I have a dirty secret. OK, it’s not a secret, but it does tend to cause people to pause in vague surprise at me, even if they’re not sure why they’re surprised.
I write fanfiction.
Yes, I know, I’m competent enough to string together words and maybe even create my own characters here and there, so there’s no reason on God’s green earth I should be writing fanfiction. But there you have it.
I sometimes even credit fanfiction with saving my soul as a writer, if not necessarily my career. And while I will never profit materially from fanfiction I will probably keep doing it. Yes, it’s probably a copyright violation no matter how many satire disclaimers you slap on it. (I usually put on an “homage” disclaimer since I only write for shows I want to see continue or that are off the air like Witchblade.) And if you get praised too much for your talent as a fanfic writer, you really do run the risk of losing your touch with the world of original creation. You go where the praise is, really, and out in the world of all-original work it’s much harder to find that praise than it is in the land of fanfiction.
This total post is more than 1500 words – so you may want to read it later.
My first exposure to fanfiction came when my teenage sister became obsessed with Bon Jovi. This obsession was more intense and difficult to live with than her previous band obsessions: I could be bleeding and foaming at the mouth and she’d find a way to bring up Richie Sambora. Along with causing her to completely lose status as my personal hero ((my 10 year old mind pretty much concluded she was a horrible person after she ditched me at a high school orchestra concert to make out with a boy and I never really let go of the idea that my parents were complicit in her fandom madness, and somehow Bon Jovi factors into all of this)), I also had to deal with three fried hair dryers ((and I refuse to wear a style that uses a hair dryer to this day – there are not words for what a piece of shit the replacement hair dryer was)), all night serenades of Bon Jovi through her boom box that has left me viscerally hating a great deal of popular music, and being asked to read the stories she wrote. Without even knowing it, my sister had taken to writing fanfic.
Among those I read were stories that were all about meeting a guy from a favorite band, or having him fall for the lovely ingenue character who was oh so very cool and different from the other girls. God knows what it would have been like if we’d had Internet back then. I shudder to think. If I met Richie Sambora, I would probably punch the man in the balls while calmly explaining that it’s not his fault at all. I’m sure the resulting fines and jail times would be expensive, but a bargain compared to therapy.
Nowadays what she did is called “Mary Sue” (self-insertion) and RP “real person” fic. I believe her impact on me is popularly labeled “aversion therapy.” Bon Jovi fan obsession got my sister through some tough times. Her obsession with Bon Jovi just was a tough time for me. She frequently accused me of being similarly obsessed with Doctor Who: this didn’t fly because I learned early on that fans in my area were so few and far between that people didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when I did make a Doctor Who reference. She just didn’t like my interest because she desperately wanted either a little brother or some sort of mini-me (read: not me, at all) and by mentioning the good Doctor I was taking away time she could spend drooling over men with tight pants, awful hair and disturbingly high voices.
Many years later, my friends insisted I see this new MTV cartoon where I physically and audibly resembled the main character. It was called Daria. And dear God, did it hit home with me that way it did millions of girls five years younger: a smart, sensitive, borderline introvert who had a self-obsessed sister whom everyone just loved despite the poor quality of her character (because she was so good looking), a father afraid to stand up to the mother and a mother so concerned with what the rest of the world that she virtually ignored her children and didn’t listen to them at all, even when told to by other adults. This girl had the same reaction to the the same caricatures I went to school with. Certainly I had less attitude towards the adults (my mother was quite liberal with slapping me in the face so I bit my tongue on far more than I was given credit for) but essentially it was exactly how I had felt about my entire adolescence.
As described in TVTropes.com:
“Named for the star of the MTV cartoon (originally a supporting character on Beavis And Butthead), this character is a teenaged Jerkass girl who hates everyone else her age, especially cheerleaders and future frat boys. A bookworm, she stands aside at parties and quietly drinks beer (or just a soda!) while making cold-hearted quips about the idiocy that surrounds her. When she does act, it is often to give whichever character is currently holding the Idiot Ball a final push over whatever metaphorical (or literal) cliff they are standing on the edge of. At times, however, she will be moved to take a principled stand in the face of everyone and everything else, including her own cynicism. For the sympathetic versions like the actual Daria, it’s quickly revealed that they hold themselves to an equally difficult standard of principled conduct. ((I am Wiccan. The way I do it, the 10 Commandments would be way easier.)) If they lapse for any reason, they beat themselves up for it. Such versions often see their “antisocial” behavior as upholding a higher purpose. To them, if you are willing to make a real effort at thinking for yourself, valuing things beyond mere superficiality and have personal integrity, then you will gain a true friend with her. If nothing else, you will know that if she compliments or smiles at you, it will be the real deal as she would stand for nothing less.”
And in the end of the series, none of these characters were so bad, not even the raging narcissist sister – like my own sister, most of the time she was just scared. Although I’d gladly trade my mother for Helen. Helen’s neglect was far more benign, and her interventions were actually effective.
