By now, you have probably read Alice’s two excellent reports on the joint academic/fan conference “A Celebration of Supernatural” at Chicago’s DePaul University. Her articles (Part 1 and Part 2) conveyed the varied topics and deep conversations that took place at several of the conference panels, plus she relayed in great detail the insights shared by the keynote speaker, Robbie Thompson.
Many of you have told us that our reports on these fan gatherings are the only way you will ever experience any type of Supernatural convention or conference. Believe me, I know how lucky I was that the professor who wanted to put together the conference, and the university that agreed to host it, were in my home town! Your feedback convinced me to share my personal experiences throughout the crazy 24 hours that made up the conference weekend, so in addition to reporting on a few remainning panels, I will also share with you my observations, reactions and thoughts about attending my first Supernatural academic conference!
First, the panel coverage. I had the honor of chairing the panel “Saving People: Supernatural and Social Issues”. Even though I have both run and participated in countless business conferences, I was still really nervous about the panel. I had not met my fellow panelists before, our topic was rather vague and esoteric, and I didn’t know how serious academics and enthusiastic fans were going to find common ground on the topic.
I began the panel with the observation that Supernatural has had a profound effect on many people’s lives. Both cast and fans have experienced the immense support and love that surrounds Supernatural. This nurturing environment, trust and encouragement combined with the show’s altruistic themes have empowered so many people to move outside their comfort zone, to take risks and to change their lives in ways they never would have imagined. I shared my own story of unexpectedly transitioning from newbie fangirl to The WFB’s Managing Editor, and even more surprisingly from career and family woman to independent author. I also mentioned how dramatically Supernatural had changed the lives of so many of its short term cast members, including Gil McKinney, Richard Speight Jr, Rob Benedict and Osric Chau.
|The second panel member, Karla Truxall, then shared her story. Karla read aloud a very emotional and personal letter she wrote to Jared following the loss of her nephew to suicide. Fighting back tears, Karla told the story of her own journey through the grief, and how she was moved to create a Supernatural Family support group called “SPN Survivors” in 2014 to reach out to people who are hurting. She explained how creating the website, interacting with fellow fans, having a presence at Supernatural conventions and organizing group activities was healing, and was something she never envisioned herself doing.
Rachel Dean, the third panel member, is a popular meta writer on Tumblr. She educated us all on how realistically John and Bobby were portrayed as functional alcoholics, with Dean perfectly channeling the personality of an adult child of an alcoholic. She briefly introduced the 13 traits clinically recognized as being exhibited by adult children of alcoholics, noting that it is rare for any television character to so accurately depict this life situation. She shared how much she could identify with this aspect of Dean’s family history, and similarly, how fellow Tumblr fans have bonded and been helped by seeing themselves represented in a heroic character that is largely admired.
Dr. Galen Foresman, the last member of the panel, wrote the book Supernatural and Philosophy. Galen posed questions for the audience to answer, musing over how and why so many people identify so closely with Sam and Dean. Fans jumped at the chance to convey their individual theories on the Winchester brothers’ representation of real life struggles!
As you can imagine, the tone at the beginning of the panel was rather serious (we introduced some pretty heavy topics!). Almost immediately after the panelists’ opening remarks, though, the mood was abruptly interrupted when a third of the attendees got up and all walked out of the room at once! To the casual observer, it looked like an embarrassing mass exodus. Luckily, I had scanned the competition for my panel’s time slot, so I knew that an alternate choice for this hour was the screening of “Fan Fiction” in the auditorium. It turns out that the attendees had all just received a text, tweet, direct message, whisper or other clandestine communique that Robbie Thompson had entered the auditorium and was personally introducing the episode. We certainly couldn’t compete with that! I couldn’t blame the deserters at all (I would have gone to see Robbie if I could have!), but I felt bad that they missed out on the best part of our panel discussion. The movement broke the tension, and in the second half of our hour the remaining group really opened up. We ended up having a great philosophical conversation about the social messages contained within our show and Supernatural’s impact on peoples’ lives!
Between the preparations for my panel, plus visits to the vendor’s room, silent auction and book sale, the next few hours of the conference were a bit disjointed for me. I missed several panels that I desperately wanted to hear. The first was Bookdal’s panel on Meta within Supernatural. I am trying to *convince* (i.e. strong arm, beg, plead, cojole) her to write a full article on her conference discussion. I still hold out hope that might happen later during the hiatus!
Another panel I missed was “Writing about Supernatural”. I have been a little more successful getting Dr. Lynn Zubernis to share her experience with us:
I was part of the “Writing About Supernatural” panel, which makes sense, since it seems sometimes that’s pretty much the only thing I write about! Conference organizer Paul Booth put together a panel of people who write about the Show in very different ways and for very different audiences, which made for some lively discussion.
