Stepping Through the Wardrobe

Months ago, Tiffany Reisz mentioned something on Twitter about Portal Fantasies, those stories where a character literally passes through some kind of doorway to another world. It started me thinking about the subject and why I love those types of books so much.

Some of the first fantasy novels I ever read, and certainly ones that have deeply influenced me, were portal fantasies. C.S. Lewis’s books, with their magical wardrobe or paintings or other portals to Narnia, are classics of the genre. In passing through the portals, children arrive in a magical world where they are challenged to do battle for good, whether it is against witches or usurping nobles or slaveholders, at a random moment in time or at the end of days. Some are forced to face their own weaknesses, and rise above them. But they lose their access to Narnia as they age and no longer believe in magical lands. It’s C.S. Lewis, so the stories are about a lot more than that, of course. And lately I’ve read a bunch of discussion online about Susan and feminist theory about how her actualization as a sexual being is what keeps her out of Narnia. But that’s not why I go back to these books over and over again.

For me, portal fantasies are entirely about the fish out of water experience and, maybe even more importantly, the chance to redefine yourself. It’s about experiencing some place so new, so foreign to your “real” life, that you see things more clearly than in a world where you pretty much know what to expect and so don’t really pay any attention at all. It’s about being cut off from all of the expectations that others have of you and that you have of yourself, and figuring out how you’d truly want to be, if you got to start over.

Portal fantasies where a group of people go through, like the Narnia books, or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians & its sequel, aren’t my favorite, because the group dynamic, the existing expectations that other people have, continues in the new land. I like it best when the portal only opens for one person. Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams & A Man Rides Through were exquisite reads for me for just this reason (in addition to the insanely detailed worldbuilding and brilliant characters). One woman slips through the portal in these books, a completely passive woman in her “real world” existence. But in Mordant, the people she meets are convinced, because of the fact of her arrival if nothing else, that she is clearly a power player in their machinations. And over the course of the two books, the heroine becomes active and sees herself as someone who can make things happen. So much so that when she is unexpectedly returned to the “real world”, she is able for the first time to act there also, despite her actions going against the expectations of those who know her.

Sadly, I have not yet found a truly magical portal in this world (although if you think I haven’t opened every wardrobe I’ve ever encountered and stuck my arm in to feel the back wall, you don’t know me AT ALL), but there are events in life that can do this for me.

Going to college was one. I come from a family where, although it was always assumed I would go, neither of my parents actually had a college degree when I was a kid. My mom went to secretarial school and then took classes at an excellent community college by us when I was in junior high, getting straight A’s and her Associate’s Degree. My dad dropped out of Southern Illinois University, convinced the Army that the psych classes he’d taken meant he should spend Vietnam counseling returning vets in Hawaii, and then skipped straight into business after that. Neither of them came from a history of parents walking their kids through elaborate application processes. When I applied to colleges in high school, I had no idea what I was doing. We hadn’t spent the summers of my sophomore and junior years visiting nearby or far away campuses (as I later found out people I went to school with did…they checked out dozens of schools!).

I somehow ended up visiting the two schools I applied to: University of Illinois (35,000 college students living in cement cell blocks six hours south of Chicago in the middle of the cornfields) and Mount Holyoke College (1900 women living on a wooded fairytale of a campus in the Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts, 1500 miles from home). I am still unclear as to how my mother could afford that visit to Massachusetts, where we walked around the campus of a school I had fallen in love with almost entirely because of the beautiful photographs in their brochure and the fact that there was a stable on campus. (I find it pretty funny that, years after I’d stopped taking horseback riding lessons, I was still pulled by the fantasy so strongly that it influenced my choice of colleges.)

A very large chunk of my senior class was heading to U. of I. People who’d known each other since kindergarten would now be spending another four years of their lives hanging out with the same friends, heading to class with people who had already pegged them as sweet or bitchy, shy or the party drunk. If I hadn’t already had a hint of a different way, I don’t know if I could have resisted this option. It was safe, comfortable. To be anonymous was the biggest change I could hope for at my big state school.

