Repeated Reread: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I first read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl in 2016, almost two years after I graduated from college. It was one of those books I just inhaled. When I was working full-time, I used to read my latest library book covertly under my desk, but with Fangirl, I was somewhat shameless. I had the book out and propped open to read a few pages between answering emails. I read it while I took my lunch break in my cubicle, and took an extra long lunch break to get just one more short chapter in. I couldn’t wait to read, and then reread, it. Here, finally, was a book that captured so much of my own experiences, especially as an undergraduate student at a school so big it was easy to lose sight of things I loved.

Photo taken from above of a flatlay of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, a rectangular bowl of cereal, a spoon, and a cup of coffee.
A photo from February 9, 2016, when I first checked out the book. Originally posted to Instagram.

When I eventually went to grad school after a few years of working full-time, I bought myself a copy of the Fangirl paperback with Rowell’s introduction. In that introduction, she wrote about how she started the book during NaNoWriMo, when she could devote just one month’s time to trying out this idea she had, and how she was shameless about including her favorite things. Learning about her experience writing the book informed my outlook during the second half of my MFA — the half that was completely upended by the pandemic. I wrote my thesis novel from a place of passionate interest, a place of deep and infinite love for writing, and that was the thing that helped me through. I reread Fangirl when I just couldn’t look at a screen anymore. Whenever I needed it, I immersed myself in Cath’s highs and lows as a way to distract from my own creative angst.

During my first time reading the book — and even the second, third, fourth, fifth times — the specific place of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln hadn’t quite clicked for me. The similarities between Midwestern land grant universities (a Morrill Hall that was partly a museum, a building called Bessey Hall, etc.) stood out to me more than the details of the place itself. I just mapped Cath onto the Iowa State campus and probably committed some inter-school sacrilege by doing so. Even when my MFA advisor recommended that I apply to UNL’s PhD program, the connection still didn’t quite register. When I got accepted — when I started making plans to attend, when I used Google Maps to make the virtual walk to and around campus, when I started to see UNL as a real place — I did think of Fangirl then. I thought about being in the English building where Cath had so many of her critical moments. I thought about going to East Campus in the wintertime with my partner. I resolutely did not map characters onto real people I would meet in real life because that would be weird as hell. It was more than enough that I identified so much with Cath.

A photo of a picnic bench in the middle of a bunch of flowers at golden hour.
A photo I took while on a walk with my partner on campus during April.

Perhaps I identified too much. I didn’t make the same mistakes Cath made nor did I have the same struggles. I didn’t turn in a piece of fan fiction for my workshop class (though ask me about my 10-minute presentation on fan fic), nor did I have a quietly explosive romance with my roommate’s ex-boyfriend (my romance with my partner has been quietly explosive for 10+ years). None of my friends or family were hospitalized, and I’m not very many people’s emergency contact, so I didn’t have those kinds of worries. But there were times I felt separated from my creative capabilities like Cath did, and felt that the separation was a chasm so deep I couldn’t see the bottom, and so wide that I couldn’t make a leap of faith. There were times I felt like I wasn’t cut out for writing my own stories. There were times I wanted so desperately to return to a place I was more comfortable, a place where at least some of my worries could be managed.

I could write a novel the length of Fangirl about all the different ways this past year was difficult. Hell, I could write a fan fic continuation of Fangirl imagining Cath as a PhD student starting her program in the middle of a pandemic. Even though she has Levi, her trusty partner of 10+ years, and a better understanding of her diagnosable (but undiagnosed) anxiety, it doesn’t make the whole thing any easier. In this fan fic, I’d mirror our lives: I’d imagine Cath attending graduate school at Iowa State, and on top of the challenges of moving farther away from home, she also moves to a place that gradually squeezes and shrinks the humanities until they all but disappear. I can imagine her looking at her stipend versus the cost of living and wondering how she could possibly make a living as an adult. I can imagine her having discussions with her dad, with her twin sister Wren, with her best friend and old roommate Reagan, about the criminal way she’s overworked and underpaid, and I can imagine her getting angry if/when any one of them recommends that she find a corporate job that would actually pay her. I can imagine her getting angry about how her chosen field of study is so consistently undervalued. I can imagine her getting over her creative anxiety because she wants to live by writing her stories, dammit, and when she says that out loud to the people she trusts the most, she realizes how much she means it. Our experiences could have a lot of overlap; Cath and I, canonically, are only about a year or so apart.

A rotated photo of some stacks of several books.
Books I read and reread during my first year of the PhD, including Fangirl. Originally posted to Instagram.

One of the few non-academic writing projects I’ve actually completed a draft of this past year was a fic in a fandom I only recently entered. It took me about seven hours split over two days to write out 6,000 words by hand, type it up, and make light edits. It was one of those times when I fell into writing completely, and I didn’t resurface until I typed the last word. And though it wasn’t what I was “supposed” to be writing, I did still feel good after writing it. Not because it was particularly poignant or skillful or beautiful, but because the act of making it engaged my whole heart and mind.

I felt like I was both Cath and Nick in Love Library, trading the notebook back and forth, with Nick writing the bulk of the story, and then Cath coming through, crossing things out and filling in the gaps. I felt like I was Cath driving in the wrong gear trying to write her short story, and then smoothly shifting into the right one when she turned her attention to her fan fic. I told myself that I would give myself this one fic, as a treat, and then I would use that energy to barrel into my original fiction. I told myself that if I could sit down and write 6,000 words by hand in one day, then I could do it again. What actually happened, of course, is that for the first piece of original fiction I attempted after writing that fic, I tried all the same techniques — writing by hand, on a sunny day, with LoFi Girl playing in the background — but got about 800 words in and realized I didn’t have a story.

Photo of an open laptop, water bottle, and open planner on a picnic table in a sunken courtyard.
A photo I took yesterday of my grading set-up on campus.

I think I know where I’m going wrong. I think I keep expecting to create the characters and the scenery and the plot all in the first draft, when maybe what I need to do is approach it like I do a fan fic: what I need is an established story world that I’m just borrowing for a short time, but I have to create the world. I have to imagine the lives of the characters before they entered my stories, fully-formed. I have to imagine the potential conflicts the characters could run into, and how they all weave and interact. And that’s a little scary; like Cath, I don’t know if I can build entire worlds. I don’t know if I have that in me.


I’m not normally a blogger who writes about how long it’s been, but in this case, it’s been over a year since I’ve posted a real blog. However, I’m thinking about doing more regular posts like these where I write about books, TV shows, movies, etc., that I’ve reread/rewatched, and how it’s changed over time, along with some other regular “series” on this blog. Let me know what you think in the comments or via the Contact form. I’d love to hear from you!

Published by Caroliena Cabada

Caroliena Cabada is a writer currently based in Lincoln, Nebraska. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her writing has been published in online and print journals and anthologies, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.

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