Writing Fan Fiction Gave Me Community and Creative Freedom

I don't have to worry about writing the perfect sentence or the most impressive scene

Photo by AltumCode on Unsplash

When the pandemic erupted, I was in the midst of leaving my lucrative corporate job and transitioning to graduate school. I had returned to my parents’ home, logging onto client meetings from my childhood bedroom during the day, losing hours to fanfiction on Archive of our Own (Ao3) at night. As the terror of the pandemic appeared in push notifications on my phone, scrolling through fanfictions about Draco and Hermione’s imagined lives after Hogwarts soothed me. Escaping into stories that continued the plot of a childhood classic also comforted me as I came to terms with leaving the stability of my career for the instability of pursuing my passion. 

I had always wanted to be a writer, but as the only child of two Chinese immigrants, financial security was a religion in my household. I interpreted part of my inheritance to be the achievement of the upward mobility for which my parents had immigrated. Writing, especially the popular conception of a “starving artist,” did not fit into that framework; I spent my first year post-college trying to see if I could repress and extinguish my literary aspirations for a more stable career path. 

Leaving corporate America, I assumed, would return the creativity and writing drive that I had lost.

After graduating, I thought about writing while working on client presentations, molding my prose into corporate-friendly bullet points and sending out concise, “actionable” emails. I left my job to study creative nonfiction writing 14 months later, folding into storage my blazers and A-line dresses. I had a book inside of me; I was convinced of this. I wanted to write about Chinese culture, history, and society. I wanted to explore intergenerational trauma in a nuanced way that still honored tradition and demonstrated cultural competency. Leaving corporate America, I assumed, would return the creativity and writing drive that I had lost assembling PowerPoint decks and customizing Excel spreadsheets. Yet, despite how many creative writing classes I had taken in college, I struggled to articulate what my project was about in my graduate courses. 

My trepidation was multifaceted. On one hand, the pressure to impress my professors and classmates made me freeze up and second-guess my every submission. Given my relatively young age for my cohort, I expected to feel some imposter syndrome. My previous experience in business had also made me feel like a sell out, as if I no longer belonged in the literary world. On the other hand, my tenure as a consultant had forced me to prioritize precision over ingenuity, and I struggled to switch gears and return to creative writing. My perfectionism had also skyrocketed due to the high-stakes demands of client projects: I agonized over every word I wrote out of fear my prose would be lackluster.  

Fanfiction became my refuge. I sometimes read two books a week for my classes, but I’d gorge on Dramione (Draco and Hermione) fanfictions at night as a way of resetting my brain. The comfort of fandom stemmed from its familiarity. I had first discovered fanfiction in middle school, through a chance Google search about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the aughts, fanfiction was still contentious, straddling the gray area of copyright laws. The work felt subversive then, due to both the explicit content of the work and the disgruntled reactions from various rights holders over copyright infringement. G.R.R Martin and Anne Rice have both famously spoken out against fandom, with the underlying critique that fanfiction writers should stop being so lazy and start creating their own characters instead of “borrowing” existing ones. 

When I finally re-emerged in fandom, I found an entirely new world. Archive of our Own had debuted, creating a more democratic repository for a dizzying amount of fan works. Rights holders such as Paramount Pictures now consented and, sometimes, encouraged fans to create transformative works from source material. AIM and Livejournal had given way to Discord and Tumblr, both acting as central meeting hubs for fandom, hosting book clubs, allowing for direct and instantaneous contact between writer and readers. Quite a few fanfiction writers were going mainstream, locking down six-figure book deals in YA fiction and fantasy. Fanfiction no longer felt taboo; in fact, it almost felt—wait for it—cool. Through Discord, I  made a contingent of friends I described as my “internet friends,” but my IRL friends also openly admitted to reading fanfic and there are multiple pandemic-era text threads filled with Ao3 links.

The increased interactivity between readers and writers was what intrigued me most about this new-era of fanfiction. Amanda, one of my best (and first) friends in fandom, writes under the screenname mightbewriting. Her story, “Wait and Hope,” is one of the most kudos-ed Dramione fics on Ao3, but I met her when she was still posting the series. I reached out through Tumblr DM with effusive praise, and she became one of my best friends in fandom, the person who introduced me to Discord and encouraged me to start writing my own stories. We’ve gone on vacation twice together, with a group of other writers; this year, I spent my 25th birthday with her and our friends.

