Writing about Dragons, ca. 1999-2003

I’ve been thinking recently about writing. As readers we tend to categorize it as good or bad, and as writers we tend to be self-deprecating, but I’ve been thinking about how classifying writing as one or the other, as good or bad, can sometimes overlook its intended purpose. Different kinds of writing do different kinds of work, whether public, private, or both, and just because a piece isn’t intended for public consumption doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad or inefficient. Drafts, for instance, do very different work from finished essays. They aren’t meant for a wide readership, but they serve a very important role by being torn apart, rewritten, and ultimately remade into the polished essay. There’s also personal writing such as journaling, which is usually only meant for the writer but is nonetheless significant. I would never publish the journals I kept while studying abroad, for example, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value them and they work they did in recording my experiences and feelings from a particular time in my life.

I’ve also been reflecting on the work of writing in relation to a piece I did a long time ago, when I was still a teenager living in Arizona. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how it helped me come out as bisexual.

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For the last two decades or so my writing has focused on nonfiction genres, but during adolescence, I wrote fiction. Mostly I penned short stories, but I also turned out novellas and novels. Most of these stories would probably be considered variations of Magic Realism, but I also delved into outright fantasy. The most involved of these was a series of novel-length works focused on a group of dragons. As far as fiction goes they were as cliché-ridden and angsty as you would expect from a teenage girl living out in the suburbs, but they kept me entertained and out of trouble during a critical stage in my life, so I can’t be too hard on them. In terms of plot they were all derivations of the Hero’s Journey, nothing new there, but the very first of these stories stands out to me for one reason.

In hindsight, it was a coming out story.

Basically the plot went like this. There was once this hyper-militaristic society of anthropomorphic dragons on some made up place in some made up time. Within that society was a young officer named Argo (I know it’s not original, but it really does make for a great dragon name). He was very good at his job and considered a great success by his peers. During a battle he gets badly wounded though, and is well on his way to being a dead officer. But as it turns out, a different species of dragon, one that I think looked like a cross between a giraffe and a gazelle and whose scales resembled the color of an Akhal-Teke’s coat, rescues him (one of the many weaknesses of the story was that I could never come up with a good reason for the golden dragon being there on the battlefield, or why she ultimately picked Argo over all the many other wounded troops). Anyway, giraffe-gazelle dragon takes Argo away and heals him, while his home society assumes he died and his body is either missing or mangled beyond the point of recognition. After an initial period of resentment for being removed from battle ala Lieutenant Dan, Argo decides to make the most of his convalescence and do some serious introspection. Argo eventually goes on an intense personal journey of self-discovery, and gasp, realizes he actually doesn’t like being an officer at all (he also grows wings because flying is cool). He renounces his former life, decides to keep on living with the gazelle/giraffe dragon in a platonic relationship, and together they adopt a baby wyvern (I’m not kidding). Near the end of the story, when one of his old friends accidentally finds him, Argo asks the friend to not give away his whereabouts and let his hometown go on believing he’s dead. And the old friend agrees because he’s a stand-up guy who wants Argo to be happy, even if he doesn’t really get his new lifestyle. The End.

Before you tear this story apart, please remember I was 13 when I first wrote it. As far as literature goes, I’m the first to admit that it was terrible. But as a private piece intended for me? It was crucial.

In terms of narrative structure, the story was a variation of the Hero’s Journey, but with the said journey being internal and the ultimate prize being self-acceptance. While I didn’t imagine Argo as a LGBTQ+ character, in hindsight he’s coded as queer within the framework of his society. In the earliest versions of the story I had him accepting his officer role uncritically, but by later versions he acted more like a self-aware, closeted character. In public, Argo embraces his role as an officer, but in private, he expresses doubt and self-disdain. After he’s removed from that confining atmosphere though, he can finally let go of that persona while forming a new family that accepts him for who he is. Hell, at the climax of his self-discovery he literally grows wings and gains the ability to fly. By embracing his true self, he becomes more than what he had been when he was closeted. His inner journey is essentially a chrysalis moment, and he emerges as a beautiful, queer butterfly at the end of it.

