The stigma surrounding escapism via artistic avenues is more complex and diverse than the average consumer probably realizes. I believe most of us can agree that any and all critique about a teenage girl’s obsession with something is but a mere social construct, over-dramatized by the invisible patriarchy still ingrained deep in our society. The common practice of discovering something new, something worth paying attention to, and pressing it so far into ourselves that eager threads needle their way into the very fiber of who we are, is not just a “crazed fangirl” concept. One of the (if not the) most relatable feelings on our planet is the shared community of enjoyed content. How else did hair bands of the ‘80s sell out arenas worldwide? Why else do football fans convene in empty parking lots to throw rabid cookouts and rally spirit for five-hour long sports games? Who else are those poorly written teen dramas aimed at if not for the hope of a fandom blossoming from it? An open space for the obsessed, the desired, and the desperate is not just about connecting with others over an escapism had in common. It’s also about finally feeling like you belong somewhere, anywhere, regardless of your actual place in the world. For some, this might have begun with a television show, a book, or a Reddit post. Mine, however, started with a song.
I began reading fanfiction at the young age of eleven and thus moved onto writing it a year later. Growing up alongside the Internet exposed me to many things prematurely, I’ll admit, though in hindsight there’s nothing to regret in terms of how it has led me to where I am now. One of my earliest penned fanfiction stories that is lost to time, as the website it belonged to has been erased from history, was based off of the song Coffee Shop Soundtrack by the band All Time Low, who were also the stars of the story. (I promise you, I couldn’t make up the coincidence of the song title if I tried.) Having started my journey into writing with real-people fanfiction is a story for another time, but the pros far outweigh the cons. Venturing into that community as an overly-willing naivete did bring on some rough online interactions, but it also opened my eyes to a vast corner fans had carved out for themselves—one full of creativity, excitement, support, and understanding. Being just shy of my teen years and having (maybe) only one friend in real life, it was like stepping into my version of Wonderland. My own niche world where no one cared that I was a little bit weird, or had a gap tooth, or would cry into my pillow most nights over not getting to marry the lead singer of my favorite band. I could just be, without the normal restraints most pubescent girls feel when enjoying something outside the confines of what was considered trendy at the present time. To sum it up,
I had found a second home within a website that used to be an offshoot of TeenNick.com.
Fast forward seven years: I’m an adult, still reading (and sometimes writing) fanfiction regularly while jumping around to different sites, and I manage to get a job at one of the country’s biggest coffee-shop franchises. The mission statement of Starbucks has always remained the same, yet they added on a separate tag line a few years into my tenure with the company—that we are the Third Place. As in, we are that in-between, liminal location where folks can gather that isn’t home and isn’t work. Somewhere you can work on your screenplay or read that latest novel you’ve been trying to finish, have as many cups of coffee as you like, before returning to the monotony of everyday life. A place where you can merely exist, get comfortable, and feel safe. Your third place, whatever that needs to be for you. I remember when they first introduced this mantra I rolled my eyes and scoffed while attempting to perfect my latte art. However, as the months, and then years, passed, I began to realize how crucial this idea is to the foundation of a festering culture. That we are promoting the concept of a home away from home, although the phrase is corny and overused. This forced me to ask myself a vital question. What is my home away from home? Where do I go when the obligations of the adult world are weighing on me too heavily and I need to slip away for a bit? Quickly, I knew the answer was in my back pocket this whole time. Literally.
Most of us can relate to the feeling a coffee shop brings us. It’s close to what transporting to a different universe for a little bit may feel like. A place that’s cozy, warm, and inviting. Like nothing in the solar system can touch you, just for the meager amount of time you’re sipping on an Americano, gazing out the window on a barstool in your favorite local storefront. Whenever I daydream about going to a coffee shop, I always picture it’s autumn and I’m wearing a knitted scarf and a beanie, carrying a satchel for my laptop and worrying about hypothetical schoolwork. Of course, I’m from Arizona where scarves aren’t necessary until well into Christmastime (maybe) and I’ve never owned a satchel. And yet the thought is far too enticing! There’s nothing more familiar, or nostalgic, than pretending you’re in that little slice of heaven, listening to the calming shop sounds around you and smelling the freshest brew in the air. Like suddenly you’re home and you’re unsure how you got there. You know you’ve been here before, maybe in a hazy dream, or in a passage you read. Oh wait, it is from a passage you read.
There was a famous Tumblr post from way back when. Pardon my memory, it’s terrible, and I don’t know who to credit for it. There was a user who said something along the lines of: “Just moved to a new city and found a cute local coffee shop. Can’t wait to live out my Coffee Shop AU dreams!” Then, a few days later, they added onto the post: “I went to the coffee shop. And as I sat down at the counter after ordering my items from the cute barista, a girl walked in and he immediately turned to her, asking her how her trip was the past weekend and what she was doing during the next one. That’s when I realized: this isn’t my Coffee Shop AU. It’s theirs.” Although Tumblr was a breeding ground for over-romanticization in the 2010s, this little snippet has managed to stay with me for one particular reason: this is more than just something most of us who used the internet during this time could relate to.
Not only were we certain we’d seen this exact scenario play out, it’s one we actively seeked. We searched for it in our books, our favorite cups of joe, and most importantly, in our fanfiction. We came back to this idea, this trope, time and time again.
Why is that?
Fanfiction is my third place. I didn’t tell people for quite a long time that I read or wrote it. It was what I considered my “dirty little secret” for a large portion of my childhood. If anyone in my life knew about it, it wasn’t of my own volition. Yet, I never strayed from it. As technology advanced, it became ever easier for me to slip away from reality and crash into the worlds I wanted to sink into, all thanks to the miniature computer I could now carry in my pants. Since the moment I got a smartphone in high school, sophomore year, I’ve had at least five tabs open at one time of various fanfictions I’ve been reading. I rotate out to new ones as I finish others, but I can say with certainty the three websites I’ve consistently used have taken up more screen time on my phones than any other app or feed. For someone who didn’t really find their footing until their late teens, yet stumbled further into their early twenties, and is still figuring it out as the age of thirty is only a half-decade away, my home away from home has never been a physical place. For someone who didn’t feel neatly fitted into any category, used the internet to disassociate, and had parasocial relationships with every lead singer she could come across, fanfiction is what has welcomed me with open arms and a cup of coffee. And isn’t that what every lost teenager wants to feel? Welcomed?
Fanfiction is the third place.
Fanatics of any kind are going to be looked down upon in certain ways no matter how much society evolves, because we unfortunately live in a world where making fun of someone for their interests will never go out of style. What we should keep in mind, however, is that escapism isn’t just an obsession or hyperfixation to mock about. Where we escape to, what makes us feel protected, safe, and home, is just as important as what teaches us empathy, compassion, and humanity. The reason so many folks around the globe click open a fic about two people falling in love at a coffee shop is because we need that hope, that wonderment, that we also have a third place somewhere out there. That we finally feel like we belong, anywhere, regardless of our actual place in the world. Maybe you’re currently reading this from your tablet or laptop at a Starbucks right now, waiting for that feeling to overwhelm. The feeling that tells you you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. I myself am still waiting for that, and that’s okay. I’m actively searching, opening new fics everyday, diving headfirst into a reality not my own, allowing myself to be a part of what makes me feel happy and alive. Even if, for now, it’s via a computer screen.
Tiana Gaudioso is a poet and writer, actress, and sketch troupe comedian based in Phoenix, AZ. She is currently attending Arizona State University for none of these hobbies. You can find more of her works in Polemical Zine, Pinstriped Zine, Girls Our Age, and Suburban Rose Magazine.