But I’d been working, sometimes more than one job, since I was old enough to get a worker’s permit. I’d worked at a grocery store, a clothing store at the mall, a movie theater, and a bank, all before I graduated high school. And at every one of those jobs, no one knew me before I started on my first day.

It wasn’t magic. But it was…something. I was terminally shy as a girl, so much so that I didn’t call my own friends, because I wasn’t sure they would want to hear from me. And while most of that was me, absolutely, a part of it was knowing that my role was already decided for me. I hadn’t been living in my hometown since birth, but being there from fourth grade on was enough. I was the sweet, smart, shy girl. That’s it. That was my role.

Even my name was already fixed for me. I had decided as a little girl that I didn’t like Amy Jo. It was too complicated, too hard to explain to little kids who didn’t understand why I had two first names. “So, Jo is your middle name, right? And what’s that short for, Josephine?” Same questions, over and over again. So I’d decided I would only use Amy. Much simpler. And that was it. The decision I made in elementary school followed me for years, even when I’d started to realize that Amy Jo was cool. Was different. Was maybe more me after all.

But each year, when class started on the first day and a new set of teachers called roll for the first time, I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth when they said my name. The whole class full of kids would tell the teacher for me, “It’s just Amy.”

How do you explain to several hundred kids that you’ve changed? That you’re not the same person at sixteen or seventeen that you were when you were eight? It’s too late and too hard. Or at least it was for me. I didn’t have it in me yet to push back against that inertia.

But at my jobs, there were no classrooms full of kids shouting out that my name wasn’t Amy Jo, and so I could reclaim it. There was no expectation that I would sit silent and smiling and be an observer. And so I didn’t always. Like I said, it wasn’t magic. I didn’t turn into the life of the party. But I talked. I cracked jokes. I called up my co-workers and went out with them to parties where no one knew me either.

I was still sweet and smart and shy. When I first used a curse word in front of co-workers at the mall, they all gasped and said, “Amy Jo! You don’t swear!”

But I wasn’t only sweet or smart or shy. I was also funny. And the one who would take dares. Or invent wild assassination scenarios with the burnouts who RPG’d and whose goal in life was to work at the renaissance faire.

For the first time in years, I was able to be more me. Even if it was only at work. At school, I was still the same person everyone expected me to be, because I didn’t know how to break out from that heavy blanket of expectation. It was still too hard.

But when the time came to choose between the giant state school with half my senior class or the tiny women’s college halfway across the country where not one person from my high school would be found…

Well, you know what I picked, right?

I picked the magic portal.

I spent four years far from home, from anyone who’d known me, and I figured out who I was as a person. And yes, when I went back home, it became easier and easier for me to hang on to my new, real me, instead of the expectations of people who’d known me for years.

(I’m guessing that the time I bumped into a crowd of old high school acquaintances on Michigan Avenue while I was wearing my Doc Maartens and black leather motorcycle jacket was as startling for them as it was for me. I found out years later that one of them remembered me from that day as being a short-haired lesbian, even though my hair was past my shoulders and I don’t believe our ten minute conversation including anything about sex partners, because apparently a take-no-shit attitude and a motorcycle jacket do that.)

I figured out that every time I tried something new, traveled to a new country or took a new job or tried a new sport, it was the chance to step through another magic portal. A chance to redefine myself, to escape the expectations I put on myself. And it’s still hard. I had to run three half-marathons and two marathons before I called myself a runner. I had to sell my third and fourth books before I believed I was a writer, and said that out loud to people.

Every time, man. I have to figure out if I going to step through the magic portal.

Of course, as I got older, had a kid, became just a tiny bit more weighted down with responsibilities, there are fewer magic portal opportunities for me. But thinking about this whole idea brought me to the realization that I’ve found the best one of all.

Writing is my magic portal. Turns out that I’ve been trying to slip through it my whole life. It’s the way I keep taking risks, keep exploring things that scare me. I can redefine myself every time I sit down and start a new story, because there is no limit to what boundaries I can push on the page. But it takes a choice every time. Am I stepping through the magic portal, or staying here where it’s safe? Because the safe zone is always expanding. Just writing a book that other people would read and judge was scary enough at first. So my first several category romances were traditional. Safe. But the more I write, the more magic portals I choose to step through. Whether it’s erotica or lgbtq romance or multicultural romance. They’re my boundaries that I’m pushing every time and it turns out that being terrified is almost the same thing as being exhilarated.

