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April 2014

From Fanfic to Funfic

One of my favorite memories of grade school was being read to in class. I first went to Helen Minard Elementary, a tiny school that had no library, but it did have Miss Bourdette. She was my third grade teacher, and she used to read to us the Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren. I loved those stories. With super-strength, independence, a stash of gold pieces, a monkey and a horse for companions as well as two good friends to boot, what eight-year-old girl wouldn't? I always imagined her living in my aunt Bernetta's house and wished sometimes that she really did. I loved Pippi and decided that if I couldn't be her and couldn't actually know her, then…maybe I could write about her!
 
Pippi Longstocking book coverSometime between the beginning and end of my experience with writing Florsoy the Wild Mare, I decided to try writing about Pippi Longstocking. I didn't have a plot, but I did have a title, which lent itself to a premise. My book was going to be called "Pippi and the Seasons", and for each season of the year, Pippi was going to have an adventure. I still remember the opening line. It went something like this:
 
Pippi was sitting on the porch counting her gold pieces on a sunny autumn day when Tommy and Annika came to visit.
 
I think I had written maybe a page, with no illustrations but plenty of ideas. One night, while riding in the car with my parents, I was jabbering away about Pippi Longstocking and how I was going to write the awesomest Pippi book ever when at one point, my parents said that it was really great that I was going to write a book, but that I couldn't write one about Pippi. I was confused. Why not? Well, they explained, because someone else already owned that character and it was illegal to use her in my own stories.
 
What?? I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
 
Pippi Longstocking South SeasMy mom tried to console me by saying that maybe I could write a story about some other little girl. Maybe an Indian girl, that way she can have braids too. I sulked. No. I don't want to write about some other girl just because she has braids. I want to write about Pippi because she's awesome. But at the same time I don't want to get into trouble, so… I just stopped. I didn't even save the story. I decided writing wasn't for me, and that was that.
 
Now, a few things. First, I've gotten over my parents discouraging my Pippi story while educating me about copyright infringement. The fact that they even remotely believed that I'd finish it , much less try to publish it, speaks volumes about their confidence in my talent and abilities. Wow.
 
Second, I wonder: did fan-fiction even exist in 1972? I don't know, and I had no idea that's what I was writing and neither did my parents. But I do know that I would never advise anyone, no matter their age or experience, against writing it. I once wrote some M*A*S*H fanfic at age twelve just for my own enjoyment, and really wish I still had those stories, especially since one of the characters I injected into them was myself. Hanging out in print, on paper, with Hawkeye, BJ, and Hotlips? What fun!
 
Nala in Fate's Apology.Third, my own WIP, Fate's Apology, started out taking place in the Star Wars universe. I used no established characters beyond Yoda, but the already-created worlds, technologies, and cultures lent ease toward flexing my writing muscles and developing original characters with which to populate that famous sci-fi universe. I don't regret leaving it behind, but I do know that had I not started there, I likely never would've finally discovered my writing feet and gone off on the journey I'm currently enjoying.
 
And now, after all these years, I'm doing exactly what my mom said I should do. It took me a while to see it, but when I realized it, I was thunderstruck. I'm writing a story in which my protagonist, Nala, is a strong female character like Pippi, who comes from a historically oppressed and primitive people and…she has braids. See? How did I do that?? I can only imagine it was subconscious.
 
"Write a story about some other little girl. Maybe an Indian girl, that way she can have braids too."
 
I am, Mom. I am!

Alexander Maxwell Stearns

November 6th, 2013 was a pretty normal day. I worked, I worked out, then I rushed off to choir rehearsal. Afterwards, I hurried home, tired and hungry. Then I walked in the door and the normalcy ended, as I was told and old friend had called and that I should call him back. "Why, what's up?" I asked. This friend doesn't often call just to chat. The answer I got stopped me in my tracks.
 
"Alex is dead."
 
I don't remember my initial thoughts. Hell, it was five months ago already. But I do know I grabbed the phone and punched in the number, and within moments the statement was confirmed. Names hadn't yet been released, but police had responded to a "shots fired" call around 4pm Sunday, November 3rd, and arrived to find a married couple dead in the yard. The police article showed only a front view of the house; the house the friend recognized because he'd lived there as a guest for several months. We didn't need the names. We knew.
 
