Sometimes friendship isn’t complicated.
Sometimes it’s as simple as a sandpit on a playground where we were building a village in the dirt. While I built row after row of little round houses, Mercury was building a garden center. We had never met before, and I can still remember her quiet concentration as she transplanted tufts of crabgrass into the sand.
Dear Mercury, yes, of course I remember the day we became best friends. I remember how none of us–not me, not my brother or any of his friends–spoke to you until after the yard duty teacher asked you what you were doing and you explained that no, it wasn’t a garden, it was a garden center.
I was nine and it was September. I had just switched schools for the beginning of the fourth grade, and had half-assed the process of making my own friends–after all, The Narrator had plenty I could borrow. He was the ringleader of the Sandpit (which was exactly what it sounds like), the gathering place for his wide circle of rowdy misfit kids. I was the tag-along little sister in every way, and The Narrator’s people–Jarhead, Big Sister, the Prince of Cuba*–became my people. But Mercury, you were different. It was you and I, first and foremost.
You and I came up with the best games. There was no more of that “playing house” nonsense once you came along. We were fairies, we were mermaids, we were ninjas, we were witches, we dominated. We were everything. We created elaborate universes together, inhabiting them twice a day at recess.
We were doing more than playing, of course. We were laying the groundwork for the writing we would do later. Every day we were designing characters, orchestrating settings and plotlines, working through vast imaginary conflicts. We were inhabiting fiction. I have somehow unlearned it–but you, Mercury, have never learned to do anything else. But more on that later.
Enter true geekdom. At the age of ten we were addicted to Teen Titans, intoxicated with the superpowers, the cartoon violence, the comedy and the character drama.
Recess became a twice-daily question of “Who gets to be Starfire?”
There weren’t enough laser eye beams and downtrodden alien race politics to go around. Eventually we broke the framework of the show’s canon and developed spinoff characters for ourselves to be. They were us, but better, and sometimes they were unrecognizable even to us, but they were always somehow versions of ourselves.
It was through these extremely detailed games our Teen Titans obsession deepened. The Narrator contributed; one fateful day, he introduced me to a novel discovery: fanfiction.net.
“Wait,” I said, “So you can actually write what you wish would happen on the show, and people will read it?”
“For any show?”
“And it can be anything?”
“I…I have to call Mercury.”
We delved deeply into fanfiction. If you’re not genuinely as geeky as you hope your Bazinga! t-shirt and thick glasses are making you appear, let me fill you in. Fanfiction.net is a dark and wonderful place. I’m sure we’re all familiar with Rule 34 (“If it exists, there’s porn of it”). You could say the same of fanfics. If a show, book, movie, comic or graphic novel exists, someone has written a fanfic about it. There’s a lot of intersection here, as well, obviously, as a lot of fanfiction is porn. When people’s unfettered imaginations let loose upon existing copyrighted material, things can get reeeeally out there.
The ratings ranged from K (suitable for kids) all the way to M (“Oh my god, Mercury, don’t click that! That means sex!”). You’d be shocked–well, you might be–at the sheer range. You’d think that kids’ shows would have primarily kid-appropriate stories and that the sexy, gory, adult stuff would be left for works that were already geared to that type of thing, but you would be so, so wrong.
[I tried to research some mildly icky examples for you here that would show you what I meant without scarring you, dear reader, but what I found was deeply disturbing hot-for-teacher underage Hannah Montana cheerleader porn and I had to stop and launder my brain.]
Anyway. We wrote.
Our heroic, romantic and comedic fantasies spilled out of recess games and onto paper, and our ten-year-old selves painstakingly typed them out. The archetypes of you and I were emerging. You were the idea factory, and I was the editor. You were creation and I was critique. You brought the characters, I brought the development. We were a team. It was what we did. It was all we did.
Most important to our fanfiction were OCs (original characters), the people we invented and stuck into existing stories. As a general rule, most of these were egregious Mary Sue vanity projects, but we lacked the maturity to realize that somehow idealized versions of ourselves kicking ass and taking names in the fictional lands of our favourite shows didn’t have much general reader appeal (or that we were churning out total literary garbage in the grand scheme of things–but hey, we were ten!). Our characters had ridiculous, implausible (but awesome) names, hair colours, wardrobes and backstories, and they let us live vicariously in a world where we were otherwise a couple of oversupervised, understimulated and generally unpopular dorky kids. We found an online home in the crazy, all-encompassing world of fanfiction.net, where other weirdos gladly welcomed us into the fold.
As much as I cringe looking back at all the minutiae of fandom–our sheer dedication to canonical detail, our heart-pounding obsessions with the story, the hours and hours we spent sketching battle outfits and writing witty dialogue, the fact that I can still sing the Teen Titans theme song in Japanese and that, to date, I have never had a bigger crush on anyone than the one I had on Edward Elric–part of me is kind of proud of all the things we created, and I’m really grateful that the ridiculously indulgent online networks of fandoms exist the way they do.
For me, fanfiction was a habit that spanned from the fifth grade all the way through the ninth. My characters evolved from hyperactive kids with latent superpowers showing up and outsmarting all the adults in the world of Teen Titans (a frequent theme for me) to teenage desert gypsy warriors with badass automail undermining the military-alchemical warfare complex within Fullmetal Alchemist, through to Harry Potter characters bent on reconciling the muggle world and the wizarding world through the power of science (you have no idea how badly I wish I was kidding about that). Eventually I got tired of the medium. I got tired of the engine of fandom, of taku culture especially, with all its squees and its omg so kawaiis and its exhausting, boundless enthusiasm for very trivial stuff.
