kingkiller Chronicles was not coming.
  • Fantasy-Faction takes a perspective – it addresses a sentiment that Rothfuss hates his fans and poses that this is probably not the case. A lot is going on in the author’s life, many things fans are not privy to, and being continually asked about when the next book is going to be finished. It mentions struggling with perfectionism, something that many writers (myself included) fight against. What I appreciate about this post is that it reminds us we are talking about real people when we talk about authors. Real people who have the right to privacy, who make mistakes, who are ever growing and changing.
  • Likewise, a commenter in this Quora post reminds us that Pat Rothfuss is a human being with mental illness, extreme fan pressure, and only so many hours in a day. Though much of this might be gleaned via parasocial relationships, it’s a very important view.

Over the course of coming across these articles, my mood and opinion swayed drastically. I was angry and disheartened, feeling gullible that I’d been taken in by another writer I thought was sensationally but was highly problematic. I moved on to shock and then dismay at the interactions with fans and editors. And then, I realized what I was really trying to understand: human beings are complicated.

It sounds reductionist, but I promise you it’s not. All too often I forget how complicated I am, how complicated my partner is, how complicated all the people I care about and all the people in the world are. Social media, in all its good, can also dreadfully bad at showing nuances. Most of the time, social media is good at showing quick headlines, snapshots, blurbs and hot takes. To dive deeper takes a little more time and investment.

When I remind myself that Rothfuss is human, made of the same brains and stuff and flaws as me, it becomes a lot easier to understand how something like this Twitch statement happened. You feel like speaking out, you feel compelled to speak out, but you don’t want to say what’s already been said. You want to show a certain depth, to avoid looking like the cynic people have critiqued you to be. And you end up saying something, maybe a little less than perfect. But when you struggle with perfectionism, maybe this is progress. Or so I hypothesize.

I started this post not knowing exactly where exploring the original article would take me. I felt the urge to share the article in the first place to defend Rothfuss. Then it became criticism. And now it’s… whatever this is. An analysis of internet presence and thoughts on being a writer undergoing change.

While drafting this today, I was listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts. The hosts of Sawbones were discussing what it’s like to listen back to their previous episodes before the pandemic really became what it is now and how cringy it is to hear themselves be so wrong. But they also appreciate what those episodes represent – new scientific data that allowed them to grow and improve, which is really what the heart of their show is. They also talk about the sudden internal rage they feel when people are not taking certain precautions (ie: wearing masks) and how much they hate feeling that fury at a person they don’t know at all. This resonated with me for a lot reasons. Not only have I been feeling that same fury towards a lot of folks over the last year and feeling bad about it, but it’s something I’ve struggled with a great deal over the course of my whole life. I’m proud of responses I’ve had to people in my life, whether it was an emotional response or judgement or some mix of the two. But I’ve grown a lot in the last year – I feel like I’m always growing and changing and sometimes it feels a little frightening, like I’m never going to stop and settle down into a steady person. But maybe this is a good thing. I’m a completely different person than I was a year ago. Choices I made in June 2018 let alone January 2020 seem like the belong to a person I don’t know. It feels like a growth towards being better person and being a little wiser.

This perspective also resonates with what I’m seeing in this Rothfuss-Rowling situation. Not only does it reflect my response (sudden upset met with a changing of opinion when I had more information) but I imagine it might kind of like what Rothfuss is going through. What if it’s taking him so long to write his next book because he’s a radically different person than he was when he wrote the first two and he’s trying to accommodate for that? What if he’s grappling with problematic representation of women and wants to do better but the structure of the protagonist and the world doesn’t allow for that? What if his call for Rowling to be a more responsible writer is the same call he’s given himself and other writers around him?

Of course, this is all hypothesis – there’s no way to know what Rothfuss is really experiencing. Somehow fans are led to expect certain things from their authors – books released within a certain amount of time, certain kinds of online interactions and posts from them, knowing as much about them as they want to know. But writers aren’t like this. They are more than their writing production and they are more than whatever they share on social media. Putting them up on a certain pedestal – either via parasocial relationships or perfect hero – is dangerous. Because writers are human and the odds of them disappointing you somehow compared to that pedestal are quite good.

I say this because I am incredibly guilty for pedestaling my favorite writers. I’ve done this with Rowling, I’ve done this with Stephen King, I’ll do this again and again and again. I’d like to think I’m getting better at it. But it’s difficult – in a world that forces us to see in binaries, we don’t want to accept that two seemingly apposing things can be true at the same time. Rowling can have influenced a whole generation of kids and she is also transphobic. Rothfuss can be aware of needing diversity in writing and still have problematic female characters. What’s important here is the consideration of growth.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m lambasting social media – I use it, I have mixed feelings about it, but in the pandemic, it’s been a godsend. It’s wonderful to be able to connect with people who are oceans away and to connect with people I’ve never met in person. Again, it’s not a binary. It’s both wonderful and awful. What’s unique (for better or for worse) is that it allows us – readers, writers, general people -to see comments about ourselves and our own remarks overtime. And we can see how people respond to those remarks.

