Last year, after we finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I gave my eighth grade students a creative writing assignment. “Write your own chapter,” I instructed them. “It could be an extra scene that takes place during or after the events of the novel. It could be a secondary character’s take on an event that’s in the novel, or it could even be a secondary character’s take on an event that isn’t in the novel.”
“So basically, we’re writing To Kill a Mockingbird fanfiction,” one student said.
I paused for a moment. She had told me before about how she posts fanfiction online. “I guess you are,” I agreed. “Yeah.”
That wasn’t an unusual assignment for me to give a class. I love having students write something creative that is in some way inspired by what we are reading together. Sometimes, especially with poetry, we’ll mimic the style or format of a model text. Other times, I’ll ask students to write a letter or journal entry from the perspective of a character, or I’ll have them re-tell a scene from the perspective of a secondary character, or write an epilogue if they don’t like the way a book ends. Recently, I’ve given both seventh and eighth grade students the option of writing a fictional story they make up completely or using characters or events from a book we are reading. Some students love the chance to create characters, a setting, and a plot from scratch. But for other students, beginning with the characters, setting, and even events from a published story frees them up to do their best, most vibrant writing.
It had never really occurred to me until last spring when my eighth grade student made that comment that I might be encouraging students to write fanfiction. And I still didn’t think much about what fanfiction is or why people write it until I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
In Fangirl, the main character, Cath, is a dedicated and accomplished fanfiction writer. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow series—and in particular, Simon’s relationship with his roommate, Baz—and she has a massive audience of online readers.
I loved many, many things about Fangirl, but I especially adored one passage, in which Cath explains why she’d rather write fanfiction than “original” fiction. “I know Simon and Baz,” she tells her creative writing professor. “I know how they think, what they feel. When I’m writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I’m happy. When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s like swimming upstream. Or…falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall” (262). Her creative writing professor responds, “That’s how it’s supposed to feel” (262).
I can certainly relate to Cath’s description of how difficult it is to write her “own stuff.” And I think it’s pretty easy to feel that, if writing your “own stuff” is so exhausting and terrifying, then you must not be cut out to be a writer.
I’ve read research about how struggling readers often don’t enjoy reading, and therefore they don’t read much, and therefore their reading skills don’t improve. I think it might similarly be true that people who find it difficult to write creatively (…which is probably pretty much everyone…) might not go out of their way to do much creative writing, even if they might ultimately be great at it.
Reading Fangirl reminded me that writers of all ages and experience levels can benefit from writing tasks that don’t feel like falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches that may or may not exist. Sure, as Cath’s professor cautions, fanfiction generally can’t be published in a traditional way (although retellings of fairy tales, Jane Austen novels, and Shakespeare plays sometimes can). And for students who are really interested in writing, there probably is a point at which they should be pushed to write something truly original.
But luckily, as Cath’s writing professor also points out, writing one’s “own stuff” doesn’t have to mean creating a world from absolutely nothing. Professor Piper encourages Cath to start an original story with “something real.” “With one day from your life,” the professor suggests. “Something that confused or intrigued you, something you want to explore. Start there and see what happens. You can keep it true, or you can let it turn into something else—you can add magic—but give yourself a starting point” (307-308).
With something as disorienting and frustrating and exhilarating as creative writing, I think it’s important to find some kind of grounding—some kind of starting point, which could be a moment from real life, or, at times, inspiration from another story—before “falling down the cliff” of a new project. You’ll still be grabbing for branches on the way down, but at least maybe you’ll have some sense of where they might be hanging…or where you should put them, if you have to invent them yourself.
Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Print.