(Original image by I.am_nah on Unsplash)
Been a while since I used this venue for thought-words. There are several reasons for that, but the bottom line is that I have a book coming out next year and I want to start making use of this site again as part of promoting that, and also because I’m wanting to try to get back into longer posts and essays, after years of doing in short packets a lot of the writing I would once have primarily done in that medium. There’s something wonderful about laying out a set of points or exploring an idea in a massive Twitter thread, but it’s also a very specific kind of writing, distinct from longer form, and I’d like to keep myself from getting rusty where the latter is cornered.
I turned 39 on March 4th. The weekend before that, something extraordinary happened to me. It’s happened once before and I thought it might not happen again; indeed, I was afraid that the part of my brain that made it possible might have been so exhausted and damaged by two years of grinding pandemic and societal hellscape that it couldn’t happen again.
Then, almost totally without warning, it did.
And then I turned 39, and I guess the upshot of all of this is that I’m feeling the urge to clarify and reflect and reorient on a number of fronts.
So I want to talk about this thing that happened (I have on Twitter and Mastodon, just a bit, but really I’ve only scratched the surface). That’s a somewhat scary proposition, for reasons I’ll get into when we arrive there, but basically: It’s virtually impossible to talk about the kind of thing that happened to me without sounding, at best, a little unhinged and also like a complete dork.
And hey, maybe I am. Probably I’m extremely both things. There’s also the fact that it’s a bit embarrassing for other reasons, which, again, I’ll get into when the time comes. But something else I realized shortly after my birthday is that someday I will be dead, and at some point everyone who knew me or knew of me and could therefore potentially recall any of the very many cringy things I have done will also be dead, and then at some point after that, everyone will be dead, and some time after that the universe will be dark and cold and silent, so really my point is who gives a fuck, because I’m beginning to feel like I shouldn’t have any of those to spare on worrying about what someone might think of this.
Fucks, I mean.
I thought I could get this all out there in a single post. That has proved impossible, at least within any reasonable length. So this is going to be a series of three. The others are coming in the next week or so.
Anyway. Let’s get into it.
It’s tough to know precisely where to start, but I suppose one place is the fact that I’ve always had a complicated relationship with fanfiction, one which has in many ways shaped my creative life for as long as I’ve been writing seriously.
It was the first genre/medium/thing I worked seriously in, aside from the little stories I wrote and illustrated when I was in elementary school and the elaborate (usually super angsty) scenarios I constructed with my dinosaurs and Lion King action figures. The earliest stuff I recall writing was in junior high school, and I think—I’m not positive—that it was X-Files fic. From there I moved on to several other fandoms, but I think I probably owe The X-Files the greatest debt of gratitude.
(This will be both important and ironic later on in this series.)
I don’t think I’m unique in being A Person Who Gets Paid For Fictions who cut their teeth on fanfic. My sense is that that’s extremely common for people in my generation (elder Millennial) and will continue to be so with subsequent generations of writers. What’s new for us—or such is my impression—is that way more of us are coming out and saying so, and explicitly claiming it as part of our creative identities.
I know a lot of pro writers who actually still write the stuff. I still write the stuff. I write a huge amount of the stuff. I’m pretty sure some of my very best work is in among that stuff. Certainly some of the work that means the most to me personally.
What’s complicated here is that while the stigma of fanfic has lifted somewhat, I think a good bit of it persists, albeit often in a more mild form—namely that it’s fine to do it, but if one wants to be taken seriously as a writer, one ought not make too much of it, because it’s only fanfic. Which is to say that it’s of a lower order than Real Writing. We’re all familiar with the points by now: It’s unoriginal, it’s a crutch, it’s for lazy and/or unskilled writers who can’t be bothered to/are unable to come up with their own worlds and characters, it’s mostly terrible, it’s obsessed with sex (I reject the notion that there’s anything wrong with that last even if it were true, which hi, it’s not).
This series is going to be more about my relationship with fanfic as both a professional and a fannish writer—and two very specific experiences with it—than a vigorous defense of the form itself, but I’m going to use most of the rest of this first installment to respond to those points, because I think it’s important context for what will follow, if for no other reason than that it’s expressive of part of why, in my opinion, any of this means anything at all.
First, to the claims that it’s obsessed with sex: It’s not a wholly unfair cop. There is an awful lot of sex in an awful lot of it. There’s a lot of sex in my stuff specifically. Again, I reject that there’s anything wrong with that; for me—and for many people I know—fanfic has served as a safe space for us to work out our identities in that regard: what turns us on, what we might like to try, what attracts us in fantasy but we know we definitely don’t want to try, what feels dangerous but exciting and how that might be explored responsibly, and in particular our relationship with queerness and queer sexuality.
I started figuring out that I was kinky through fanfic. I started figuring out that I was nonbinary through fanfic. So if anyone tells me that there’s no real inherent value in any of that, I’m going to tell them to go screw.
