For the Love of Fic

I wrote a version of this blog post back at the end of last summer. I’d just jumped back into Fan Fiction for the first time in nearly 10 years. And it had meant a lot in not just the difficulties of 2020, but in the mess of my own head. I’ve taught fanfiction in many forms. I’m always honest about it- it’s been part of my life for (gulp) 20 years now, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. But somehow I held off on putting this out there. 

And then at the weekend, someone was waging a war against FanFiction again and it felt like time. 

But I realised, while I teach with an honesty that fanfiction is indeed a drug of choice, I’ve never really talked about why that is. I think there’s a case of ‘if you know you know’ and maybe some people are just hardwired for it too. Is there some interesting analogy with sexuality there? Maybe. 

And this isn’t a blog about directly about the importance of Queer Fan Fiction. Because that’s a longer essay in itself. But I will say to the person tweeting at the weekend that it was wrong to consider Fan Fiction part of Queer heritage, of Queer Culture or Literature: you are wrong. It’s a vital part. Just because not all Queer people engage with it doesn’t mean it’s less vital for those who do. Not all Queer people, it might shock you to know, enjoy going to Gay Clubs, but that doesn’t make Gay Clubs any less a vital part of Queer history. 

I teach a Queer Literature course. My final session is about Fan Fiction. It’s part of the bigger conversation about how we ‘Queer’ narratives, or reclaim them (or both). But it’s also about that gap in literature, in culture many Queer people feel. And have for many many years chosen to write their own narratives for. It’s often a formative part of growing up and coming out for a lot of young people. But it also continues to be an important part of life for many people as they grow older, grow up. So yes, when I teach fanfiction it’s usually through the lens of ‘Queering Literature’ how people have used fanfiction for decades to see the narratives they are missing elsewhere. So, on a very basic level, when they make Merlin and Arthur Gay, because there aren’t enough gay narratives on TV. Or you make the Doctor’s companions fall in love with each other and run off and save the world instead of waiting for him.

The short version of that lecture: Because we still don’t have enough stories that show our world, ourselves. And so as weird as people may find it, there are still thousands of people creating their own stories that way to fill the gap. 

Long Version: there are many reasons to write Fic, and alongside that, fanfiction functions as a way for people to work through other things, their traumas, griefs, their dreams they can’t confess elsewhere, and yes ok, weird sex stuff. It’s not just for Queer people. But yes, that’s an important strand. It’s not just for teenagers, as important and formative as it is for young people. But for some people, some of us, it’s a space we go back to time and time again- when life gets tough it’s a refuge, when creativity hits a wall, it’s a way out. It’s a way into a community, for connection and friendship. 

This isn\’t that lecture (though if anyone wants me to give it I will) nor is it one of the (many) excellent analyses of Fanfiction that exist in academic form in the world already;  this is one woman’s 20-odd-year love affair with it as a drug of choice. And how, in 2020, it taught me to love writing again.

What is fanfiction to me then? It’s both my escape and refuge, but also my writer’s sandbox. As disparaging as people are about it, outside of school assignments, yes Fanfiction was the first thing I ever wrote. And as a ‘proper’ ‘Published Author’ (and yes also holder of a PhD and alleged serious person) in 2020 I went back to Fan Fiction again, both reading and writing. 

My history with Fan Fiction started in High School. On dial-up internet and X Files Forums. And thankfully for my teenage writing, lost to the mists of time. But here’s the thing with Fan Fiction, it’s been a rare thing for me; I fangirl a lot, and fangirl hard. But it’s rare I take the leap to read  Fic, much less to write it. There are in fact exactly three things I’ve written Fic for in my life. It’s this particular ineffable thing where you need to leap back inside something. There are so many shows I have next level fangirl knowledge for. And I have zero desire to read much less write fanfiction for. Equally, there’s fanfic I’ve looked at for teaching or research reasons that we will NEVER SPEAK OF AGAIN.

But last August, in the depths of the year we’d like to never speak of again…I felt that thing. That weird thing where I wanted to write it again. And so I decided to dip a toe back in just to see what happened. 

What happened was I wrote a lot. 

I started using writing Fic as a ‘break’ other writing or job applications. While I was finishing a draft of my Big Scary Academic Book I was writing Fic on the side. Partly to keep my sanity. But also it’s a productive ‘waste of time’ far better to spend 20 minutes writing a story than doomscrolling Twitter. But more than that, it became a refuge- it’s not difficult to work out in 2020 that maybe many of us needed that, a space to hide out in our heads. But also a place to work through a lot of the stuff in my head. 

But here’s the thing too: I genuinely believe it made my other writing better. You can also write about such niche things that you nowhere would see in ‘real writing’. From the obvious things like ‘deleted scenes’ from TV and Film that you’re writing about- who doesn’t love a good ‘what was the next moment’ fic. Or just write the really boring lives of the characters that wouldn’t make it to screen. I’ve never played The Sims or Animal Crossing, but imagine it a bit like that- just playing in an imaginary world with no massive agenda or aims at times. I wrote a heavily detailed description of a headache for one story last year that would never make it into a script or a chapter. But it’s work that’s worth doing. Especially for me as someone who has operated solely in dialogue or this kind of critical writing for about 10 years. Learning to write descriptions and emotions, and move characters around a god-damn room (I’m used to leaving that to directors) was a revelation. 

