Expanding Literate Landscapes: Persons, Practices, and Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Kate Sharer.

Chapter 4 | A Lengthy Trajectory of Interweavings:
Knotworking English Studies and Fan Activities

Fan Fic-ing Creative Writing

Describing the journey that would eventually bring her to graduate school, Kate stated, “I wanted to teach creative writing, and I had applied to some MFA programs right out of undergrad, but I didn’t get in.” She worked as a secretary at her father’s business for a year, enjoying the opportunity to be around family but not finding the job itself very fulfilling. She wanted to find a position more aligned with her interest in her writing, but, as she stated, “I didn’t think I could get a job I’d like with just a bachelor’s degree in English. Then I decided to get an MA instead of an MFA.” The English MA program at the large research-oriented university that accepted her application offered a specialty in creative writing, and Kate eagerly adopted that specialization as her own and enrolled in a creative fiction writing class taught by a popular and enthusiastic professor.

As it had with the creative writing class she took as an undergraduate, it would seem that Kate’s extensive experience with fan fiction and her related science fiction writing would serve as a resource for and blend more or less harmoniously with the demands of the graduate creative writing course she took during her first semester as an MA student. Two weeks into the class, though, Kate encountered significant resistance to her efforts to weave her interest in fan fiction into her writing for the course. For the writing sample students were asked to submit, Kate provided the instructor with a fairly polished draft of story set in a futuristic city named Seven that bustles with robots, hovercars, and roving thugs armed with laser knives. Within this William Gibson-esque landscape, Kate’s story details the romantic relationship developing between two characters: Clarendon Reyn, one of the city’s most prominent citizens (and one of the central figures in Kate’s fan fiction novel), and Juste Bishop, a reporter with the city’s last print newspaper. We include here an excerpt from Kate’s story:

He stood on something like a short pedestal, making him seem slightly taller than the rest of us. Everything about him was angular: hard grey eyes, hair pulled back severely and with a pronounced widow’s peak, bony shoulders in a long black coat that fell too large around his body. I wrote some bitter adjectives in my notebook, but the other reporters just watched him. They had hovering robots to do the recording for them.

“I’m delighted to welcome you to my first tour. I’m sure you’ll find it very intriguing … different from anything you’ve previously seen.” He was like the guys who sold stuff on the streets near my flat in the low-class Paren district, a strange quality for a rich man. Some of the other reporters were craning their necks, desperately trying to see into the museum. Viola Vice surreptitiously motioned for her round little hover bot to edge closer, but before it got very far, Reyn snatched it out of the air.

In richly detailed prose, the passage describes one of the initial meetings between the two main characters, as seen through the eyes of Juste Bishop, at a press conference for the opening of Reyn’s museum. Although somewhat backgrounded, elements of Kate’s fan fiction are visible, most clearly in the repeated references to the robots hovering around the scene.

Discussing the professor’s reaction to her writing sample, Kate stated that after reading it “[the professor] asked me to drop the class because my writing was too much like cyberpunk” and thus conflicted with the kinds of short story writing the professor privileged in a graduate-level creative fiction writing course. Kate’s sense of the issue was that the professor perceived the writing Kate wanted to pursue in the class as being “genred” in ways that were not “literary or academic enough.” Elaborating on her sense of the professor’s interpretation of her writing sample, Kate stated

[the professor] probably thought that I was kind of cheating in terms of being creative because by using fantasy settings maybe I wasn’t working as hard as if I were adapting characters into a real world. But I’m not so sure. It’s a lot harder to figure out, like, how would this work in a world where people interact with robots on a daily basis, or where there are hovercars moving around and that kind of thing. I think that the fantasy stuff is harder.

The professor’s vision of the kind of writing students needed to produce in the course conflicted with Kate’s long history of drawing together disciplinary writing and fan fiction, a history that included overtly drawing upon fan fiction for the creative writing course she had taken in college. It also challenged the literate identity she had assembled, a conception of herself as a writer that reflected the extensive nexus of literate practice from which she drew. Such challenges to the notions of themselves as writers that persons bring with them to graduate education are not unusual. A number of studies (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman, 1988; Blakeslee, 1997; Chin, 1994) document individuals’ efforts to negotiate the conflicts between the literate selves they had developed through previous encounters with schooling and those they are asked to take up in later disciplinary encounters. In Kate’s case, though, much like Charles’s experience in the Introductory Journalism class, the conflict centers around her engagement with vernacular literacies that hold such a prominent place in her sense of herself as a writer.

Kate commented that she could have opted to do other kinds of creative writing in order to remain in the class and continue with that specialization, but she felt that it was more important for her to be able to include her vernacular activities in her disciplinary work, to maintain the literate identity she had constructed: “I could have stayed in the [creative writing] course, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay in and write something I didn’t want to write.” Sensing that the course would not offer her the opportunity to continue her long history of weaving these literate activities together as fully as she wanted, Kate dropped the course and began searching for a specialization that afforded the fuller interplay of vernacular and disciplinary activities.

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