Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fanfiction as a Coping Mechanism

A few thoughts on... well, it's all there in the title.  Just a heads up, this post is pretty depressing.  Everything is below the break, as usual.

I've been thinking a lot about death, lately.

Before you start wondering: I'm fine, my family and friends are all fine, etc.  But I always think about death a lot around this time of year, for personal reasons.

When something's on your mind, life has a way of throwing it in your face.  So although I know better, sometimes it's hard to see it as a coincidence that at the moment when my thoughts are already bent in that direction, some guy massacres a bunch of moviegoers at the Dark Knight premier and suddenly the news is full of stories about the victims.  It's hard to see it as a coincidence that seemingly every athlete competing in the Olympics is out talking about how they're going to win for their recently departed mother/father/sister/best friend/pet boa constrictor/whatever.  It's hard to remember that there isn't some agency out there, trying to rub your darker thoughts in your face.

Even within the confines of the pony fandom, I find myself reminded of death.  The first reminder came about a week ago, when fanfic author Cold in Gardez, currently stationed in Afghanistan with the US military, posted this.  If you haven't already, I strongly urge you to read it; I can think of nothing which brings home the incomprehensibleness of death so poignantly as he and his team scouring a field, looking for a suicide bomber's fingers, so that they can fingerprint him.  When faced with something as overwhelming as what they encountered, the human mind has a funny way of latching on to something, anything, which can give meaning to what's going on.  If you've ever experienced that feeling yourself, you'll understand immediately what he and his compatriots were doing.

The second came just a couple of days after.  On Friday, I plan to post my review of Silent Ponyville and its associated side-stories.  Back in December, fanfic author Ace2401 happened across this blog when EqD linked to it, and had mentioned at the time that he was really looking forward to me reviewing those stories.  We'd chatted a couple of times since then, and I was aware that it was something he was excited about (also, he offered to help me figure out what order to read all the side-stories in, since they're sort of a boondoggle on the main page).  Although I hadn't talked to him in several months, I went to send him a note through FIMfic, and let him know that I was finally getting to them.

That's when I found out that he died almost two months ago.

I didn't know Ace2401.  Heck, I only talked to him three times, and I wasn't even aware he was in poor health.  I don't know his actual name.  He's basically a total stranger to me.  But whether because death was already on my mind, or because there's something inherently tragic about being excited for something as simple as a fanfic review and never getting to see it posted, or out of simple guilt over the above (I know exactly how silly it is to feel guilty about not reviewing this story faster, and how silly it is to think that something like that was important enough that it would even have crossed his mind to regret it.  That doesn't make me feel any less guilty), finding out that he'd passed on hit me hard.

If it seems like I'm dancing around something, it's because I am.  I'm working up to a personal story, and I don't really do personal stories.  It's that whole Midwest stoicism thing, I guess.  Anyway.

I've mentioned before that I wrote fanfics for other fandoms before MLP.  I've also said that I was driven from those fandoms multiple times by oversensitive authors and an inability to find quality reading material.  That's all true, as far as it goes.  

But the specific reason why I abandoned fanfiction for the "final" time--why I abandoned creative writing entirely, until a year and a half ago--was because my little brother died.  

Before we go any further, I'd take it as a kindness if you refrained from telling me how sorry you are for my loss.  Thank you.

The two of us were very close, and I didn't handle his death well.  I'm crying just typing this.  Needless to say, I didn't really feel like continuing the Silmarillion fanfic I was writing from the point of view of the Dwarves.  Especially since Dwarves were his favorite race in LotR.  And that was the last time that I wrote anything for fun for over five years.

So when I see news stories about the Aurora massacre, all I can think is that my brother would have camped out at the theatre to get into the midnight showing.  When I read Gardez's blog post, I remember sitting in the non-denominational chapel at the hospital, trying to get in the "perfect" praying position, because maybe if my head was bowed at just the right angle and my fingers were steepled just so, then God would be more likely to help my brother make it through the night.  And when I think about Ace2401, I think about how I never showed my brother that Dwarf fanfic, never even told him I wrote fanfiction, even though he would've loved it.  It was terrible, it really was.  But he'd have loved it.

Back to January 2011.  I'd just found MLP, and of course saw all the fanfiction being written (a dribble compared to what gets produced daily now, but it was still a pretty significant amount).  I read a few stories, and I remembered just how much I'd enjoyed creative writing, once upon a time.  So I made a google account, opened up a blank doc, and started typing.  

