A year ago I did a thing I thought I was done with forever. I posted some fanfiction on a well-known fanfiction site. I’d spent a couple of days writing a story in my head and in between other things at the weekend, I wrote it down and decided to share it.
I wrote that story for the reason anyone writes fanfiction- a bit of extra story was stuck in my head and I wanted to get it out. Outside of that world, it was silly and trivial- it involved crisps and a hangover, oh and a dress. And lots of thoughts and feelings, and was about nothing at all and everything.
That’s what I love about fanfiction, it’s about nothing and everything. It’s about the tiniest detail expanded on, or the smallest moment and what it means. Or it can truly be about nothing at all, just a need to hang out with some familiar characters a little more.
I didn’t expect anyone to care. I’ve never played the fandom game, I’ve never done whatever it is that makes you a ‘Big Name Fan’ I’ve usually stayed out of the way, enjoying a gif or two and minding my business. Quietly consuming not producing. On the rare occasions, I have produced it’s been equally quietly in a corner. So I shared that story not thinking anyone would care.
This isn’t a story about becoming the coolest person in the fandom, that fic writer everyone worships. And that’s a good thing. It’s a story about how I steadily continued to write stories, and a few people like them, they left comments, they said nice things. I quietly plodded on. Story after story- some really short, some longer. Some about nothing, some very much about something. Each time a handful of people liked them. And that was enough- more than enough. I was genuinely writing these stories for me, and if one other person liked it, took something from it, that was enough.
For me, it was about the process of writing them. With each story, I felt more confident, more at home writing again. That was something I’d lost. I’ve spent a number of years being battered by both the legacy of academia and my attempts to write for theatre. Neither, mostly it feels is going well. And 2020, well that just about finished me for theatre writing, even at the time of writing this, even with a play on next month, I can’t quite bring myself to pick myself up and write anything new for the stage. But in writing fic, I started to tell stories again, I started to bring characters to life on the page…and I started to enjoy it.
Not all of it is great writing, but it was writing. I was writing fast, writing feelings as they happened- and doing that in a pandemic, while losing my mind over writing a book, while losing my mind over losing my job, my career, and everything else. It was something to anchor me to ….something. Most important it was something creative, a place to escape. Honestly too, the idea that someone might read and like what I wrote, over a play nobody might ever see, or an academic book three people might read…while stuck in pandemic limbo, it felt like something I could do, something to connect my writing to something or someone.
So around writing my big old academic book, around an endless job hunt, around scraping a living together teaching online classes, I escaped into my stories. I would look forward to the hour or so each day I could ‘play’ in that world, tell those tales. Really I was just telling the stories to myself.
That’s the thing too- they made me daydream again, at a time I thought my brain was broken, that I thought my creativity was broken, I found myself telling myself stories. Then I found myself writing them down. Slowly, I think through it too I found a voice, a style again.
Something happened around the Autumn last year. I accidentally started a huge story. That was never the plan- little bite-sized pieces, fluffy escapes, or manageable in a week or so stories that were the plan. But as life would have it, a creative project I worked on for a theatre (an audio documentary about LGBTQ+ life in my city) led me to need to tell a story….and so I did it through these borrowed characters. The story wasn’t ever supposed to be that big, but it spiralled. And I’m proud of it- I poured my heart and soul into it with honesty I don’t think I could have with anything else, it was the cliche ‘safe space’ to both try out those ideas as a writer, get those thoughts and feelings on a page and see what happened. And it sort of worked.
And then I wrote a sequel.
That really wasn’t in the plan. Writing 200,000 words of it wasn’t in the plan. But my god I don’t think I’ve loved writing anything as much in my whole life. It’s imperfect and messy, but I love it. It has too, dare I say it, some of the best bits of writing I’ve done anywhere. I spent hours actually writing through tears at my desk, that’s how invested I was in the story, the characters (dare I say too, the original characters I came up with in that are possibly my favourites ever too).
I suddenly found I was writing every day, and writing a lot. I’d start my day with some writing, use it as a lunch break or spend some evening time doing it, or give myself half a weekend day too. For someone stuck at home, hustling their way through scarping teaching together, writing a book, trying to find a job and all-around stuck in a hamster wheel of ‘everything is work nothing is play’ I finally found a way to creatively ‘play’ again. Writing fic was my time out, my downtime, my escape. But it also taught me that I can find that writing routine and discipline again. It gave me the drive and spark to find that. Now I balance that time with ‘real life’ creative projects and fic, and you could say it had a ‘real world’ or ‘real writing’ impact. Not that this was ever the point. The point was long winters mornings and evenings to ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’ and Aqualung finding a way to be creative….and it worked.
