Guest Post: In Defense of Fanfiction by Erika Staiger

Like a lot of creative writing MFA students, I’m spending my summer trying to turn a few half-written scenes into a novel that I hope might become my thesis (I’m in the I-should-have-just-gone-to-law-school-like-my-parents-wanted-me-to faze of my writing process, thanks for asking).

This isn’t my first time through the book-writing ordeal. Technically, I’ve written and published a book before. Sort of. That depends on what you consider “published” and also what you consider to be a “book.”

My sort-of-book was called Stranger Than Fiction, and I wrote it ten years ago, when I was thirteen. It was self-published online and like most things written by thirteen-year olds who aren’t Mozart—it was a very, very bad. It had a Mary-Sue protagonist, descriptions of kissing written four years before my actual first kiss, and could alternatively have been titled The Year I Discovered Adverbs.

But, at the same time, it was five hundred pages long. Lots of people I didn’t know read it. Lots of other writers gave me feedback on pieces of it and helped push me to finish it. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written to date. It was also Harry Potter Fanfiction.

I can feel you cringing. I know—Fanfiction. If you don’t make up your own worlds or your own characters, it doesn’t count as a book. Fanfiction writers aren’t real writers. Real writers get their MFAs from Iowa and write short stories about the evils of American suburbia, or other Important Things.

A lot of writers have publically expressed their opposition to Fanfiction. George R.R. Martin, the mega best-selling author of A Game of Thrones did so in a 2010 blog post in which he questioned the legality of Fanfiction (FYI it’s perfectly legal unless the Fanfiction writer attempts to monetize work containing copyrighted material). Many authors, including Martin, also claim to dislike sites like Fanfiction.net because they creates spaces where fans can write stories about their characters without much oversight. The Internet being the Internet, there is a lot of Fanfiction out there that contains the graphic and offensive material—even by Game of Thrones standards. Not only is Fanfiction is responsible for such gems as Fifty Shades of Grey, which originally started out as Twilight Fanfiction—I’m here to tell you that pornographic Warriors Fanfiction exists, and I accidently found some of it when I was thirteen. By the way, Warriors is a middle-grade fantasy series about talking cats.

Most of the writers I know in person don’t dislike Fanfiction to the same degree as George R.R. Martin, but they aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about it either. The vast majority of the creative writing teachers that I have worked with do not allow students to write Fanfiction in their classes. There are a lot of good reasons for this. For example, even the non-porn Fanfiction pieces are difficult to workshop if everyone in the class isn’t familiar with the cannon work. However, while I don’t think we all have to let Fanfiction into our classrooms, I do think that Fanfiction’s bad rap in the creative writing community is undeserved.

Here’s why.

As an MFA student in fiction, I get to spend most of my time with capital-R Real Writers. They’re my teachers and my peers—and even though I’ve finished an entire year of graduate study, I still can’t believe how lucky I am to be part of a community like that. My biggest ongoing challenge in graduate school is battling Imposter Syndrome. This is a phenomenon commonly experienced by high-achievers who deep down believe that they did not really earn their achievements—that they just got lucky.

The reality of my life doesn’t always match up with the stock images of writers and academics that live in my head. I’m from a small town, where most of my extended family are factory workers. It’s not the kind of place that tends to produce a lot of novelists or academics. Despite having lived in a proper city for almost a year now, I’m still the kind of person who occasionally gets excited about stores with escalators in them. There are a lot of times in graduate school where I am self-conscious about my Fanfiction origins, especially when I contrast them with my peer’s extensive list of publications. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t belong in graduate school. I’m not actually a real writer—I just play one on TV.

Over the years, I’ve had fantastic mentors who have helped me deal with Imposter Syndrome. They tell me things like writers write. As long as I’m writing, I’m a writer. I try to remember that, and it helps get me back to the page on those days when all I want to do is watch 30 Rock and whine about how my dialogue will never be half as clever as Tina Fey’s.

Despite the stigma, I am so grateful for my time as a Fanfiction writer. It’s because of my Fanfiction tenure that I have the self-discipline and the desire to keep climbing Anxiety Mountain every time I start a new story. Say what you will about thirteen-year old Erika—that kid had writing habits my current mentors would be proud of. During the four years I actively wrote Fanfiction, I was writing every day—often with a piece of dirty laundry stuffed under the door so my parents wouldn’t see the light from my computer after bedtime. I did this because I had a small group of readers who read and commented on every new chapter I posted. They encouraged me when I got stuck, berated me when I wrote too slowly, and celebrated with me when I finished work I was proud of.

Getting feedback from other writers is another important tenant of MFA School that Fanfiction helped prepare me for. I shared my Fanfiction with other writers—both in real life and online. My writer friends in real life were three other nerdy thirteen year olds—two of which are still writing today. Every lunch period, we went over each other’s stories. We talked about character backstories, corrected each other’s grammar, and made our inside jokes into lines of dialogue. Those lunch-time editing sessions will always be my most important writing group because they taught me that being a writer wasn’t just about the time you spent alone in your basement—writing can bring people together.

We also received feedback from other Fanfiction users from all over the world. A lot of comments said things like “great story!” or “I thought this was funny,” but a lot of them contained suggestions for improving the plot and the characters. One user even took the time to review every single chapter of my first story. She corrected my grammar, taught me to write dialogue correctly, and helped me develop my main character away from the cliché. Years later, this experience made it much easier to share my stories in workshop and to accept criticism.

As a teacher of writing, I completely understand why professors don’t want Fanfiction in their classrooms. But, I think it’s wrong to say that Fanfiction has no educational value. It’s a massive privilege to be able to study creative writing in academia at both the undergraduate and MFA levels. For many students, formal instruction in creative writing is not and has never been an option. College tuition is at an all-time and creative writing classes are often the first to go in financially burdened school districts. My own high school cut its creative writing classes before I was old enough to take them. Fanfiction, on the other hand, is completely free and accessible to anyone with WiFi.

Like a good MFA program, Fanfiction is a writing community. My friends and I sitting at our lunch table, taking pink jell pens to each other’s work—that was our workshop. That happened because we all loved Harry Potter and Fanfiction had given us a space where we could run wild with that. Fanfiction taught me to love writing and gave me the skills to keep writing as an adult.

I think that we should be celebrating the fact that there is a space where writers from all backgrounds and skill levels can come together to participate in the craft that we all love so much. So, the next time your student or your child or your weird neighbor tells you they write Fanfiction—reign in the cringe. Be happy for them, because they are a part of a community that encourages people from all kinds of backgrounds to make writing a part of their lives.

Yeah. A lot of Fanfiction is bad. A lot of it is porn. But, all Fanfiction invites readers to be part of a living, breathing community of writers. No MFA required.

Erika StaigerErika Staiger is a MFA candidate at the University of South Florida, where she studies and teaches fiction. She is also a fiction editor for Saw Palm, a literary magazine for writing about Florida. Her short stories have appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, COG Literary Magazine, and Wordrunner Chapbook. Though she currently lives in Tampa, she is a proud Michigan native.

You can read Erika’s short story, “Pas de Deux,” in Black Fox Issue 15.

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