Susan lost her access to Narnia. Whether it was because she put on lipstick and kissed boys or because she just stopped believing in the magic of stepping into a strange new land and finding herself lost again, needing to figure out how far she could push herself in her own adventure, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t ever want to lose that magic.

Hat tip to Ms. Reisz for helping me figure out that I’ve spent my whole life trying to get through that magic portal. And that I will always, always know just where to find one.

Got any magic portals of your own? Or a favorite magic portal book? I’m always looking for a good one…

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20 Responses to Stepping Through the Wardrobe

  1. Oh, what a lovely essay! I love your real life portals, and how you bring it back to writing. In a way, I feel like every book I come to as a reader is a magic portal, too. Okay, I have nothing intelligent to add. lol.

    • Reading is definitely a portal. And for everyone. I remember sitting at a bar late one night, talking to my brother about writing my first romance novel. I told him about the most recent Nora Roberts book I’d read (15+ years ago, so maybe the one about the art restorer/authenticator?) and how fascinating it must have been to do that research. Then I thought of all the other NR books I’d read and had a little moment of clarity. “It’s like the best excuse in the world to read books about anything you can think of, because you can use the object of your curiosity when you write your next book!” I’d wanted to be a writer since, well, birth, but that was an eye-opener too. “Step into another world, over and over again? Sign. Me. Up.”

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    Love this, AJ. Don’t think I have anything constructive to say today. Just — love this.

  3. Mia West says:

    Amy Jo – I love your application of portals to new situations and foreign travel. Every time I fly trans-Atlantic — go to sleep (if I’m lucky) and wake up on another continent — I feel as if I’ve stepped through a magic portal. I especially appreciate your point that real-life portals are chances to reinvent ourselves, or just our ideas *about* ourselves.

    As for favorites, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is fantastically creepy. The movie was pretty, but the book is claustrophobic and terrifying. Love it. :)

    • Yes, yes, yes! Travel is SUCH a portal for me. Because it doesn’t just show you lovely vistas & cool new people, but it can literally change the way you think by putting you in a perspective so different from your usual one. Going abroad anywhere and then listening to people talk about America is *always* an eye-opener…

  4. I love this essay. So full of nutty goodness.

    I think figuring out who we are is a magic portal as well. I loved going to my high school reunion for this reason–to see who these people grew into, to see what doors they walked through. Some of their journeys were amazing.

    • Yes. And meeting those people outside of where you first knew them, or after enough years have passed, lets you see them more clearly too, I think. I ran into a high school acquaintance ten years after school and had a terrific conversation with him that I could never have had in high school, because I would have been too full of my own assumptions about him to hear what he was saying. Time/distance work wonders as portals.

      I’m really beating this metaphor to death, huh? :)

  5. Audra North says:

    So much lovely in this post.

  6. syleegurl says:

    I, like you, used to think that a new job or a new town would be my magic portal. And you’re right, it’s not easy.

    Nowadays, I look as life trials as a magic portal…being refined by fire. Hardships…shape and change me. And I’m trying to face them with courage knowing that stepping through them gets me to the other side.

    Thanks for this AJ!

    xo, Susan

    • I think you’re right, that that’s almost a danger…thinking that if you go somewhere new or start a new endeavor, it will magically allow you to change yourself. And, of course, that’s not how it works. If you aren’t open to change, to new experience, then you can go anywhere and do anything and nothing about you will be different. Because, of course, (to sound like an after school special) the magic has to be in you. :)

      Hardships for sure shape us. And you are brave to face them. I always wish I could get that wisdom without going through the tough stuff. But that’s when you shouldn’t have to go it alone. I hope you’ve got good people with you. *hugs*

  7. Alexis Anne says:

    I hug this post. I relate to so much of it, especially the names. Alexis or Lexy? I can remember sitting in class the first day of each year wanting to ask for the teacher to call me Lexy, but chickening out every time. I was Alexis, and all the kids wanted me to stay that way. Both names mean so much to me. Alexis as a child, but I’ve reclaimed it as a writer. Yet…I’m Lexy to my real friends. Hard to explain I guess…

    And going away to college to finally be me? Yep. And travel? Yep. I love these posts because they bring us all together. Great job, as always.