That tweet at the weekend talked about how writing Fanfiction made you a worse writer. How no matter how many ‘proper’ writers cut their teeth on it, then they still weren’t doing ‘proper writing’. All the above contests. But also? Recently I got into a pretty-cool (and selective) writing course. And how did the writing same, and novel pitch I used in my application start out?

As fanfiction. 

There’s no science to that. It’s just a good piece of writing and the start of an idea I have in my brain currently. Just like any other piece of writing. But fanfiction allowed me to access it. 

And even if it didn’t, what did it matter? It’s about so much more. 

Firstly, as a writer, it gives you a feeling of being part of something. Of achieving something. In a sea of critique and rejection. So while I was busy filling a rejection jar with £5 and Andrew Scott gif for my ‘real’ writing, I was cultivating kudos and comments for my fic by the 100s. And yes, it felt good. Away from ‘you’re not good enough’ I heard ‘this really moved me’ and that was a sea of rejections that matters. Because I look at my A03 comments and think ‘I made something that mattered to someone’ even if it only mattered to them for an afternoon, a moment in the middle of the night. I made a corner of someone’s world a bit brighter. And writing it made mine a bit brighter too. So it’s win-win. 

And you can also write the utterly obscure and self-indulgent. Yes, sometimes this is the sexual content everyone likes to giggle about. But also just the very-particular-to-you stuff. That thing that feels so self-indulgent you couldn’t write anywhere else about it. That maybe nobody cares about. But also maybe they do. That headache story? People loved it. Because it\’s more than that. It’s character exploration, relationship development, dialogue, internal monologue and descriptive writing.  

And it’s all that while playing in the sandbox of something you love. 

And that my friends is a particular and potent kind of drug. 

And I can’t explain it to anyone who doesn’t know. But if you know. You know. 

But on a more serious note. Many Fic writers, myself included, use it to work out, quite frankly, their own shit that they can’t elsewhere. And in a pandemic, locked away from other humans this has quite literally been a lifeline. All those messed up feelings that you’re having? All those issues long repressed that you can’t distract yourself from? Got nobody to talk to? Talk them out with your characters. We write our way out. In a way that we never could  in ‘proper’ writing. And sometimes, often in fact, it speaks to someone else going through the same thing. And you feel a little less alone. 

Here’s the thing about writing Fanfiction. It’s incredibly personal in a way very few things you write in life are. Interestingly when I was pouring my heart and soul into an incredibly personal documentary last year, I was also pouring a lot of that dark energy into my Fic writing. But the things you write in Fic are the things you don’t have the words for in the real world yet. I’m incredibly good at oversharing on the internet. Always have been. I have blogged my way out of more bad situations than I care to think about. But I realised I don’t hide my Fic writing, my identity there, because I’m ashamed of writing it. I do it to protect that space, and what that writing allows me to do. It’s such a precious delicate thing. And you only ever share it with people from your ‘real life’ when you’re ready. I’m sure sooner or later someone might figure it out. And that’s ok I’m not ashamed, it’s just a particular corner of our worlds most of us choose not to cross the streams on. 

Related to that, the original version of this blog had more direct reference to what I’d been writing this year. What I’d spent all that extra time and energy on. And what I was using it to work out in my head. But actually? I’m not ready to over-share in this corner of the internet. That still belongs in my Fic-corner of the internet (for anyone who knows me it won’t be a massive leap to figure out some of it). And actually, that reminded me why those semi-anonymous internet spaces are important. But also why those creative spaces are important too. 

I get to people whose brains aren’t wired this way, all this seems very, very odd. But also we use stories, fiction to understand our own lives all the time. Fan Fiction is just a particular kind of extension of that. I can imagine people asking if I have to be quite so extra about a TV show. If I have to be quite so literal. But what if we flipped that, what if we said, that after all this time, a TV show was able to show me something I’d never seen in myself. What if writing about it, jumping inside it helped that. I’ll always think that’s a bit magical. 

So to all of you working that magic writing Fan Fiction keep at it. You never know when you’re going to make a huge difference to someone’s day with a story you couldn’t tell elsewhere. Or whether you’re going to connect with someone in a way you never could elsewhere. Maybe you’ll finally say the things you can’t even say to yourself through that character you love with all your heart. And maybe too, we all remember the joy in writing and reading too. 

And maybe, in all that, judgmental people who have never known that particular joy of finding a Fic so cosy it warms your heart, the payoff in the slowest of burn fics, or the joy in a perfect description of the touch of a hand, maybe they’ll mind their own business if they can’t find that joy too. 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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