Alex Stearns and Abby Geiger, May 21, 1994
I won't go into the gory details. Suffice to say this was an unplanned murder/suicide, as nothing in the investigation yielded a shred of evidence pointing to anything other than it likely being an altercation that got fatally out of hand. But my first thought was "That could've been me". My second thought was "What a goddamn shame".**
 
Alexander Maxwell Stearns was my first husband, married to in 1994 and divorced from in 1998. A "practice marriage" as I've heard it called, it yielded no kids, no house, and no regrets. To say it was a rocky relationship is putting it so mildly it's beyond cliché; it was more like a thundering avalanche of flaming granite interspersed with naval mines and broken glass. How do two people who produce that much fire and friction find attraction and enjoyment?
 
They play in a band together, duh.
 

Ravenwolf pre-wedding gig, May 20, 1994Alex was the singer/songwriter/lyricist for his hard rock band called Ravenwolf. Together with his friend Bruce Irvan, he crafted many memorable and poignant songs that covered topics from corporate corruption to endangered falcons, with odes to hit men, wizards, social estrangement in between. (I've no idea why the song titles are so odd—I think it's something he did shortly before he died.) For the second time in my life, a man I loved took me not only into his heart but also into his band, and allowed me to be a part of the family that serious, struggling musicians become. And in doing so, he forced me to stretch my talent beyond what I'd never been capable of doing: writing music. Or, at least writing original bass lines to go with original music, something I'd never done before. Even when playing original songs in bands (as opposed to 'cover tunes'), I was provided with tapes of the previous bassist's work. A note change here, a little sense of flair there, and I made it my own. But that's a far cry from sitting with talented guitarists and writing an accompanying bass line that suits the song. To be honest, I don't think the things I came up with were that great. But Alex and Bruce loved my work, and that's all that mattered. Especially when we got up on stage and played songs written from the heart to people who hadn't a clue how much blood, sweat, and beers that takes.
 
Mike Koenig, Bruce Irvan, Alex Stearns, Abby GeigerQuitting the band when the marriage dissolved (he even wrote a song about the breakup) was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as a musician, but I knew it was for the best. Alex proved me right by continuing to write, record, and perform. Doubt would occasionally set in, and he'd call for a pep talk, which I always gave. I never wanted to see Alex's dream turn to failure, even if I couldn't be part of it. He was an extremely talented musician.
 
But we all have our demons, and I know his loomed larger than most. There is no help for that. There's only understanding. So I do. But it's a bitch to now have to put him on the list of amazing musicians I've had the opportunity to work with over the years, who are no longer here to appreciate the accolades I should have much-sooner rained down upon them. And it's even more of a bitch to know that as I progress with my own re-discovered musicianship, there's no one to share it with who knows more than anyone how much I also struggle the self-doubt that accompanies such a challenge.
 
In short, I think what I will miss most is something I should have appreciated more of when it was there, something that too much life and too many demons got in the way of: the company of a musician who put his heart, guts, and life into music. He may have been my husband, but he was more so a kindred, spontaneous spirit that I didn't want to recognize in myself, terrified that if we both went off the rails toward fame, we'd achieve neither that, nor lunch for that matter. I've learned to avoid the "what if" question whenever I listen to our music. But I'll continue to appreciate it as a gift from a man who had a no-holds-barred attitude towards songwriting, something I wish the rest of the world would have had a chance to recognize.
 
Rest in peace, Alex. I'm sorry you weren't able to rise above the pettiness of life, or the stranglehold of your personal demons, in order to fly like the free bird you were meant to be. You brought me joy, despair, frustration, and euphoria. And now you bring me tears. So, in the tradition of your Sioux heritage, I say: I hope it was a good day to die.
 
** With regards to the sensitivities of the family of Sherri Gessendorf, I say I am deeply sorry for your loss. We had only met once, and I wish geography had allowed me to know her better.