This semester, I am taking a course called Women Writers. Next week’s topic is Rethinking the Maternal, with lots of intriguing readings on how women can balance the selfish needs of a writer with the selflessness of motherhood–or if it can be done at all. Now, Bobby and I have chosen to be child-free, so this doesn’t impact me much personally, but it does in so far as it affects women writers whom I care about and whose work I enjoy who have chosen (or will one day choose) to have children, and of course, it affects the writing of women as a whole, which being a feminist, I care deeply about. So I find the topic fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it recently, having never really thought of it before.
One of the thoughts that has crossed my mind and is currently sticking in my mind like a cockleburr and annoying me and refusing to be dislodged is how a similar conflict exists between writing and fandom. I say “fandom” because this blog is largely aimed toward fandom and because fandom is where I am most comfortable, but really, I think it applies to any sort of group that encourages (or is even based solely or primarily on) creativity and is maintained by a collective effort by members of the community. For example, I am also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and I find many of the same conundrums that I experience in fandom arising there as well.
Writing or creating artwork is a selfish endeavor. It is done alone, usually in solitude or silence (as, indeed, I am alone right now in the house with the only sound the humming of my laptop; even the dogs are outside). At times, the drive to write and escape from social obligations drives me to the brink of madness, and I become a truly unpleasant person to be around. Luckily, Bobby understands this and packs me off into an empty room with my laptop and a couple of hours to write. I am not the first writer to lament the words on the page and how they might have translated better into folded laundry or dishes put away or time spent in the company of others who might feel hurt that I am not around. I sometimes feel like an exceedingly selfish person for my writing. (In fact, I should be finishing a school paper right now and even feel a little guilty that I am writing this instead.) For the few years that I participating in NaNoWriMo, November was such a time of peace and relief. It was something official and even impressive-sounding (“I am a participant in this year’s National Novel-Writing Month” *polishes fingernails on the front of waistcoat*), and it was a good excuse to avoid other activities and write instead. I remember when Bobby was playing in a particularly far-off hockey league, and I used to go to all of his games so that he was not driving home exhausted and alone, and I used to take my laptop and write while he was playing. And, sometimes, people I knew would sit down with me and make conversation, and how I longed to say what I was thinking: “Would you just fuck off and let me alone to write?” Only that was exceedingly selfish, so I never did, and who knows how many words didn’t get written because of it. I feel guilty, even now, lamenting those lost words when, clearly, socialization was the right and proper and human thing to do, and people were just trying to be nice to the lonely eccentric woman over by the soda machines. But when NaNoWriMo was going on, everyone was warned up to a month in advance, and I was left alone, and I didn’t feel guilty about it. I was, after all, serving a project larger than myself; it was not so selfish as writing simply because I wanted to.
Fandom, on the other hand–or groups like the SCA–are entities that value unselfishness in the form of service to the community. Forget the above paragraph for a moment and meet Dawn the Archive Owner and Webminister and Volunteer. One of my most passionately uttered values is the importance, as part of a community from which one derives as much enjoyment as I do fandom and the SCA, of contributing in some significant way to that community. Fannish communities are built almost entirely on the contributions of members of that community; if, tomorrow, the co-moderators, volunteers, writers, and reviewers of the SWG all decided that they wanted to leave the time and effort that they spend on their various contributions to someone else, then there would be no SWG. That is the surest way to shut us down.
But the SWG (and many other fannish groups) is by name and definition a group of writers and artists, people whose work is by its very nature selfish and solitary. Almost four years after I formed the SWG, I’d have to say that my only regret, in creating this group for fandom and doing all of the service that that entails, is again, the lost words: the stories that I wanted to write and didn’t because obligations to the community. I am beyond proud, delighted, and thrilled with the SWG and what it has accomplished, and I would never ever unwish it, but sometimes–in the midst of doing the fannish equivalent of changing dirty diapers or playing stuffed-animal tea party–I lament the lost ability to be selfish and wonder what I could have produced in the last four years if I’d never created the SWG.
I have always been proud of my involvement with fandom–and this, quite unexpectedly, has increased the more that I study literature–because I see its collective, shared creativity as more of a return to the creativity that has been natural to the human race since our distant ancestors first started singing verses around the campfire at night, adding and changing where they saw fit. I see the recent turn that creativity–writing in particular–has taken, with its obsessiveness over possession and markets and profit, as the abnormality, not the desire to create based on what has already been done by others. But, at the same time, writing is largely a solitary act. How does that fit into a collective community? For me, I find that I have the same balancing act as that described by mothers who are also writers, who have to make the choice between a crying child and a whispering muse (1), only my choice is between the whispering muse and a webpage that needs updating, emails that need answering, a newsletter that needs writing, announcements that need posting … all of these things that need to be done in service of the fannish ideals in which I believe so strongly and which, almost always, trump my creative ideals, in which I also believe but are easier to defer: They are selfish.