I felt immense guilt for all the time fanfiction was taking from my manuscript and my coursework.

Despite my blossoming online writing community and the joy I derived from it, I felt immense guilt for all the time fanfiction was taking from my manuscript and my coursework. I recognized that fandom was serving as escapism for me, but I only saw the surface-level reasons for this. I wasn’t yet acknowledging how my MFA had affected my identity and confidence as a writer. I had taken creative writing courses in college, and while I was familiar with the workshop model–which can sometimes be vulnerable, contentious, and openly hostile–I hadn’t expected the negative critiques I received in my graduate-level workshop to affect me as much as they did. While I believed in the rigor of critique and wanted honest feedback that would help me improve as a writer, I also was writing a memoir about deeply personal topics. Despite the constructs designed to maintain the illusion of critical distance in workshop–substituting “the narrator” instead of “you” when addressing the writer, for instance–hearing that “the narrator” is “self-indulgent” or “immature” was wounding. Workshop environments are also not impervious to interpersonal grudges, a carousel of writers exchanging barbed critiques as a petty way in which to retaliate for having received a negative critique. 

The situation was compounded by the isolation the pandemic had wrought. I had begun my MFA online, and logistical snafus like a fractured internet connection or distracting background noise would prove irritating interruptions during critiques. Yet, the bigger issue was the sterile nature of delivering criticism through a screen, especially when there was no way to commune together afterwards and collectively shake off the sting of critique. Instead, after hearing a variety of commentary, both negative and positive, on my submission, I logged off and stared at my bedroom wall, my classmates’ statements echoing in my head. 

By the second semester of my first year, I dreaded submitting. Sometimes, I would glance at my Apple watch during critique and see my heart was racing at 100 BPM while sitting. It was not that I blamed the course––having finished my two years of coursework, I know that workshop was invaluable to the progress of my manuscript and my overall development as a writer. My problems were internal and personal. I had fallen into the trap of workshop, the reason critics sometimes deride MFAs as “writing factories” that flatten voice and style: I was writing specifically to please an audience, and every sentence I composed was infected by the question of how will this fare in workshop? It was not a particular class that was wounding or brutal; rather, it was the combination of isolation and my insecurity that made writing feel like a chore. I procrastinated relentlessly during the week and wrote feverishly at the 11th hour leading up to my submission deadline. 

My issue, I decided, was discipline. 

I declared that if by the end of summer I had not finished a first draft of my book, I would shave my head.

I devised a draconian system of daily word counts that would ensure 100,000 words by the end of my first year. “I’m going to get a first draft of this manuscript even if it kills me,” I told one of my professors. I set a minimum weekly word count of 10,000 words a week. “It’s not so bad,” I kept rationalizing to friends. “I don’t necessitate a daily word count. I just need to write 10,000 a week.” I didn’t penalize myself for days that were devoid of words, but I had a drastic system of punishments (all recorded in an Excel sheet) for every week in which I did not hit my goal. At one point, I declared that if by the end of summer I had not finished a first draft of my book, I would shave my head. I wrote the punishment on an index card and stuck it above my desk. 

To accommodate my new goals, I reconfigured my schedule, eradicating my nocturnal writing and forced a 6 AM wake up each day so I could drag myself into the foyer and work in tandem with the rising sun. I deleted my social media and installed SelfControl, a website-blocking app that featured a skull as its icon. I put my Dramione WIP (work-in-progress) on hiatus and centered my day around getting my 10,000 manuscript words in, rushing through dinner and social plans so I could sit at my computer and stare at the (sometimes) blank screen. This lasted for three weeks.

I was writing––that wasn’t the problem. If I had been less Manichean in my thinking, I would have celebrated that I was even hitting 500 words a day, but I self-flagellated every week that I missed my 10,000 word goal. With the threat of a buzz cut looming over me, I decided to loosen the guidelines for what type of writing I allowed in my daily word count. I rationalized that if I could finish both my fanfic WIP and a manuscript by the end of summer, then all the better. 

