How FanFiction Changed My Life: A Personal Writing History

I wasn’t one of those children that carried home delicately bound paper books full of my stories from school. I actually hated Writing class because I was (undiagnosed) dyslexic and couldn’t pass a spelling test to save my life. So any stories I wrote before I started using a computer were scoured, discouragingly, with red marks and tossed shamefully in the garbage before my parents could see them.

It was clear I had a natural propensity for math and not writing. I still score better on a math test, even after all this time.

But I never learned to love math. Math bored me. It was stories that I spent my time with, my face lovingly pressed deep into the pages of a book. I carried around volumes as big as I was, always another story waiting to be discovered like a lingering adventure. So I read a lot as a child, but it never much occurred to me that I could create my own books until I was older.

So while, clearly, I couldn’t write as child, I had a great affection for stories. I diligently spent much of my free time (of which there was a lot, the daughter of a working, single mother and a commuter father) making a terrible, terrible comic strip called The Bigheads.

My propensity for drawing rivaled my ability to spell, in that it was horrible and mostly consisted of heads, shoulders, and arms (the hands always hidden behind their bodies, I never got the hang of fingers). The Bigheads was about a small family: a moronic, dopey father who was a professional baseball player; a quirky family dog, who sat silently judging like a laconic Garfield; and a moralizing, do-gooder daughter. I remember them all quite clearly–I spent ages shaping them in my mind, albeit my terrible drawings could never quite capture them as elaborately as they were in my head.

The Bigheads is probably still squashed away somewhere in my mother’s attic. I spent ages drawing them out in my rainbow-colored pens. They were probably my most successful project from Fourth Grade, if not ever…

In middle school I was finally tested into gifted and no longer spent my time in class sitting bored in the corner, passing tests without ever opening the text books. I finally found a creative bunch of weirdos I could call my own.

We did nothing simply. Dress-up became a full-on soap opera re-enactment. Soccer practice became a musical song-and-dance. Our lunches had to be served in a separate room from the rest of the kids or else they’d come up and rub our heads while we ate: they called it the Gifted Petting Zoo.

We didn’t pass notes, we passed notebooks. Between each class, each of us would sneak our notebook into the next recipient’s backpack and they would spend the whole next class scrawling a long-winded missive about Phillip’s hair or whoever.

I didn’t care for boys. How could I? I was always at least six-inches taller than the tallest boy in class, and I still held a grudge because they were the same boys who called me gay repetitively in elementary school. I only had one crush in middle school and it was mostly fabricated (most popular guy in school, I hadn’t even the patience to come up with a creative lie!). I didn’t write about boys in our notebooks.

So I made things up. Lola the Lizard who spent much of her time living in our English teacher’s ratty hair. That sort of thing. My most popular stories were a strange brand of Harry Potter FanFiction that depicted multiple, almost episodical, scenarios in which Harry started falling in love with Ginny Weasley (called it–sorry, my inner-fangirl will never get over that I TOTALLY SAW THAT COMING!). Eventually, these became so popular that I started getting my own notebooks and filling them with these terrible FanFiction romances, which were passed around school like a John Green novel.

I became known for these. Oh man, I’d cringe to read even a single one these days, but people liked them. We giggled over them in the locker room. Sometimes I pushed the boundaries into the elicit.

We also used to play this game in English where we’d write for a while and then pass our story onto the next person and they would continue it. By the end of class, we’d read them aloud. It was always known which parts I’d written, everyone would turn to me and laugh as I’d take a perfectly dull story and turn it into something absurd. I loved that feeling–making people laugh with my own strange thoughts.

One day before soccer practice, I remember it perfectly, I was at my friend Kelly’s house and, while her mom was otherwise preoccupied (she was a helicopter parent), she took me into the computer room and promised to show me something. It was a website devoted to Harry Potter FanFiction (this was back in the day, FanFiction wasn’t even a term yet). It was like my Mecca. It was just a trove of stories about Harry Potter, hypothetical later books (the series was only on about Four at the time), short stories, minor characters turned into major. This changed my life. It was like giving a twelve year old the key to changing her world.

It’s mildly embarrassing to admit that I started writing because I was a huge Harry Potter nerd. I was a Fangirl, plain and simple. I used to like to write myself into the books. Tall and awkward, I craved a place where I’d be accepted–maybe writing could be it?

I got carried away with the whole FanFiction thing. By high school, we’d all stopped passing notebooks, and Harry Potter had been replaced by Jane Austen. I had fewer and fewer friends and more and more stories. I finished novel-length works that were really just modern adaptations of classic novels.