    • I think I can track developmental stages in my life by the name I used. :) Saying I wanted to be Amy and not Amy Jo at 7 or 8 was one of my first defining moments. I remember thinking, “It’s MY name. I can make it what I want.” Going back to Amy Jo at my jobs and then when I went to college was a reclaiming because now I wasn’t afraid to have a name that was ‘different’. (In Chicago, Amy Jo is *really* different!). And then changing, again, to AJ in my early 20’s while bartending. I liked that AJ felt less girly, tougher. It fit with how I was coming to think of myself: urban, confident.

      Of course, after all these years, I now answer to Amy, Amy Jo, and AJ, depending on the friends and family in the room! So maybe I’m also a little Sybil. ;)

  8. Ana says:

    My first portal, was when I went off to be a exchange student in Western NY, about 20 years ago. I was the quiet girl, the brain, always the friend never the date, at my school in PR. At my new school no one knew that. It was like someone let me out of a box. I could flirt, I would take on a dare, I could be snarky. When I went back home, for the second half of senior year, no one knew what was quite up with me, but they sure knew I was just a bit different.

    You are so right that there is a transformative power to going through those portals by yourself. And that their power comes from our willingness to embrace them changing us.

  9. Amy Pine says:

    Amy Jo, how did I miss this post this week? Let’s say I’ve been a little self involved. ;-). First off, this is a beyond lovely collection of words from you. And holy wow I can relate. Because I was the nice, shy Amy who DID go to U of I with a huge chunk of my graduating class, and if I had it to do over again would have done things so differently. I didn’t have your courage at 17 to make a decision like you, but I found my magic portal my junior year when I manned up, bought my Docs, and took off for a year alone at school in Scotland. YES to writing now being that magic portal. And THANK YOU for this wonderful, inspiring post.

    • Thank you for the kind words! And now I’m wishing for a year in Scotland and a new pair of Docs. (I actually wore a hole in the toe of my last pair–admittedly years ago–which I didn’t think was possible.)

      I do think that getting away from everyone we know is a key rite of passage. Obviously plenty of people manage to grow up just fine w/out it, but I know that when it comes to my son, I want to make sure he has that chance. Whether it’s college choice or study abroad or, I don’t know, Outward Bound wilderness adventures with a solo survival session at the end, I want him to have that freedom to step away from our assumptions about who he is and find out for himself. :)

  10. Fiona McGier says:

    Thanks for sharing, Amy Jo! I love your “portals” metaphor and I don’t think you overused it.

    I had a very similar experience when I went away to college. No one knew me there, so I could be the person I always wanted to be! I went wild! Thankfully I had the innate ability to NOT flunk out, though a friend of mine who went there at the same time I did, and was also “finding herself”, did just that. I stayed, got my act together, and graduated with honors. But for a time, I got to “forget” that I was called “the brain on 2 legs”, “curve-buster”, and other insulting things aimed at the girl who was smart.

    Flash-forward to my 10th and 20th reunions, where I was SO amused that I didn’t care about their opinions anymore! It was such a freeing feeling. Then I started getting FB friend requests and agreed to them. I try to keep things light on my personal page, hinting that I’ve got a “secret life” as an erotic romance author. But I also sub in high schools so I can’t let my pen name slip on my personal site. But still, it pissed me off that I ran into an ex-classmate at a wine tasting, of all things. Of course I was feeling “happy” by then, yakking with everyone around me. She had a friend with her, and appeared shocked to see me. She introduced me to her friend nervously, saying, “This was the smartest girl in our school!” Sheesh! Honey, we’re both in our fifties, and WAY past caring about high school shit, right? Why not tell her I write erotic romance novels? No? Well…hell, then want to see my MENSA card…bitch?