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 Harry Potter list

Sometimes there’s so much Harry Potter stuff going on, I have to make a list to keep it all straight.

  1. The illustrated edition of Chamber of Secrets was released very recently, but I just finally got around to reading the illustrated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Jim Kay’s illustrations are gorgeous, highly detailed (you can stare at the Hogwarts interiors for hours), sometimes surprising (Hagrid dresses like a biker–which makes sense since we first see him on a motorcycle, but I never thought of it!), and occasionally even startling (Snape’s creepy eyes!).  I’m looking forward to seeing how he approaches memorable book 2 characters like Gilderoy Lockhart and the basilisk, and I’m really curious as to whether the ratio of pictures to text will continue to be similar as the books get massive.
  2. Tomorrow is the first day of November, which is release month for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!  I realize that Harry Potter is not going to be in this movie, nor any of our beloved characters (I hear Dumbledore is namedropped, but I think that’s about the extent of it), but I’m really excited about getting back into the Wizarding world.  This is the first movie for which J. K. Rowling has actually written the screenplay, which means, if nothing else, that it’s going to be lush with detail.  It also helps that Eddie Redmayne is beautiful.  But the element of this film I may be looking forward to the most is the fact that there’s a major character who’s non-magical.  What will it mean for HP fandom that people like us are now part of the story?  I will be blogging about this, no doubt.
  3. With all the publishing action happening this year, Harry Potter festivals seem to be back on the rise.  I attended one this past Saturday in Scottsville, a very small town in central Virginia that for three years running has transformed its (also very small) downtown business district into Hogsmeade.  Lines were long at places like Honeydukes (normally a bookstore and coffee shop) and Ollivander’s (normally a tattoo and massage parlor), but in other establishments, it was easy to duck inside, take in the fabulously creative displays (I loved the hand-lettered envelopes at the owl post location) and perhaps contribute to the local economy by making a purchase (I bought two beeswax taper candles at the owl post place, which in its Muggle life is a beekeeping supply shop).  Perhaps the most fun part of the festival (other than getting a signed photo of Gilderoy Lockhart at Flourish and Blotts–that guy was fabulous) was the people-watching.  I saw some fantastic costumes (Moaning Myrtle, the painting of Sirius Black’s mother, a trio of house-elves) and a lot of fairly obscure fan t-shirts–the kind you can’t just impulsively buy at Target.  I hope to return to this festival next year, and I also hope the weather will be more seasonally appropriate.  It was about 80 degrees on Saturday, and I was dressed as Professor Trelawney.  There was a lot of fabric draped over and around me.
  4. Today is Halloween.  That means that it’s the anniversary of Lily and James Potter’s tragic death (I saw their gravestone in Scottsville, too–there was a lovely old church with the Godric’s Hollow graveyard recreated outside), as well as of the baby Harry Potter’s amazing, unlikely defeat of Voldemort.  Halloween is also a good day to have a huge feast with live bats swooping overhead (that always seems unsanitary to me)…and a good day for…wait for it…a TROLL IN THE DUNGEON!  Thought you ought to know.

Can J.K. write Harry Potter fanfic?

I guess I’ll eventually need to make my official statement on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (preview: I cried twice, and not because it was bad), but today I want to write about a concept suggested by a criticism I’ve heard several people make: It feels like J. K. Rowling (and her collaborators, though they generally aren’t mentioned) is writing fan fiction.  (This is not inherently a criticism, but I think that’s generally how it’s meant.)  Personally, I didn’t feel like I was reading fanfic; I felt like I was reading a play (as I truly was), which meant that the dialogue was often self-consciously stagy.  But that’s not what I want to write about today.  Today, I want to explore the question of whether it’s possible for J. K. Rowling to write fan fiction about her own source texts.

I explored this question in my doctoral dissertation, which you can find in its entirety in the Proquest Dissertations and Theses database (just search Tess Stockslager; I’m the only one).  And my conclusion was that, yes, Rowling can–and does, on Pottermore–write Harry Potter fan fiction, because she is a Harry Potter fan.  One of the main premises of my dissertation was that Rowling (like Charles Dickens, the other author I wrote about) plays the roles of author, reader, and character with regard to her own work.  The author role is obvious; I’ll write another post sometime about the character role, but for now, let’s think about Rowling as a reader (and, I would go so far as to say, a fan) of her own work.

