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.

my life as a middle manager

I’ve been thinking recently about my job.  As the director of a writing and language center, I’m basically a middle manager, a term I’m defining to mean a person who works regularly with both direct reports and direct superiors, and who spends a lot of time trying to keep both parties happy.  I never thought I’d have this kind of job.  I was an English major who had a fairly narrow conception of what English majors eventually grow up to do (I guess I thought I was going to read novels and drink tea all day), so there are actually quite a few things in my job that I never thought would be a part of my life, such as Excel spreadsheets and HR paperwork.  But this business of having to mediate between real people–that was the biggest surprise.  I do think my English education helped prepare me for this work, though that’s a topic for another post.  It just wasn’t on my future career landscape when I was in college.

Middle managers get a bad rap in pop culture (they are usually portrayed as frustrated middle-aged men wearing bad ties) and in the popular literature on business (doesn’t everybody want to “cut out the middleman”?).  I don’t think these portrayals are fair.  I prefer to conceive of my job, and others like it, as a form of interpretation or translation.  People are speaking two different languages (e.g., the language of academia and the language of management), and it’s my job to help them understand each other.  Perhaps an even more accurate analogy is that of a negotiator.  Last week, I found myself dashing back and forth between two different people’s offices as I tried to broker a deal regarding the division of a newly constructed space between two departments.  At one point I laughingly used the real estate term “counteroffer.”  And I realized that, career-wise, I might have more in common with the ReMax agent who helped me buy my house last summer than with many of the other faculty members at my university.  But why stop with the real estate analogy?  Diplomats need this same set of skills.  I don’t think it’s delusional to say that I’m in a similar career category to the people who try to make sure major world powers don’t destroy each other.

Let me share one lesson that being a middle manager has taught me.  I am naturally a pessimistic person.  I’ve always been a worrier.  But I’ve been learning lately that we can change these traits that we think are innate.  (For example, I think teaching has helped me become more extroverted.)  And I think that having to mediate between two parties has helped me become more optimistic.  If I’m going to convince other people that a particular arrangement can work–even if it’s not what they originally envisioned–then I have to believe that it can work.  Because if I don’t believe it, they’re going to see right away that I’m just trying to sell a defective product.  So I’ve learned to look for solutions instead of problems.  Don’t get me wrong; we need people who see potential problems.  That’s an important job.  But it’s not my job.  It’s my job to show you that we can all get along–because I’m a middle manager.


lunch as a spiritual discipline

As I said last week, this post will be the last in my series on establishing a rule of life. I would love your suggestions as to what to write about when I am finished with this series.  In the past I’ve often written more for my own enjoyment than for my readers’.  I don’t want to stop doing the former, but I’d love to be able to do both!

My topic today is the concept of a small, daily “Sabbath” rest.  (I’m putting the term in quotes because, of course, it literally refers to something that happens every seven days.  I’m using it loosely here.)  During my conversation with my co-worker who is an experienced spiritual director (see the post entitled “A Conversation with Purpose”), she asked me how I could incorporate the concept of Sabbath rest into my workday.  I knew the answer immediately: I should start taking a lunch break.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I am blessed to have a salaried academic job with a relatively flexible schedule.  If I wanted to go out to lunch and stay longer than an hour, no one would say anything as long as I didn’t miss a meeting or a class.  But I typically don’t use this privilege.  Most of the time I eat lunch at my desk, attempting to keep working despite the difficulty of typing an email while eating.  I end up getting my keyboard all sticky and not really enjoying my food.  People feel weird when they come to my office to ask a question and see that I’m eating lunch, even when I tell them they shouldn’t feel weird.  More importantly, I don’t have a time built in during the day for refocusing: celebrating the accomplishments of the morning and asking for God’s help with the tasks of the afternoon.

A lunch break is the perfect time for either fellowship or solitude.  Perhaps I could schedule a little of both into my work week–lunch with others on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and lunch alone on Tuesday/Thursday, or something like that.  During the lunches with others, I could be deliberate about getting to know different people from inside and outside my department.  During the solo lunches, I could pray a form of the examen prayer (I mentioned this in my introductory post on crafting a rule of life).  In this type of prayer, I would review the day up to that point, thanking God for blessings, confessing sins, and thinking (not obsessively) about how I could have done things differently, and then I would look ahead to the rest of the day, asking for wisdom and strength for each task.  This need take no longer than five minutes, so I could even do it at the beginning or end of a lunch I’m eating with other people.  I could even include my lunch buddies in the practice, asking them what their high and low points of the day have been thus far.  (Thanks for Alvin Ung, one of the professors of the Taking Your Soul to Work class, for this idea.)

Oddly enough, I think this might be the most difficult to implement of the disciplines I’ve written about so far.  Not for any logistical reason–there are plenty of places to eat lunch in and around my building (including the roof!), and there’s no need to spend money; I can still pack a lunch from home.  The reason this is going to be hard to start practicing is that it will require me to break a well-established habit and to allow myself to feel unproductive for at least half an hour every day.  I think the solution may be simple: I need to put lunch on my calendar, just like I recently started putting “write for 30 min.” on my calendar at the same time every weekday, with excellent results (why do you think I’ve been so prolific on this blog lately?).