I don’t know if Rothfuss has said anything further since his remarks on Twitch but, while it was less than perfect, it shows growth and at least a consciousness that his work could do better to represent his own world. From the comments on this article, it seems a lot of readers consider diversity and representation “fluff” and pointless PC-pandering. I, swallowing anger at people I don’t know, wish I could talk to them. I’m a queer woman who has rarely seen any character represented in fiction that is anything like me. Consider if I was from another minority group even less likely to be represented. (What to know what it’s like to be a black woman reading sci-fi/fantasy? Read this post from Medium.) Writers have a responsibility, like Rothfuss says – a responsibility to create worlds are as wondrous and diverse as our own. And when they don’t do that, or refuse to acknowledge they aren’t doing it, that’s where the disappointment comes in.

People will continue to say Rowling has been wronged, that her books are diverse, and there’s nothing I can say here that will change their minds. People see what they want to see in books – I know this from my own experiences. I can only hope that people will challenge themselves to think more about the world and gain a better understand of what diversity really is in writing and why it is so vital. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep hoping fruitlessly that Rowling will change her tune and due some own personal growth, and hope that Rothfuss hasn’t given up on this third book. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away at my own writing and trying to regrow what I’ve got here – writing about writing.

Thank you if you read this far – while I managed to do quite a bit of writing during quarantine (despite the difficulties of it), I haven’t much with this blog. One reason is related to what I’ve mentioned here regarding writers and social media. I don’t really know how I feel about an internet presence while I work on publishing my novel. Perhaps this is a chance to ground myself and work through that.

Where We Go From Here

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I’ve delayed writing any sort of post dealing with the roller coaster that has been 2020 or explaining my silence here. The honest answer is that I was lost for words – I had no way to describer what I was experiencing in the middle of a pandemic, starting a job working from home, dropping out of grad school, watching an uprising for racial justice and against police brutality take place blocks from my home. I watched the world watch Minneapolis and I acted when I could, but mostly I stayed quiet and watched and learned.

I’ve learned a lot about the way of things this year. 2020 has broken my heart and made it grow in more ways than I thought possible. I am still growing and I know it’s a process with no end in sight. To be alive is to grow. All this can be is a collective sampling of these growths, pruning and harvesting to produce something new.

As you might have gleaned in from the above, I am no longe pursuing a masters degree in library science. Library science will always have a special place in my heart and all that I do connects to it in some way. But the pandemic stopped those plans and I stopped them for myself, realizing it wasn’t the right path for me. My path has been and always will be writing. Fortunately, I’ve found the perfect day job in higher education in the meantime. But this year has been greatly focused on giving my writing its due.

I aim to turn this into a blog about and for writing. I want to give notice to the work writers do in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of global change. I want to work to be a better person, to question what I think I know, and learn to receive feedback with an open mind, not defensively. I want to forgive myself for the mistakes I have made and forgive others. Most of all, I want to celebrate the things I love, dunk on some things I think need work, and celebrate all the weird, wonderfulness of human beings. As I’ve strove to do before, racial justice, queer rights, queer theory, mental health, and trauma recovery will be reoccurring themes. If 2020 has given me anything (and it’s given me a great deal, surprisingly) it’s helped me reconcile all the different facets of myself – the psych/cultural studies major, the bisexual and the demisexual, the shy and the outgoing, the critic and the fangirl. Overall, I’ve broken down the boundaries and binaries that exist within myself and feel like for the first time in my life, I know who I am.

And now that I’m here, I’m ready to move forward. Maybe this will lead to a podcast. Maybe it’ll lead to a book. Maybe it’ll lead to a blog nobody reads but I love writing because I really, really love writing. No matter what, I’m here. Let’s go.

But first, one of the many things 2020 has given me, a new favorite song from a new favorite band.

Love and Libraries in the Time of Covid

Photo by Jack Sparrow on Pexels.com

We’re living in a very different world since I last wrote. March 11th I was on my way to class, processing a flurried day in the office. It was becoming apparent something had changed overnight. The week before, Covid-19 had been a growing concern, but nothing to urgently handle. The following week, the world was beginning to tilt.

On the bus to St Catherine University, where I’m in my first semester of studying library and information science, a woman who works in a clinic was talking about the patients coming in who believed the might have Covid and the lack of regulations about how to test them. I scrolled through the headlines before class, terrified by the situation in Italy, in towns where my family is from.

Class was not normal – we were tense but we were happy to laugh. I felt connected to my classmates in a whole new way and all of us didn’t know what to expect next. By the time class let out, the news had broken that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had been diagnosed with Covid-19, the rest of the NBA season was cancelled, and all of us expected that our classes would move fully online sooner rather than later. I walked home that night, feeling more comfortable being out in the balmy spring air rather than being on a bus, where I would feel enclosed and anxious. Walking home, I wondered when I would see my classmates again – I sincerely doubted it would be the next week.

Saturday, March 15th I volunteered at Quatrefoil Library, an LGBTQ+ member-based library in Minneapolis. The other volunteer and patrons who came in were all talking about the Corona virus. I was the youngest person present and listened to those who lived through the AIDS epidemic discuss once again facing unknowns. We were afraid but the community there was palpable – I could feel social connection we all shared. We needed to talk, to explain, to understand, to wonder.

