Everyone, the saying goes, has one book in them. I already wrote mine.
Unfortunately, it was the 123-page long parody of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace I wrote when I was 13.
Two decades ago, I penned a warmed-over Star Wars rehash stuffed full of shameful fan-service, years before J.J. Abrams did the same thing with The Force Awakens. Undoubtedly, I wasn't the first middle schooler to write Star Wars fanfiction. But my story had a few key differences. To start with, it did not have Jedi. It had janitors. It had not have lightsabers. It had pushbrooms. And it did not have Coruscant and Naboo. It had downtown Spokane and Salk Middle School.
Phantom Menace is a bad movie. I know that now, now that I'm old and grizzled. But my tween brain airbrushed over the terrible pacing, the flat characters, the stilted dialogue, the Jar-Jar of it all. I focused on the transcendent moments.
The lightsabers hissing to life in the fog on the Trade Federation ship. The Doppler rattle of the podracers. That moment when Darth Maul, badass evil Satan dude, clicks on a second freakin' blade of his lightsaber and then the choir of John Williams' "Duel of the Fates" — the most incredible song my adolescent brain could ever fathom — starts up. I got chills. This was a near-masterpiece. It almost seemed crass to judge it by the standards of other cinematic works. This wasn't a movie. This was a myth. After all, Homer's Illiad had its share of clumsy dialogue, as well. You know another auteur director who sometimes included irritating, possibly racist comic relief characters?
William Shakespeare, that's who.
Each time I saw Phantom Menace, I left the theater crackling with a sort of creative lightning at my fingertips. I needed to do something about it. If I were three years younger, I would have spent the next year running around in my basement, making lightsaber sounds with cardboard wrapping paper rolls. If I were three years younger, I would have written an impassioned "In Defense of the Phantom Menace" essay.
But I was in Middle School. And that made all the difference.
At the turn of the millennium, the principal of Salk Middle School was Mrs. Haugen, an earnest older lady with drawn-on eyebrows and a penchant for hanging a big cardboard star around her neck for her speeches about how all you kids are special and “star potential.” Fourth graders might have found it sweet. But we were too cool for that. We were in middle school, c’mon lady.
My classmates smirked and snickered and mocked her behind her back.
I went one step further. I wrote a book. I turned her into Darth Haugen, leader of the sinister Star Potential Federation, who aimed to crush all gum-chewing and tank-top wearing throughout the galaxy.
But two heroic janitors, Janitor Bob and Janitor Jack, fight back, wielding their pushbrooms against hall-monitor droids that shot demerits and deadly superintendent droids. They ally with a dorky science teacher who says things like “da dose makes da poison” and “da mitochondria issa da powerhouse of da cell!”; a math instructor queen armed with a Math Blaster set to 0.33333 repeater mode; and a student-teacher who prophecies foretold would bring the "Ammonia-D to the Windex."
Yet in the end, the Janitorial duo must face off against Eeevil Custodian Dean — that's "eeevil" with the three E's — a cruel master of the custodial arts, armed with a shovel and a pushbroom duct-taped together.
My shop class teacher became R2-D2. Podracing was replaced with globetrotting, a high-stakes deadly race of hovering globes practiced by social studies teachers. Every inside joke was fair game. In English class, we read Annie Dillard’s gory essay about the ruthlessness of weasels. I turned vicious weasels into a powerful starship weapon.
Two years before Attack of the Clones set a speeder chase sequence through the skies of Coruscant, I set an equally harrowing meter reader vehicle chase through downtown Spokane. The story began to sprawl. Months passed. I kept writing.
This, I told myself, would be my masterpiece.
So, does it hold up two decades later? Is it any good? I cannot stress this enough: Absolutely not. It reads like an eighth-grader wrote it.
It’s brimming with exclamation points, because exclamation points make things funnier and more exciting, you see! The action sequences read like a list of stage directions. There are, frankly, far too many adverbs. I’m afraid to say Salk Wars features at least one misused semicolon. The writing style is Lego Batman meets Axe Cop meets Tina Belcher’s middle school fanfiction on Bob’s Burgers. At its very worst moments, Salk Wars was like one of those spoofs from the guys behind Epic Movie, mistaking frantic references with actual parody.
The book was supposed to be a Star Wars parody. I had never seen a James Bond or Austin Powers movie. And yet I crammed the book with James Bond and Austin Powers parody characters like with ostensibly funny names like “Dr. Yes,” "Micro-Me" and “The Man with the Turquoise Gun."
Worst of all, I committed the mortal sin of fanfiction: I inserted myself into the book. In real life, I lost the election for Salk ASB president the year before to some popular girl. And so I turned her "Senator Brooks" equivalent of Senator Palpatine. I star in a Salk Wars subplot as an idealistic senator running for ASB president, giving powerful speeches about "freedom," only to be defeated when Senator Brooks cheats by putting up five campaign posters instead of the legal four. (I suspect that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney quietly dealt with their election the same way.)
Still, there were moments — entire sentences, even — that I'm still proud of. A spaceship nearly collides with the scrolling yellow text at the beginning. A janitor is momentarily rendered weaponless when his pushbroom "jams." The story's Anakin stand-in assures the Janitorial council that his many talents include a most impressive "James Earl Jones impression." There are silly fourth-wall-breaking jokes about PG-13 ratings and spooky background music and a "loud BOOM!!" (in 18-point underlined Wide Latin font.)"
