In November 1999, I caught the worst case of a flu that still hasn’t been rivaled–one that took me almost a whole month to recover. It was right around Thanksgiving, but there was no beautifully baked, buttery turkey that was going to capture my taste buds; for several days, I was eating nothing but a dessert bowl of instant mashed potatoes and I couldn’t even finish that. In between sleeping and, well, sleeping, I had to find something that was going to keep me entertained long enough to allow my body to fight off the invaders.
I was taking an awful risk going online; the internet was still in its early days for most of the public, and these were the days were you couldn’t talk on the phone and be on the computer online at the same time. If you had told anyone then that a phone would become a computer with internet, Apple’s stocks would probably never be where it is now.
But with no school, homework, and–temporarily at least–no rules, I opened the search engine and traveled the river down my greatest passion.
*NSYNC was all I could think about since seventh grade. My two best friends still cringe twenty years later at the mention and I’m sure I have notebooks somewhere with “Mrs. Stefanie Timberlake” scribbled all over them. My father often lamented that if I had JUST thought of math and science as much as *NSYNC, I’d be a genius.
And not be their biggest fan? No thanks, Dad.
The internet brought a new vibrancy to my fandom. It was an open field of possibilities. With no MTV (this was when it still played music), I missed a lot of their interviews and concerts, but now with this newfangled technology, I had a fighting chance to catch up. I got to read some of their interviews, argue with a few other fans (“No, *I* love him more!!!”), and indulge my fantasy of marrying Justin Timberlake*. But even then, I felt like a pressure pot set too high. The daydreams of meeting the guys were pressing against my skull.
They had nowhere to go.
As I scrolled down the page, I squinted at a link that I had never seen before.
“*NSYNC fan fiction? What’s that?”
And with the click of a mouse, a new chapter had begun.
I couldn’t get enough stories of fans meeting the guys and striking up a friendship. I fell in love over and over again with each story of a girl meeting and falling in love with Justin and the guys. About a month and a half later, I was gifted with a hand-me-down laptop from my uncle–complete with Microsoft Word.
The thought finally occurred to me: I can do what these other girls are doing. There aren’t any rules. Nobody can stop me. I can write.
The story of how I became a writer suddenly gained a second chapter.
I certainly did what these other girls did; I still have a flash drive full of fan fictions where I have fallen in love over and over again over a Word document. When high school started, I added a second fan fiction obsession: the anime, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Just like with *NSYNC fan fiction, Gundam Wing fan fiction was mostly love stories between the main characters. Just like with *NSYNC, most of us focused on one main character: the seemingly emotionless Perfect Soldier Heero Yuy. Very few of the stories I read focused on the political issues the anime dealt with–namely war and the way humanity tries to gain and maintain peace.
As the internet became more and more central to our lives, you could find fan fiction on just about any show, book, or music group. Star Trek. Harry Potter. Dragon Ball. Cowboy Bebop. Lord of the Rings. Backstreet Boys**. Use your imagination and start typing. Because that’s what we did.
In college, one of my textbooks had a section on fan fiction (this was an English class geared towards English Education students). For the first time in years, fan fiction re-entered my thoughts; I hadn’t written a fan fiction since my second year in college, and many of those had never been finished. Instead of a vehicle for indulgence, it was now an object of intellectual scrutiny. The book didn’t side one way or another–only asked us to judge for ourselves what the value was.
In the article, The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction its author Stephanie Burt argues that, “fanfic [sic] can give its creators a powerful sense of participatory equality”. It gives fans a forum to do more than just keep an episode of their favorite show going long after the television is off or vent out how in love we are with our favorite pop star. It gives fans a chance to add their own thoughts and preoccupations to the on-going dialogue of their favorite fandoms. Burt also argues that fan fiction can act “as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world”. This was especially the case with Gundam Wing fan fiction in my experience: since the anime was mostly about teenagers fighting for world peace, romance was sorely lacking–even though each pilot had one female character with whom they had meaningful interactions (just no romantic relationships–only unrealized possibilities within the scope of the show). We female writers simply filled in the blanks where the characters’ hearts should have been–at least where we believed they should have been. Lots of us got creative with those romances; many writers broke the molds with alternate pairings of characters (maybe the most common of those had to be Duo Maxwell/Relena Peacecraft) and some of us stretched our muscles even further by creating our own characters and pairing them with one of the pilots.