It has been over a month now since I have been working from home, taking classes online, and wondering when Quatrefoil will be able to reopen. After that weekend, everything changed. Schools closed, public facilities limited the number of people who could be in them then closed entirely, restaurants began to close. This all feels new but also very familiar. I have read about the shuttered and closed towns during the Bubonic Plague and Yellow Fever. Our culture is saturated by dystopian stories of outbreaks and virus-based zombie apocalypse (I had been waiting to read the book Station Eleven for years and finally got around to reading it the same week that Covid-related deaths were skyrocketing in China. I regret this coincidence a great deal). Yet what is happening around us is entirely new. Shelves are bare of products in the United States in a way that many of us have been privileged to ever experience. We are battling a continually battery of unknowns while public outcry and political speculation of what we should and shouldn’t do continually buzzes in our ears. Ethics are suddenly a constant issue of reconsideration in my mind – is it better to buy my products through an online center and support a company I’m not fond of? Do I put their fulfillment center employees at risk? Do I instead go to the store and put the people who work there at risk? Do I begin to change my idea of the things I need and the things I can live without?

Every day feels like a week, each week a month. It’s only been a month, so who knows where we’ll all be by May, by June. It’s hard to think too far ahead right now. I feel caught in a mash-up of The Twilight Zone and The Good Place. I’m trying to remember all the things that make me very fortunate and privileged right now – I have a home, I have a job, I have friends and a partner who I can talk with and feel close to thanks to the amazing technology that just years ago wasn’t possible. I can have produce delivered to my door, I can have restaurants prepare food and I can walk a few block to pick it up. I can find friends who will make me masks and I can finally get around to watching every season of The Great British Bake-Off.

Until this week, I was almost enjoying social isolation. I started running again, I was cooking new foods, I was reading and watching TV and starting new hobbies. I had more time than I’d had before because I didn’t have to spend time commuting or taking a bus anywhere. Then this week, I realized I missed socializing, I missed being around people. And most of all, I missed not being afraid.

As a person with anxiety, I spend everyday struggling with fear. Usually, it’s not directed to a specific thing – it’s a cloudy sort of dread that forever hangs over my head. However, with Covid, there is a very specific thing to fear. This was a relief at first – finally, my unease had a reason. I felt prepared, vigilant, like a warrior who had been training for this all her life. Now, a month later, my anxiety no longer feels focused. It’s widespread and I’m worried about it encroaching on the drive and control I spent years developing. I can feel bits of agoraphobia and increased germophobia inch in. The unknowns keep increasing, making me wonder why I’m in grad school right now, why I’m still writing, why I bother getting dressed each day. I’m seeing the worst in people – those who feel the need to be superior and prove others wrong at every turn, those who prize money over people, those who deny logic and science and think this is all a scam, and those who believe brutally in the survival of the fittest.

During work today, I realized I was getting in my own head about things, so much so that I felt like a failure at things I knew well, that I had become toxic and was turning people away from me, that I was losing the ability to talk and empathize and understand. None of this was true and, after a run outside and lungsful of fresh air, I felt a lot better. And so I finally sat down and made myself write.

I knew I wanted to write about community here – libraries are community centers in many ways. Right now, our community centers have to be remote, distanced, online. I knew I wanted to find a way to keep engaged and use this blog while I’m remote and this week I’m seeing how vital that is. I’m hoping I can share the ways I’m learning and growing and persisting through all of this, while sharing what I’m doing to help keep myself engaged. I’ll make some recommendations, maybe do a little research and discuss some issues here. But most of all I want to make space for a community. I’m not sure how much of a readership here now that I’m transitioning this blog over to library science, but I’m grateful for anyone whose out there reading this. It’s easy to feel alone right now – easier than it ever has been for some of us – but I assure you that you are not alone.

I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen. There are many models and they all have varied outcomes. What I do know is that our lives will not be the same ever again. Our world has changed for good – and with it our libraries. And so, I’m here to weather the storm and try to help us all steer this ship wherever we land.

HF 4323, or: Why I’m asking you to email your representatives

Photo source: citypages.com

I anticipated having a slow roll-out for this blog before tackling big issues but… such is not the state of our world. Let me introduce you to Bill H4 4323. This bill would reduce “aid to public libraries that host drag queen story hour.” It would frankly punish libraries financially for having this kind of programming. It’s been proposed in the Minnesota Legislature as of today, likely in response to a flurry of panic that went around last fall after a drag queen allegedly flashed a group of children at a Hennepin County Library. That absolutely did not happen, but it didn’t stop fear-mongering from child projection groups and anti-LGBT groups from shaking their fists and being enraged.

Let me break this down a bit before I jump into the action piece of this. For those who don’t belong to the LGBTQ+ community or who have never met a drag performer, the idea of drag is likely synonymous with sex. The entirety of LGBTQ+ identity is generally conflated as such (which as a demi biromantic queer gal, is absolutely not the case).* There is so much more to people than an interest in sex and drag, generally, is not sexual. There may be some performers who like more sensual moves or make bawdy jokes during shows. But these are clearly not the kind of performances being given to children.

