This week, two of my favorite writing newsletters touched on surveillance, productivity, and rediscovering the joy in writing. With capitalism’s relentless emphasis on self-optimization and side hustles, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of tracking every single thing, of gamifying my interests and hobbies in ways that suck the fun out of the activities themselves.
I remember my therapist asking me in one of our first meetings what I did for fun. I proceeded to rattle off a bunch of side projects. She interrupted me, repeated her question, and added, “How do you play?” It was a startling and sad moment when I didn’t have an easy response. In the years since, I’ve been trying to reformulate my answer.
In Yanyi’s latest letter in The Reading: I believed that self-surveillance was good, because surveillance was how capitalist interests had always coerced me to do my “best” work. Without surveillance, how would I measure success? More importantly, without surveillance, how would I prevent myself from predicting and avoiding failure?
In Jack Cheng’s Sunday letter: When I think of why most systems of productivity or organization don’t necessarily work for me – why I’ve rarely been able to fill one journal or planner before moving onto another – it’s because the motivating thing for me wasn’t the system; it was the thrill of trying something new. It was always the joy and excitement of it.
Yanyi recommends taking a writing break, that by doing nothing and clearing space in your life you can “reconstruct your relationship to nothing.” Jack recommends reading books that excite and compel you. Me? I contribute to a Hugo Award-winning project, which is a fancy way of saying that I have started writing fanfiction again.
Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a project created by the Organization for Transformative Works that hosts fanworks, i.e. fanfiction and fanart. It is fan-run and supported entirely by donations. It’s a noncommercial and nonprofit site built in response to content purges and exploitation by social media giants. Its code is open source and volunteers have helped make it one of the most sophisticated tagging/filtering systems on the web. People, overwhelmingly women and queer fans, spend hours writing fics and leaving feedback. I’ve read fics that are both novel-length and novel-quality — all written for free. No one is paid. There’s only a button for Kudos.
I first discovered fanfiction.net (real ones know) when I was in middle school and obsessed with Pirates of the Caribbean. It was one of the first places I ever shared my writing publicly and was my first experience writing for a real audience, even though I didn’t use my real name and no one knew how old I was. In this newsletter, I’ve talked about the difficulty of getting your butt into the chair to write. But back in those days, I was actually excited to log onto the family computer (remember those?) and open up a blank Word document.
Last October, partially out of boredom and partially because I wanted to try and detangle my sense of self from my work and the pursuit of visible success, I finally stopped lurking on AO3 and began to write fics of my own. On AO3, I’m just a username without an avatar. I write the trope-iest things, overuse italics, and Oh my God there was only one bed! I’ve participated in fic exchanges and wound up writing 9000 words (even though the guidelines only suggested 5000) just because it was so fun to keep writing. Whether someone’s comment has been a keysmash of asldfa;sldkjf or a multi-paragraph close reading of the fic, it is a reminder that a writer’s job is first and foremost to connect with readers.
The author N.K. Jemisin, who has won three Hugo Awards, writes fanfiction and likens it to “one big giant writing workshop [...] that’s voluntarily joined and cranks on and on.” It's helped her hone her ability to hold readers’ interest and she still uses it to experiment in new genres. I’ve similarly found fanfiction to be not only invigorating and enjoyable, but also valuable for the encouragement it provides and insight into what readers respond to.