Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Art Doesn't Need To Be Torture (And Why I Write Fan Fiction)

"I haven't seen you in a long time," goes the old story about the doctor seeing one of his patients. "Well, you see, doctor, I've been very ill..."

But this is not a story about illness. It's rather about a healing of some sorts.

If I've been conspicuously absent on this blog, all I can say is it's because I have been writing. A lot. Just other things. I even took the plunge and committed myself to NaNoWriMo, the write-a-novel-in-one-month initiative. Having just passed the required 50 000 word mark I am rewarding myself with a disturbingly decadent platter of sushi at our local as I write this. The creamy shrimp rolls at Sakura in Harfield Village are particularly delicious, and the restaurant is a refreshingly unpretentious (and cheap!) little discovery in what is lately a very expensive dining scene in Cape Town.

I'm not ashamed to say that I've also been writing a disturbing amount of fan-fiction. That is, where you take existing characters from your favourite movie or TV show or book and write your own story/-ies. What would be the point of this, you might ask? Surely it's the antithesis of creativity?

I beg to differ. It's been a fertile ground for developing my skills. Some writers would disagree (especially George R R Martin of A Game of Thrones fame), but I'd actually recommend it to amateur writers who just want to have a little fun and play with genres and tropes in a non-threatening way. You can create your own characters (bearing in mind not to fall for the trap of the "Mary Sue," in which a writer inserts an idealised version of themselves to stroke their own ego), make them interact with the canonical ones, create new adventures, play with words. 

There is nothing illegal about fan-fiction, even publishing it online (I do, on the Archive of our Own but I'm not going to out myself completely, God forbid I actually manage to publish a serious original work one day)... as long as one credits the original creators and does not gain any financial reward from it. I would say that it is liberating not being allowed to make money, but instead giving yourself the satisfaction of exposing yourself to (mostly) constructive criticism that will not completely destroy your fragile little artist ego. Sure, one can become addicted to trawling for comments, but then, we do that on Facebook. At least by posting a work you've done something truly creative... even if it is puerile and awful to read!

Not only did she bake the perfect casserole, but she
subverted the very foundations of literature itself!
Don't like the fact that Old Yeller got shot? Give him a rabies vaccination (and ruin the premise of the story.) Want Bella to fall for Jacob instead? Go ahead. Want Edward to fall for Jacob instead and drop the snivelling pathetic creature that is Bella, throwing in some hot werewolf-on-vampire action on the way? Grab that laptop and write yourself into self-indulgent heaven! Want Madame Defarge to be executed instead of Sydney Carton? Well, Dickens is dead and the old man would probably would take your rewrite as a compliment (though scoff at your awful plot Deus ex Machina). 

The first mass fan-fiction came about in the 1960s, mainly focused on the Star Trek series, and was written mainly by women (it still is). Many of the authors would write romances where Kirk would end up seducing a voluptuous young cadet (hence the name Mary Sue, named after one of the supposed writers who fancied herself a piece of young Shatner). And then the phenomenon of "slash" fiction appeared, where stories would focus on a specific pairing of characters, often (Sies! Oh the horror!) homoerotic ones. The first famous pairing was Kirk / Spock, i.e. Kirk slash Spock in fanfic parlance, hence the term "slash". Still written mainly by women. Often housewives. Oh, you delectable sly minxes, getting your revenge on Puritan Midwestern values by writing shocking love stories about The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Now With Added Famous People or Characters (patent pending.) 

One could argue that fanfiction is as old as fiction itself. Steinbeck's East of Eden is essentially a retelling of Genesis's Cain and Abel story set against the backdrop of American history. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a continuation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The Lion King is Disney's technicolor answer to Hamlet. Shakespeare himself borrowed characters and plots shamelessly from other sources.

One of the tropes I actually write is in the Teen Wolf universe, with the character paring of Stiles / Lydia (both of whom are human: Lydia is a red-haired gorgeous banshee like My Awesome Wife, and Stiles is a geeky but loveable nerd... see! I'm Mary Sue-ing myself... so Sue me ... groan... see what I did there...) 

Darling, String Theory is so last Tuesday. Let me update
 you on Quantum Chromodynamics while I do my hair.
I love the characters in Teen Wolf.  The show is refreshing, intelligent, funny, and the best blend of adolescent angst and supernatural thrills I've ever seen. I love Stiles's geeky jabbering and Lydia's ability to solve quadratic equations in Jimmy Choos and Chanel lipstick. I love Scott's puppy dog eyes and struggles with being a newly-bitten werewolf while battling with calculus and English grammar. I love Allison's skill with a bow and arrow that completely trumps Katniss. I love Derek Hale's brooding, emotionally constipated but kindly Alpha werewolf. And in my universe, I can make them do what I want. Derek can bake cookies and Lydia can run for President. (I've written both scenarios). If you're balking and saying "well, why don't you create your own stuff?" wait, while I bore you with a bit more history about the phenomenon. 

What do you mean, you ate all the cookies I baked?!
After the watershed (or Watergate?) that was Kirk / Spock. the phenomenon of fanfiction multiplied as exponentially as Salmonella on warm mayonnaise. The Archive Of Our Own, one of the smaller collections of fanfiction on the net, holds currently just under a million works... 