The story that I wrote had nothing to do with my brother.  But writing it was like discovering that I had been carrying a pair of bricks in my jacket for so long that I'd forgotten about them, only to have them suddenly removed.  I felt... lighter.  I wouldn't say I felt better (funny thing: when someone close to you dies, people always chant "It gets better!" at you like a mantra.  It doesn't.  You never, ever feel that loss less acutely.  You just learn how to bully on despite it, or else you go mad with grief), but I felt calmer than I had since the accident.  Like there was a muscle in my chest that I'd been clenching for years, and it had finally started to relax it just a little bit.

Oddly enough, I'd spent most of those intervening years involved in other artistic endeavors (singing, mostly), without the same effect as that bit of creative writing.  Different things work for different people, I guess.

It doesn't take a lot of searching to find other people who've used fanfiction as a coping mechanism.  Gardez talks about as much in his post (seriously, if you didn't read it before, you should).  Just among stories that I've reviewed on this blog, Jera mentions in a story note that she wrote Tomorrow about her father's passing, and Chicken Vortex talked in the comments on my review of Getting Lucky about how writing it helped him while he was suffering from depression (death isn't the only thing people have to cope with).  In the end, we're all doing the same thing: we're writing fanfiction as a way to help us work through our problems.

Of course, lots of people just write fanfiction for fun, too.  Heck, I, and probably all the authors I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, write primarily for enjoyment; it's not like we're only part of the fandom as part of some convoluted attempt at self-healing.  But at its best, fanfiction can do for a person just as much as any other form of artistic expression: it can allow them the benefits of escapism, with all the trappings and rewards of laborious creation.  And that's something worth celebrating.


  1. It's amazing how the human mind works sometimes, really. That way that sharing an experience, imaginary or not, with others somehow lifts a weight off your head. I mean, the "audience" doesn't even have to be real itself - you don't even have to publish anything, just writing it on your computer seems like enough, somehow. In a way that having a daydream, or just freewheeling your imagination, doesn't; there has to be that process of fitting the pure ideas into the confines of words, of somehow making it "real". Like, in some silly way, you're really living through this.
    You just know it's gotta be linked to that innate human desire to make art, to create, SOMEHOW. But this is all way over my head: And I don't think ANY number of science types are ever gonna figure all this out.

    But equally interesting, I think, are all these lies we tell each other, about how we think it ACTUALLY works; the "it gets better" crap, for instance, it's really more for the speaker than the addressee. A way of assuring themselves. Like the process of writing, saying it aloud makes it feel more real for them.

    I'm not going to say much else, both because you asked, and because I wouldn't insult you with any more empty words on a computer screen. But I will thank you for writing this, nevertheless.
    I know I haven't exactly been commenting much around here, but I'm certainly most intrigued by your writings. Please, never stop, whether is ponies or not!

    PS: Reading this comment again, I do hope I didn't sound too presumptuous or anything here. It's just, well, a lot of what you said rings true with stuff in my own life. "It gets better" might be a lie - but "You're not alone" definitely isn't. It's not a lot, but it still helps, I think.

  2. I...really don't know how anyone could respond to a post like this. Especially someone like me. I've been lucky. I never lost anyone really close to me, or been in a warzone, or seen someone die before my eyes. It just makes me feel so damn petty and stupid for complaining about my own problems.

    If you wish to discuss writing as a coping mechanism, then I have used it like that in the past. I never really started seriously writing fanfiction until I was about fifteen, and only because I wanted to see if I could get people to read. They did, so I kept writing. I followed that pattern for almost eight years, trying out new styles and techniques to keep improving myself.

    After I graduated from college, however, I started to fall apart. My attempt at earning a teaching credential ended in failure, and with an English degree, finding work was almost impossible. I ended up getting a dead-end retail job at Walmart, cleaning up after customers and performing manual labor. I suffered complete meltdowns at least twice, and seriously entertained the thought of suicide more than a few times, but tried to keep up my writing. It was one of the few things that kept me mostly sane.

    Finally, though, I just stopped. I simply didn't care anymore. My family was treating me like I failed them personally because the job market bottomed out, the one job I had wasted the talents I do have on things I have no skill in, and I just saw no end in sight. After all that, was writing fanfics that nobody would read worth it? So I just gave into my depression, stopped taking my meds, and sank into a self-destructive cycle for a while.

    I won't say that Friendship is Magic changed my life, but it gave me something to be involved in again. The show was the first one in so long not to involve itself in the disgusting side of our world, and instead focused on just being a good person. The show allowed me to shoulder on through my work, my personal life, and everything else, because it gave me something to look forward to afterwards. When I got home around midnight, I could go check Equestria Daily and see what was posted. Once my job applications were submitted, I could browse Ponibooru and check out the new art. After so many years of just surviving, it actually made me feel alive again.

    That's why I started writing again. I wanted to be a part of something grand and wonderful. It gives me a chance to feel like I matter, if only just a little.

