In Which I Ponder Fan-fiction

I recently read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (you can read my review here.) It brought back a lot of memories for me — memories about college, because Rowell writes about the college experience (at least, the way it feels to anxious introverts) very well. And also memories about writing fan-fic.

I “only” spent about four years of my writing life writing fan-fic, but I consider them very formative years. So even though I was writing before and after my fan-fic stint, I still think of myself as getting my “start” as a fan-fic writer. This is primarily for two reasons:

  1. Writing fan-fic inspired me enough that it got me to actually write regularly AND finish my stories. This may be just a coincidence, since I got into writing it around the time I was getting old enough to take writing seriously (age 13). Still, I credit fan-fic with instilling in me the habit of writing every day, and seeing projects through to completion.
  2. Writing fan-fic gave me a REAL audience for the first time. I started writing it before the Internet was widely available, but I did have a network of snail-mail pen pals in my fandom. I mailed copies of my stories to these pen pals, with a “comments” page attached to the end, and received them back with praise and feedback. Glorious!

I did submit my stories in hopes that they would be published by “official” channels, but no luck there. But then … the Internet came to rural Minnesota. And I discovered WYSIWYG webpage editors. And I set up my first fan-fiction website. I remember being so excited as I posted my accumulated stories, thinking, Who CARES if I’m not getting paid for this? People are READING my stories. This is as good as being published!!

There’s an excruciating scene in Fangirl in which the protagonist’s creative writing teacher shames her for writing fan-fiction instead of her own “original” stuff. When I was fifteen, I went to a writing camp at which the professor similarly dismissed fan-fiction. It didn’t really phase me. As an adult, I can see where these writers are coming from, and I really did want to see Cath try her hand at something from her real life in the book. There is value in creating something from “scratch,” and also in writing about the experiences that you’ve lived through.

But there is even more value in writing what you LOVE. This is where the fan-fic writers get it so right, and that is that they write for the love of their subject matter, and for the joy of writing. Yes, some fan-fiction is excruciatingly bad (including some of my own — notice that I haven’t linked to my fan-fic archive!) But who cares? It brings joy to its creator and to more readers than many traditionally published works can claim.

Fifty Shades of Gray aside, it’s true that one is unlikely to ever have a chance at traditionally publishing fan-fic, or to receive critical acclaim for it, or to ever be known outside of one’s fandom. But if a writer is okay with those limitations, what’s the problem? For me, writing fan-fic is what got me to really write. I don’t think I’m ever going back, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.