It's a story written by a junior high kid who didn't know his good material from his bad material, and so he just put it all out there, bless his nerdy little heart.
Fanfiction is the middle school kid of literature.
Middle school is two or three years stuck in the cringeworthy and claustrophobic crawlspace between being a child and being a teenager. You're moving from an identity entirely formed by your parents and pop-culture — the clothes your mom dresses you in, the Batman trapper keeper you picked out at Target — to an identity you're trying to create all by yourself.
And fanfiction, too, is an ungainly half-child half-man, trying both to be an imitation of everything you read before, but yet something new. It's more ambitious, more desperate than the stories you'd hand-write on double-ruled paper in elementary school. It wants to be so good so badly that it can achieve a level of embarrassing that's impossible to achieve from mere laziness or hackery.
Yet, fanfiction can also be a way we process our confusion. Middle school, after all, is the worst. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
There are awful scenes I still remember. The girl who reacted with audible disgust when I was paired with her in science class. The girl who sneered, “what are you looking at, baboon?” at me in the hall outside Mr. Purvine’s class. The girl I had a huge crush on and thought maybe she liked me until she gave a speech in class about how she chooses to be nice to the weird kids, too, because it’s just the right thing to do.
During lunch periods, a kid would sometimes take the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that my mom made for me and would mush it up into a gross sandwich "globule." And this wasn't some school bully. This was a guy I considered my friend. That's how messed up middle school was.
And yet, somehow, I wasn't miserable. I knew I wasn’t cool. But I was uncool enough that I didn’t know how uncool I was.
I didn’t want to be popular, at least not in the sense of being invited to those parties where those kids in makeup and Tommy Hilfiger, presumably, played spin-the-bottle and watched R-rated movies.
But I wanted to be known. I wanted to be unique, to get attention, to create something impressive. I wanted to sweep aside the awkward angst of adolescent and replace it with something grand and epic, something set to a soaring John Williams orchestra.
In the Salk Middle School locker room, I had no idea how to, like, banter with the bros who were pretending they totally knew a bunch about sex stuff. But when I walked outside, I could look up and imagine a lightsaber fight — nay, a pushbroom fight! — unfolding atop the gym roof. How cool would that be?
So I made poured myself into that vision. I wrote for nearly a year. I went over to my best friend Erik Solberg's house and he drew illustrations. I asked other friends to help me copy edit. My dad wasn't just supportive, he paid to get 30 copies printed and bound.
Then he went to ask Darth Haugen herself for permission for me to pass out copies at Salk. She could have said no. This was a year after Columbine. She could have easily said a story about teachers and students firing off weapons inside middle school hallways was, to use one of her favorite phrases, "not school appropriate."
And yet, there was still good in her. She gave the green light for distribution. Maybe Darth Haugen really did see Star Potential in me.
On the last week of school, I sold each copy of Salk Wars, at $6 a pop, to my fellow students. Even the cool kids, the ones rocking Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie, who'd been on dates and everything, bought copies. Senator Brooks even got a copy, though she was offended — even hurt — that I made her a villain. It didn't make any sense. She was a popular girl. How could she get her feelings hurt?
I didn't let myself get distracted by such questions. This was my moment of glory. This was my Napoleon Dynamite dance. For one shining moment in the waning days of Salk Middle School, I was a literary star.
Almost two decades have passed. Today, the geeks are no longer sitting isolated in the cafeteria. They're the ones running the pep rally. Everything is Marvel and Watchmen and Harry Potter and Ready Player One and, of course, Star Wars.
But I haven't seen The Rise of Skywalker. I don't have tickets. For me, the force of Star Wars lost its pull.
It wasn't just that I wrote my own fanfiction. I read all the Star Wars books — the one with an evil clone named Luuke Skywalker (that's Luuke with two U's); the one with an Ewok X-wing pilot; the one where evil alien zealots squish Chewbacca with a moon; the good, and the bad and the Kevin J. Anderson. I not only played Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, I taught myself how to edit the game so you could play as "Janitor Bob," complete with a pushbroom melee weapon. I not only knew that the Phantom Menace's Captain Panaka was played by Hugh Quarshie, and I was downright smug that I had that knowledge.
But then Disney bought the rights to the movies. Electronic Arts bought the rights to the video games. Both strip-mined the hell out of Star Wars, storming in with focus groups and corporate synergy and micro-transactions, until little but rubble remained. Star Wars is more the product of machine than man now.
To me, the magic of Star Wars wasn't about Darth Vader or Baby Yoda or "midi-chlorical" heritage or merchandising opportunities. It was the infinite possibility dancing along on the Outer Rim, the galaxy of smugglers on Nar Shaddaa and mining operations on Kessel and shipyards above Mon Calamari.
The Star Wars prequels, make no mistake, were terrible. But there was sort of foolish nobility to all the terrible choices George Lucas made. He didn't care about being "liked" or "popular." He just wanted to tell his story, explore his worlds, share what he thought was funny and cool. It was a lot like Salk Wars.
His old friend Steven Spielberg may have been able to capture the wonder of a child. But only George Lucas could capture the impassioned obviousness of the writing of a middle schooler.