Drag performers are like any other kind of performer – they have personas but their persona is different depending on the setting. Brad Pitt may act one way in a movie, but it doesn’t meant that’s who he is as a person. Lady Gaga may act or perform something in a music video and be completely different in an interview on 60 minutes. Drag performers are no different – they just generally happen to be defying gender norms as they do it.

I could dig into the all the ways that gender normativity is seen as frightening or dangerous, but I would be here all night (besides, there are far better book about it out there. I’m reading Jacob Tobia’s book Sissy right now and I can’t recommend it enough).  The fact is that groups with more power are speaking out against performers they don’t know and events they don’t understand. Drag Time Story Hour promotes literacy and exposing children to diverse voices and different ways of being. It is meant to embrace all the different perspectives in the world and acknowledge that gender is not just black or white – it’s many different complex colors. People are complex and library events like this help enrich children as they build a mental landscape of what our world is like. It’s not dangerous. It’s not deviant. The LGBTQ+ community is the safest place I know, where I can be myself, love myself, and fight for the world I want to live in, a world where no one has be afraid of who they are.

I’m asking you to take a moment and contact your representatives (which you can find here) or contact the Education Finance Division who influences this decision. As a librarian who fiercely defends programming to allow many voices and new experiences to exist, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and a fighter for our rights and freedoms in this country, please reach out to your representatives. These experiences did not exist when I was a child but I can only imagine what it would have been like for me to see someone embrace reading and femininity in the way that drag story time performers do. It honestly would have changed my life. Please keep this programming in Minnesota and allow libraries to do what they do best – serving people, challenging censorship, and welcoming diversity and inclusion.

*Please note that as a queer activist I may use a lot of terminology that may not be familiar off the bat. Never be afraid to ask a question (you won’t look stupid and I’m happy to answer what I can, though I’m not an educator exactly). And also feel welcome to dive into your own research (whether it be library or Wikipedia)!

Welcome to the Library Zone

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

Hi all. It’s been a hot minute since I updated anything on here. If you’re stopping by, you’ll notice this site looks a little different. Okay, it looks a lot different. For one thing, there’s a lot of books pictured on the home page. The menu options are different. Large chunks of it are under construction.

You might be asking, “What in tarnation is happening here?” (Does anyone really say tarnation or was that just Yosemite Sam from Looney Toons?)

Let me explain: Last fall, I had an epiphany. After leaving one job to take another and realizing I had no idea what I was doing in my life, I did some soul-searching with my friend Devin. I realized something I had been dancing around for years – I wanted to be a librarian. In fact, it was the only job aside from writing that gave me any joy. I wasn’t getting anywhere in theater administration, teaching wasn’t in my future, and I needed something to fill my days when I’m plagued by writer’s block (and to, you know, pay the bills). So I decided after some thought to apply to St. Kate’s masters program in library science. I got accepted and started classes this February. And that’s what I’ve been focusing on for the last month and a half.

You might be wondering what that’s got to do with this website. Well, initially this was meant to further my career as a playwright and review theater. I’ve stopped reviewing and I’ve essentially stopped writing plays – but not stopped writing. I’ve dived deep into fiction and poetry (I have a novel draft mostly completed thanks to National Novel Writing Month and some poems I’m hoping to submit to a contest). I have a complicated relationship with theater and right now, it isn’t giving me joy. And since my career energy is focused on libraries, why not revamp the site and relaunch the blog to write about what is really driving my heart and mind? After all, this is still the Room Where it Happened – the room has changed, but the social issues surrounding libraries are greatly important and the Hamilton metaphor is apt. I’ll continue sprinkling writing posts in as I see fit but otherwise will be bringing in posts about libraries. 

All my previous posts about theater will remain on this blog – I love a lot of those posts and it’s important to see the journey I’ve gone on. But from now on – welcome to the library zone.

Bi Demi Me: Or, an Exploration in Sexual Identity

Hi there. It’s me. The blogger. For those of you who might be new here, here are some things to know about me: I’m a Hufflepuff. I’m starting a new job. I have watched Good Omens about five times in the last three months and I’m not about to stop rewatching it so help me God. I’m a trauma survivor who’s spent the last year completely reorganizing my mind and my heart and my life, which means I’m returning back to myself in a way and rediscovering/uncovering things about myself. One of these things is demisexuality.

