Three years ago, I wrote this post about taking a detour around my haunted head. I was writing a story I have long since scrapped (or, let’s say, I saved it for later). Instead of concentrating on the main plot, I wrote a 30K piece about the villain and the heroine getting down and dirty with each other. And all of a sudden, writing happened almost magically and on its own. Before, I struggled to get my daily word count goal of 300 words down. When I finally gave in and wrote what was basically a wild AU fanfic for my own, unfinished story, I wrote 3000 words a day.
This was before I started writing actual fan fiction. Now my little detour has turned into a rather extensive trip. But that’s not a bad thing, really, and here is why.
Almost one million words of fanfic down the road, I’m in a similar place to back then. Writing is no longer easy. It’s even worse than back then, when I freed myself from being stuck by essentially doing what Chuck Wendig calls WWYL – write what you love. I wrote what I loved for three years. It might look like a huge chunk of wasted time. When I’m in a bad place, I catch myself thinking: I have written one million words, posted them for free on the internet, and have nothing to show for it.
But that’s not exactly true. Granted, my detour around my haunted head took a little longer than planned, and I fell deeper down the rabbit hole than I ever wanted to let happen. And maybe this rabbit hole is filled with tar and holding me back, and struggling to get out of it takes more of my strength than I have to give. I’m sitting on a heap of debts from getting a useless degree, and I’m not one step closer to actually living the dream and being a serious writer™.
What a pity party.
Now, the thing is: I didn’t actually waste three years and one million words. My brain might tell me otherwise, but my brain is riddled with depression and anxiety and I generally don’t trust it when it sneers at me. Generally. That’s a whole other battle.
Valuable Lessons from the Bottom of the Rabbit Hole
#voice, or: beloved broken bricks
During these three years, I’ve grown confident and comfortable with my voice. I’ve switched languages. Back when I wrote the first Haunted Head post, I was still writing in my native language, German.
Which did make sense for my original fiction.
When I started writing actual fan fiction for a TV show, I started writing in English. It’s just the universal language of fandom. Searching AO3 for works written in German for the specific pairing I was writing for returns exactly zero results. There’s just no audience for it.
I’ve become so used to writing in English that I can’t even fathom writing in German anymore. I tried. It feels foreign and clunky and just weird. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel limited by writing in a language that’s not my own. When I compare myself to other writers, I feel painfully inferior. They craft heart-achingly beautiful stories in riveting prose, while I’m over here building stories out of rugged and broken bricks.
Yet I’ve come to accept those bricks as mine. I’m taking my limitations and turn them into my strength. My lack of vocabulary forces me to find images, similes, and metaphors to express exactly what I want to express.
(On a side note: Sometimes it’s not I who is lacking the right words. German is a language of poets and thinkers, and it has words for intricate conditions of the soul that English just lacks. Working around that gives my writing something unique and fresh. Plus, not carrying around worn in clichés in your vocabulary can be a nice advantage.)
Now that I’m writing and publishing my own stories, I’m still writing in English. It’s not something everyone accepts without critique. I constantly have to defend my decision against my husband, my family, and random people I meet at the bakery in the morning, asking me how the writing is going. It’s not a secret that I’m writing, and I live in a small village. You can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. People know you, and they know no boundaries in their curiosity. My dentist asks me about my writing while rummaging around in my mouth. Being a writer turns me into a novelty, if not an oddity.
The good thing is, the fact that I’m writing in English is usually enough to deter people from asking for more details. Their sad “Oh – then I can’t read it” reaction only needs to be answered with a sorry smile and a shrug. No need to tell them that the subject of my stories – more often than not wicked, dirty, salacious sex – probably won’t go well with their reading palate anyway. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands is still a scandalous book here.
#theme and genre, or: the pantie drawer
But that brings me to the other thing I learned through writing fan fiction. I did not only find a voice, I found my writing home base. There’s a lot of room between one million words to explore and identify the themes your writing is gravitating around. The beautiful thing about fan fiction is that it defies genre. This is in stark contrast to the publishing world, where even despite the great democratization of publishing brought through the opportunities of self-publishing, storytelling itself still struggles with the need to define and pin down a genre for your story.
