After finishing a good novel, it takes a moment for the shapes, sounds, and scents of my “real” world to phase back into existence. Then I find another book at The Strand, and the cycle restarts. But there are certain stories so vivid and vast that they stick with me for much longer.
The Harry Potter series is one of them. Getting my hands on a Harry Potter tome was the only reason to go to Costco. But sometimes a year-long wait between books was unbearable—I needed my fix immediately. In 2005 at age thirteen, I waited for my mom to free up the phone, used the dial-up connection (oh, those days), and discovered Fanfiction.net. I created my first online persona, a silly moniker that was an amalgamation of what I hoped would be my future careers—four to be exact: architect, artist, violinist, and pathologist. (I was ambitious and don’t worry, that didn’t last). I lurked for a year and read fantastic stories. What if goblins had raised Harry Potter?? What if he had undergone more training to handle the Horcruxes? But nothing came close to sating my curiosity, nothing came close to what I had in my brain. It’s true, what people say about writing what you want to read.
So, while other teens were going to Third Eye Blind concerts at The Oakdale Theatre or obsessively watching “The Hills,” at age fourteen I published my first piece of fanfiction.
My initial years as a fanfiction writer were empowering. Nothing was more pleasing than finding a flood of positive fan reviews in my inbox. Certain writers, like old-crow, Robst, and Mathias Granger, were well-known for their writing and exuded authority over fanfiction laws; getting a review from them was akin to getting praise from J.K. Rowling. On the downside, as an amateur occupying the same space as so many talented writers, nothing felt more gutting than getting “flamed,” or receiving critical reviews.
A strange discomfort fell like curtains around me whenever I read or wrote fanfiction. Perhaps it stemmed from no one else in my life knowing about my hobby. Maybe I also suspected my writing was horrible. I carefully saved my stories in password-protected Word documents, on floppy disks that are now lost underneath my bed along with my elementary school art work, middle school orchestral music scores, and—I’m sure—my retainers.
This embarrassment drove me to find writer friends and beta readers online who felt the same way. We exchanged private messages and AIM chatroom conversations, which, in retrospect, was not the safest thing to do, but also not as creepy as people might imagine it’d be (hey, I’m still alive!). We were fluent in a language only familiar to fanfiction writers: one-shots, A/U and canon, pumpkin pie, OTP, etc. We were intimate despite anonymity and the infinite girth of our webspace.
In 2009, two fanfiction writers I admired passed away. A forum listed their monikers followed by their real names. I searched for them and found traces of their lives that were rarely discussed online. They had spouses and children and struggled with diabetes and cancer. A few writers penned stories as tributes, showing how two beloved fanfiction writers could posthumously unify our strange collective.
It was time to leave fanfiction when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One debuted in 2010. I was a college freshman. While my friends said Toy Story 3 signaled the end of their childhood, Deathly Hallows felt much more significant to me.
For years, I had borrowed the work of another author. The conclusion of the series pulled the tablecloth out from under me, and what remained were scattered utensils and chipped plates of my writing. My grammar? Slightly better than Dobby’s. My plotting? As obvious as RAB’s identity. I spent many writing days feeling hopeless, envious, and most of all, angry, because I thought I needed Harry Potter to write.
As it happens with most writers, my frustrations became my fuel, and I vowed to re-learn the craft of writing. I expanded my reading list tenfold and took fiction writing classes to beat the melodrama out of me. I created other worlds with not only my imagination, but also the slices of personalities I met in my freshman dormitory and details from my suburban upbringing. I wrote what I knew.
I am grateful for the world that J.K. Rowling created and for the generosity she showed—and continues to show—her fans. (My respect for her is “always.”) After allowing my works to be exposed to relentless, faceless critics, I now welcome editorial feedback. I fully embrace my identity as a writer, and have found solace and support from a group I met through my MFA program. Unlike my fanfiction days, these writers have faces I can put to names.
But of course, nostalgia hits me at random moments. I visited Fanfiction.net while writing this essay. The site sports the same simple web design (blue and white with Verdana font) only now there are more sexually suggestive ads than I remember. Going to the website felt like returning to my hometown, where new buildings have cropped up, staple hang-out spots have shut down, and longtime residents have moved, replaced by new blood who will redefine the town’s livelihood. Though I was disenchanted, I still recognized my roots on the website. I signed on to my old account and answered many year-old private messages from fans. They asked when I might finish a story (to which I laughed out loud, because it’s ridiculous to ask that of any kind of writer). I reread my old stories and cringed at my grammatical errors and melodramatic scenes. I saw my writing for what it was—but was glad to see how much my writing had changed.
I also stopped by Portkey.org, a website specific to shippers of Hermione and Harry, Ron and Luna, James and Lily, and Draco and Ginny (!), and received an error message. I’m not surprised this haven is gone. The website was born from an unfulfilled wish, but the story is now complete and set in stone.
Though a website might die, fanfiction lives on. Because every novel breeds a new set of dedicated readers and writers willing to run with the spirit of creativity. I admit I feel an occasional pull back to this world. I go to type Facebook into my URL address, but absentmindedly type in Fanfiction.net. Scrolling through my news feed, I see a mention of Harry Potter in some form—a Fantastic Beasts film update just popped up, actually—and immediately, I think about the old days. But I resist this nostalgia. I now have my own stories to tell.