I’ve known for a long time that I have a complicated relationship with sexuality. I didn’t really experience anything that looked like sexual attraction until my late teens/early twenties and then it was built a lot on just wanting someone to be attracted to me and/or someone who wanted to kiss me. Growing up as a young woman in a certain social context (Catholic school up through half of fifth grade, a grandmother who asked me every Christmas starting around age 10 or so if I had a boyfriend, a society focused on wanting women’s bodies to look slim and fit and fun like Jennifer Aniston from Friends or one of the Spice Girls) I felt a certain pressure to meet certain socially constructed goals or expectations – have a partner to take to Homecoming and eventually Prom. Get married in my twenties. Have a family? (Okay, I could never see myself having kids, but I did entertain it for a very short time.) I struggled a lot with loneliness in the last twenty years (as an anxious, shy, only child who didn’t make friends easily, there were a lot of reasons for this) and, as the dominate narrative I saw in stories involved romance, I began to yearn for a significant other by the middle of high school. Up until then, I couldn’t understand a boyfriend. I genuinely thought boys my age were gross and didn’t really feel any sort of interest in anyone other than Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings and Ewan McGregor. I had a few awkward crushes on people in my life, generally because I cared about them a lot and, as I wasn’t good at sorting my feeling but I was good at ruminating on them, I dwelled on them and thought they might be crushes (they weren’t – not really. It was a platonic kind of love we don’t discuss enough in the world. But that’s another post).

By college, I began to to panic. I had never been kissed. I had never had a boyfriend. I decided college is when this would happen. College was, instead, a landslide – moving aside the rubble of who I thought I was and trying to uncover the true person underneath, the person I’d buried under graphic t-shirts and sarcasm in high school because I was afraid of being seen as week or vulnerable. During this time, my crushes on actors continued (notably, John Barrowman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston) and I explored the world of Tumblr. Around this time, I first heard the word asexuality. Thanks to Tumblr and Sherlock Holmes (and the BBC show Sherlock), this identity became present in my life – the absence of sexual attraction, not due to physical issues or trauma, but because one simply did not experience it. I found this incredibly relieving – as someone who had a sort of a sex drive but didn’t feel compelled to act on it, who didn’t feel attracted to anyone, unless I knew something deep or significant about someone. I became very good at getting weird crushes-that-weren’t-actually-crushes on people I wanted to like admire or like me. Meanwhile, the only romantic thoughts I actually had were towards fictional characters, usually played by notable British actors, because I learned a great deal about the characters in the course of whatever media I was consuming. As people began to act weird about the “never being kissed thing” (one friend’s boyfriend notably remarked, “How? It’s not like it’s hard”) I began to think that maybe I didn’t approach physical interaction and attraction the same way as everyone else.

I struggled with a great deal of body image issues (that’s not actually past tense – I still struggle) that made it hard for me to think that anyone would be attracted to me. I believed men (because yes, right now, I thought I was only attracted to men) were attracted to certain types (tall, blonde, generally looking like Rachel McAdams – which I understood, or Taylor Swift – which I didn’t understand). I had been led to believe I was not attractive – or at least was not the ideal attractive type, and never would be – and thus I would be alone forever. This on top of simply not experiencing attraction beyond deep connections with fictional characters was… a lot. I cried about it. I panicked about it. My (then) undiagnosed anxiety went mad about it. I thought there might be something actually wrong with me. I tried to read about asexuality, greysexuality, and demisexuality (which I related to most and told a few people I might identify as) as much as possible, but I still felt like I was doing something wrong.

I began to worry about time – if I didn’t get kissed/ get a boyfriend/ have sex by a certain time, it’d be weird. I’d already become an old maid in the eyes of my grandmother, I’d already spent the entire semester of my Human Sexuality course panicking about being the only virgin in the room, and I was also trying to figure out how the hell scientists could research sex without feeling super weird about it (note: I’m still trying to figure that out. Looking at you, Bill Masters). The entire idea of porn revolted me and made me scared. Seeing someone naked also scared me. My own body scared me. There was a lot of fear.

And then I fell for someone, a real in the flesh person, in 2014. I got my heart broken, and I acted like an idiot, but it was real. I had my first sexual experience, which threw me into a literal and figurative tizzy. And then my brain did something very, very stupid – in threw out all the things I thought I might new about how I felt about sex and decided that I was up for anything. I had two one night stands (which I felt humiliated about and still do, despite arguing that I have no reason to). With my ex, I wanted to experiment – I’d recently come out as bisexual, realizing that I was actually attracted to all genders, now that I was feeling attraction (albeit in a still pretty limited sense). I’d already had certain negative experiences with it – there seemed to be a sense that bisexuals were into free love, multiple partners, and rough sex – which simply wasn’t the case. I’m embarrassed now that I felt such a pressure to have sex and a yearning to explore it (and try to convince myself that it could be good) that I wouldn’t say no. Of course, there was the added caveat of this being a toxic relationship and that when I did try to place limits, I was cajoled into other actions. It was like a bit of overcorrection – I went from not wanting sex to thinking I wanted sex all the time. And it caused me a lot of stress.

I regret that I didn’t see what I see now – that I wasn’t comfortable doing what I was doing and that I didn’t communicate that. On one hand, I wanted to explore my sexuality, and I thought I would get that. But I got exploring it only on my ex’s terms. I kept expecting things to change and they didn’t. There’s a whole lot more going on here than not really allowing myself to be honest with my ex and myself (bad communication all around and lots of other stuff as discussed in previous post), but there was probably an underlying layer of this tension throughout. True, my body was keen on exploring sexuality and it felt good thinking about it, but the actual experience was… well, simply put, it was not great.

