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How the X-Men Changed My Life - Mo's Journal
May 13th, 2005
08:21 pm

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How the X-Men Changed My Life
This essay is reprinted from Advocate.com, the website of The Advocate (glossy gay mag). I wrote this piece on parenting and fanfic for them when X2 came out and it has been on their website for two years. But they just took down all of their 2003 material. So, I'm reprinting here, behind the cut, in case anyone's interested, and so I have a place to point to for an explanation when people ask me how I came by this strange hobby. Yes, I know, to people in fandom it's not a strange hobby. But to the fannishly challenged, for some strange reason, writing stories about mutant superheroes who have sex with each other is considered not quite so everyday as my other hobby (making beaded jewelry). I published this under my real name and did not mention my pseudonym in it and declined to have The Advocate link to my website. Yet a number of readers told me they found my stories from this article. Apparently there aren't a whole lot of X-Men writers out there with stories taking place in Saskatchewan and Belarus.

How the X-Men Changed My Life

By Dale Rosenberg

An Advocate.com exclusive posted May 8, 2003

My son Doran loves comic books. He reads them, he writes them, he collects them, he discusses them. Our local comic book shops know him well, as do the online equivalents. Family vacations have included stops at comic book stores in places ranging from London to Toronto to Scranton. He'll be 15 in the fall, and this has been going on since he was 8, so I guess it's more than a passing phase. Not necessarily a lifelong passion but a persistent interest. It has been persistent enough to affect his younger sisters and me as well.

I read comics as a child, although never to the extent Doran does. My mother thought it was a waste of time that could have been better spent on more intellectual pursuits, but I thought they were fun. My favorites were the X-Men. Teenage superheroes in a special school for "gifted" youth, the X-Men were "mutants," a subgroup of humanity hated and feared by the rest of the human race. That school and those kids felt very real to me, and the stories they told in the comic books were a jumping-off point for myriad stories in my head. I realize now that reading those comics and weaving those fantasies captured and supported my preadolescent feelings that there was something different about me, long before I knew the “something” was that I was a lesbian, not a mutant superhero.

When Doran started reading X-Men a number of years ago, I got all excited and told him how much I had loved that comic as a kid. He lent me a recent X-Men comic book and I read it eagerly. At first, that is. I could barely finish it. It was boring—the characters shallow, the dialogue simplistic. What had happened to the complex, fully realized companions of my youth? They had been replaced by a bunch of comic book characters. I was outraged! I couldn't believe how much comic books had gone downhill in one generation.

Then I managed to get hold of some of the original X-Men comic books and found that it wasn't the X-Men who had changed.

I have not repeated my mother's anti-comic stance. I’ve never felt that Doran was wasting his time. On the contrary, I find that reading comics has sparked his imagination, refined his sense of plot and character, and interfered not at all with more intellectual reading or with academic performance. He and I talk about the classic themes in comic books, about literature and historical detail referenced within the books, about the science (or the scientific impossibility) behind the stories, even about the different styles and techniques of the illustrators. I've always believed that when you're 10 or 11 or 12 anything can be a rich learning experience if you love it. Comic books became a great illustration of that principle for me.

When the first X-Men movie came out in 2000, I told Doran I'd take him and his friends to it on the opening weekend. I went happily, doing a favor for my firstborn, thinking of it as a Good Mama thing to do but not something I would personally enjoy. I was surprised to find myself enchanted by the film. I got back the feeling I'd had as a kid, of being totally transported into a world where mutants were real and dealing with a world hostile to those a little different from them. I found the characters believable, complex—people I could truly care about. Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine was mysterious and multilayered and totally captivated me.

And I loved the queer subtext in the film. When a thug twice his size tries to shake Wolverine down, saying "I know what you are," I thought of all the gay men and lesbians who've had that happen to them. And wished they'd all had the superpowers needed to overpower their attackers, just like the Wolverine did.

My interest in the X-Men movie didn't lead to a renewed interest in comic books, but it took me somewhere else—to fan fiction. Large numbers of people were writing stories based on comic books, movies, novels, and television shows, imagining what happens after the movie is over or in between the scenes. They were "publishing" them on the Internet, with carefully worded disclaimers acknowledging that the characters were not theirs and asserting they were making no money out of this.

I'd been completely unaware of the fan-fic phenomenon, and it seemed like a whole hidden world—a fascinating one full of imaginative people who worked hard at this for the pure joy of creating and sharing. When I found an extensive style guide for writing comic fan fiction, I knew I was hooked. It was the adult equivalent of the games I played as a child, or the games my kids play now. I saw it as a grown-up version of "Let's pretend that you're Scott and I'm Logan and we have an adventure together."

I decided to give it a try.

Almost three years later I've written 100 X-Men stories. I use movie characters, comic book characters, and those of my own invention. My central character is a deeply closeted gay man who is also a mutant, so I get to write about homophobia more directly than is addressed by the queer subtext of the comics or the movies. I have readers all over the world who write to me, and I've met some interesting people and learned a lot about gay life in various parts of the world. Readers have drawn illustrations for me, translated my work into Chinese to expand my readership, and created a Web site with my stories.

