Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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Some thoughts on growing and re-visiting, in three parts.

About a month ago I went to my five-year college reunion. Most of what I remember is how good it felt to reconnect with friends and how much I enjoyed the fireworks, but one conversation also stands out in my mind. It was late at night, and a whole group of us were walking from one end of campus (where the fireworks had ended some time before) to the other end of campus (where our cars were); because we were a large group and walked at different paces, we ended up spread out so that one friend and I were ahead of everyone else.

It was a strange experience, that walk. Good-but-strange-but-good, I think I said, and my friend agreed — good because it was familiar and pleasant to walk a path we had walked so many times over so many years, strange because both we and the campus had changed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but again good because we had changed, and the campus had changed, and we could measure ourselves by that. I don’t think I was a bad person then, but I’ve grown a lot and most of it in positive ways, and it was nice to feel that reflected in my reaction to the space.

I noticed it particularly because I’ve been having that experience a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s something specific to being in one’s late twenties? Or if I’ve just happened to be re-visiting old haunts (both geographic and artistic) lately? But I also remember telling my friend about how I’d been re-watching some old X-Files episodes a while back and found that my fondness for Mulder had been at least partially replaced by annoyance. I’d remembered him as driven, exasperating but lovable; this time around I was annoyed by how immediately he put himself in Scully’s personal space. I wanted to shout at him, “She is a colleague and a stranger, and your behavior is totally inappropriate and unprofessional!” It bothered me less in later episodes when their close friendship was already established, but even then I found myself thinking, “Scully, you are even more awesome than I remembered and you can totally do better.”

I recently found myself on a bus full of eighth graders watching the movie Frozen for the first time. I liked it — not-especially-princess-y female lead, magically gifted second female lead who learns to embrace her power and is ultimately able to find positive ways to use it and find acceptance within her community, emphasis on the importance of friend/sibling bonds, romantic relationships based on trust and respect, and the big kiss is prefaced by a “may I?” — but I didn’t love it. And that bothered me, because with a list like that surely I should have loved it? Because I’m me, I spent a lot of time trying to tease out why.

Here’s what I came up with: first of all, I think if it had existed when I was a kid I would have loved it. Probably it would’ve been up there with Beauty and the Beast. But as an adult, it felt like it was all surface. If Elsa’s gift was no problem up until the accident, why was it suddenly this big scary thing that had to be hidden/controlled? If Elsa had lived her entire life in isolation and fear of people, how the heck did she overcome that so quickly to be able to live surrounded by people and to fulfill a political role that would require a lot of social interaction and visibility? And if the people were so afraid of Elsa’s power, would they really welcome her back so quickly? A lot of the individual character moments were good, but so much of what would have drawn me in was this story of a powerful/gifted young woman finding a way to embrace her own gifts without having to withdraw from the community to do so and it just . . . wasn’t there, at least not on screen.

Maybe that wouldn’t even have disappointed me so much if I hadn’t just read Mikki Kendall’s story “If God Is Watching” a short time before. Like Frozen, it’s about a girl/young woman who has an unusual gift, one which can be used to help or to harm. Like Frozen, it begins with a young girl accidentally hurting someone. Like Frozen, the girl’s parents try to protect her, the girl ends up leaving home, the girl (now a young woman) ends up having a strong relationship with a sibling (in this case her brother), and she ultimately decides how she wants to use her gift as a member of a community. But unlike Frozen, in this story the parents teach their daughter not only how to control her power but how to use it in ways that can help people. In this story both siblings have gifts and use them in subtle ways to create a home for themselves and to build a community. In this story all of the characters have scars, or things they’d rather keep hidden, and our main characters accept each other without judgment or shame. When the protagonist is faced with her final choice about whether to use her power (and, if so, to what end), it is a choice she makes for herself and we as readers get to see what options and moral implications she considered in making it. “If God Is Watching” has depth; its characters (aside from the villains, anyway) are good not because they are perfect, but because they are imperfect in an imperfect world and they don’t let that stop them from being themselves or from acting with compassion and respect for one another.

I feel bad comparing Frozen and “If God Is Watching,” enough that I considered not writing about them (at least not together). I worry that it does both of them a disservice. But the more I tried to figure out why I wasn’t more excited about Frozen, the more I kept coming back to “If God Is Watching.” And the more I kept thinking about both of them, and about my inability to experience Frozen as my younger self would have, the more I kept coming back to this idea of re-visiting, re-watching, re-reading, etc. as a way to observe the passage of time, to make visible the incremental growth of days and weeks and months and years.

A while back I spoke with one of my colleagues, a reading specialist, about possible changes to independent reading as it’s currently assigned in our school and which changes would or would not match which purposes. One issue I should have thought of but didn’t until she pointed it out was re-reading: right now books that students re-read do not fulfill their independent reading requirements for class. Now, there are a number of reasons for this that I don’t want to get into here. It did remind me, though, of the many benefits to having some of one’s reading be re-reading.

