writing into being

I read a phrase in an article today, cited to Sunden cited to boyd 2007, that in digital networks, with the absence of a body, users are required to “write themselves into being”. I’m not sure of the applicability of this in avatar-based worlds, where one can “be” with just an avatar (even if it’s kind of weird if you never interact), but in non-avatar settings, absolutely.

Whether it’s commenting on YouTube videos, blogging, authoring fanfiction, tweeting, or any other of the infinite ways to write online, most of our expression of “self” involves writing. I think about this primarily in relation to fandom – by writing essays, reviews, fiction, guides, or whatever, a fan creates their presence online in the assemblage of other fans.

We do this in academia too, though. In fact, graduate school is arguably about writing ourselves into being. I’m writing my dissertation now so that I have a manuscript out there in the world that begins the definition of who I am in the academic world. (I am lucky in that I have a few other published pieces already out there that have preceded my dissertation, so I’m already on the way of writing myself into existence.)

Is this an outdated model? We always hear “publish or perish”, but we do other things as academics – we record lectures, we have interviews, we create Powerpoints and Prezis, we display posters. We are not just writing ourselves into being, we are teaching, we are designing, we are creating – we are a multimodal society of scholars. I heard a story from Professor Sara Kajder, one of my dissertation committee members, about a graduate student that submitted a YouTube video of his journey learning to dance as one of his writing samples. She reported that many members of the admissions committee did not know what to do with such a submission – they recognized its value but weren’t sure if it counted as writing.

It’s the same thing in fandom. If you are a fanartist, surely you are part of fandom, but that community existed separately from the writing community for a long time. (Interestingly, many challenges in fan communities now pair up a fanartist with a fanauthor, connecting the two in interesting ways.) Many fans make videos of their subjects, or manipulate image stills from movies or games into attractive desktop wallpapers or user icons. Fandom is an assemblage of all of these people who all contribute to the fan culture by “existing” through different mediums – by posting their fanart, fanartists are creating their presence in an online community.

Hopefully, academia is following more and more in the footsteps of fandom in this way. I have a feeling that the new generation of academics (following many members of the current generation, too!) is going to be much more inclined to embrace this multimodal existence, and include things like video biographies as samples of work.

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“If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good.” -Steven Galloway

How did I learn to write?

I can attribute most of my writing ability to fanfiction.

Yes. Fanfiction. There, I said it. There is some kind of strange taboo about writing fanfiction, like it’s not “real” writing, or that authors are “stealing” ideas from the creators of the original source. There has been a lot of scholarly writing about fanfiction, notably Henry Jenkins.

I have been a writer of fanfiction probably since I could write. The earliest stuff I remember writing was something about the characters in the fighting game Killer Instinctand I still have some of the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 fanfiction I wrote. Note that I was ten years old when these games came out.

I wrote in a number of fandoms, mostly keeping it to myself (before I discovered that fandom was actually a thing and there were other people in it). My most prolific fandom years were  2003-2006, which was when my greatest output was and my greatest involvement in the community. I wrote some really terrible things in that time, but I also wrote some things that I still consider to be pretty good. My whole time in fandom was about experimenting — giving myself the opportunity to try writing, to find my style, to write something really terrible and learn from it. It was a safe space, essentially, where even the most terrible thing would be received with some kind of joy from someone, and where an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer could be found. I met some amazing fanfiction writers and fandom roleplayers in that time, from whom I learned the craft of writing and the value of critique. I count these folks among the greatest influences on my writing style, and moreso on my enjoyment of the writing process.

The point of this is that writing fanfiction was an enjoyable exercise, through which I learned a lot about the craft of writing. Mostly, it taught me that writing is fun if you’re doing it right. Even now, when I’m writing my dissertation, I can see ghosts of my fanfiction writing past. The introduction to my dissertation is an arrival story, taking the form of a narrative about how I arrived as a researcher in World of Warcraft. This is, essentially, a fanfic about myself; is it still fanfic if you’re writing it about yourself?

So there you have it, my admission of my past. How did you learn to write?