Of course, it makes sense. Readers want a place to look for stories that might interest them, and they want to know what they get. For me as a writer, this leads to being confronted with the ubiquitous advice to find my genre and stick to it.
Genre is like a drawer for my story. There are drawers for socks and sweaters, drawers for camo wear, LARP or the little black dress. I’m mostly writing in the pantie drawer. Yet I don’t always want to hang out in the pantie drawer. Sometimes I want to stray over to the LARP section and don a Renaissance dress. Besides, while genre is a handy label, the relationship between people is what draws me in, and the innumerous ways those relationships manifest. Sex is one aspect of it, but there are countless others, equally fascinating aspects, and sex is but one sticky facet of human relationships.
Writing fan fiction showed me the facets with the most pull for me by letting them emerge over and over in the stories I told, beyond any consideration of genre.
I’m actually mixing aspects here, because while genre is not only the drawer and the outer fabric of a story, themes are on the inside of it, like the lining of those panties. The theme is buried deep in the guts of a story.
#putting the finger on it, or: the personal spin
My center of gravitation lies in the irks and quirks of communication (or the lack thereof), and the difficult process of navigating a relationship of whatever nature. This theme can be dressed in any costume and packed into any drawer – it will always line the insides of my stories as long as it’s the focal point of my writing.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you write a million words of fan fiction to identify what underlying theme propels your writing motors – unless that’s your jam and you want to. You don’t even need to identify your theme. Writing is entirely possible without underlying metaphysical contemplations.
Recognizing a recurrent theme in my stories has helped me, though. I’ve always written from my guts, and I’m a pantser first. Being able to put my finger on the inner workings of a story, on the sticky stuff between two characters, provides me with a lens through which I can look at my story and determine where it snags.
#apprenticeship, or: the horror of blank pages
There’s another reason why my trip down the rabbit hole does accumulate to more than one million wasted words and three wasted years: This has been my apprenticeship. Everything I learned in that time about myself, about writing and storytelling, the friendships I made and the struggles I had, it all enables me to do and write what I do now. I honed my skills.
Writing with the projective of publishing (no matter in what manner) can put you under a lot of pressure. It’s scary as hell. Facing a blank page that you have to fill with words someone else will read some day is terrifying. Facing a blank page knowing that you have to fill it because at the end of the year waits the first rate of your student loan debts to be paid back and you have to make money somehow so you’ll still be able to sleep and eat and maybe buy a book or two in any given month – it’s terrifying. Your whole existence as a writer is hinging on this blank page, and it’s so scary that you’re unable to breathe.
Allowing yourself to leave that blank page to elope with a story, maybe even just the fragment of a story, that will never see anyone’s eyes but yours can actually balance some of that terror.
In the end, it might be nothing but a trick: Giving yourself permission to write a story no one will ever see enables you to write a story that’s real and honest and taps into the core of what you really want to say.
So maybe, when you’re done, you have a story that, even if it will remain private, has helped you on your journey and enables you to write your next story.
Not every story is meant to be sold. Some are just meant to be told. (#cheesy).
To come full circle: at the beginning of this post, I said that I’m probably in a worse place writing-wise than I’ve been three years ago when I wrote the first Haunted Head post. Yet I just spent 1.5K on telling you what I learned while allowing myself to write what I love without any regards to money (which, I realize, is a very privileged position to have. Not everyone has the means and time to pursue a hobby for three years without doing anything else).
The thing is: I decided to leave the cozy comfort of “I’m learning and these stories don’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t really matter because it’s not as if I would get paid to write this and MINE IS THE FREEDOM HELL YEAH”. I’m now facing the blank pages of professional writing hell, and at the end of this lane wait shattered dreams and debt. It’s a step that leaves me paralyzed with fear. I’m suffering a writer’s block worse than ever before.
Which means: It’s time to try my own trick. To overcome the resentment I now feel towards any and all writing, I have to do the *write what you love* thing once more. I have to write as if the sole purpose of it is my own indulgence. Self-affirmations and sticky notes of positivity plastered all over the place have never done much for me, but I’m rather susceptible to believing my own lies: This is just a test. Write as if no one’s watching.