I research meticulously before I write. Part of the fun for me is making everything as real as I can, with the exception of the mutant superpowers part. So fan fiction has had me learn about such diverse topics as the geography of rural Saskatchewan, the history of the Republic of Belarus, and the sex lives of the Samurai. I've brushed up on my French and Russian because I had characters who spoke those languages. I've learned a great deal about plotting, character, and dialogue. I've reveled in the pure joy of creation, of editing and revision, of working hard on something just for the sake of making it better. I've found that when you're 45 or 46 or 47, anything can be a rich learning experience if you love it.

My kids and I have all seen the original X-Men movie a number of times since it came out and have become staunch X-Men fans. My daughters have all the action figures from the movie and have spent many an enjoyable, creative hour inventing stories as they played. Doran has been writing fan fiction as well; we talk about our writing and share tips. His sisters come up with ideas for plots and characters: Kendra, my 10-year-old daughter, wants me to collaborate with her on a story based on the movie sequel.

We were all at X2: X-Men United on opening night, of course. While we were there a couple of people left messages on our answering machine. The outgoing message said, as it has for a while now, "Leave a message for Dale, Doran, Kendra, or Zara, and the name of your favorite X-Man after the beep."

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From:jane_sehrn_ta
Date:May 14th, 2005 10:44 pm (UTC)
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Hey Mo! (or Dale!) ;) I really enjoyed your article and reading about how you came to be immersed in the X-Men universe. I loved hearing what it means to you, how it has transformed your life, and how you went on to share such a creative legacy with your children. In my case, you could substitute "Star Wars" for "X-Men" and have the same story of coming back to something as an adult and being so entranced and inspired by it to create stories that are worth telling and that are personally important and satisfying. My mother *hated* Star Wars, fantasy, imagination, and the fact that I wrote at all. Being a teenager was rather unpleasant and was not short on reality. I made sure that my kids (my partner's two daughters) are not afraid to dream, create and lead a balanced imaginative life. For many years I didn't write much at all, and then, a couple of years ago, I discovered fan fiction. The rest, as they say, is history. The last 18 months, when I have been writing extensively in the TPM fandom and can actually think of myself as a "writer" - my childhood dream - have been so life-affirming for me. All the things I was once forced to reject as a child, I am now free to explore as an "adult", and what's more, discover that there are many more adults out there who share this passion. Surely we can't all - as my mother said - be wrong? Thanks again, for sharing! :)
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From:mofic
Date:May 15th, 2005 01:05 am (UTC)
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I'm glad you enjoyed the essay, Jane, and can relate to it. And even gladder that you're giving your kids the benefit of your experience. My kids are all writers and I find that it's a wonderful thing to share.

My kids have all learned to write by the Columbia University method, which really stresses "Every child a writer." They see "writer" as a core part of their identity and I think that's wonderful. Last year, when my elder daughter was in sixth grade, she had her first unit on Shakespeare. And she wanted to see the movie Shakespeare in Love. Do you know it? It's a romantic comedy by Tom Stoppard, about a (fictional) period of writer's block in Shakespeare's life. It's really a lovely film and very funny, but much of the humor comes from knowing the plays - you see him hearing people say things or saying them himself and you realize he's going to use them in the plays later (if you know the lines). So I wasn't sure how much Kendra, my daughter, would understand, but I rented the movie and watched it with her and Zara, my youngest. Anyway, they both loved it and I was amazed at how much Kendra did understand. She kept laughing and then saying what play the line was from (hey they must actually teach her something in that school of hers :-)).

But I digress :-). My point was that it's not just a romantic comedy but also a film about writing process - where one gets inspiration, how different themes in one's life come together in writing, how blocks happen. And both of my girls saw it as such, first and foremost. They were interested in the love story, too, but the writing was what really grabbed them. And they both - with absolutely no self-consciousness - completely identified with Will, and talked for days afterwards about times they'd had experiences similar to his. I just loved that, both for the "writerly life" aspect and for not having the can't-compare-myself-to-the-great-ones sense that so many adults would have.

(I'll use my Scott icon for this one, since my version of Scott Summers is a high school English teacher with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare)
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From:jane_sehrn_ta
Date:May 15th, 2005 02:39 am (UTC)
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I'm so impressed by your children and their incredible sense of "knowing who they are". They're a wonderful reflection on you, hon: you must be so proud of them. My daughters haven't particularly gravitated toward writing, although I have encouraged that! They tend to be more into the visual arts, and our youngest, Richelle (16), seems to be gravitating toward computer-based art (like both her mums). The greatest gift I'd like to think I've encouraged in our girls is belief in themselves and their own worth (which seems to be so hard to do when they enter the teens and are surrounded by so many difficult issues at school) and I've been happy to note that they not only tend to stand up for themselves, they champion the rights of those who need help defending themselves. I've even noticed Shell correcting me when I fall into old tapes from the past and beat myself up verbally. She is teaching me a lot about the value of self-esteem too!

I know the movie "Shakespeare in Love", and love it. My parents were both from working class families and were very suspicious of "culture" and "intellect", so I got little of that at home. I went to a fairly poor school but we always read LOTS of Shakespeare. I don't know I'd be so great these days at identifying which play was which like your girls, but I know I loved reading them aloud in class, and getting to play some of the most famous characters (and villains!) of all time. It was, as you say, illuminating to see how his own life might have fed into Shakespeare's work. I can surely identify with that!

I hope to have some quiet time to sit and read some of your Scott Summers soon. He sounds like a cool dude.
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