Personally, I wouldn’t see her as a jerkass for not wanting to participate in bullshit. Also, I’m different in that I really like to dance and I had the benefit of seeing multiple frat boys behave like human beings. (Although they were from the frat house with the “bad” reputation.) Even so, I really am her and really was her in many, many ways. And I would kill to have a friend like Jane Lane in my life. Even a Trent Lane wouldn’t be so bad. Or even a Mac or Jodie Landon. But I’m the real version, so you can see where I don’t make myself popular.
Obsessed with the show especially after the release of the Daria movie Is It Fall Yet? I started surfing online and found myself interested in the forum conversations. And then I found the fanfiction. I remember my first thought was a groaning “Oh no!” but then I found myself staying up until 3 in the morning to obsessively read all that fanfiction. I was in love. But after reading probably about 1000 fanfics, I decided that people were missing some major points. No one was writing about DeMartino. There were all these blanks fans hadn’t filled – Sick Sad World episodes, stuff from the Daria database about Trent’s orange phase, and Trent – the sheer amount of crap being projected on him as either No Point but Love Interest or Must Be a Lazy-Ass Druggie just made me ache, despite the relative popularity of the character. I also found myself mightily annoyed at the “there can be only one” shipping – the main character was a teenage girl. It would be expected in the course of her life that she would have multiple boyfriends, so there shouldn’t be an issue with Tom, then Trent, then something that would make her parents cringe, and so on. In reality she would pursue both at different times, and after the physical attraction had peaked, get annoyed with their bullshit and move on. It’s what teenage and young adult girls do. And the Fashion Club both fascinated me and stirred some latent teen hatred. I’d gone to school with girls like those – they really thought it was OK to call you before them and ask you personal questions lest you threaten their hierarchy. I’m still well-remembered for telling a table full of them off in front of multiple teachers (who were cheering for me.)
This resulted in my writing “Sew What” about the fashion club girls and their dirty secret, and then, determined to open the door to two boys at once, I wrote “the L Word” (this was before the lesbian love series.) The latter was moderately received – fans get entitled and really like to assert opinions as facts to an absurd degree. And then, I don’t know why, I started looking at the Trent episodes and writing them from his perspective because if you pay close attention, he had his own story going on offscreen that wasn’t all sleeping with his guitar in his lap. Real resentment towards his parents, guilt over creative integrity and a fairly profound bromance with the less-than-erudite Jesse.
This all happened as I began graduate school for creative writing. Grad school was brutal, and although I do believe that my professors there wanted me to succeed, I can’t for a minute see how their methods would actually make me a better writer. In-class writing exercises where I was given twenty minutes were pushed back to me bleeding red, because apparently the grad-school first drafts should glow with talent. I was being pushed to “reveal myself” when I hadn’t even gotten comfortable revealing myself to myself. And since I wasn’t a TA, I was already a complete outsider to all my classmates – I was published, but in a genre no one respected, and I couldn’t get a teaching recommendation to save my life, so I worked at a bookstore. Add this to people who received praise for what I considered an awful, awful aesthetic and who would get violently offended at any and all feedback and criticism, and what I wound up with was a miserable hatefest when I had hoped to connect to a pool of creative people. I was also stuck at the school where I’d done my bachelor’s degree, because of an obstinate and immovable husband.
I hated my life, and I was starting to hate writing.
But I had Daria.
I started rewarding myself for finishing classwork by writing a fanfic. I started spending my evenings in Daria chatrooms rather than hanging out at a local coffee place. And then, in a Daria chatroom, I made some real friends, including a woman who has been a mentor, friend and sage to me to this day.
And then, something happened: I found my funny. That sense of freedom I had achieved by writing fanfiction I turned loose on my original work. It resulted in an essay about my favorite drink, coffee, that still gets passed around as an example of good writing. I began writing comic scenes, and poetry that really did make people laugh. I even had one girl go tantrumy on me because I could make people laugh and she couldn’t.
At the same time, because I was producing original work and the whole conversation about piracy, file sharing and derivative works was really picking up, I found myself often conflicted about what I was creating. I created out of love for the show and because I’d noticed a great fanfic can get someone to watch the show. Even so, was I betraying my original writer friends? I had a semi-popular pagan website and I was finding pages just ripped from it all over the web and I was mightily annoyed that these website authors couldn’t think to write their own stuff. I was embroiled in the whole new models/failed models situation for writers, along with what happened when our work got put online. Sometimes I still feel terrible guilt.
Where was the line? Who was I harming? Was I actually helping? Was I trying to rationalize that I was helping?
I do know one thing: writing fanfiction was what preserved my love for writing. By taking characters I understood well but did not create, I was able to move the pieces around the partial creations, and by removing the stakes but putting me in a position to receive some praise that I wasn’t getting in my graduate program, I was feeling much more free. I have to have a sense of freedom to write, and fanfiction takes those stakes away – and I can leave them wherever they go as I move on to my more original work.
Some people smoke. I write fanfic.