It's hardly a unique position but when I was a teenager, I felt seriously uncool. Nerdy, geeky, awkward, whatever you want to call it. It was bad – we probably haven’t even yet discovered the unit of measurement that can sufficiently describe my state back then.
This isn’t one of those and then I became a swan! essays, though – your narrator remains, for the most part, as awkward as ever. Thanks to time and many mishaps, I am managing to stumble my way into that serenity prayer of accepting that which cannot be changed. Science says the average human being is about 60% water but here's how I imagine I break down: 20% affinity for '80s soft rock; 30% devotion to useless facts; and 50% eternal thirst for reading, a solid proportion of which is devoted to the glory that is fan fiction.
Better scholars than me have mounted strenuous defences of fan fiction. To me, the debate (fan fiction versus "proper" books) has always seemed strange – surely there’s space for everything. I’m a writer, so yes, I read a lot of books, but I also think you should take your pleasure (and your learning) where you can find it. If that occasionally/sometimes/frequently happens to be on a website where the collective fangirling is such that it could legitimately serve as an alternative source of renewable energy, then so be it – let’s go live our best lives.
I was about 12 when I wrote my first book. I’ve long since lost the manuscript but I remember it was called Sparring Partners, a title I’d “borrowed” from one of my sister’s Mills and Boon novels. It was a buddy cop comedy/romantic drama set in New York, which also had, inexplicably, a subplot that closely mirrored the narrative beats of Point Break.
I wrote over a hundred pages, both sides, in handwriting that changed from paragraph to paragraph, the ways kids do when they’re still figuring out different ways to be. All nostalgia aside, I’m absolutely certain Sparring Partners was terrible. But what I recall most about the writing of it was that the simple act of getting those words down, armed with just a Bic and a lined A4 pad – blue feint, pink margin – felt a little like meeting myself properly for the first time.
But soon there were important exams to be studied for, and a real life in the real world to be mapped out and made. Intentionally or otherwise, the message was that writing should be set aside.
So my writing stopped but my reading never did. When was the first time I came across fan fiction? I have a vague recollection of being surprised: So this is a real thing people do? It gets hazier after that point, because then, Reader – I married the internet.
My family thought I was being conscientious over my studies when I cursed the horrors of our unreliable dial-up connection and frowned at the temerity of people wanting to use the landline during normal waking hours, but really I was just craving those stories. It meant a lot of my fanfic reading was done at night: tumbling down the virtual rabbit holes of my favourite shows, lights off, with just the glow of the computer screen illuminating my face. These were the days my heart belonged to Angelfire websites and LiveJournal. Nowadays I’m usually Tumblr-bound, but the overall effect is pretty much the same.
The fanfic world is vast and I’ve only ever known a tiny corner of it, but that’s fine: I live in and love my wheelhouse – that wonder of wonders, the One True Pairing. My everyday acerbity dissolves when I am reading OTP fanfic. I can track my age by some of my favourite OTPs, the same way you age a tree by its rings. There were the Shawn and Angela days – distant now but still heady; my Mulder and Scully phase that fizzled out before the show did; Sam and Mercedes – an OTP that truly was a cinnamon roll too pure for this world, because its fandom cared more for it than its own show ever did. More recently, there’s been Rae and Finn, who I’ve mentioned in a previous piece. (In the course of writing it, I transcended into my final form: a giant heart eyes emoji listening to "Wonderwall" on repeat.)
If the writing’s good and it’s about one of my favourites, there is no overplayed trope I will not accept. The meet-cute stories? Roll up, roll up! The "we’re not a couple but for some reason we’re going to have to share this bed" hijinks? Write me another! The "we couldn’t stand each other’s guts at first but oh, wait – now I think I love you" ones? I will read them all in their infinitesimal variations for as long as I am a sentient being.
Choosing a fandom is one thing but putting down roots in a particular community can be even better. Like any group, fanfic boards can be subject to weird tensions, wrongdoings, and implosions. Every now and then there might be plagiarism scandals (seriously, people – don’t do that), overbearing individuals who spoil things for others, and then that inevitable bittersweet time when the posts start to dry up because the fandom is fading and eventually, you disperse.
At its best, though, it can feel amazing. The boards are many things, not least brief, beautiful windows into the lives of people you’ll probably never even meet. And you’re all there because you love a TV show (or a play, or a book, or film) so much that you’ve found ways to not let it end.
There are equivalents of the literary bestsellers – people whose fanfic gets the most notes, follows, and comments – but even if you’re not one of that elite crew, someone, somewhere, is likely to give you a thumbs up. I’ve seen people explore matters of gender, sexuality, mental health, disability, and body image in sensitive and complex ways, which, historically at least, were often not represented in "standard" publishing. There’s also the beauty of seeing writers get better at their craft, blossoming from story to story – and eliciting the same burst of excitement as when I take down a favourite author's latest from a bookshop shelf.
My own foray into writing fan fiction was relatively short – several years off and on, mainly in the Dawson’s Creek fandom (and yes, I still judge the content of a person’s character if they say they wanted Joey with Dawson in the end). If you imagined there were only so many ways to tell the story of Pacey and Joey, then I and a bunch of other writers would have said the ways of telling were infinite, dependent only on the reach of our imaginations.
I used to be embarrassed about the fact that I wrote fanfic: Part of me felt like others would think it was an overly intense way of engaging with a show. But then I didn’t talk much about my "original" writing either – perhaps it was a general discomfort at showing how much my writing, whatever format it took, meant to me.
These days, the only thing that pains me about my fanfic is the actual quality of the text: Like most writers looking back at their early work, there’s a lot to cringe over and much I’d change if I could do it all again.
Yet those were the stories that taught me how to write to deadlines.
Those were the stories where I first properly wrestled with how to balance "people, places, plot, pace, and prose".
Those were the stories where people I’d never met were so generous with their time, so close with their reading, giving me such kind and detailed feedback, that even thinking about it today, almost 10 years later, still makes me smile.
Those were the stories where I began to understand the importance of community, among writers, but also between writers and readers. To paraphrase Junot Díaz, it’s important to make space for readers in your work because ultimately, you’re trying to have a conversation.
Those were the stories where I started to believe I was a writer.
At its best, writing is about the connections you’re trying to create and the truths you’re trying to discover.
The stories I write now have the same purpose as my fanfic, at least in part: the hope that readers will feel something resonate within them. But I’m also writing to find my way back. Back to that girl with her Biro and notepad, who thought her awkwardness was something she would grow out of.
You never quite will, I want to tell her, but that’s not so bad.
Because eventually, she’ll find a place to put her stories. Eventually she will find places where she will feel like she is part of a huge, bright, beautiful thing where people create skeins out of words. Places where the loveliest and simplest of experiences will occur again and again – people will see each other, or at least parts of each other, even the parts of which of they are uncertain and think strange – and call them fine. They will call them good.
The feeling I get when I sit down to write these days is not wholly dissimilar to how I felt sitting down to write chapter 3 or 13 of a fic: What’s the best way for me to do justice to this particular piece of work? There’s that same silence while I watch the cursor on the screen, my heart keeping time with its blinks.
And then I start.
Karen Onojaife's short story "Here Be Monsters" is featured in Closure, an anthology of short stories by black and minority ethnic British writers. She is a VONA/Voices fellow, and her debut novel, Borrowed Light, won the Reader’s Choice award in the inaugural SI Leeds Literary Prize.