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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Dingwell

Rediscovering fanfiction while the world is burning

Note: this post was originally published on Medium on January 12, 2021.

In fanfiction, there’s a subgenre called “fix-it.”

A fix-it is pretty much what it sounds like. Disagree with the way something turned out in canon? There’s probably a fix-it for that. If not, there certainly is an opportunity to write it yourself. You could, for example, prevent Anakin’s fall to darkness in Star Wars. You could rewrite the entirety of Doctor Who series nine. You can erase the existence of the character you hate most.

It’s an interesting exercise in power. Anyone with the ability to write can say, “Actually, this is how the story will go, because I said so.” It brings a whole new meaning to the “Death of the Author.” Perhaps this explains why some authors are against fanfiction in general. Anne Rice, for one, famously hated it: “It upsets me terribly to even think about fanfiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes,” she states on her website.

Other creators feel differently. Asked if he liked fanfiction by a fan on Twitter, Neil Gaiman replied, “I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction, so I’m in favour.” (Gaiman is referring to A Study in Emerald, a short story he published in 2003.) In a 2019 interview with The Atlantic, N. K. Jemisin — also a Hugo Award-winning author — spoke about how writing fanfiction helped her push through the stress and loneliness of grad school.

While fanfiction allows writers to turn existing elements of pop culture on their heads, the story of the last several months cannot so easily be rewritten. No matter how great of a writer you are, it’s impossible to eradicate a global pandemic with a pen or keyboard. However, reading and writing can at least provide a temporary escape from the headlines.

I’m a writer and a journalist by trade, so when I say, “escape from the headlines,” I mean it literally. Sometimes, I really didn’t want to read them. I certainly didn’t want to write them. After the contract for my last editor job ended in the spring, I’d lost most of my motivation to pitch freelance articles or work on my nonfiction manuscript. What positive impact could my work have on the world during a global pandemic? I had no desire to work on the daily COVID report, but news sense for anything else shrivelled up. My memoir seemed just as pointless. Who was I to write about my life while others were getting their human rights violated daily?

In short, I was depressed. Unmotivated. I found pockets of joy in nostalgia, playing Animal Crossing and revisiting media I loved in my childhood, like the Star Wars prequels. This helped me cope, but I wasn’t writing as much as I felt I should, and the books on my to-read list stayed neglected. My foray back into fanfiction changed the game.

Up until recently, the last time I read fanfiction in any serious way might have been as long ago as a decade. The same goes for the last time I wrote it. At that time, Archive of Our Own (a.k.a Ao3) was still new and unknown to me, and I relied instead on Tumblr and

I don't remember what exactly brought me to Ao3 some months ago. Maybe I just wanted a laugh. Instead, I found page after page of brilliant writing. That's when I started to write, too. It felt weird at first. I asked myself: "What are you doing? Don't you want to be a serious writer? Isn't this a waste of time?" Since then, here are the answers I've come up with: I don't know. Maybe. No.

Fanfiction as we know it has existed since at least the '60s, thanks in large part to the Star Trek fandom. Without the World Wide Web, fan works were distributed through zines. The creators were mostly women. That said, plenty of earlier, famous works could be classified as fanfiction: Dante's Divine Comedy, Plato's The Symposium as well as The Republic, not to mention multiple works of Shakespeare.

Even with this in mind, the very concept of fanfiction continues to be polarizing. The idea that it's an obsession for basement-dwelling creeps persists. Nevermind that people like Madeline Miller, a Latin and Greek teacher, have penned popular novels that fit the definition of fanfic, too. I can still hear the voice of a man in my undergraduate creative writing class saying fanfiction is "what's wrong with the world." A pretty strong condemnation considering, you know, climate change and stuff. But I digress.

I'm mostly fine with letting my geek flag fly. Still, part of me is still a little embarrassed about my love of fanfiction. I squash that feeling with the mantra "Writing is writing" or "reading is reading." I am a writer and this is the kind of writing I have the energy to do right now. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say it's easy, fanfiction definitely provides building blocks that other forms of storytelling do not. Unlike original fiction, fanfiction gives the writer a ready-made set of characters, settings and plot points to bend (or, if I may be so bold, ignore altogether). As Jemisin pointed out in The Atlantic, it also comes with a pre-existing fanbase. Using an embroidery kit is still embroidery, isn't it? Writing fanfiction instead of original fiction is the same idea. I'm using it to cope with "what's wrong with the world." For now, it's working just fine.

There's no "fix-it" for 2020. There's no telling how long we'll have to live with the pandemic, and the mess that is global politics isn't going away. But I'm thankful for my pockets of joy.

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