    We all have our crutches to get through life. Art is one of the best outlets for our emotions out there; it allows us to express our innermost thoughts and feelings in a manner we choose, so that the outside world can better understand us. Writing is just one such way. Some people prefer singing, or painting, or drawing, or sculpting, or just about anything else. It's all a matter of what works best for you.

    This is, by far, the most important post on this blog so far. I salute you for being so open and forthcoming with us, Chris, and good luck.

  3. Easily the best sad pony-related thing I've read*. I guess because most fics with the sad tag are there to make you feel sad, but this exists to discuss coping with sad-type things. Thank you so very much for sharing this post.

    *Since you gave Bubbles 4 stars, this implies that this post is 5 stars on your rating system.

  4. First, hugs because carrying around those thoughts for even just a short time reintroduces you to the jacket weights.


    What gets to me is that bit about Ace2401. That's the first I've ever heard of a brony dying, and I've lately been wondering how the fandom would react to just such a thing. In this case, there doesn't appear to have been any reaction, just a notification from a family member, a single "RIP" and this post. But I still wonder. What if he'd been someone more notable? Had more friends or watchers? How will we react when people fitting that description pass away? Obituaries on EQD?

    Death on the internet is a strange thing, because the person's words never go away, they just stop being added to. I really, really wonder about it...

    1. I've heard of one other case where a brony died. It drove her boyfriend into depression and tore apart his team. He can't even watch ponies anymore, let alone create with them. I thought her loved ones could use some support from the community, so I messaged Seth about doing a memorial on EqD. Felt like a fool when I discovered the whole thing was fake

      I hope nobody takes my failure to comment on the main post as a sign of apathy. I just never know what to say in these situations

    2. And the internet claims another fandom. Though I suppose expecting any internet-based group to be above such ridiculousness is a sign of naivete. I know that feel, bro.

  5. It's a funny thing, but after a full five+ years of wishing I was dead, I don't even think about death any more. There's just no fear left in it for me, and far too much work to do amongst the living to spend my time on it.

    What I did want to address (partially with reference to CiG's blog-post), is that there no better or worse when it comes to trauma. All to often I hear (or read) people negating their own experiences because it's 'not as bad as so-and-so's.' This, in my experience, is never true. It's easy to be dismissive of the rich kid who suddenly has to 'go without' like the rest of us, but it doesn't matter how or why your world gets shaken up, it hurts just like it does everyone else. There are billions of people in the world in pain, and billions of reasons why.

    Every single one of them deserves to be loved and comforted. No exceptions. Not ever. No one persons pain is less valid than another's, and it pains me when people deny themselves that expression.

    1. I've never seen anyone else speak up about this idea before, so I have to comment.

      People joke about first-world problems and so forth, but the fact is, even though not getting the exact color car you wanted for your 16th birthday is less of a base need sort of problem than not getting enough food on a given day, problems are still problems, and they still cause people stress. I've never liked the mindset of "be glad you're not", because it trivializes the issues of both: one party is made into a martyr and object for analysis rather than a person, and the other is made to feel guilty, and guilt is a horrible emotion to have to deal with.

      Perspective on one's place in life must come from within. It cannot be forced, but should be nurtured. Meanwhile, help those who need it, regardless of why. (Well, within reason, I suppose.)

    2. Perspective, empathy, and sympathy are three very different things. Too many people see the last two as synonymous, and the first as the antonym of that amalgam, and so restrict their comforting to either "tough love" or unconvincing truisms, depending on the perceived severity of their target's plight. Would that more people were able to offer all three to those that really need it.

      Thank you all for your comments, and more: for keeping those comments substantive and insightful. I really do appreciate it.

    3. Honestly, it's just nice to have a small community where stuff like this can be discussed sensibly at all. It's been something notably lacking in most of my life.

    4. Yes; the ability to have substantive, insightful, mature and intelligent conversations about pretty much anything is one reason I love this blog.

    5. (yes, it is awesome indeed - now, if only these we had threaded replies here!)

      On the subject of negating experiences/"1st world problems": I really wonder how much of the confusion Chris mentioned comes from the way our society's being more and more industrialized-numericated-'optimized' (as an aside, "cultural efficiency" is one of the scariest terms I have ever heard). That's been true ever since the industrial revolution, obviously, but never so much as the last century. I mean, the 'modern' approach that works for computers/factories/bureaucracies is, everything HAS to be sorted and logically assigned and calculated and stuff.
      And, if people work in this environment long enough, that's GOT have some subconscious effect on how they think at other times, too. Suddenly, people start forgetting the perfectly normal human factors, and start comparing themselves, logically(!), to starving kids in Africa or something. And as we aren't made for logical thinking, that just makes us depressed and creates "I suck so much for thinking I have it hard" complexes, which then just spirals all the way out.