I want to thank everyone for the kind, interesting, and helpful comments you’ve made during this series–here on the blog, on Facebook, and by text message and email.  I would love to hear about your own experiences with these practices and other spiritual disciplines you have incorporated into your own life!

the thankfulness book

This is the next in my series of posts on crafting a rule of life.  Those of you who have been following this series will be interested (and maybe a little sad) to know that I am probably going to wrap it up after next week’s post.  However, I’ll continue to add to my rule of life and will probably blog about it from time to time in the future.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, meditating on my struggle with anger and how, with God’s help, I can implement practices into my life that will help me to become less angry and more gentle.  One of the action steps that came from that session was to begin writing daily in the thankfulness journal that I started last summer during a Bible study on Ann Vosskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a book I heartily recommend.  Like thousands of other Christian women who have read the book, I chose a beautiful journal (mine is a handcrafted one from Nepal, with a colorful woven cover and soft, fibrous pages) and started making a list of things I’m thankful for, with the eventual goal of reaching one thousand.  Like thousands of other Christian women, I faithfully wrote 2-3 items daily for a few weeks and then petered out, starting and stopping again sporadically throughout the year whenever I happened to notice the journal under a pile of other books.

As I mentioned in my solitude post, the authors of Taking Your Soul to Work connect anger (the sin) and gentleness (the fruit of the spirit) with surrendered contentment (the outcome).  After I recognized this unexpected connection, I decided that picking my thankfulness journal back up and making it a habit this time could be an effective strategy for becoming more content with the gifts I have and thereby feeling less compelled toward anger about what I don’t have and/or can’t control.  Too, writing about those seemingly out-of-nowhere gifts that come to me more often than I usually notice (e.g., a good conversation with a friend whom I “happened” to walk by when leaving a blood drive early after an unsuccessful attempt to donate) may help me see how good it is that I’m not in control of every minute of my day.

Keeping a thankfulness list isn’t just for angry people, or for women, or for people who have been inspired by Ann Vosskamp.  It’s for anyone who wants to rewire their brain circuitry to look for good things.  (There’s real science that says you can actually do this; maybe I’ll write a post about it sometime.)  And it only takes a minute or less to jot down a few items every day.  This practice can also be done with other people.  My family has a now-threadbare journal that we’ve pulled out every Thanksgiving since 1991 to record what we’ve been most thankful for during the previous year.  Reading our entries aloud together has led to much laughter, many happy tears, and deep fellowship with each other and with God.

If you think it sounds cheesy, have you actually tried it?  It won’t change you into a different person overnight, but it will gradually train your brain–and your heart, and all the rest of you–to see gifts where you didn’t before.

If you have experience with keeping a thankfulness list, or if you have ideas about how you might incorporate this simple discipline into your life, let me know in the comments!

A conversation with purpose

This is part 4 in my series on crafting a rule of life.  Thank you to all those who have been following along and commenting!

Last week I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, thinking about my struggles with anger and control and about their counterparts, gentleness and contentment.  This morning, as a follow-up to that meditative time, I spent one hour in spiritual conversation with a wise lady in my department at work.  I chose her as my conversation partner not only because she is an excellent listener–having made a study of this art, which doesn’t come naturally to anyone–but also because I’ve had a feeling (confirmed today) that she and I are very similar in some ways.  What I didn’t know until today is that she also has formal experience as a spiritual director, which is essentially what I needed her to be today.

I don’t know a lot about the practice of giving and receiving spiritual direction, since it isn’t something that evangelicals, with our emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, tend to do.  My basic understanding is that a spiritual director is a person who helps another believer discern the voice of God.  The spiritual director does not have the authority of God, but the directee agrees to follow the director’s advice unless it contradicts God’s revealed Word or becomes inappropriate for that person (which it shouldn’t, since the spiritual director is not chosen on a whim).  Before the director offers advice, the pair spend significant time in conversation together about the directee’s life circumstances, goals, and desires for spiritual formation.  The relationship usually extends beyond one session.  Each conversation may, as ours did today, begin with five minutes of silent focusing and end with a spoken prayer by the director.

If this all sounds too weighty, it’s helpful to think of spiritual direction as a form of mentoring.  That’s really what our session felt like today.  I’ll be honest; I enjoyed talking about myself for an hour, but this wasn’t just cathartic gut-spilling (not that there isn’t a time and place for that).  Instead, we focused on problem-solving.  If I said something like “I have a problem of calling myself a dummy when I make a mistake” (okay, that wasn’t hypothetical), my spiritual director would ask questions to help me arrive at a practical strategy for reducing negative self-talk.  When we finished, I felt like I had enjoyed a conversation with a good friend, and I also had some action items that I could begin implementing immediately.  (I sure do love action items.)

As to how spiritual direction will fit into my rule of life, I am not exactly sure, since this one depends on other people as well as me.  If the person I met with today is willing to meet again (she seemed to be), I’d love to establish a regular pattern of this type of conversation with her, in which we could periodically revisit the issues we talked about today, while also moving on to other areas of my life.  There’s also such a thing as group spiritual direction, which we practiced a few times during the Taking Your Soul to Work class.  In this version, small groups of three or four people take turns sharing, and the others in the group have the opportunity to offer advice.  No one person in the group has the authority; rather, all the members trust that the others are sensitive to God’s leading and will give good advice (not that they won’t ever be wrong).  I might try this practice with my friends or even a few co-workers.

What do you think about this spiritual direction/conversation idea?  If you have any thoughts about how to implement the practice, let me know!