After the Harry Potter books were finished and the films, on which Rowling worked in an advisory capacity, were complete, Rowling made what many people interpreted as a deliberate move away from Hogwarts–almost a 360 degree turn.  Her next novel, The Casual Vacancy, is decidedly non-magical, takes a rather cynical view of human nature, and is definitely not for kids.  The same goes for the detective novels she has written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.  And in an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2010, Rowling made it clear that she was striving for closure of the Harry Potter chapter of her life, even if it meant going through a process a lot like grieving the loss of a loved one.

But then Rowling started writing increasingly lengthy pieces for Pottermore about her character’s childhoods, their secret loves, their future careers–in other words, the stuff of fan fiction.  She wasn’t altering the plot of the seven novels or chronicling a new battle between good and evil.  She was just having fun with the characters she loves.  The Pottermore pieces hit their climax in summer 2014 with a flurry of writing from Rowling on the Quidditch World Cup, coinciding with the real-life FIFA World Cup.  After that series of pieces appeared, it seemed that Rowling was no longer interested in pretending that she was no longer interested in Harry Potter.  First we heard that she was writing the screenplay to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film that promises to significantly broaden the scope of the wizarding world, and then we heard about Cursed Child.

And cynical people said that Rowling was doing this for the money, because Potter fans will buy anything with the lightning-bolt logo on it (that last part is true).  But that explanation for Rowling’s new HP work doesn’t make sense to me.  She doesn’t need the money.  She donated the royalties from the three Galbraith novels to a soldiers’ charity.  No, Rowling isn’t doing this for the money; she’s doing it for the same reason that anybody writes fan fiction–because she loves the world and the characters, and she doesn’t want the stories to end.  The only difference, of course, is that when Rowling writes fan fiction, the whole world pays attention.

I could say a lot more here–I could tell you about all the times when Rowling, in interviews, has used the word “love” in connection with Harry Potter, the character, and has said that he’s like a son to her.  But there’s no question in my mind that J.K. Rowling is a fan of the world she created–and not primarily because she’s the one who created it, but because it’s real to her.  Which is exactly how I feel about that world too.

I want your sympathy.

I’m reading The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s 2012 debut “adult” novel, with the intention of having read all of her published works before I really get started writing my dissertation.  (I’m going to wait another week or two to see if inter-library loan can get me The Cuckoo’s Calling before I give up and order it from Amazon.)  I had heard multiple versions of two different, but compatible, assessments of The Casual Vacancy: that it was “racy” (invariably that was the word used) and that it was depressing because the characters were hard to like.

I’ve just finished Part One and found both of these evaluations to be true.  But I’ve also found something I didn’t expect: The Casual Vacancy reminds me strongly of a George Eliot novel.  What tipped me off to the resemblance was the name “Fairbrother”–it’s the last name of the man who dies at the beginning of Rowling’s novel, setting the story in motion, and it’s awfully close to “Farebrother,” the surname of a character in Middlemarch.  But this is just one of many resemblances between The Casual Vacancy and the Eliot canon, especially Middlemarch; others include themes of small-town life (and the pettiness that often accompanies it), sharply accurate depictions of mismatched marriages, long descriptions of characters’ interior thoughts, discussions of the problems of urbanization, and a particular focus on characters moving up or down the English social class scale, which appears in Vacancy to be fascinatingly (and depressingly) little changed since the nineteenth century.

What I don’t see in The Casual Vacancy, at least not yet, is any attempt on the author’s part to help us identify with the characters, especially the ones we don’t like.  Eliot did this a lot, and she did it masterfully, though not very subtly, often using direct second-person commands (“Ask yourself whether you would. . .”), all in an effort to develop the quality of “sympathy” (a key term for Eliot) in her readers.  Sympathy here is not feeling sorry for someone, and it’s not a naive ignorance of anyone’s faults.  It’s the ability to put ourselves imaginatively into another character’s situation and come to the conclusion that we would probably be inclined to act in a very similar way.  The point here is not to make a moral judgment about what would be the right thing to do in the situation, although that would be a logical next step.  The point is to be honest about ourselves.  I think all good realist novelists want their readers to develop sympathy; they just aren’t all as deliberate about it as George Eliot.  I think J. K. Rowling wants that for her readers too; she just isn’t making it very easy in The Casual Vacancy.  But a hard-won sympathy is probably more lasting than the knee-jerk kind anyway.  I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book.