Mika Kennedy, Ph.D., a university professor who teaches composition and experimental fiction, talked about the ways in which fans analyse a text (including a tv show) differently than someone writing, let’s say, literary criticism. Fandom, she said “goes inward”. We want to explore how the characters we love feel and react, viewing them as humans instead of literary tropes. We’re anything but dispassionate about the shows we fan! Maybe we should have the equivalent of a “like” button when we consume media, instead of trying to be dispassionate and analytical.
This is close to what Kathy Larsen and I tried to do in writing “Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls.” We didn’t want to check our fangirl credentials at the door just because we were professors writing about a media text. We wanted to share our squee alongside our analytical observations about fandom and Supernatural. Critical distance? We wanted to immerse ourselves in the Supernatural fandom and look at it from the inside instead of from outside, wielding an intimidating magnifying glass. After all, everything behaves differently as soon as the glass is in place, and your vision is inevitably distorted. “Fangasm” turned out to be more our own story of two friends on a roadtrip through fandom than an academic book (we published that one as “Fandom At The Crossroads”), and that turned out to be a good decision. We couldn’t be happier that other fans could relate.
Our dilemma about what sort of book to write and for which audience was a theme of the panel, and one we all struggled with. Our books on Supernatural are written for both academics and fans, but each skews one way or the other. When I write for the fangasmthebook blog on wordpress, on the other hand, that’s a different audience all together with different expectations. I’m not a journalist; nobody pays me to blog and there are no advertisements on the blog to serve as hit incentives. It’s a fan blog where I can share fannish things – con adventures, photos, interviews, Supernatural episode reviews, personal opinions. That is also different from what I write on the Fangasm twitter or tumblr or facebook. Sometimes it’s challenging to switch back and forth between platforms, because they each attract a different type of fan and fans form different sorts of communities on each. It’s the kind of complication that’s rather fascinating, though.
Kathy Larsen, my co-author and partner-in-crime, also talked about the decision of how to write to a particular audience. We split our work into two books, one more academic and one not, because publishers couldn’t figure out who was the audience for the original book. A hybrid book seemed impossible to them: How do you write dispassionately about something you’re passionate about? It was a good question. In “Fangasm,” it played out in a series of questions we had to keep asking ourselves. How do you carry on an intelligent conversation with Jared Padalecki when you’re in his trailer and he’s taking off his clothes? How do you talk seriously to Misha Collins when you’ve just been commenting to each other about his backside as he bent over to retrieve his bags getting out of the van in front of us? What we finally realized is that ultimately, we don’t need to be dispassionate. No one else is. We all love our fields; we all have our favorite texts. No one has to justify their passion for Henry James in academia, after all. It’s more a balancing act. One which requires some smoothly engineered (err, most of the time…) code switching.
Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Huffington Post, also spoke on the panel. She talked about wanting to engage in intellectual critique and how weekly reviews of television shows have evolved over the decades. She also recognized how writing for different platforms, specifically for twitter, has changed her writing style over the years.
Leah Wilson from BenBella Books was also on the panel. She related some interesting things that she had learned from publishing “In The Hunt”, one of the first books about Supernatural. Apparently one essay was about how great it was that SPN didn’t have angels and demons (oh well…). Also, some reviewers and fans were put off by the fact that the introduction, which was written by a man, insinuated that women watched the show because the actors were hot. (I mean, they are hot, but I’m not sure anyone sticks with a show for a decade just for the eye candy! There’s so much more to Supernatural than that.)
The panelists and attendees also talked a little about another form of writing about Supernatural – fanfiction. Mika Kennedy shared that when she asks her students how many of them have written fanfiction, only half are willing to admit it and then dismiss it with “but only in high school.” As soon as she tells them that she wrote something that morning, [their reaction] changes.
That was a theme of “Fangasm” too – the shame that fans still feel sometimes. About being fans (perhaps especially fangirls), about creating fanworks and writing fanfiction, about being passionate about something as “silly” as a television show. And yet, what we found in our research and wrote about in “Fangasm” is that there are all sorts of benefits that fans (and again, perhaps especially female fans) gain from fandom. Validation, emotional expression, friendship, creative expression, self discovery. It’s all there, and why should we be ashamed of that?
As one attendee said: “Just embrace it. I write stories, and I post stories. That’s pretty impressive!”
Damn right it is. Keep writing, everyone!
I’m so sorry I had to miss their panel! It would have been very interesting for me personally, since I write and edit articles about Supernatural for The Winchester Family Business every day, but also because I am concurrently writing and editing a book about Twilight. Different audiences? I know a lot about that!
Since the day was a bit frantic (no breaks at all, not even for lunch!) I also missed meeting my good friends in Random Acts, who were conducting the silent auction. My wanderings did give me a chance to catch up in person with Alice, Bookdal and Farawayeyes, though, plus other friends with whom I can usually only “talk to” electronically. I was also very excited to meet a fellow Supernatural website manager, Taya from CarryOn_SPN at their AfterParty, and a few WFB readers who introduced themselves to me. Let’s face it – not too many people within the Supernatural fandom know me by name, but anyone who came to my panel was able to see the person behind all those Nightsky articles!