I fed on reviews. I honestly believe that FanFiction was the perfect place to start for a young writer–hopelessly regurgitating the same plot, fleshing out classic characters over and over again. I can still repeat Pride and Prejudice to you scene-for-scene. I learned what a good story consists of by repeating these stories on message boards. I learned through reviews how people would react to every word I typed. I learned how to write on a FanFiction forum.

Eventually things morphed and I wasn’t even, without even noticing, writing FanFiction anymore. I was just writing. They weren’t from a novel updated or adapted, they were from my own head. Some loosely held the plot of the book I’d posted them in, but they were a whole new thing entirely.

I was becoming my own writer.

It’s weird that I still feel the burn of shame for something that took up so much of my time and childhood. I didn’t want to go to a party on a Friday night, I wanted to stay in and write FanFiction. I wrote it until around the time I graduated college, but I’m not sure I ever intentionally told a soul; every now and then someone would use my computer or look over my shoulder and I’d snap at them as if they’d just offended my mortal being (or rather glimpsed my biggest secret).

I was (still am?) really embarrassed about the whole thing, but, in a way, grateful. I am the writer I am now because FanFiction made me really passionate about sitting down and creating a story.

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Day Forty: Childhood

Let’s start over.

This weekend I passed the half-way point of my novel. I finished through Chapter 12 and about 60,000 words. It’s really perfect timing. I moved to my childhood in Florida about a month and a half ago to live in an old condo my parents own and live off their generosity and my savings. I wanted to write a novel.

I spent this past weekend in my childhood home with my mother helping her set up a new entertainment system. In return she let me dive into the $5 movie bin at Walmart. I found, as if my mother’s presence drew me to them, some of my childhood favorites. The Neverending Story, Space Jam, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and The Brave Little Toaster. (I already own Sandlot and Cool Runnings… all I am missing is Little Giants and my childhood movie collection is complete!) I watched The Brave Little Toaster last night with a glass of wine… It’s still as good as I remembered it.

My childhood bedroom, unlike my younger brother (the last of us to move out and, therefore, whose room is still a shrine to him), was piled with beds after I moved out and thereafter the temporary sleeping quarters for my older sisters and I whenever we returned for the holidays. We have lovingly dubbed it “Girls Cabin” and there is something wonderfully exciting about sleeping on a bunkbed in your twenties. It’s like you go back in time and those childish things become exciting again.

The only portion of my old room that remains is my bookshelf. It’s like a stationary time machine. All of my old books… I look at them and I remember so vividly reading each of them. I have this tendency to leave my bookmarks pressed between the pages–just old scraps of paper like receipts or plane tickets that will one day tell the next reader when that book was last loved. It’s one of the reasons I can’t return books to the library. I like to track the progress of the pieces of myself I leave in the pages like a horocrux.

My childhood bookshelves hold so much of me… Strange classes I experimented with in college. My dark 6-year-old obsession with real Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are bleak at best, and perhaps the origin of all my unromantic notions about Love. My Jane Austen stage, where I learned that maybe I wanted to be wrong. Wayside School, Narnia, Harry, David Foster Wallace, Dumas, R.L. Stein, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Mary McCarthy, everything. My entire literate history is on those shelves.

It seems almost perfect that I’d come back here to write my first children’s book–to my own childhood. Part of me felt like such a failure; quitting my job, leaving New Orleans, coming back with nothing to show for it. I hadn’t had the most wonderful childhood, but I did… I did have a lot. I did get to become me. I’m glad I’m back here to remember that. How wonderful being is a kid is. Even if it’s not… Even if it’s horrible… Even if it’s only the launching pad for who you will become. I’ve realized why they call it your formative years. You’re learning how to be someone.

This week marks the end of my time back in Florida. I’m off to New Orleans on Thursday, just like when left Florida for college when I was 18, for an unspecified period of time. After that, my beloved Edinburgh for two months. It’s as if I am reliving my life so far… going back to every place I’ve ever lived, compressing my life so far into six months. I am retracing my steps in order to move on.

I am trying to contain everything I know from my life so far into such a small place. Into a book.

And then? Grad school… maybe? I applied for an MFA. Somewhere new, at the very least.

All I know is that… maybe it seemed as though I was regressing. But sometimes you have to take a few steps back in order to move forward.

Like turning a page in a good book… I wonder what will happen next.