I could not see the irony in my conundrum, that in leaving corporate America, I had decided to appropriate the very rigidity and inflexibility of my former career into my passion, which had tainted an activity I once loved. I was trying to force writing into a consulting framework, calculating ROI, devising a writing schedule the way I would have made a project roadmap for clients. But reintroducing fanfic–and, thus, pleasure–back into my wheelhouse dramatically changed my output. There were weeks where I was writing 20,000 words without feeling depleted. On Discord, my fanfiction friends and I did writing sprints together, setting a timer and trying to get as many words out as possible within the time frame. We had video chat writing hours that transitioned into wine hours. I now had another contingent of writers whom I could call upon to help edit and read over my work, even if neither of us were being paid to do it. I have, on more than one occasion, directly cannibalized my fanfic, cutting lines from my stories and inserting them into my manuscript. Sometimes, these lines are the ones that are complimented most in workshop.

My fanfiction friends and community are sometimes my first readers for pages of my manuscript and other freelance essays.

Fanfic is still stigmatized within the literary community, and I’m particular about whom in my offline life I divulge my fandom identity, but my writing improved during the months I was most active in fandom. Instead of dissolving into a sentimental mess, my prose strengthened as I worked with a diverse range of editors (whom are known as “Alphas” and “Betas” within fandom, wherein Alphas help with big ideas and overall story flow while Betas are called upon for copyediting and syntactical issues) and learned about my blindspots that my MFA classmates hadn’t flagged before. My fanfiction friends and community are sometimes my first readers for pages of my manuscript and other freelance essays I work on. Once, Amanda left me a comment on my document that read, “Sabrina, I am saving you from yourself. Never use the phrase ‘vertiginous pleasure’ again,” and I still have a screenshot of that advice saved. 

The community of readers has also been invaluable and generous in both their praise and their actions: my work has been translated into Chinese and Russian, chosen as a book club pick-of-the-month, and turned into podfics; I’ve had bound copies of my work sent to me and fanart created for different stories. I’m far from a famous Ao3 author, but seeing my work recommended in Reddit threads or featured in TikToks is mind-blowing, and every email I receive notifying me about new kudos or comments on my fics still makes me smile. 

Fanfiction gave me two of the most important things a writer can have: community and creative freedom.

To date, I’ve published 117,542 words of fanfiction, comparable to 261 pages of prose. Some writers may balk at that literary expenditure for a medium in which I don’t receive any type of compensation. Others may feel bemused by why someone with a MFA wants to write about another writer’s characters instead of creating her own. But both of those reasons are precisely why I stay in fandom: in my stories, I don’t have to worry so much about writing the perfect sentence or the most impressive scene. I’m not writing on a deadline, for a fee, or to impress my cohort and professors; I write fanfic entirely for myself. The standard workshop questions around “what are the stakes?” of a piece and “why should readers care about your characters?” are null. Readers flock to these stories because we’re united by a lingua franca, our love for Harry Potter, and they comment on fics out of genuine appreciation for the work, not because it is part of an assignment or built into class expectations.

I’m not always proud of the fanfics I’ve published. In fact, I don’t particularly like re-reading my most-read piece. The writing quality noticeably slips in the later chapters because I rushed to finish; the plotlines stop making sense. At one point, I introduce a truly bizarre and convoluted crisis that I didn’t know how to write myself out of. 

Yet, I keep the stories up because I think it’s a mistake, to eradicate the joy and pleasure in its creation. Fanfiction gave me two of the most important things a writer can have: community and creative freedom. It is important for writers to retain a love of their craft, even though the work can often be isolating and emotionally taxing, even though criticism is inherent in this line of work. I write fanfiction for the same reason people join a recreational soccer league or enroll in a pottery-making class: to find a community where I could practice my passion and skills with like-minded individuals. 

I have a few fanfiction WIPs that linger in my drafts, but recently I’ve had to focus on finishing my manuscript to meet a deadline. Still, on days when words seem impossible to grasp, I log onto Discord and ping a friend, “Do you want to sprint together?”  Knowing they’re writing with me, no matter how far they are in the world, makes the words appear just that much easier. 

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