I am someone who re-reads books. (I am also someone who re-watches TV and movies.) For a long time I had very limited shelf space and limited money for buying books, so the only books I bought were ones I’d already read several times and knew I would want to read again. Sometimes I re-read books because I’m stressed out and I want something familiar. Sometimes I re-read books because I enjoyed them in the past and I want to enjoy them again. Sometimes I re-read books because they were formative for me and there is some truth of which I need to be reminded.

This doesn’t mean that I never read books that are new to me. Sometimes I read new books because they sound interesting and I want to read them. Sometimes I read new books because none of the books I’ve already read is quite what I’m looking for in that moment. Sometimes I read new books simply because they are new, because I want to learn something or want the experience of not knowing what happens next instead of the experience of reading something half-remembered or mostly-memorized.

I realize not everyone re-reads like I do, but for someone like me I think books can be like people in this way. Sometimes you meet a book/person and enjoy the interaction and then go your separate ways; other times you meet a book/person and form a connection that keeps bringing you back, so that your relationship continues and grows over time. And when it comes to that latter category, some relationships you outgrow, some relationships can be sustained largely by nostalgia and shared history, and some relationships continuously evolve.

As a reader and a writer and a teacher and librarian and a person, I think re-reading is important — not everything, and not all the time, but it needs to be treated as “real” reading and it’s a practice I would encourage for everyone at least occasionally. On a scholarly/academic level I think it’s important to re-read in order to understand the balance between the words on a page, which do not change, and the meaning we make of them, which changes as we do. I think it’s even more important on a human level, however: I think it’s important to revisit old stories and old ideas and see which ones still work for us and which we want to set aside, to be reminded that we are not and need not try to be fixed points.

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That lost feeling when you finally reach the end of an amazing story.

So I just finished watching Fringe. (Yeah, I know I’m late to the game. I usually am.) I don’t want to get into spoilers, but I found the ending (and the series overall) really satisfying and impressive for a number of reasons:

  • They kept the focus on the characters and their relationships, and both individuals and relationships between them had definite arcs.

I’m sure it helped that they knew going into the fifth season it would be their final one, so they were able to wrap up arcs accordingly, but really that was the heart of their show and they never lost sight of that. (This, by the way, is also what I loved about early Criminal Minds and why I ultimately stopped watching: I loved Criminal Minds because it was about a chosen family full of intelligent, caring people who were trying to make the world a safer place, and when I finally stopped watching it was because it felt like those relationships had long since fallen by the wayside or become taken for granted, and the gruesome, terrible things and people became the focus.)

  • For such a complicated show, it was actually surprisingly coherent.

A little while back, when I was still on the second or third of five seasons, a friend asked about the show and commented that someone else she knew had compared it unfavorably with The X-Files. One of the key differences I saw was that The X-Files has a lot more weird-thing-of-the-week episodes, many of which had nothing to do with the central plot, while even weird-thing-of-the-week episodes tended to come back somehow on Fringe. This isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing on its own — certainly a lot of the best X-Files episodes were one-off ones where they could play with their usual structure — but I like fiddly, complicated stories where things turn out to be unexpectedly meaningful. Granted also The X-Files had to sustain itself over a much longer period of time and many more episodes, but I thought Fringe did a better job of picking a mythology and sticking to it. Even when things changed (and things changed drastically at a couple of points in the series), even when timelines were rewritten, there was a consistent internal logic to the world. I never did understand what was up with The X-Files in terms of aliens and government conspiracies and what have you because it became too convoluted to follow.

And this brings me to my last point, and probably the one that impressed me the most:

  • They managed time travel and alternate universes, including multiple timelines re-writing each other, in ways that I found compelling rather than annoying.

As a general rule, I’m not a time travel fan: it’s too easy to cheat or contradict yourself, and the potential pardoxes make my head hurt enough that it stops being fun. I think Fringe succeeded at making it work for me because the end result of their instances of time travel were always emotionally satisfying, but there was also always a cost. Beloved characters got written out of existence, and not all of them found their ways back. Characters used time travel to send messages in ways that could be read as simple cause and effect or as divine workings, and we as an audience were left with that ambiguity. And the time travel storylines always had an arc to them: visually, they began and ended with different versions of the same moments and imagery from the first time travel episode “White Tulip” (probably one of my favorite episodes of television ever) is repeated later on.

Okay, I thought that was going to be my last point, but I realized there was one other which I hadn’t discussed yet. All through the final season I was worried that it would end sadly. No, not just sadly; devastatingly. Heartbreakingly. And to a small degree I suppose it did. But it was also beautiful, and happy, and hopeful, and the heartbreak was much smaller than it could have been and, in keeping with the show throughout, came from an act of knowing self-sacrifice so that others could live and love and be happy. Straightforward happy endings are comforting, but they can also be boring, and I find I have less and less patience for endings that are entirely without hope (if only because how many times to I really want to subject myself to that?), but hopeful-if-slightly-bittersweet endings? Yes please.

This is already a good bit longer than I thought it would be, but I want to end with the two things I’m taking away from the end of the show: a desire to work on my own story-in-progress (which I’d been avoiding out of a combination of exhaustion and fear) and a desire to go back and re-watch the series, not just because I love the characters but because they came so far and grew so dramatically that I want to see again where they started, to remind myself how different the beginning was in order to better appreciate the journey.