Before I was a writer, I was a young girl surrounded by men telling stories, courtesy of being raised by a father who had grown up in the town I would live for seventeen years of my life. There were countless early morning trips to the small town cafe, where I was pulled sleepily into a chair, was given a cup of black coffee filled with sugar, and spent hours simply listening. These are still some of the most vivid memories I have, even as young as I was: the memory of cigarette smoke creating a haze above the table, scorched eggs, the smell of dirt from work boots, and the rich, deep voices of men with words to share.
I was surrounded by this particular brand of middle-age, blue collar Southern worker for morning after morning. There were farmers, truckers, factory workers, and ranchers; these men sat around their tables and told story after story, holding court in the dark hours while the rest of the town was still dreaming. They weren't fictional stories, but they were embellished to better keep the attention of their audience. Sometimes a listener would contribute a detail, say something that triggered a memory, and the story would change and grow. Sometimes one person would start a story about a fishing trip and another who was there, or knew someone that was there, would finish. Sometimes a teller would constantly build on what he was saying with questions from the audience: why that decision, why that purchase, didn't they know who to talk to to get those tree stumps removed? It was a collaboration, a group effort to build a history of children, pets, household troubles, and family events. It was a group of interlocking tales that formed the story of one small town.
The stories changed, but continued as I grew up. They followed me wherever I went. Stories were told at barbecues down by the river, where the homemade muscadine wine flowed sweet and potent, cicadas screeched, and the talk went on late into the night. Stories were told on the playground at school, while the audience hung from jungle gyms. Stories were told on a myriad of hay rides, like ghost stories, built up and passed down for generation after generation. Stories were told over tables at the butcher's lunch counter, and in the bed of trucks in the parking lot of the local grocery store. Stories were told in the cramped, scorching hot reception of the gas station, where the mechanic would shout out details to the parts of each story the teller was leaving out through the open door to the workshop, because he knew them all since he had heard them multiple times. In the sweltering heat of the long Arkansas summers, the huge, lone box fan in his shop would distort his voice, reverberations making his additions sound commanding and unarguable.
Telling a story in front of a group is an art just like writing; it's like writing a story where the draft is the final copy, there's no chance to edit, and the critics are your competition. Oral storytelling is ancient. It's immediate, intimate, and pressing. People's attention is easily lost so you have to be clever and quick, choose the right details and not let the pace lag. But it's collaborative, too, watching your audience, interacting with them in the telling of it, folding in their perspectives where they suited, and for me, it was addicting.
I grew up on collaborative storytelling, listening to it, learning the flow of good pacing, and learning just the right amount of what should be said to move the plot along, especially in regards to dialogue. Looking back, these weren't just men talking, but some of the most enriching writing workshops on effective dialogue I can remember. So much of how I write dialogue comes from these moments, thousands over the span of my time in these groups before I developed my own interests and drifted away; the rhythm of easy conversation, the flow of a story perfectly highlighted with artfully placed dialogue, already difficult to do orally. The men who told the stories of my childhood were a varied, but tough audience. They cared, so long as they were being entertained, and if you lost them there was always someone else willing to pick up their attention and run away with it. Many of us do this in our own social groups, but the context matters, too—these men were invested, but they were looking for distraction, looking for material to work with for their own stories later, to kids, other friends, and wives. We're all building different types of stories, and thus, different types of communities. These moments were some of the most formative of my development as a writer as I watched stories succeed and fail, although I wouldn't realize until much later the impact they had on me.
Because of this culture, it's no surprise to me that I became so dedicated to fan fiction and fandom when I found it. I loved original stories: reading them, watching them, listening to them. But when I tried to write my own stories instead of simply tell them out loud, I faltered. I told a good story; people listened when I spoke. Yet I wrote hundreds of stories that felt lifeless, flat, that sounded all wrong when I read them aloud, from a combination of my being very young and unpracticed at writing, but also lacking passion for what I was doing. But when I found fan fiction, I found collaborative storytelling, a community building shared narratives that were familiar to me in form if not in content, and suddenly I was telling stories that had verve. I was writing stories with a level of excitement that inspired me, even if they were badly written and I was extremely glad when they were lost in the depths of the Internet.
It wasn't the writing specifically that was the problem. Instead, it was writing in a vacuum without a critical community around me that knew pieces of the narrative I was building. It was the loss of sharing something that hindered my ability to believe in the stories I was telling. As a young writer, I needed that community. I had grown up in a culture that valued shared narratives; fandom, with all its complicated intersections of fan fiction, art, meta, and commentary about itself, carried me forward as a writer in ways that performing original writing alone might not have ever done.
I chose fan fiction and kept choosing it because it kept providing an outlet for the type of storytelling I grew up with. There's an ongoing conversation about fan fiction as a track to launch a professional writing career, and while I can't argue with that position as something a fan might choose, for me fan fiction is about creating something with people who are passionate about the same stories and characters as I am. It's about writing a story for a friend when they're having a bad day that you know they'll love because you know their favorite character. It's about making a stranger's day with a fan fiction exchange gift, written to their prompt. It's about the pleasure of writing a response to an episode or plot twist that helps you understand your reaction to the material. It's about that piece of meta about your favorite character that you forward around to everyone and discuss at length. Fan fiction is collaborative, creative, and at its core, about the community around it. So much of writing can be lonely, but I've never felt lonely here, and that's been important to my development as a writer.
I find now, twenty years in fandom behind me, that so much of what I love about fan fiction, is the same thing I loved about the stories I listened to as a young girl, surrounded by people who valued stories and their connection to social networks and community memory. It's about comfort, familiarity, and the safety and challenge of community. It's about the ability to share something with other people who are invested and care just as much as you do, even if you disagree. It's about building a community and a history, one story at a time, and remembering that the stories we tell eventually belong to all of us.