Post-break up, I was back to being disgusted by sex. I thought it was an inability to be attracted to anyone else due to heartbreak, then later shame and regret when I realized how upsetting what I’d done and what I’d been through was. Months later, that lack of interest in sex is still there. And, thanks to the reemergence of asexual narratives in my life (can I hear a wahoo for Good Omens?) I started thinking about the asexuality spectrum again. Because, like other sexualities, it is a spectrum. I know that bisexuality is a spectrum – though I struggled through not feeling bi enough, there is no one way to experience it. Likewise, asexuality is a spectrum. Being attracted to someone threw me off and, while I do have some sex drive and interest in physical behavior, by and large I am far more interested in emotional connection. I prefer cuddling and talking and establishing intimate bonds more than anything else. As I’ve learned from my weird British actors crushes (again, thanks, Good Omens, for another realization), it’s easier to establish feelings when I know something about someone (or a character) – and the more I know, the easier it is (fictional characters or people you don’t actually know have the added benefit of allowing you to write scripts about them in your head and, as you don’t actually know them, they won’t disappoint your or throw off your scripts). Though I thought my sexual experiences and behavior meant I couldn’t be demisexual, I was wrong – again, it’s a spectrum, and what I might do is not indicative of my entire sexual preferences (this was discussed in a film I saw recently – You, Me, and Him – I have mixed feelings about it overall but this part was a nice touch). Also, it’s an ongoing process – I’ve learned things about myself I didn’t know before. And, thanks to articles like this wonderful piece from The Guardian, there’s a lot more discussion and representation out there about the asexual spectrum, and a lot more for people like me to read and help them understand themselves (side note: Dan Savage is mentioned in this article and I used to fervently listen to his podcast. While he’s on the money about some things, trans and asexual identity are not it. But more about that another time).

I also want to focus on being single – something I hated when I was younger and love being now. Being single is nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, I’m a far healthier and happier person being single than I ever was in when in a relationship (that was indicative of the relationship of course, but point being – don’t be in a relationship if it’s shitty simply to avoid being single). Some people never want to be in a relationship. That’s fine. Some people never want to be in a romantic relationship. That’s fine. Some people only have sexual relationships. That’s fine. Some people only have romantic relationships. That’s fine. There’s a lot of ways to be in this world. And we need to start accepting them all far more.

The new piece for me to grapple with is bisexuality and demisexuality – because I am both. Or at least, I am a demisexual who is attracted to all genders – at least in the sense that I could have relationships with all genders. I suppose technically I am a demisexual – biromantic (which is represented in the first of the images at the start of this piece). Or can I simply say I’m a bisexual-demisexual? Can’t I be both? Can’t I show that bisexual people are not all focused on sex? At the end of the day, words fall a bit short. But I know more of who I am than I did just a year ago. It’s another coming out – but coming out is a never-ending process, really, especially when you have identities that are misunderstood or thought to not real. I always felt drawn to bisexuality being represented by mermaids, but I really feel keen on making narwhals be representative for my specific identity. I’m not a myth but people think I am and no one really understand the things I do. But I know and I’m happy. And that’s what matters.

I hope to keep writing about my experiences with this intersection of identities and I hope to further represent the ace spectrum. But I’ll start here. I’m the blogger. I’m demisexual, bi, and I’m done being what people think I should be. I’m me and I’m perfect as I am.

Another Midnight: A Reimagining of “Midnight In Paris”

Source: IMDB.com

I have a complicated relationship with the film Midnight in Paris. It was one of my favorite films in college, mainly because I loved that it featured 1920s Paris, time travel, and a plethora of my favorite actors. However, my feelings towards it have become more complicated as I’ve grown to understand more about Woody Allen’s films and who he is as a person. Generally speaking, I’m not a Woody Allen fan and, while from time to time I like his films, he portrays a vantage that’s a specific kind of  white male centric. There’s a lot of controversy about his personal life and, while I generally try to separate personal life choices from someone’s work, there are times when I just can’t do that. This is one of those times. He’s simply exactly a creator I’m keen on supporting. While I dislike cancel culture, I also dislike supporting people who knowingly do harm and it distinctly colors the way I look at what they create. 

That being said, Midnight in Paris was a film I continued to return to despite my dislike of Woody Allen. Now, revisiting the plot in a world where Trump is president, I’ve realized the story leaves a lot to be desired for me. It’s absolutely fun and I delighted in this just a short time ago. But looking at history with a 2019 vantage, where how we tell history and the dangers of nostalgia are a great deal more visceral, I began to think about what I would do if I were to re-envision Midnight in Paris

In my heart, I have been and always will be a fanfic writer. It doesn’t seem absurd to me that I would take a film like this and want to tell a different story – one that expresses my view of the world. Now of course, I didn’t make this film, but when you’re already conflicted about a creator, sometimes fanfic becomes move of a reinvention process, rather than an expansion process and it feels powerful to take ownership of something which you feel distorts or hides certain voices. If you’re a fan of Woody Allen (and if you are, you are entitled to your opinion but I would ask you to think about the effects of men like Allen on masculinity and filmmaking), you’re probably furious that I’d dare change a film by a “great American filmmaker.” Midnight in Paris it’s own thing though – I’m here as my tired queer femme self to brainstorm some different ways to telling stories and create something else. So let’s begin.

