Like many typical single-parent, Hot-Pockets-for-dinner, latchkey kids who grew up in the ’90s, I had a lot of time to myself. I liked to read, and so was never without friends, real or fictional. I also started writing even when I couldn’t physically write much. Grade schoolers in Taiwan learned 40 new Chinese characters a month, and by the last year of elementary school our lexicon would be at “newspaper level,” which meant between 2,500 to 5,000 most commonly used characters. The idea was that if you stopped learning new characters then, you could still get by for the rest of your life, and it frequently happened that you knew how a word sounded but couldn’t write it down. By second grade I itched to compose my own poems and short stories, so I got around my limited word bank by hiring a middleman: I dictated to my aunt, who would patiently scribble my half-stories and nonsensical poetry down on scrap pieces of paper that littered the house.
Imagine the linguistic nirvana when I moved to the United States and learned English. The entire language is composed of just 26 letters. Commit these 26 pokey, curly things to memory, and any thought I had could be instantly communicated on paper. How beautifully efficient and accessible! It was the new millennium, and I had discovered a new frontier. I was eleven years old.
English was a gift that kept on giving. A defined alphabet meant I could read anything, with the luxury of easily locating an unknown word in the dictionary (the Chinese system is similar but more complicated). At this point my mother was still single and I was still microwaving Hot Pockets for dinner, so there was plenty of time to peruse the local library.
Not surprisingly, I transitioned seamlessly into A Huge Nerd. Fantasy was my favorite. Special things happened to special people in wildly special places, and nobody ate Hot Pockets ever. I tore through Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis and Tamora Pierce, played Final Fantasy and watched Star Wars, but like so many others who grew up during that time, it was Harry Potter that became the fabric of my new world.
I had read the first Harry Potter book in Chinese, when I still lived in Taiwan. I remember sitting down on my grandmother’s couch in the middle of the day and when I looked up, I had finished the book and it was, my grandmother scolded, way past my bedtime. In July of 1999, Prisoner of Azkaban was published, and that August I tucked a Chinese copy of it into my carry-on luggage (next to Dragonlance and Pokemon in all the colors) and moved to the United States. That copy of Prisoner would stay in a purse that went with me everywhere for the next six years, even after I ceased to read anything in Chinese.
When I started to write my own fanfiction, I felt unstoppable.
My love affair with Harry Potter ballooned of its own accord, like a yeast dough left to rise and forgotten. It was more than a nice story in a far-off land where I could escape. It introduced me to fanfiction, and the marvelous and baffling community that made up the HarryPotter fandom from people all around the world. I consumed copious amounts of fanfiction in both English and Chinese, and Japanese when I picked it up in high school. I made friends, both real and in cyberspace. When I started to write my own fanfiction, I felt unstoppable. Like the English alphabet, here were places and characters and spells, all at my creative disposal to do with as I pleased. In Taiwan, you had to do as everyone else did, but thankfully I was all the way across the ocean and nobody told me no, you can’t do it this way.
That was perhaps the most magical element of it all. At the core of their being, fanfiction writers are adventurers. They don’t tell themselves no. They thumb their noses at social norms and expectations. They nudge pre-established boundaries, poke at characters to see who squirms in what way, they spin the original text round and round like a rubix cube, observing it from all sides and imagining a few more of their own. They stitch new ideas to the original text so deftly that you can’t tell what’s “canon” and what’s fan-made. The good ones, at least, did all this and more.
Nearly ten years later, I would sit in a graduate creative writing workshop and watch people struggle with what I had learned so long ago through fanfiction.
There were plenty of bad fanfiction, including my own, and those taught me as many lessons as the good ones did. I spent years lurking in a forum that focused on tearing bad fanfiction apart. From Harry Potter to Star Trek to My Little Pony, nothing was safe from the cold, hard gaze of the GAFFers (contributors of what was known as the Godawful fanfiction forum). Like any internet space, GAFF had its share of malice and trolling, but all I know about writing originated from these anonymous internet folks and their merciless, humorous commentary. A cardinal rule was to never judge the writers, just the quality of their work: This was very important and my first brush with constructive criticism and its role in creative growth. Nearly ten years later, I would sit in a graduate creative writing workshop and watch people struggle with what I had learned so long ago through fanfiction.
Even the good fanfiction authors looked at their work with a critical eye. In addition to websites that hosted fanfiction, many writers posted their work directly on their Blogspots and LiveJournals. This meant their fanfiction existed in the same virtual space as diary-like entries on the authors’ daily lives or personal essays on current events, from movie reviews to spiritual introspection to political activism. Not only were you privy to some excellent writing, you could also enjoy a valuable peek into the writer’s creative process. One author compiled just the first line of a dozen pieces of her own Harry Potter fanfiction, and skewered them one by one for effectiveness. One story started with, “Harry donned the robe.”
“Dear lord,” the author wrote (I’m paraphrasing — this was over a decade ago). “I think I was trying to go for pithy here, but ‘donned’? Why didn’t I just use ‘put on’? ‘Donned,’ really?”
And that was how I learned to write.
People have mixed feelings about fanfiction. Some insist that it’s cheap imitation, unauthorized “borrowing” from the truly creative. Some don’t think it’s real writing. Some, like me, have clung to it like a lifeline while adrift amongst the wild waves of adolescence. It introduced me to friends, gave me a sandbox to play in, and words to speak when my personal lexicon was limited. It gave me lifelong membership to this global network of unimaginably creative people from all walks of life, speaking all sorts of glorious languages. I no longer need a middleman; I can create whatever I wanted without fear or hesitation, because I have everything I need. Including Hot Pockets.
Like many Millennials, Janice Yu Cheng has two degrees that she paid too much for, an apartment she can’t afford on her own, and multiple cultures to navigate while on the phone with her mother. She currently writes and designs marketing material for a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, but most of the time she is thinking about her cat and the next travel destination she gets to AirBnB.