Fanfic also taught me to write sex well. By which I mean to write it in a way that many people seem to find pretty hot, but also in a way that goes beyond bodies doing things with other bodies and into the deeper personal, psychological, and even spiritual aspects of a conscious being. The sex scenes I love reading and writing are profoundly interior and revealing of character. Who is this person? What do they want? What makes them feel safe? What frightens them? What might be lurking in their past which informs how they relate to intimacy now? How do they reckon, in the midst of one of the most intense experiences we as a species can go through, with the whole dang world?
I love sex scenes because at their best, they’re really hot, and as far as I’m concerned that’s all they need to be in order to be inherently valuable, because human sexuality is awesome. But they can also provide an arena in a story to explore what’s actually going on in ways that few other techniques do.
To the claim that it’s mostly terrible: Well, yeah. Of course it is. The majority of literally all creative work is terrible. If you’re one of the people making that claim like it makes fanfiction exceptional, then you’ve clearly been in a coma for most of your life, so welcome back to the waking world and also I’m sorry because we aren’t doing so great at present.
The fact that the majority of something is terrible does not remotely preclude some of it being fucking amazing.
In fact, I feel like I need to point out the inherent obnoxious snobbery in this position, because it implies that an art form is lesser in value simply because it’s widely available to the untrained talentless plebes who simply want to make stuff and enjoy themselves and share the results with each other. Like, seriously, to be blunt? Fuck that. Fuck anyone who thinks that way.
Some work is good and some work is not, but I sincerely believe that all creative work, in the heart of its spark, is valuable and good in and of itself, because artistic creation is one of the fundamental things that makes us human. It’s order from chaos. It’s something from nothing. It’s miraculous that we’re capable of it at all. It’s the closest thing to real observable magic that we have.
Yeah, a little kid’s crayon stick figure drawing or notebook doodle is not objectively “good” art. No one is going to hang it in a gallery. But it’s fucking unbelievable that it exists.
(Which isn’t remotely to argue that no work can ever be harmful or that everything should be shielded from criticism, I wish I didn’t have to head that Twitter-infected interpretation off at the pass but let’s be real, I probably do.)
To the claim that it’s all unoriginal and only engaged in by lazy or unskilled writers: Again, yeah, that’s definitely true of some of it. And I don’t think that’s an inherently bad thing. Why shouldn’t those writers get to play too? Why isn’t that valuable? Why would that mean the form is lesser, is bad?
But it’s not true of all of it, and I’d contend that believing so betrays a deep misunderstanding about what storytelling is and does.
All storytelling is fundamentally a transformative process. It’s taking inspirations and ideas from somewhere else, shaking them up, adding some other stuff to them, and turning them into something new. We all get elements of what we do from sources external to us. No story is ever wholly “original”. Such a thing does not exist. This is often emphasized by defenders of transformative works who point out—very correctly—how much respected fiction is a reworking or retelling or otherwise updated version of a preexisting story, and also how much stands as an expansion of the world and characters of those stories, but I think we need to recognize that the truth goes beyond even that.
This is simply what storytelling is. It’s transformative. It’s all transformative work in one sense or another. Virtually any line you attempt to draw to delineate legitimate versus illegitimate degrees and types of dependence on a previous work is going to be wildly arbitrary and based on little more than one’s own biases. That many people might agree with you does not make that line less arbitrary.
Doesn’t mean plagiarism isn’t bad. I’m not talking about plagiarism. Doesn’t mean there’s never anything wrong with derivative work; it’s definitely possible to do that badly (although once again I reject the proposition that it’s automatically bad to be derivative). I’m merely saying that if you want to adopt the position that fanfic is lesser because it’s based heavily on something else, it won’t be long before you begin running into some problems once you start pulling at that particular thread.
Just as an aside? You try writing a genuinely good, at least moderately complex multichapter AU (assuming you have not). Go on. Let me know how it goes. Let me know how easy it is to take a basic premise and a set of characters and wholly transplant it all into a completely different scenario while retaining the essential recognizable elements of those characters and their relationships, and even perhaps reworking some major elements to reveal new sides to them and new implications for what they mean. Do all that and also tell an engaging story, and tell it well. It should be a snap, if it’s the province of lazy writers and requires no real originality. I’m sure that if you’re a halfway decent writer you can bang out a winner in a single weekend, and sit back and wait for the kudos to roll in.
Yeah, I’m pretty fucking scornful about this. Won’t pretend otherwise. This is because I think that the position that fanfiction is a lesser form of creative work than others is a poorly-reasoned, unsophisticated, fundamentally tedious position worthy of a healthy dose of scorn… but also because I’m capable of being especially scornful at myself. And there was a time—yes, even with all my history in fanfic, with all the words I’ve put into it and all the things I’ve learned and all the work I’ve created that I truly loved—when I confess that I kind of thought that way too.
Which is what I’ll talk about in the next installment of this. And maybe I’ll eventually even get to what made me want to dig into this topic, which are the two most remarkable creative experiences I’ve ever had in my entire storytelling life.
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