Let me make two more quick points about sympathy in a shameless effort to drag Charles Dickens and Harry Potter into this post:

1. It often takes multiple readings of a book to develop sympathy for a particular character.  When I first read David Copperfield, I thought David’s “child-wife” Dora was an annoying little twit, but now that I’ve read it several times I can see that she is remarkably self-aware in her own way and that she has a better grasp of the flaw in their marriage than David, apparently the more analytic one, does.  You gotta watch out for those first-person narrators.  They think they know everything.  (KATNISS EVERDEEN)

2. One valid reason for writing fan fiction is to try to develop sympathy with an unlikable, “minor,” or even villainous character.  Possibly this may be why there’s a lot of Draco Malfoy fanfic.  Certainly, some of it is of the shallow sort (“He looked extremely sexy and vulnerable as he knelt there weeping onto his elegantly cut black suit”), but I would also imagine–I haven’t actually read any Draco fanfic–that there’s some good stuff that explores, for example, what growing up in Malfoy Manor as an only child with those parents would do to a kid psychologically.

I promise I didn’t intend to write a literary criticism post this week; my original intention was to post pictures of my cute decorations for the afternoon party I hosted yesterday.  But I forgot to take pictures, so this is what you get.  I hope you’ll give me some sympathy.

A bit of a work in progress

I thought I’d share an excerpt from my dissertation proposal, which I’m working on right now:
According to several of the scholars I am planning to cite in my dissertation, including Henry Jenkins, Lisa Lewis, and Jennifer Hayward, it has become acceptable for fans to write academically about the texts they love and the experience of being fans. I am relieved to hear it, because I am a fan of both of the authors this dissertation is about. But there was a time when I hesitated to produce scholarly work on the texts I read for enjoyment. When I was working on my master’s thesis, on eating and bodies in George Eliot’s novels, I said things like “Eliot is for work; Dickens is for fun.” I was afraid, I think, that in order to write academically about Dickens’s novels, I would have to adopt a drearily critical stance toward David Copperfield (my absolute favorite) and all the rest. I was afraid, in other words, that I would have to stop loving Dickens.
Something happened in 2009 that changed my perspective: I discovered Harry Potter. Not that I’d never heard of him before; I’d just considered him annoying and beneath my notice. The story of how I changed my mind is probably delightful only to me, so I won’t narrate it here. Suffice it to say that I arrived at the party very late; all of the books had been released by the time I started reading them, but at least I made it in time to see the last three movies come to theaters. I had finished reading the series by September 2009 and was already getting together with friends to make butterbeer (our version consisted of cream soda, butterscotch, and, yes, sticks of butter) that fall. Sometime around the end of the year, I received a call for papers for a casebook on Harry Potter. And the funny thing is that I never hesitated over whether writing an academic essay for the casebook would destroy my newfound love. Of course I wanted to write an essay about Harry Potter; I wanted to do everything about Harry Potter.
My academic interest and my fan interest in the series grew simultaneously. In summer 2010, I learned that my proposal for the casebook had been accepted, and I got Virginia license plates that said HAFBLOD (i.e., Half-Blood, as in the Half-Blood Prince). In the three years since then, the casebook has been published, and I have presented papers on Harry Potter at two academic conferences; in the same period of time, I have visited the theme park The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and accumulated a respectable collection of memorabilia (including three wands). As I write this proposal I am preparing for a trip to Portland with my mom, who introduced me to Harry, to attend LeakyCon, the largest and most respected Harry Potter fan convention. Certainly I hope to gather information relevant to my dissertation during this trip, but I’m also going for fun.
By early summer 2012, when I started thinking about my dissertation, I had let go of the division I had formerly set up between books read for work and books read for fun, but I was at a bit of a crossroads in my scholarly identity. I called myself a Victorianist, but I was at least as much a Harry Potter-ist. I don’t know what sparked the idea that I could be both, at least in my dissertation; it may have been a conversation with my dad, who was reading through Dickens’s novels for the first time, or it may have been the early buzz about Pottermore. Whatever the cause, I recognized a potentially fascinating link between author-reader interactions in the nineteenth century and those occurring today. And, just as important, I saw a way to revel in fandom for a couple of years while telling people I was doing it for a project.