stay afraid, but do it anyway

Everything went wrong.

I slept half an hour the night before leaving for GeekyCon because I had been too busy finishing my zine; I didn’t really finish my zine, and I certainly didn’t get it to where I wanted it to be; the Word doc I was using for layout because I managed to get locked out of InDesign wouldn’t arrange itself the right way; Staples didn’t know how to print my zine; I was at Staples, crying and reeking of hair dye and frantically assembling zines, half an hour before I was supposed to leave for the airport; I didn’t finish stapling my zines; I broke Staples’s stapler.

The entire time I was putting the zine together (and then the entire plane ride to Orlando and then the entire day of booth setup and so on), doubt and impostor syndrome had my stomach in knots. Surely this had all been a huge mistake: the long-ago idea, the year of planning and dreaming and having long conversations with Jack and Olivia, the program submission I hadn’t thought would be accepted, ever telling anyone about this at all. GeekyCon 2016, a weekend I had been counting down to since leaving the 2015 conference, would surely go down as The Time Claudia Tried to Do a Thing and Failed and Was Revealed as a Chump. I was convinced. I waited.

But nothing humiliating or otherwise devastating happened. What did happen: I overnight shipped a long-arm stapler to our hotel. I made it back to my apartment in time to stuff my zines and unstapled pages into a second suitcase. Olivia, who I was traveling with, read the zine while we waited for our flight. Somewhere in the air, courtesy of Southwest’s inordinately reasonable in-flight wifi pricing, we saw the first photo of someone receiving Olivia’s groundbreaking Wizards in Space litmag, and we lost it. Olivia had me look up gluten content in tequila as she prepared to celebrate miles in the air. The next day, we set up the Wizard Punk/Wizards in Space table, stacking our work and our friends’ work atop the space-patterned tablecloth we had picked out a few days earlier.

I don’t subscribe to print-as-sacred discourse, but there’s something tangibly magical about printing out your writing and your ideas and your sloppy hand-lettering, folding it, stapling it, and calling it good enough to take up space in the world. When I laid my zines out on that table and when I saw my friends flipping through their copies, I decided it didn’t matter if this whole thing flopped: I had made a thing. I had taken something I was really enthusiastic about from a little what-if idea to a forty-page zine.

It didn’t flop. Every time I made it back to the zine table in between HPA work and panels and the rare square meal, I’d find there were only a couple of copies left and I’d rush to staple more. I spent a good amount of time sitting behind the HPA booth, papers spread across the floor, stapling everything. People kept stopping me to ask where they could buy a copy, or asking me to please save them one before they were all gone, or telling me they’d bought it and read it and loved it. A few times, people asked me to sign it — my friend Alora was there the first time and, when I couldn’t string together a proper sentence, she said “Get it together, Claudia.” I saw my Wizard Punk and Witches to the Front buttons everywhere, on lanyards and bags and jackets. I couldn’t stop smiling.

At one point, I told Paul that I was close to selling out, that people were actually willingly buying my things, and he said — “Yeah, why are you surprised?” like I should have expected this. There’s no way I could possibly have expected this. Through planning and writing and designing things, it never occurred to me that people might meet anything I made with this much enthusiasm. Or any enthusiasm at all.

If I was unprepared for people liking my things, I don’t have the vocabulary to explain just how unprepared I was for people liking my ideas. Even as I watched my zines and buttons fly off the table, there was still this fear in my gut whenever I thought about the weekend’s panels.

Before this summer, the only programming I’d participated in was the Positive Fandom community roundtable I co-coordinated at the Granger Leadership Academy. After saying yes to a whole bunch of things and submitting a whole bunch of programming ideas I didn’t think would get accepted in the first place, it came to be that my first proper panel experience would be happening in the same weekend as my second. And third. And seventh. Some of those were things I was doing through work — HPA panels where I knew the drill, or a Positive Fandom panel and roundtable stemming from the campaign/movement I’d worked on from the beginning. Those were a little scary, but I had experience to fall back on.

The really, deeply terrifying things were my passion projects, my ideas-turned-Things: my Race in the Wizarding World panel about people of color in fandom, the ball playlist I had wormed myself into making, my Yer a Wizard Punk program about my little dream of a project. I hadn’t prepared for any of it and I didn’t have the right stuff to begin with. I had made a mistake in putting myself out there and Mischief Management had made a mistake in entertaining my nonsense. I’d pale in comparison to my capable Race in the Wizarding World co-panelists, nobody would dance to my music, and the three people who did show up to Yer a Wizard Punk would laugh me offstage. Despite the zine and button success fluke, GeekyCon 2016 would still go down as The Time Claudia Tried to Do a Thing and Failed and Was Revealed as a Chump. I was convinced. I waited.