The final confrontation for me further cements Argo as a queer character, and again, it changed over time as I worked on it. In the first version of the story, Argo calls on his military experience to scare off his friend with a showy, defensive display of fire, keeping his identity hidden. In later versions, the initial showdown became a coming out experience. After initially trying to scare off his friend with some showy fireballs or some other nonsense, Argo realizes his former expertise no longer reflects who he is as a person, and he chooses to be vulnerable. He sets down his weapons, emerges from his hiding place, and shows himself. And his friend, still grappling with the shock of seeing some believed dead to be alive, agrees to keep silent, knowing that outing Argo as a flying, off-the-grid pacifist to a hyper-militaristic society would endanger his safety.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a coming out story. And that helps to explain why I stopped working on it.

*

“I’m physically attracted to women.”

It was the spring of 2003, near the end of my junior year in high school. I was alone with my mother in her classroom, because she taught science at the same school I attended. I had asked to speak to her privately, because after months of ignoring it, I couldn’t hold in the knowledge of my bisexuality any longer. It had become so pressing that I couldn’t even wait until the end of the school day to tell her. There were dozens of people outside that door, some of them classmates, some of them teachers, but for a couple of minutes, it was just my mother and myself in an empty classroom. I remember being nervous because I was about to tell someone else for the first time that I was queer, an idea that was still relatively new to me. Hell, six months ago I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I might be queer. It wasn’t denial; I was just oblivious. But here I was, coming out. This was my moment.

And my mother, being the wonderful, loving person she is, accepted me without hesitation. If anything, she was relieved, as she had suspected I was queer in one form or another for years and was starting to wonder if I’d every figure it out for myself. The rest of my family accepted me too. So do Brandon and my closest friends.

That spring semester was a momentous time in a lot of ways for me. That’s when I decided I wanted to study art history in college. It’s when I opted to go to school out of state, because after years of attending the same school my mother worked at I needed to assert my own identity. It’s when I realized I was queer.

And it’s when I stopped writing my dragon stories.

It was quite abrupt, really. For three or four years I had worked on these stories diligently: the evenings, the weekends, whenever I had free time and wasn’t doing something else. When I wasn’t near a computer, I’d think about future chapters, or make drawings of scenes I wanted to write next. Collectively they were hundreds of pages long, with big casts and even bigger (albeit cliched) adventures. I worked on them right through spring break of my junior year, rewriting entire chapters and sketching out new ones. Yet by the end the semester, I had set them all aside. I’d still think about them for a few months afterwards, and once or twice tried to write new material, but was never able to get more than a paragraph. I don’t remember being troubled by my sudden inability to work on them because I was thinking about college and other adventures for myself. The time for working on them had simply ended.

At the time, I attributed my abandonment of these stories to the demands of schoolwork and college applications, but in hindsight, I think it’s because they had fulfilled their purpose. I had gone through my own inner journey while working on these stories, and while I didn’t grow wings, I did become a truer version of myself. The stories were my chrysalis. Writing about characters like Argo and his personal transformation helped me think about my own queerness, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Once I articulated that queerness for myself, however, I no longer needed these stories to express them for me. I never did write an actual ending for them, but they were finished.

*

I’ve been reflecting more on my high school experiences since the onset of the pandemic, probably because I haven’t been this much of a homebody since that time. Mostly I’ve been thinking about the places I used to visit, whether it was the mall or Oak Creek Canyon because Sedona was always too crowded and touristy, but I’ve also been remembering this old writing. After high school I dismissed it as bad adolescent fanfic without the benefit of an established franchise, but I’ve come to respect it more. Not all writing is meant to be read, at least not by others, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Conversely, just because it’s important doesn’t mean I want to revisit it. My teenage dragon stories meant a lot to me at a specific stage in my life, but they’ve served their purpose. If I were to ever rewrite them, to craft them for others rather than myself, they’d have to be radically different. If I were to write them now, I’d probably have the main character confront his own accountability, have him ask hard questions about why he didn’t use his privilege and charisma as an esteemed leader to advocate for real change within his own society. Not to mention the trauma he potentially caused his friends. family, and others for letting them believe he had died. I don’t see myself doing that though, at least not now. What we need are more stories from queer Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, Asian voices, among many others. Rather than rewrite some old stories, I’d rather elevate those voices.

Image: line drawing of a small winged dragon crouching on the ground.

But I’ll be less quick to dismiss my teenage writings as bad in the future. They may not have ever been meant for a large audience, or even a public one, but they certainly helped me.

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