Most of all I came to the realization that the business of fanfiction was ultimately a long road to nowhere. When you’re a little kid, you can entertain all kinds of crazy ideas–like maybe, if you write a good enough character you’ll get somehow scooped out of the ether and have your show produced or your scripts read or you’ll become a voice actor–but all of that faded with time, of course. And when you become aware of the vast ocean of content your work is swimming in, this massive sea of weird writer kids with half-baked original ideas grafted all Mary Shelley-like onto existing stories, all of them dying to be noticed, to feel talented and validated and special, the magic is lost. This was how I felt.
For a while I worked on original stuff, but the more I tried the less original I felt, the more intensely critical I became, and the more I felt that I was beating a dead horse with all my plucky teenage heroines fighting totalitarian future dictatorships. And this was before the Hunger Games, even. It would have been easy, I guess, to feel special and talented without the internet. After all, I was better at drawing and writing than anyone else in school (except Mercury). But the internet, oceanic as it was, made me cynical about my silly creativity.
Also, in all my constant dystopian fiction reading I kind of started making connections to the real world. I started feeling uncomfortable about reading made-up stories where the premise involved a sheep-like population content with being screwed over for the low price of bread and circuses, only to finish one book, pick up another, draw a few comic panels and go to bed night after night. I felt a massive disconnect from the characters I idolized. They were heroes, and I was idle, socially clueless and so utterly marginal that this disparity killed my interest. I felt guilty. I felt ignorant. I felt like I was missing the point.
So I started watching the news more often, reading more historical fiction and talking to new people. It was here, around the beginning of the ninth grade, Mercury, when the persistent gap started to form between us. Where I was normalizing myself as much as possible, pulling out of the depths of hardcore geekery, you were digging your heels in.
I mean, I know you had shit going on. Family shit and mental health shit. I know.
Your attendance at school started to slide. You had always been late a lot, but we started not seeing you for days at a time. You ate lunch in a separate classroom, isolated, with other definite fringe kids, and I, sick of the stigma, formed a sad teenage goth island by myself in the cafeteria. This is where I was formally adopted by Norma Jean and many other kind Normal kids. You and I drifted.
You did not adapt the way I did, Mercury. You never stopped burying your face in manga, you haven’t stopped designing characters or writing fanfiction and you have only found newer and bigger fandoms to join. I could sneer at this if I wanted to, but I won’t.
Honestly? I’m jealous.
I wish I could have kept on inhabiting fiction the way you do. I wish, instead of subjecting myself to the depressing discipline of keeping up with the news, struggling to be a responsible citizen, a good feminist and a minimally evil consumer–instead of immersing myself in the politics of relationships, into activism, into friendship drama and academia and work and who knows what else–that I could be building fantastic imaginary worlds right there with you. I wish I hadn’t strangled my creativity with excess criticism. I hope I haven’t done the same, even a little bit, to yours.
Mercury, you’re a generator. You’re a goddamn infinite power source. Sometimes your plot continuity is weak and sometimes your characters get a little predictable, sure, but you’re production, not post-production. You create things just for the hell of it, knowing full well at this point that publishing agencies and gaming companies aren’t about to roll up to your doorstep and offer you money. That’s fucking beautiful. Everything you make has that raw impulse at its core and I don’t care whether or not you’re as special a snowflake as the conventional self-esteem brigade would have us believe–you have been my best friend for nearly ten years and I think you’re fantastic.
But I also think you need to grow up.
I hate how those words sound. Even typing them I feel nasty. But I mean that you need to put yourself through this questioning, criticizing maturity wringer and become the person on the other side of it. It won’t do to stay in your basement forever drawing beautiful pictures, because the stories in your head are going to get smaller and staler with time if you don’t eventually feed yourself some new experiences.
I know you have been depressed. I know you’ve been sick. I know you’ve isolated yourself for so long that it’s hard to get out and Act Normal and make friends who are different from you. Getting through school was daunting. Getting a job must seem even more daunting. I know how it’s easier to bury yourself in video games and MMOs and RPs and fanfics and manga and books and cosplay. Geekery is awesome, but you’ve got to see that you’re using it as a crutch.
Think about the OCs you’ve created over the years. They’re all action heroes with mad combat skills, superpowers and endless witty banter. They all have something to fight for and something to fight with. They have conviction. They have guts and strength and attitude for days, and they overcome all kinds of crazy adversities. They fight evil.
There are real problems out here. Every now and then we talk on the phone and I tell you about Republicans, about apartheid, about jerks on the internet and wars across oceans, and you are shocked and angered and awake for those few moments. But you don’t want to have me to feed you the news of the outside world forever. You shouldn’t need me to look things up for you and tell you about them so you know.
As much as I’m struggling to come to terms with burying my dreamy creativity with hard news, I have a hunch that it’s all still there. You might have to sacrifice some of your time spent basking in fantasy, Mercury, but only good will come of it. When you get up, when you get outside, when you stand on your own two grown-ass-woman feet and take things in firsthand, your brain will do crazy new things. We are ever-expanding, Mercury. We’re leveling up all the damn time.
You and I have developed a pattern of drifting for a few weeks or months and then meeting up again, finding everything exactly as it was. There is always that same electricity, that same common ground and that deep-set creative instinct, and we go right back to comparing notes about our lives and lives that were never real anywhere but on screens and pages and in our heads. This isn’t going away.
Get out of your computer chair. Come out of the nest you’ve made out of games and shows and books and go through the Growing Up wringer. I promise, I promise, I promise that I’ll be with you on the other side. There are real villains, Mercury, and you have real power–and like every protagonist in every story we’ve ever loved, you have an unrelentingly loyal best friend who is totally up for the adventure.
Meanwhile, I’ve been meaning to call you, Mercury, because I have this idea for a graphic novel…
*Perhaps a story for another time. No, he wasn’t Cuban.