Another wonderful term (I think) was coined, shipping. That is, when a writer or fan focuses or promotes a specific relationship (like Lydia / Stiles) and a portmanteau is created. So I, for example, ship Stydia. (Stiles + Lydia). And no, that is not a name from the Northern Suburbs in Cape Town. God forbid I did that with my name and my wife's. Our poor children would be called Adalvaugn and Chivalbert. That's just SIES. We're happy to be the fabulous Gordon-Ernsts.

Spock knew somehow that if a 1960s housewife was
writing him, the eyeliner would be amazing.

Often fanfiction authors take requests. And prompts. And crazy crossovers. I'm contemplating putting dear sweet Chummy from Call The Midwife on the Starship Enterprise where she takes over as the new medical officer after McCoy comes down with Altairian Measles, and proceeds to irritate the crap out of Spock, while saving Earth from an armada of hostile Vulcan test-tube babies. Don't ask me where that came from. But it might be fun to write. The rule is: if you ship it, we'll write it. 

Granted, 99% of fanfiction is utterly horrible. And I doubt my efforts are in the other 1%. But the effort has taught me a lot about writing. That writing can be easy and... God forbid... fun, even if I end up trying to sort out plot holes you could fly a 747 through and sentences so clumsy and leaden they could sink the Queen Mary.

You ship it? I'll write it.
You see, sometimes gems are to be found among the rambling mess. When I read over the merry catastrophes I've created, I find paragraphs that could stand on their own, similes that actually work, vocabulary I didn't know I had. And I try to lift them into my own work... writers have been plagiarising themselves for centuries. I've learnt from other writers, for example, little things like the difference between a hyphen, an en and an em dash, and Complex Important Things like narrative viewpoint, bathos and synecdoche. (Don't worry about these — you don't have to know their names to enjoy reading.)

And then, I take a deep breath, and write my own, original stuff, knowing I'm closer to benching my own weight than when I first started with the feather-light dumbbells of fanfiction.

Chummy wasn't sure if her new StarFleet uniform
would be as comfortable as her old East End overalls.
So, partly because I immersed myself in Teen Wolf fluff and some Star Trek nonsense, I got to 50 000 words of original fiction in less than a month. All this while growing my Movember moustache and starting to swim again after a year-long absence in the gym pool. NaNoWriMo simply aims to get you to 50 000 words, whether you finish your project, try to publish it or simply own the bragging rights is up to you. 

It taught me this. Even Steinbeck had to start East of Eden with something as simple as "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California." Even writing "It was a dark and stormy night" and not giving up after that, God help us, makes you a writer, if not a Nobel-Prize winner.

We must stop the elitist, suffer-because-it's-stylish approach to art. Good art will always be good art, and that is born partly out of talent but  —I think for many— discipline and a willingness to look at oneself critically without killing your self-esteem. Not all Picasso's sketches were meant to be displayed in a gallery (even if we do.) But there is no crime in enjoying such a sketch as much as the Guernica.

Adalbert's own Mary Sue was a rip-roaring Navy Seal.
Who could also cook like Julia Child.
 As a writer with a small w, I try not to take myself too seriously. I view myself more of a craftsman than an artist per sé, to be sure, I think I create some art. just as my personal trainer has praised my good form when doing squats while laughing at my poor deadlift technique. Speaking of said personal trainer, who is irritatingly in his mid-20s and a Men's Health cover model (and intelligent to boot! Sorry ladies, he's taken) taught me a valuable lession. I was cursing myself and fumbled a bench-press and said "Sorry." He nearly slapped me. "Bru," he yelled at me good-naturedly in his sunny KZN accent, "don't you ever say sorry! You're a legend for trying. Now do it again!"

So it doesn't have to come out perfect the first time. I wish people would get over their fear of creating something. Of course, it's because of the fear of being criticised. But do we mock a child for (to quote an example from Steven Pinker) applying the "–ed" past tense rule in English to the verb "hold", as in we *holded the baby rabbits instead saying "held"? No, unless you have a personality disorder. In fact, the child has learnt a rule and is not criticising itself to boot. It just hasn't picked up on the nuances yet.

I think we must embrace the joys of creativity with the same childlike innocence — at first. Later, a healthy dose of cynicism will add zest, and hopefully allow us to use our creative cojones to recognise what can be improved and not break into a million tragic pieces when someone criticises (or simply dislikes) our work. And I, lowly aspiring amateur writer, have the gall to hate Nobel and Booker-prize winning JM Coetzee's Disgrace and even find errors. I can't stand the novel, and feel that it's an exercise in The Emperor's New Book. Millions would disagree with me. But do you think Coetzee gives a flying fandango about my little opinion? Of course not. But I have read his book, and that should be another victory for him, I would hope.

So excuse me while I have fun and go back to Stiles dodging an angry troll while being pissed off that he's helped his best friend Scott be the best werewolf he can be while never being thanked. I'm going to have fun. And that, I've realised, is when I do some of my best work.