Author and MFAC alum Cecilia Aragon talks about her book, Writers in the Secret Garden (August 2019).

An in-depth examination of the novel ways young people support and learn from each other though participation in online fanfiction communities.

What inspired you to write Writers in the Secret Garden?

When I was 10, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and fell in love with the world. But I was upset by the lack of female characters in the story.

So I wrote my own version, re-gendering several of the main characters — and adding a few more adventures I thought they should have had.

I never showed that story to anyone, and I had no idea I was writing fanfiction — fiction that builds on the characters or settings from someone else’s creative work. I didn’t know what I was doing was part of a long creative tradition in human history. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote stories this way.

All I knew was that I felt incredibly lonely and isolated as a shy Latina daughter of immigrants growing up in a small, almost exclusively white town in Indiana. I thought there must be something wrong with me, especially since classmates bullied me and teachers dismissed me.

Fast forward to 2013 at the University of Washington, where one day, I had lunch with my colleague Katie Davis, a specialist in digital youth and education. We happened to talk about a couple of news stories where “experts” were claiming that young people couldn’t write. But Katie and I didn’t believe it. My teenage kids and her teenage sister all defied that stereotype. These young people, and others, wrote lengthy stories and sophisticated essays. They were also heavily involved in fan communities and fanfiction websites.

The contradiction between what the experts said and what kids were actually doing struck us as fertile ground for research, and thus began a collaboration that would last many years and lead us in surprising directions.

“Our project would eventually span over five years of research, including in-depth ethnographic studies and computational analyses of vast data sets. It would grow to involve a dozen students and several faculty members and would uncover a new kind of mentoring uniquely suited to networked communities, which we named distributed mentoring. But as we delved deeper into fanfiction communities and the millions of young people who actively participate in reading, writing, identity development, and community building, we discovered that not only was a great deal of informal learning and mentoring taking place but powerful and unexpected developments were occurring in fanfiction communities that had the potential to improve young people’s lives far beyond merely helping them to develop literacy and communication skills.” (p.3, Writers in the Secret Garden)

What were the challenges (literary, psychologically, logistically) in bringing this book to life?

Trying to get a handle on an incredibly vast amount of text — over sixty billion words, all produced within the past twenty years by writers with a median age of sixteen. At a rate of one story per day, it would take over 15,000 years simply to read all of the stories on Computational approaches can process all this text, but lack nuance and understanding. Qualitative techniques such as ethnography can sample some of it in depth, but can’t begin to encompass its scale.

We ended up carefully merging ethnography with statistical and computational techniques to comprehend the fanfiction ecosystem. Writing the book was also a challenge because we wanted to summarize years of research in an intuitive way that anybody could understand.

What do you hope readers take away from Writers in the Secret Garden?

Over the past twenty years, amateur fanfiction writers have published an astonishing amount of fiction in online repositories. More than 1.5 million enthusiastic fanfiction writers―primarily young people in their teens and twenties―have contributed nearly seven million stories and more than 176 million reviews to a single online site,

Fanfiction is often dismissed, in part because it’s overwhelmingly (over 90%) created by female, gender non-conforming, and young people. But fanfiction communities form part of a complex ecosystem where a lot of sophisticated learning and identity development take place. I think authors of writing for children and young adults can learn a lot from trends in fanfiction and fan communities.

What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?

YA and children’s books had an enormous influence on me as a child. I had few role models or friends. My government teacher, who was also a local politician, actually told a room full of students, “It’s okay to cheat and steal as long as you get away with it.” So I turned to YA books to develop my ethical compass, and librarians became my heroes.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m a professor and scientist at the University of Washington, where I teach data visualization, a combination of computer science and art. I’m also a pilot who likes to fly upside down, as you can see in this 5-minute YouTube video.

What props are most necessary for you to write?

Voice recognition software due to a disability.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Never never never give up. The next generation needs your voice.

What is next for you? What are you working on now?

My memoir, Flying Free: How I Used Math to Overcome Fear and Achieve My Wildest Dreams, will be coming out from Blackstone Publishing in 2020. My editor calls it a Latinx Hidden Figures: “exhilarating, adventurous, and thoughtful, Flying Free lifts readers into the skies on a woman’s epic journey from fearful, bullied child to champion pilot.” 

Cecilia Aragon is the Seattle author of Flying Free (Blackstone Publishing, 2020), a memoir of her journey from fearful child to airshow pilot. She overcame her fears to become an aerobatic champion, and then used what she learned from flying to achieve her goals in life.

She’s now a professor at the University of Washington, the mother of two children, and the winner of many awards for her work. She’s published hundreds of articles, co-authored the book Writers in the Secret Garden (MIT Press, 2019), taught astronauts to fly, and worked with Nobel Prize winners. Her innovative research has been lauded by President Obama.