Let’s start with our protagonist. In Midnight in Paris, we follow Owen Wilson’s character Gil as he tours Paris and travels back in time to meet some of Paris’ most famous residents. Gil, like many of Allen’s films, would seem to be a projection Allen’s ideal man – down to earth, sheepish, who’s really kind of a “nice guy.” I’m not terribly interested in this protagonist (sorry Owen Wilson). I am, however, interested in Paul, played by Michael Sheen in the film. 

Paul is meant to look like an elitist, someone upper class who has lots of highfalutin knowledge he has to show off. And he does this well in the film – maybe a little too well. He becomes one of the better informed people on the trip (as opposed to the “Ugly American” stereotypes of Gil’s would-be in-laws who don’t know anything about the place they’re visiting). I propose that he’s a far more interesting person to fall into the time traveling plot line for a number of reasons. 

For one, he has a lot of white privilege. If we’re going to talk about time travel from my view, we need to talk about white male privilege. In almost every narrative I’ve read about time travel, the person doing the traveling is a man (with the exception of Doctor Who, Outlander, a manga series called Fushigi Yugi, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Also, if you know more stories about time traveling women, share them with me). Perhaps this is because a lot of time travel stories are written by men. Perhaps because it’s “safer” or less suspicious for a man to be alone, making a story easier to tell. Time travel would be complicated for me for a number of reasons – I’m queer, I’ve got nine tattoos, dyed red hair, glasses, and some serious generalized anxiety disorder. Most eras in time are not going to be kind to me. I’m white, so I’ve got that privilege, and I have no physical disability. But if we only write protagonists who are going to have it easy getting sucked into the past, what are we saying about the past? It isn’t inherently better or easier (which I’ll discuss later on as I dig into things). 

The point is, we make Paul our protagonist because it sets us up to discuss these things. He’s flawed – he’s really flawed. He’s a bit of a man-splainer, he’s got a whole lot of privilege, but he’s also got access to something we need to rumble with – historical knowledge. Hang on to that – it’s going to come back. 

For all intensive purposes, Michael Sheen will stay cast as Paul (don’t give me that look, coworkers, friends and family. I know what you’re thinking. Hear me out). If you, like me, have only recently realized that Michael Sheen is in Midnight in Paris (or only realized by me telling you) and you’re reeling because you’ve seen it three times and each time thought that actor who played Paul was really quite talented and decides he must be some American actor you should look up, only to now discover he’s this Welsh shapeshifter you’ve seen in films for years but never recognize because… well, shapeshifter (but somewhere in your subconscious it’s caught on) – welcome to every experience watching Sheen in a movie ever. Craig Ferguson deemed him the best actor in the world and I’d agree. Thought there were at least three separate actors playing all his roles but no, it’s actually just one. If this alone doesn’t make you feel a little in love with him, I don’t know what to say. Sheen’s not the only actor capable of doing this kind of shifting but perhaps the one who is the most infuriatingly good at it and duped me for almost two decades.

Now that we’ve got that bit of fanning out of the way, let’s talk about the premise of the original film. Allen focuses on how people feel drawn to a certain period of history which is where they belong. Some people belong in the 1920s, some in the Belle Epoch, some in the present. While I too love certain eras of history, I feel no draw to live there (please see: anxious tattooed queer as mentioned above). I also really struggle to romanticize a past where women were trapped in abusive marriages, racism was rampant, and white supremacy was very in (more in than it is today, since it’s never gone away). Rosy retrospection is a real part of looking at history but when it becomes the only way of looking at history… it’s highly problematic. 

The part of the movie that always makes me the most upset are the scenes with Zelda Fitzgerald. Notably, I’m viciously protective of Zelda Fitzgerald – this is a woman who never got her due, who struggled with mental illness her entire life in a society that had no idea how to deal with mental illness, whose husband went through her personal diaries to use in his writing, who was kept from writing by her husband and his friends who told her she wasn’t a good writer even though – and I will take this to the grave – she was a better writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald (don’t at me. I’ve read Save Me the Waltz and it’s glorious. Zelda was robbed). Every depiction of Zelda is of a flippant, silly party girl – and any basic research will tell you that there’s so much more than that. Okay, yes, we get hints of her struggles with mental illness in Midnight in Paris, but it feels stereotypical and overdone. This is not an acting issue – it’s a writing issue. We don’t get an idea that Zelda is really a person. Hell, we don’t get the idea that most of the people Gil visits are anything more than historical facades. Sure, Hemmingway talks in short clipped sentences, but are we going to talk about his misogyny or his obsession with masculinity? Are we going to talk about Dali’s radical politics? Or the fact that Gertrude Stein was really complicated but also one of the most prominent LGBT artists of the time (as was Cole Porter)? 