I was also absolutely thrilled that the conference gave me the opportunity to meet Maureen Ryan, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, and currently the television critic for The Huffington Post. She’s a celebrity in her own right, and it turns out she knows Alice and Lynn (Fangasm) very well. I joined them in a booth for pizza at the prior evening’s panelist dinner, and was elated to hear Maureen’s views on Supernatural (and a few other TV shows!). I attended the first half of Maureen’s panel “Television Criticism” during the conference and learned a lot from her many years of experience. I was able to ask her a question I had been pondering about how a reviewer should balance staying informed versus maintaining their own impartial views. I very much appreciated her insights!
There is no doubt that the highlight of the conference for me, though, was meeting and listening to Robbie Thompson!
The organizers of the conference (I coordinated WFB’s participation) knew that Robbie might drop by the Friday night dinner if weather was good, his plane arrived on time, he wasn’t too tired, he didn’t have to work, or all the other things that keep honored guests away from their fans. We had been warned that it was very unlikely he would be able to come, and as the night wore on I had pretty much given up hope. I was deeply engaged in my delightful conversation with Mo Ryan for most of the evening anyway, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what others were doing at the party. Eventually Mo had to leave and the party was beginning to break up when I realized that there was some kind of commotion at the entrance to our room. Even though weather was terrible, his plane was horribly delayed, he was jet lagged and still needed to work later that evening, there stood Robbie Thompson, talking to a few conference panelists he knew. He made it!! Now all I had to do was nonchalantly elbow my way across the room and into that conversation…
Since Fangasm already shared this with their fans, I will show you who has his arm around me!
To my utter thrill, a small group of us ended up talking to Robbie for what seemed like a very long time (an hour maybe?). He was funny, witty, smart, unbelievable gracious, sincere, personable…what IS IT with the people who make Supernatural?? Are they all this nice? He made eye contact with each of us in the group. He asked our names and our own fandom stories. I was really amazed at how easily he engaged with all of us. He shared some of his personal background – the ups and down of writing, how he transitioned from his education to his career and having the confidence to socialize with fans. He was genuinely interested in talking with us, turning his attention to each person one at a time. He asked my opinion of why Supernatural was so successful (on the spot much?), then he actually listened as I listed the things I thought came together to make this show magical. He never broke eye contact with me the whole time I was talking. Truly I don’t know how, but I was able to coherently articulate my thoughts (I expected to go blank and stammer). It’s as if we were the only two people in the room for those five minutes, and he did this to each member of the conversation! We then turned the tables on him, asking what he thought made Supernatural so special. He had obviously thought about his answer because he shared a well versed list in chronological order:
1. It started with Kripke
2. Then they cast Jared and Jensen. “They not only got one actor who’s not an asshole, but two!”
3. They added talented directors Bob Singer and Phil Sgriccia, who gave the show its initial look and feel
4. Then they got a talented and unique crew. A lot of them were from X-Files. They were experienced and had worked together.
5. A great deal of credit goes to Sera [Gamble] and Jeremy [Carver]
6. Add in the conventions and the incredible community of fans
7. Then they have access to amazing talent like director John Badham, and writers like Andrew Dabb (“the unsung hero of Supernatural; the brains of the writer’s room”)
8. Finally it circles back to the fans, and their passion
Robbie is one of my favorite writers on the show so this whole evening was a very special opportunity to meet and talk to someone I greatly admire professionaly. After talking to him, though, I now respect and admire him personally as well.
Needless to say, I attended Robbie’s plenary speech and his writer’s workshop the next day. Robbie’s humor, fast delivery and insider stories captivated the audience. I was enthralled.
As a Supernatural fan AND a novice writer, I hung onto every word he said. Of course it was so much fun to hear about his experiences with his many episodes and his time on set with Jared and Jensen. Beyond this excitement, though, I was honored and privileged to be in what turned out to be a Master’s Class on writing.
I never stopped typing notes on my iPad! I tried to capture everything he said about the writing process – creating, editing, feedback, rejection, insecurity, exposure, triumph. I asked him a few questions about my own writing experience and process and have replayed his responses in my mind nearly every day since. It was an unparalleled opportunity to tap into the advice and insights of an established and accomplished writer.
Participating in this conference was a wonderful experience for me. Even though I didn’t attend nearly as many panels as I had hoped, I met and talked with Robbie personally (which I never imagined would happen), I listened to him talk at the conference for almost 3 hours (which was much longer than scheduled) and I learned an immense amount from him about writing (which was a tremendous honor). I ended my conference weekend exhausted, with a file full of valuable notes, and smiling from ear to ear at my unbelievable luck at being a Supernatural fan.
I hope my account helped bring you one step closer to being there yourself. Maybe a Supernatural conference will pop up near you one day, and you can experience the fun and education first hand.
‘Til next time,