The first creative communities, artists/authors produced songs and stories for the entertainment of an audience that was usually not artistic itself; the artist/author might find able subsistence from this audience: “singing for one’s supper,” if you will. In the modern “real” writing world, markets exist that seek and publish fiction to provide to an audience and, hopefully, these markets compensate writers fairly for their work (excuse me while I have a good laugh at that last point ………….. thanks, I’m better now). In both cases, the artist/author is independent from the majority of consumers of his or her work, and the “community” in which she or he operates is also maintained by people who are not usually themselves artists/authors. Therefore, the creation and maintenance of the infrastructure by which such creativity is produced and shared does not interfere much with the actual production of that creativity.
Fandom is different: The same people who are producing creative works are usually also those who are building and maintaining the communities necessary for that work to be produced and shared. Most archive and group owners are themselves writers; most of our volunteers (and all of my co-moderators) with the SWG are also artists or writers, and so whenever they give their time to their group, then that is taking time from their writing. The audience for fannish works is also, largely, the same people producing those works, so whenever I hear of people who review x number of stories for the MEFAs or review everything posted on a particular archive or community, then I can’t help but to think that that contribution comes at the expense of their own creative endeavors. But, of course, they are making a very necessary contribution.
What is the solution here? There is no solution. What is beautiful about our communities–that they are collective and run by those who are themselves artists and writers (versus those looking to turn a profit on the efforts of others)–is also to our detriment: Those who believe most strongly in service to their communities will feel the pull of both obligations, and it won’t always be pleasant, and the “selfish” and creative will most often lose out, which is itself a loss in words unwritten and ideas unexpressed.
I do wonder, also, to what extent this is a manifestation of fandom being a “female space,” as some like to call it (amid much controversy, of course). Most cultures teach young girls to be selfless, to be helpers, to put their needs below the needs of the group. In women, selflessness is still valued, as evidenced by the continued fervor of the debate over whether or not mothers belong in the workplace. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to value more their individual accomplishments, and it is understood that a degree of selfishness is to be expected. (I remember reading once, when I was very young, that American culture teaches us to see psychopathology in the mother who chooses her needs over those of her children but not in the man who uproots his family, takes his wife from her family and friends and his children from their peers and familiar home, in order to pursue a career that will not benefit that family in the least; in fact, might be to its detriment as the responsibilities of said career take him away from home even more than he already is and, possibly, to a city or living conditions that are ideal to no one but him. That might have been the moment when I became a feminist, being as this point has stuck with me across, literally, almost the entirety of my life. I only wish that I could remember where I read or heard it to give proper credit.)
I wonder how these values that are still taught to girls and esteemed in women have shaped fandom, and I wonder how this will affect our creative accomplishments. Is there a connection? I don’t know. There are, of course, men in fandom, and several Tolkien-based writing groups are run by men, and I do not intend to dismiss or diminish their contributions. But the Tolkien-based writing community is 95% female (at least) and so, presumably, the culture of that community is female as well. I wonder, sometimes, what male-dominated fandoms (and they do exist) look like compared to female-dominated fandoms, like the Tolkien fandom. Do they feel the same conflict between personal creation and contributing to the collective? And this goes, I think, beyond something so large as creating a group or archive. Do they drop everything to write a ficlet for a collection dedicated to a friend whose going through a rough spell? Do they read every story participating in an award or fest and leave comments for all the authors? Do they set their own work aside because a friend needs a last-minute “emergency” beta-read? Most of the people that I know in the Tolkien fandom–male and female–have done at least one of these things at some point, but the Tolkien fandom–being dominated by women–would of course have evolved a value system created largely by women.
To what extent are these values female and not merely fannish and expected parts of any collective community?
These are questions whizzing through my head lately.
An Afterword …
I don’t often write about my experiences as the owner of the SWG for the simple fact that such “confessions” seem to result in an outpouring of gratitude and back-pats that I think people feel are obligatory and that make me feel bad and slightly dirty, as though I have solicited something undeserved for an endeavor that I find very enjoyable and gratifying without people feeling the need to regularly prostrate themselves before me. I make a conscious decision to continue as the owner of the SWG because I love my group and am proud of what it has accomplished. I am breaking my personal rule about writing about my experiences with the SWG here because, as the owner of a mid-sized fannish group, I work well as an example for this topic; nothing more and nothing less. This is not a hint of dissatisfaction or a fishing for praise, pity, or gratitude, and I am going to request that people not turn this post into a session of the above. The contributions of members and associates of the SWG that have allowed us to accomplish what we have, despite being a small and very niche community, have been and continue to be gratitude enough.
1. Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Writing and Motherhood,” in The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature, edited by Mary K. DeShazer, 621-637. New York: Longman, 2001.