I don’t know if it sounds stupid to other people, that I wrote what, 350,000 words playing with characters in this way. But it made sense to me.
Firstly it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people because there’s a feeling now we have to make everything part of our ‘work’ so writing fanfic is pointless because it can’t be monetised, or exchanged for career progression. Of course, I would argue it makes me a better writer in other areas too, so that’s moot. As is the idea we only do things for career or monetary gain. I started writing fanfiction in my bedroom as a teenager with no concept of it being anything other than for the fun of it, the stories in my head. What’s wrong with returning to that? Especially at a time we all desperately needed an escape.
And no, as we’ve got this far, it isn’t ‘just a load of porn’ …I mean my porn writers are out there and I take off my hat to them (though they’d likely prefer I take something else off). Personally, my work is vanilla as all hell, I’m a queen of a jump cut to ‘and later…’ but that’s a personal preference. People have written erotic novels for decades, and frankly, that’s a less exploitative industry than the places some of you were going to practice a bit of self-indulgence during lockdown ….but I digress (but also subscribe to ethical porn, and pay for your porn, please and thank you). The point is yes, people write porn, but also people write sweet, charming, heartbreaking, silly, funny, action-packed, hockey filled or outright strange stories…just like ‘real’ books.
Secondly, sure it might be weird to people not in this world. But lots of things are weird to me too if I’m not part of that world- football is weird to me but lots of people enjoy that, getting drunk in a club is weird to me, walking up mountains is weird to me, a love of maths is weird to me…just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean its wrong.
And if we must connect it to something bigger, I was writing fanfiction as a teenager, it was the first writing outside of school I did. Back then it was X Files fanfiction, and my X Files fandom is what led me to theatre. And theatre led me to my academic life, to my creative life, to the book I was working on while writing fic, and fic led me to the book I wrote instead (as well) as that book. It’s all connected, and you know what? I don’t value that fic any less than my PhD, my play or my books.
Writing these stories has been healing, both in the things I’ve written about, dark places, silly places, ideas and forms that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. They’ve also allowed me to quietly grow my writing skills, my style, and more importantly, clawback confidence that I can do this, I am actually quite good at this.
They’ve also brought me joy. The joy of writing them, disappearing into these worlds, telling myself stories. But also brought me a connection with people. I realised that stepping away from the pressure and competitiveness of ‘professional writing meant a connection that I was missing (I’m sure some fic writers see it as a competition- those big-name fans I talked of, but I don’t care if I have three readers or 30,000 personally, and I know it doesn’t make the work less worthwhile for me). And the joy I found in comments and conversations with people reading these stories, was a reminder of why we write- to share our experiences with the world our thoughts, to connect with people.
I wrote a blog back last year about Fic writing that’s here. I don’t know if I thought I’d still be writing so much, that I’d still enjoy getting lost in these worlds, but I do.
It also got me back to other writing. From the confidence I gained in writing fic I applied for a novel writing course with the Faber Academy, and I got in. So now I’m writing a novel it seems. And I’m finding it a better fit than playwriting ever was. Who knows if it’ll lead anywhere, but that’s not the point, the point is I’ve found the joy in it again.
I’m not going anywhere just yet in fic writing. I’m sure stories will continue to pop up, that I’ll continue to need to write. As a wise man once said ‘I just don’t think I’m finished with this place’ …I mean I even half promised some unfinished stories of some guy and his stuffed penguin, right? (if you know you know etc). Actually that penguin guy? Might have even crossed some imaginary borders into some ‘real world’ work too…maybe it’ll never see the light of day, maybe nobody will ever read that version of his story…but maybe they will. And if they don’t, getting there was fun, and that’s what going back to writing fic taught me.
The point is in the worst year of all creatively, emotionally, at a time I knew it was time to give up on some things, I found joy in writing again. Playing in a borrowed world is fun, its a reminder that creativity can exist for you, not for what it ‘achieves’ because what it achieves first and foremost, is making you happy. After the year we’ve all had, I say more of that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a penguin…
You can buy my book on Schitt\’s Creek \’Love that Journey for me, the queer revolution of Schitt\’s Creek\’ here from 404 Ink.