      Of course, this wall of text could be utter idiocy, too. (jesus i wrote too much)

    6. Okay, I DIDN'T write too much. Silly tiny comment text-boxes.

  6. There's not that much that I can add...

    I will say that when Chris gets around to reviewing my story in 8 months, or however long it'll be, that he notices the second part of the synopsis. Not that he'll necessarily see this comment, or will even remember if he did, but, yes, writing can be a coping mechanism, even if done vicariously. I didn't know my mother-in-law that well. My wife's relationship with her was complicated. But I still saw what effect her decline and eventual passing had on my wife, and I wanted to express that, albeit with a different ending. And I can't even share it with my wife because I'm a damned closet brony.

    In a way, it does get easier, and in a way, it just gets... different.

  7. I wrote something similar to this yesterday when I finished "Do Not Serve These Ponies":

    Here's a copy of the journal entry:

    Dear Princess Celestia,

    Do Not Serve These Ponies is complete. [link]

    That was fun. Really fun.

    I wrote it specifically to unwind. I've had a really rough last month, with all kinds of drama and pressure and all my creative pursuits suffered from it. I've been producing nothing but sketches artwise and a line of depression ran through all my RP characters at the same time. I'd finished a lot of stories, all of them tragic, some of them real. I was on a real downswing.

    But I kept writing a lighthearted comedy throughout it. And it did me the world of good.

    Writing when you're not in the mood for it is hard, but I kept pressuring myself and pushing myself and kept the thought pattern alive. I was really close, a lot of times, to just dumping the story, throwing up my hands and saying "I'll come back to it later" and then never doing that. Finishing projects does not come naturally to me; it takes real willpower to get off my behind and do stuff.

    But complaints and excuses only last until you start writing and really enter the flow. When your hands are dancing and you've lost all perception of time and the questions just answer themselves. And then, afterwards, rereading it and being impressed with the jokes and phrases and turns of language that had been thrown out by your semi-comatose brain. It's a massively rewarding experience.

    Do Not Serve These Ponies reminded me that writing could be fun. That's a terrible thing to forget, and I will endeavour never to do so again. The act of creating forced positive energy onto a negative world. The act of laughing forced mopiness into joy. The act of sharing it with my friends made it worth every second.

    I didn't have a plan for this story, any deep issue I wanted to talk about or intention to change the world or subvert expectations or challenge reality or anything else. I just wanted to write a silly, funny, light-hearted comedy to spite a hostile and depressing world. If I brightened somepony's day or painted a single silly ray of colour across a dark and dreary room then I've succeeded. Heck, not even that. I brightened my own day, and painted my own room. This story was for me. It made me feel better. If it made the world feel better that's collateral damage. Collateral joy.

    I'm happy. If I've made any of you happy too, then I'm also proud.

    Yours truly,

    - Thanqol

  8. Funny thing, how death loves to remind us of its presence in the strangest ways. Almost as if its pointing its skeletal finger at us, reminding us that we're always in its crosshairs.

    I knew Ace the best of all us SP crew... he was the kind of friend I could just call up on gmail chat and talk and jest about the most mundane things.

    I knew he had health problems. Knew they were serious.

    Never occurred to me that he wouldn't survive them all until the day I got an email from his mother telling me that I would never get a reply from him about my last few emails asking where he was.

    I've always had a fascination with death... though nowadays I'm beginning to wonder if the interest is mutual between us. From states of depression that lead me to nearly taking my own life as a child, to people I know dying in the most eerily bizzare ways (ie a few years ago, an old friend of mine who was younger than me was crushed under a table by a tornado, and was the storm's only fatality), it sometimes gets to the point where I think I might be suffering from delusions of reference, where Death itself is the object of interest.

    I am very much looking forward to this review... Silent Ponyville was the story that brought me, Ace, and Sam (aka Jake Heritagu) together as friends. I don't think its ever possible for me to get over something like this, but I hope that you, at the very least, can...

    ...also, if you're mentioning the side stories? Which might potentially include mine, the first full recursive fanfic of SP? Be gentle with me- it was the first fanfic I've ever written before in my life, and I didn't have an editor or pre reader of any kind. I wrote it mostly to amuse myself and entertain Sam and Ace, which is exactly what it did.

    My attention to detail was lacking in some areas deliberately (ie deliberate OoC moments as the town starts playing mind games with its current target), but most of the time it was just me having fun with myself. I say this because when I look at it in retrospect while I'm expanding upon my own AU's characters, I recognize that my early work's quality is very lacking by my current standards.

    Well, looking forward to seeing your thoughts,