This topic has been kicking around in the back of my mind for awhile, in nebulous form, and then in the past couple of weeks I’ve (coincidentally?) found myself engaged in discussing theories of fan fiction and erotica writing with several friends via email, as well as the wonderful women of my #firstthedraft writing group. With encouragement from #ftd, here are my thoughts in blog post form.
For all of you who have asked those questions, I’d love to continue the conversation in comments — so please do participate if you feel so moved!
Note: It will be unsurprising to most of you that my thoughts are lengthy. So I’m breaking this post into three sections, the first of which is below. Parts two and three will be forthcoming and will be linked from this post as they go live.
Why write fan fiction?
So I’ve only been consciously participating in online fan spaces and reading/writing fan fiction identified as such for about five years. However, retroactively I would argue that my present practice of fan fictionalizing is only the most recent manifestation of the way I have always, since early childhood, interacted with fictional narratives. Some of my earliest memories are from around the age of five or six spinning out stories about my favorite fictional characters — at that time stories like Little House in the Big Woods and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My childhood psycho-temporal spaces felt … porous. My parents never judged us in our childhood practices blurring that line in our imaginative play. (This seems important, because I did know families where the children were schooled early and often on what was and was not “real” and judged harshly for flights of fancy.)
So I had an active imaginative (and often, with friends and siblings, collaboratively imaginative) inner life growing up. I put myself to sleep telling stories about “what happened after…” the end of my favorite books or series; my favorite characters became imaginary playmates; and in adolescence the nearest and dearest of those characters were part of my coming-of-age in intimate ways. They became active participants (as much as fictional characters can be) in my exploration of sexuality and relationships. I not only rehearsed the good and the bad (and the smutty) that actually appeared in the books that I read … but I spun out elaborate stories incorporating my nearest and dearest (fictional) friends, and myself, building relational networks, families, and developing (hypothetical) sexual intimacies in various ways. In retrospect, I think this alternate universe I inhabited in my head helped me process a lot of the new information I was taking in — physical changes, emotional upheavals, learnings about what it meant to be an adult in a variety of ways — without feeling overwhelmed.
Without boring you to tears giving the world-building details, the space I created was one where I could literally move back and forth from childhood and adulthood, exploring the confines and capabilities of each mode of being. Imaginatively living an adult life elsewhere helped me approach my teenage years as if I had the confidence and experience of an adult.
In addition to being useful psychically and emotionally for me, I think the spinning out of private fan-fiction-like scenarios fed my insatiable desire to know more: to know about character motivation, to know what happened next, to know what the characters were thinking and feeling about events that took place, to know what might happen if event X or conversation Y took place. There’s a great passage in one of E. Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers books where the narrator informs the reader that lots of everyday things have happened (like eating and sleeping and going to the toilet) that he hasn’t bothered to write down because those are all the boring bits that everyone does but no one wants to read about. Fiction necessarily revises for a tighter narrative, and things get left out. As a reader, I wanted them back in — so I put them there, and molded them to my own particular specifications.
In those years, I encountered both professional and amateur fan works (from my mother’s little stories about the Pevensie children that she penned for us at Christmastime to fan art to the Star Wars sequel novels to Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan”) but I wasn’t actively participating in fan communities. I had friends who did (for example, a friend who was active in an online forum for writing stories inspired by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels) but didn’t hear a lot that drew me into active involvement. There was lots of interpersonal drama and litigation fears and, hey, I was already writing/imagining on my own so why bother with the added complication of other fans with their own vision and agenda?
But I got my fan community “reboot” (so to speak) when I met Hanna and she re-introduced me to the activities and pleasures of being a fan — and this time, being a fan as part of a wider network of fans enjoying the same work(s) of whatever medium. Obviously the Internet had come along in the meantime, and as I was already involved in the feminist blogosphere I had some sense of how online communities work and what their pleasures and pitfalls are. Over time, the language of fandom bled into the language of feminism and became part of my social experience, as feminism had, both on- and offline.
These days, I really enjoy the positive energy of the fan circles in which I run. I enjoy that fans feel license to take joyful pleasure in things and create works inspired by those things. I enjoy the way those creations are shared freely and embraced by the fellow creator-consumer audience. I enjoy the practices of “gifting” works and creating “inspired by” pieces which complement one another or build off another fan’s work. I like how the currency of fandom is mutual appreciation and celebration of amateur creation. (And simultaneously I’m much better able than I was as a teenager to ignore or minimize the drama and intensity which can overtake online communities of any kind. I’ve learned, in other words, when to close the internet browser and walk away!)
So I write fan fiction because I always have, and now know that this practice has a name! I write fan fiction because I’m always hungry to know more, and to make the fictional characters I love known to me in ways that go beyond the bounds of a single novel or series or television show or film. And I enjoy participating in such a positive, creative space that is outside of the economies of wage-work. I purposefully decided not to pursue a career as a writer in part because I wanted writing to be something that I could always come to voluntarily, without worrying whether or not I could pay rent. (I don’t think this is a better or purer way to approach writing than writing as a job — more power to those who do! It just wasn’t for me, and I appreciate that I can continue to write and find readers in this playful alternative space.)