And once again, I was proven completely, wonderfully wrong.

The Race in the Wizarding World panel was an amazing, empowering, illuminating conversation I got to have with friends new and old. After a lifetime of obscuring my latinx identity to be acceptable in fandom, I got to shed that in a room full of my fandom peers.

I read about wizard rock, surviving abuse, and surviving myself on mainstage.

I showed up to the ball a few minutes late to find the crowd dancing and singing along to the songs I chose. I found my friends Brad and Sarah, who showed up early to support me and hear my songs. I surveyed the crowd and watched them jump in excitement every time they recognized a song. I watched them not recognize the weirder stuff, like Mouth Sounds or the Snitchwich jingle, but dance along (or start conga lines) anyway. I danced, which was a first for me. All night, people stopped me and tweeted me to tell me how much they loved the playlist, how magical it had made their night, and once again I couldn’t stop smiling.

I will probably never be asked to do this again because of that whole thing where I snuck All Star in three times and the Snitchwich jingle in four times, but that night is going to be one of my very favorite memories forever.

After the ball, after staying up until 4AM reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my friends, I woke up and was still kind of terrified about Yer a Wizard Punk. With hours to go, I still didn’t know exactly what I’d be talking about. I had recruited my friends and co-founding wizard punks Olivia and Janae to talk about their projects, but that was about it. So I hid behind the HPA booth and flipped through the notebooks I’d jotted down Wizard Punk notes in all year, dog-eared some pages, and headed off to Do The Thing.

One of those pages in one of those notebooks had a list of my wizard punk worries, and the very first one I listed was that nobody would pay attention, or that people would pay attention and immediately see it as silly at best. From the moment the Yer a Wizard Punk program was accepted, I couldn’t get the image of an empty room out of my head.

But people showed up. Way more people than even my optimistic side had expected — a lot of my friends, but also people I’d never met. People showed up and people listened to me talk about creativity and fear and doing it yourself. People listened to what I had to say and people believed in it.

For the first time in my life, I put my ideas and ideals and work out there to stand on their own, without the security of being tied to a school newspaper or an international nonprofit, and — to my great surprise — people believed in it. People believed in me. People bought my zines and my buttons and joined me on panels and listened to my reading and showed up to my programming and danced to some of my favorite songs.

I keep thinking about the ball. At LeakyCon 2014 (which was GeekyCon in everything but name), I spent the entire ball standing a hundred feet from the crowd by myself, terrified. At GeekyCon 2015, I joined the HPA dance circle but really just stood there. This year, I danced — poorly but happily — with my friends the whole ball. And then I danced some more at an afterparty the next night. And I didn’t even want to stop dancing.

Last year, my friends took a photo of me stuck in Hagrid’s beard a few hours after GeekyCon’s closing ceremonies.

I thought I had been smiling for the photo until someone commented to the contrary and someone else said “Yeah, but when has Claudia ever smiled in photos?”

I spent a lot of time thinking about how true that was. I spent a lot of time thinking of how afraid I am all the time: afraid that my presence is annoying at best, afraid that I have nothing of value to contribute to this community I love so much, afraid that I just don’t have it in me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how all of this contributes to me not speaking up much when I’m with friends, or never really putting my work out in the world, or smiling or dancing or laughing.

We were based out of the same hotel we were based out of for LeakyCon 2014, my first conference after years of watching from the sidelines. It was a difficult experience that involved a lot of me crying in the lobby at night and after the ball, but it was also a huge turning point in my life that involved the start of friendships and a new, urgent resolve to go forward. To get better.

This time around, I walk into the lobby for the first time in more than seven-hundred days and see the girl I used to be at every turn. There’s still a lot of that girl in me. I’m still afraid, still nervous, still too quiet sometimes. But I’m trying. I’m making things. I’m not keeping those things to myself. I’m contributing to my community. I’m getting better.

This time around — between talking and dancing and smiling, between panels and playlists and pals — I learn that staring down ghosts can be fun when you finally feel alive. I learn that I can do things even when everything goes wrong, that those things are still worth putting out there despite their imperfections, that I’m wrong when I try to convince myself I’m useless.

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