When I was nine years old, I started a comic.
I laid on my bedroom’s tan carpet, carefully drawing and coloring each panel, a plastic tub of colored pencils beside me. When I finished a page, I’d run downstairs to the kitchen, where a pot of spaghetti sauce was simmering on the stove, and interrupt my mom’s cooking to show off my latest work.
I don’t remember exactly how long The “L” Gang took to complete, but when I finished its seven pages and had written “THE END!” in rainbow letters on the last page, it was time to publish. Gathering a spare three-ring binder and some sheet protectors, I carefully slid each page into its plastic sheath, which I then hooked over the binder’s silver rings. When I was done, I held it in my hands. Here was a real comic. I could turn the pages, it had a cover–this was the real deal.
A few years later, when I was thirteen, I started another comic.
This time, there was no binder, no sheet protectors. Although I asked my dad to print one copy for posterity, I didn’t rely on the comic’s tangibility to consider it published. Instead, I got near-instant gratification by uploading it to my deviantART account.
Eighths vs. Sevvies continued for five strips. Over the course of those five strips, I developed a digital coloring technique, practiced drawing and pacing comics, and even had a thoroughly developed plot laid out (although I’ve forgotten almost all of it today). One day, I’ll probably write a blog post about the series. But today, I want to look at something else that Eighths vs. Sevvies represents: the significance of art-sharing sites on my creativity as a kid.
At ten years old, I was head over heels in love with a girl named Samantha.[ref]Names have been changed to protect the innocent.[/ref] Samantha was amazing. She was incredibly smart and witty, utterly gorgeous, and–an important criteria for fifth grade–she loved Harry Potter.
Samantha, like me, was a writer. When our school sent talented young writers to statewide writing conferences, she and I were always on the attendance lists. One day, when I asked to see some of her writing, she directed me to FanFiction.net, and my mind went supernova with possibilities. Here was a site that allowed–hell, encouraged–me to blend the two most important passions in my life, writing and Harry Potter. If I had an account, I’d have a reason to write all my imaginary adventures with Harry and the gang. Most importantly, FanFiction.net allowed me to share my writing publicly. I drooled at the thought.
So, at the age of ten, I started a FanFiction.net account. Despite my lofty aspirations, the first thing I uploaded was hardly a well-crafted story. I called it J.K.’s Day Off, and it included lines like this:
Harry: Ron, this year at Warty-Hog will be the greatest!
Hermione: Harry, this is the fifteen-hundredth time. It’s Hogwarts, not Warty-Hog!
Harry: Oh well.
J.K.: *Accidentally spills coffee*
Ron: Ah! It’s raining coffee!
Malfoy: *Gets a dazed look on his face* Coffee. Sweet coffee.
Yes, the entire thing was written like that, and no, it’s not publicly available anymore. I made sure of that before starting this post.
By all reasonable standards, it was awful. It wasn’t serious writing–this was barely a step above me banging on my keyboard then adding punctuation and calling it good. The whole thing reads as an incoherent, unedited train of thought written by a ten year old who still thought “random” was the pinnacle of humor, although, to be fair, that’s exactly what it was.
But an interesting thing happened. I posted J.K.’s Day Off to FanFiction.net, and before long, I got a review. Someone–presumably someone who, like me, found chaotic babbling amusing–left me a comment saying they liked my work and wanted to read more. So I wrote something else, and sure enough, another person left another review.
People were reading my writing. Sure, it was a trickle, not a deluge, but the quantity of readers barely mattered. Without a site like FanFiction.net, if I wanted an audience, I had to make one, which, as a fifth- and sixth-grader, meant pestering my friends and begging my teachers to read my work. Here, I could simply put it up, and curious readers would flock to it.
Within a couple years, my submissions to FanFiction.net fizzled out. My spirits were still buoyed by the potential of online publishing, but I was moving on. In part, it was because fanfiction had lost its luster, and I was more interested in writing my own original work. But there was another, equally significant reason for leaving FanFiction.net: I’d found deviantART.
For a 13-year-old kid looking to make his art visible, deviantART offered everything FanFiction.net did and more. Here was a site that not only allowed me to post my writing, but also gave me a home for my photography and my cartooning. I joined in March 2004.
As with FanFiction.net, posting on deviantART allowed me to tap into a source of encouragement and inspiration external to my immediate social circumstances. My parents and family would, of course, always praise my work. My friends would coo and say, “Spencer, you’re such a good drawer.” But when I was posting my work on deviantART, people I’d never met–people with no social obligation to me–could see what I’d done and express their appreciation, and that’s what they did.
Spurred on by the potential for exposure, I drew. I shared carefully polished pieces and pencil-smudged sheets from my sketchbook alike. My deviantART profile was a passive reminder to myself of my growing talent, as well as a gentle force nudging me toward prolificacy. Between middle school and the middle of college, I shared my notebook paper doodles, my early photography, my Kingdom of Loathing art commissions, and my stand-alone writing.
I haven’t uploaded anything to deviantART in years, and my FanFiction.net account is so ancient and dusty that my profile welcomes visitors to “MY FANFICTION ACCOUNT OF DOOM!” Today, though I don’t hesitate to publish my work, I primarily do so either on Facebook or here on my blog. The thrill of reaching an anonymous audience–well, it’s lessened a lot.[ref]I’m not totally over it, though; when I made the Manly Name Generator a month or so ago, it had a minor explosion in popularity, and I was giddy for days about receiving thousands of visits.[/ref]
But when I was a kid, having access to that kind of potential exposure was unparalleled. It kept me going, encouraging me to create more and more. I’m sure I would have continued to write and draw if I hadn’t found FanFiction.net and deviantART, but I think it’s safe to say that I owe a lot of my creative development to the structure and community provided by sites like them.