I’ve read a lot of writer origin stories where the writer in question describes finding books as the moment their world went from black and white to full vibrant color. They suddenly realize that stories, fictional worlds, and narratives are where they belong.
For me, that starburst of self-actualization didn’t come with the actual discovery of books and novels. Maybe it was because I was given books as soon as I was able to hold anything. My first nights in the hospital were soothed by the sound of my dad reading to me from the Little Golden Book edition of Thumbelina. My grandmother and I spent bright summer mornings at the library where I was never discouraged from bringing home as many books as I could carry.
So, you could say that I never needed to find books because I had them from the beginning.
I did, however, need to find fanfiction. And like those writer origin stories I mentioned, finding fanfiction was the moment everything clicked. I felt at home in fictional worlds based on fictional worlds. Fanfiction became the security blanket I wrapped so tightly around myself, that for the longest time I couldn’t enjoy any other medium. Books were just not enough. I needed more.
For many people, fanfiction stems from the need to improve or expand on a work of fiction that they’ve consumed. I’ll use the common example: Harry Potter. Seven books weren’t enough for me or the millions of people who also read the series. Harry’s point of view was limiting. We were desperate for Hermione’s perspective or we needed to know more about the next generation (I mean, yes, there’s always The Cursed Child) or we clamored for stories during the Marauders’ Hogwarts Years. And from these cravings, came fanfiction.
Through multiple chapters (usually epics) or one-shots (a short story without continuation), fans all over the world created amazing (sometimes even better than the original) fics to fill this yearning for more. Harry Potter wasn’t the first fandom but it’s been credited with opening fanfiction up to more mainstream audiences. One of the actual oldest fandoms,from a time when fanfiction was published in zines and not online because the internet didn’t exist, was Star Trek (a fandom I’m still proud exists today and one that I’m very active in). In fact, if you want to know more about the Star Trek fandom from back in the day, I really encourage you to read this amazing piece about “Fandom Grandma,” and her incredible legacy.
Many famous writers (including a lot of genre authors) got their start writing fanfiction (Sarah Rees Brennan, Naomi Novik, John Scalzi–it’s a pretty long list). They say it helped them learn editing, pacing, voice, worldbuilding–everything that we praise them for as professional, published novelists. I haven’t published anything myself (yet) but fanfiction definitely taught me a lot about storytelling and like I mentioned earlier, it was the security blanket I clung to. No matter what happened at school or with friends during the day, chances were I could find a long, well-written fic to comfort me at night. I used to think that might be pathetic but as I’ve struggled with anxiety, I realize that whatever calmed my racing thoughts down was good enough for me.
Fanfiction also provided a community of online friends who enjoyed my work (when I was finally able to share my stories) and would give me encouragement that I wasn’t sure I could get in the real world. The instant online publishing of fanfiction (there’s rarely a long delay in posting fanficiton unless self-imposed or the author is working with a beta reader–what we call editors) helps writers get instant feedback that can certainly do wonders for a writer’s self-esteem. That isn’t to say there aren’t critics but for the most part, when you do get comments or kudos, you feel great about it.
The long and short of it is that it’s getting easier to open up about fanfiction now. With the mind-boggling popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, fanfiction is almost a household word and one that mainstream media always likes to throw around in badly researched articles espousing fanfiction as a hobby for stereotypical nerds with no outside lives. I’m done with hot takes by people who think they can warn parents away from fanfiction. Fanfiction wasn’t an obstacle to my success, it bolstered it. For more about fanfiction, I would suggest checking out Aja Romano or Constance Grady’s essays on it for Vox, Mary Sue. You can also find me on twitter at @blrobins2 if you’re looking for fanfiction recs. I’ve read a lot and if I don’t read the fandom you’re in, chances are I can help you find the place where you can read as much fanfic as you want. Don’t be skeptical, it’s totally worth it. You never know what you might find.