my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.

the good father in The Godfather

A few weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at the prospect of going to see The Godfather in a movie theater during Fathom Events’ special 45th-anniversary presentation.  Last Wednesday evening I finally got to see it, and I was once again floored by this brilliant piece of film-making that is, at its heart, a deeply moving story about the joy and pain (mostly pain) of being part of a family.

A simple way to summarize The Godfather is that it’s about Michael Corleone resisting becoming like his father until he finally can’t resist anymore.  But Michael may have been a better godfather and a better man if he had been more like his father.  The truth is that Vito Corleone cares very much about his family.  When he says early in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family is no man at all” [all quotes in this post are from memory; please forgive any inaccuracies], we might initially hear this as a piece of hypocrisy that will serve to play up the ironic inconsistency between what Vito says and who he really is.  But that isn’t true.  I don’t think there’s a single scene in this film in which Vito isn’t with a member of his family.  He dies while playing in the garden with his grandson (in contrast with Michael, who at the end of Part Three dies alone).  And he isn’t forcing his company on his family for appearance’s sake or in order to use them: His family genuinely loves him.  Look at his sons’ reactions to the shooting that nearly takes his life.  Sonny responds with violence and vengeance because that’s who Sonny is, but his violence barely conceals his deep love for his father.  The whole reason Michael gets involved in the family business, which he said he’d never do, is to protect his father from further assassination attempts.  One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Michael leans over his father’s hospital bed (which he has just hidden in an empty room) and says, “I’m here with you now.”  Another moving scene a little earlier in the film is when, right after Vito has been shot, Fredo breaks down weeping in the street, unable even to call for help.  Clearly, these young men love their father.

But Vito’s definition of “family” isn’t limited to flesh and blood.  He remains loyal to his two oldest friends in America, Clemenza and Tessio.  He takes in a little orphan named Tom Hagen and raises him like one of his own sons.  He stands godfather (in the religious sense) to Johnny Fontaine and remains invested in Johnny’s life as the years go by.  (There’s a telling moment in the wedding sequence at the beginning of the film.  Vito seems pretty bored by all the requests people are making as they file through his office, but when he looks out the window and sees his godson’s car pull up, suddenly he takes an interest.)  We could say that Vito’s family is his entire community.  After all, as we learn in Part Two, he got his start as the don by acting as a neighborhood hero, rescuing powerless people from bullies like Don Fanucci.  Another beautiful moment in the first film is his funeral, attended by a multitude of people carrying a veritable field of flowers.

Vito Corleone grew his family by including as many people as he safely could.  Michael, in contrast, after he becomes the godfather, keeps narrowing his definition of “family.”  Throughout the three films, he systematically alienates (and, in most cases, kills) nearly all of his father’s old friends.  He gets rid of peripheral family members like his brother-in-law Carlo (though, in fairness, that jerk had it coming) and his not-quite-brother Tom Hagen (removing Tom as consigliere is one of Michael’s first acts as godfather).  Eventually, late in Part Two, he gets to the illogical point of killing his own literal blood brother in the name of the abstract concept he calls “the family.”  When Vito talked about family, he meant the people he cared about and tried to protect.  When Michael talks about family, it’s unclear what he means.  There’s an ominous conversation in the first film in which Michael tells Fredo (the brother he eventually has killed) never to “align [himself] with anyone against the family again.”  That doesn’t make sense; Fredo is family just as much as Michael is–if being family means being a Corleone.  But that isn’t what the term means to Michael, apparently.  When we get to Part Three and realize that he has driven away even his wife and children, we get the impression that there’s only one member of Michael’s family–himself.  And he realizes, too late, that it’s incredibly lonely being a family of one.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!

Have you thought about your Hogwarts house recently?

Maybe it’s time you revisited that topic.  If you’re even moderately involved in online or in-person Harry Potter fan discussions, today’s post isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I hope my personal examples will make reading it worth your while.

You’ve probably heard it said that your Hogwarts house (whichever house you identify with most–whether selected by you or by Pottermore) is more indicative of what you value than of the person you currently are.  That statement now seems incredibly obvious to me in light of not only the books (e.g., Harry’s choice not to be placed in Slytherin) but also my own house and those of my friends and family, but I had never heard the idea articulated until recently.

Let me illustrate it with my own story.  If you’ve been reading this blog long enough–or if you go back through the archives to around 2012-13–you may know that I used to consider myself a Ravenclaw (and still have a Ravenclaw blog title and tagline, which probably won’t change) and had a bit of an identity crisis when Pottermore placed me in Hufflepuff.  But over the years since then, I have become a very proud Hufflepuff.  There’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here–did I realize that I was really a Hufflepuff all along, or did I accept the Pottermore pronouncement as fate and write myself a personal narrative to fit?  Or–a third option–did my house identity lead me to aspire and strive to become a person who belongs in Hufflepuff?  I think this last theory best explains what happened.  Before being sorted, I already valued loyalty, hard work, and kindness (a quality not specifically mentioned by the Sorting Hat but popularly associated with Hufflepuff) to some degree–otherwise I wouldn’t have answered the sorting questions the way I did–but being sorted into Hufflepuff pushed me to articulate these values more clearly than I ever had before and to begin consciously striving to emulate them.

Now, here’s the key–I don’t always exemplify these traits, but I strongly admire them when I see them in others, more than I admire traits associated with other houses.  I think that’s a big reason why I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than a lot of people did–because, as I argued in this post, it’s a movie about one actual Hufflepuff and (as I see them) his very Hufflepuff-like friends.  People don’t necessarily think of Hufflepuff when they think of me, but when someone does place me in the correct house (this happened a couple of weeks ago), I’m very happy, and I take this as a sign that I am becoming the kind of person I want to be.  We see this with Harry Potter.  He probably could have fit into any of the houses, but his choice placed him in Gryffindor.  And throughout the series (especially in Chamber of Secrets, but later too) we see him worrying about whether he’s really brave enough to be in Gryffindor or whether, instead, he’s simply foolhardy.  I think we see it with Neville too–he doesn’t immediately appear to be a brave person, but being brave is important to him (because of his parents, we later learn), and he eventually becomes brave.  We could think of it this way: If you’re constantly thinking, “I don’t deserve to be in this house,” you’re probably in the right house.

This theory explains why I know some very sweet people who strongly identify with Slytherin–maybe they’re tired of being pigeonholed as sweet people.  It probably explains a lot of other things that I haven’t thought about yet.  How about you?  Do you think you belong in the house where Pottermore placed you, and why or why not?  I know this topic gets discussed a lot, but I never get tired of it, because I think it can be a fascinating and useful tool for understanding who we are and who we aspire to become.

on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.