When I re-examined the *NSYNC fan fictions I had once poured over, it amazed me how many love stories teenage girls were capable of writing–and a testament to our craving for romance if we were willing to read essentially the same stories over and over. Some of the love stories stuck with me, but the ones that really survived the test of time weren’t the ones about romance (ok, SOME of them). The ones that stood out and made a difference were the ones that didn’t focus on our desires to meet and marry the guys. The ones that stood out were the ones that took the time to educate us on important issues (i.e. dealing with abusive partners, eating disorders, LGBT issues, even a few on animal abuse). While some of them WERE romances, the ones that made a difference were ones that gave us a glimpse into the humanity of the guys in the group. We were so young and enthralled by the members of *NSYNC–and other music groups–that we often forgot that they’re just people. The members of *NSYNC prided themselves on being real and being a good example to us fans–and rightly so. But except for the ones of us that wrote fan fiction, I think a lot of us never really thought of the guys sitting down at the dinner table just enjoying a meal. We don’t think of them flipping through channels at night. We don’t think of them picking up their nieces and nephews at their family events. We loathe to think that they ever tossed and turned in their bunks (on the tour bus, of course) in the middle of nightmares. We never got to hear them yelling at each other or anyone else in frustration.
For us fan fiction writers, though, it gave us–and them–a chance to hear themselves think. We often put them in terrible situations in our stories–some very violent, life-threatening situations. But the ones of us who were ready to graduate from simple love stories, we were ready to confront darkness–and accept that they, like anyone else, had vulnerable, dark sides. In the midst of all the excited screaming, this was our way of telling them, “We know you’re human. We know you have feelings.”
It gave us a chance to praise them while taking them off that cold, marble pedestal.
The ability to use creativity to see other people’s humanity outweighs any stigma fan fiction may carry with it from people who could never consider it an actual genre.
Many of the fan fiction sites are still up, but very few, if any, are still being updated. It looks like many of us decided that fan fiction was great for memories long past–not futures yet to come.
One day as a thirteen-year-old, I decided that writing–via fan fiction–was going to be a fun hobby.
Now, over eighteen years later, writing is my destiny.
“In a tree not too far away into the forest, a kingdom of fairies lived within this tree. Their king, Christopher, came to see Justinian and Stefania running away in the forest. He looked upon the two lovers- nothing more. He saw another maiden and saw that she was heartbroken. He knew of course what the heartbreak was. The look on her face that she bore just that moment showed that the heartbreak was caused by a person- a person whom she loved very much, who just didn’t love her back. Somehow, this girl, the man who was the reason of her heartbreak, and the two lovers that just ran by were all connected.
Then he saw another man- the man whom the lonely maiden loved. He saw he had to get this man to fall for the maiden who loved him.”
–from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, spring 2000
Patron eventually made his way to her side.
“You should calm down,” he said.
“How?! I got dragged out to the middle of nowhere in Ireland, I’m so small an ant could step on me, I have no idea how to get home, I nearly gotten eaten by a wolf TWICE, I’ve just been told I’m supposed to save you people from something—which I don’t even KNOW what—and I don’t—”
Patron reached out and touched the back of Ashley’s left ear. He began to rub the patch of skin in a small circular motion. It was worse than her father making her laugh after embarrassing her in front of her friends.
Her breathing slowed and evened. She could feel her heart slowing to its resting rate. She didn’t realize she had her hands balled into fists—much less as tight as these ones—until she finally opened her fingers. The constant tension that was in her neck disappeared.
Suddenly, the stars seemed brighter to her and the moon wanted to take its time smiling at her.
— excerpt from Lightning in the Grass, November 2017
I figured if I’m going to have some shameless self-promotion for my novel, guess I better show you the older, more embarrassing stuff first, right? And is it me, or do I seem to have something for fairies?
If you liked this, don’t forget to put this up on your Facebook, Twitter, or other social media of choice! Because sharing is caring! Unless we’re talking about the flu virus. See beginning paragraph for details.
*I’m trying not to puke.