Ultimately, one story can’t tell us everything about 1920s France. Nothing can tell us everything about 1920s France. We will never know what it was really like because we are not there. History always sells us a bit short, since it only tells certain perspectives and, as Bernard Shaw says in his introduction to Saint Joan, “The variety of conclusions reached show us how little historians know about other people’s minds.” History far too infrequently accounts of psychology – even historians themselves don’t do this. We are constantly looking back at history with a modern perspective and this changes how we and how historians summarize things. The entire process of creating history (something I’ve studied throughout my academic and theatrical career) is really freaking complicated. We can all look at a historical event and convey it differently. We can all know or read about a person and see them differently. But there are things we can – and must agree on. Though I’m building upon the original premise of the film, this is where things start to deviate a lot.

With Gil, Gil discovers information that only someone personally knew the people he meets in the 1920s would know, which he then shares during one of Paul’s smarty pants tours. Paul is baffled and more or less thinks Gil is making up history. On one hand, this scene is important to how history is made – certain things get remembered, certain things get forgotten. And some things get utterly destroyed or misinterpreted because the story being told is something those making history (generally white privileged men) don’t want to be remembered or accounted for. On the other hand, Paul’s thinking that this isn’t true history has some validity. In a world where facts are not factual enough and “fake news” and “post-truth” are all concepts we have to grapple with every day, Gil’s observations of his own experiences in history seem a lot less… well, trustworthy. History isn’t just what we think or feel is true. It helps that Gil was actually there but… we get into some murky territory with this. Which is important but not addressed other than to make Paul look like an asshole. We might actually need Gil in this case to compare/contrast this in this fanfic-y hodgepodge. Or at least references to the previously made film.

There’s a lot to to dig into here. And Paul can get really meta juggling through it all. Plot-wise, this film probably doesn’t look too different from the original – an American in Paris, though in this case who knows why Paul is there (you pick – is he traveling with Rachel McAdam’s Inez? Has he chosen to be an ex-pat like the historical figures he’s destined to meet? Is he doing some research that’s brought him here?). Either way, a magical cab takes him back in time. On some level, these are the people he’s read about – Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Zelda are what he imagined. But they aren’t. Because history can only tell us so much – and what we learn isn’t always the full story. Tom Hiddleston gets to play a complicated, dislikable Scott Fitzgerald, same goes for Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, and a far more interesting and sympathetic portrayal for Alison Pill to nail with Zelda Fitzgerald. And if I don’t get a queer Kathy Bates with Gertrude Stein, what’s even the point. Also incredibly necessary are more diverse representations – Paris wasn’t all white, heteronormative, cis, upper class, or of the same physical ability. Showing that only goes to reinforce the ideas of telling history we’re battling against. Josephine Baker and Jean Cocteau are two notable figures I found in a minute’s worth of research who’s stories deserve to be told – and I’m sure there are countless others. 

Added on to all of this is the concept that history is not a stagnant thing – our perception of it changes as our understanding of the world changes. Historical facts are facts, but how we discuss them and analyze them evolves (ex: my generation feels WAY different about Christopher Columbus today than my parents’ generation, thanks to the discussion of his journals and personal feelings to indigenous cultures that previously was glossed over). The most important thing in discussing history, I believe, is that it’s not just one thing – you can’t make it look simple or pretty or nostalgic or simply say the past was better than the present. We can’t whitewash or sterilize history or leave out the parts we don’t like. Nor can we ignore the things we don’t know or the voices that have been obscured or the things that have been forgotten. It’s complicated and messy and we should show it in all its glory. 

When, then, would I take something like Midnight in Paris to do this? Why not create something entirely new? Fanfic is a jumping off point – it’s a way to take something familiar and change it into something unfamiliar. Which is how the creative process works in general. All things are fan fictions in one way or another. Because this film has some lovely stylistic things to play with and Paul seems like the quintessential time traveler historical to challenge and change, I like starting there. But we don’t stay there. We need more perspectives – a fellow time traveler who joins Paul and shows him what it’s like to not be white, to not be a man, to have a different kind of body and set of experiences. White men aren’t the norm or the center of the world and this is really important to understand this if we want to transform our understanding of history and the world. 

The more I think about this, the more fun I think it would be to create a graphic novel series around this concept – Paul might be a returning character, but maybe he’s not the central character. Maybe he gets swept up into someone else’s story, someone else’s reckoning with time and history. Each novel could be written by a different voice with a different perspective. And by the end of this you’ve got an entirely different story – which is generally what happens with fan fiction and why I love it so much. It takes a story and makes it change and evolve – not unlike what history and time does. If you’re still here after this long ramble about how to pull apart and lovely film and rebuild in a way that aesthetically would simultaneously please and displease Oscar Wilde (here I am taking something that’s art for art’s sake and going all historiography on it. Sorry, Wilde – you’d love/hate it, methinks), I thank you. I encourage you what else in culture can benefit – either for our own personal enjoyment or to enrich cultural conversation – by fan fic-ing or adapting known works. 

Note: I will be adding more fan fiction analysis of art and culture along with more essay-type posts as we go along here. Fan fiction got me where I am a writer and I feel it’s important to pay homage to that legacy – especially since I’m still writing fan fiction.  I’m open to feedback but I’m pretty set on including these pieces, so I hope you enjoy them!