The inciting incident for this was a "letter to the fandom" some jackass posted to AO3 a few years ago, decrying the multitude of OCs , Mary Sues, self-insert and tf-character/you fics on AO3. It was received, to put it mildly, explosively, and stayed up for less than 24 hours. But it made me think, because I, like many authors, had started out writing self-insert fanfic (namely, a story in which I and my martial arts class wound up in Middle Earth, saving Eomer. It survives to this day, somewhere on my hard drive. No, I will not go looking for it). It had been the first time I'd written and finished something that wasn't for school, and realizing "hey, I can tell myself stories on paper and then I can reread them and share them with other people!" was a defining moment in my writing.
Shortly after that fic, I wrote my first original novel (I was 13. Said novel is...actually not bad. I need to sit down and rewrite it, but the concepts are good enough I actually think I could publish it). Because my mother was occupied with caring for my ill grandmother, I got to go to the local writers conference in her place, technically a full year too young to do any such thing. From there, original fiction was my primary focus, and I reveled in being a wunderkinder--after all, how many 14 year olds could keep up with a conference filled with adult writers? How many were writing seriously for publication? In my town, it seemed to be just me.
I published my first novel at 21 with a small press. I didn't feel like a wunderkinder by then. It had taken a long time, and my dreams of publishing with one of the Big 5 were shelved. I realized I was average: usually, people publish their first work 7 - 10 years after they begin writing. But I had started early. That was a little bit of an advantage, and one that I needed, since I fully planned (and plan) on pursuing a second career.
It was a little after that book was published that I started writing fanfiction again, first Team Fortress 2, then Transformers--and Transformers was the reason I got an AO3 account. Writing TF fic taught me all the things I needed to know for original fiction but would never have learned in the mainstream publishing world unless I'd gotten really famous: how to produce fast to deadlines (both The Quality of Mercy and The Brave Shall Heed The Call were updating daily for a bit there, and yes, I was writing them daily and posting as soon as I finished each chapter), how to turn around and start a new project asap after the end of the old, how to have multiple projects going at the same time, how to judge what my audience liked and continue to produce more of it. In the next two years, I published two more works; the gods of publishing willing, there will be a third this year.
Fanfiction, in short, has shaped my professional writing career. And it was all started with that LOTR self insert fic.
When I saw the "letter to the fandom", I saw red. Because my advantage as a writer was that I started really early, and that was only because I didn't feel scared to write that first fanfic. I imagined some other kid like me--or some young adult, because people go through this at their own pace--reading that and discarding the document in their word processor. The one with all of one sentence, that could have bloomed into a wonderful thing for them had it not been stepped on.
And I figured that I might as well revisit my roots. I wasn't sure I had enough of a following to really make a big statement (though I liked to imagine that I did), but I might as well put one more fic out there that would be more or less a self insert and encourage someone who was hesitating about whether it was "ok" to write something so self indulgent.
It didn't hurt that I was having a really tough time, either. I'd moved away from my hometown for grad school, and neither the living situation nor the school were going well. I was horribly lonely. My main sources of social life were the online TF community and the local TF cosplay group. So I wrote the world I wished I lived in, a version of Bayverse with G1 goofery, and a giant robot for a friend. 101 Ways is a series of vignettes in the life of a graduate student studying Autobot ethics somewhere in the southwestern United States. I owe it a lot. After a really bad day of work, coming home to a house full of housemates who steadfastly ignored my existence, booting up the computer and writing a few pages of a world where my work mattered and I saw my favorite characters when I went to work, instead of people I barely tolerated.
The fic was surprisingly well-received. I expected everyone to ignore it. But comments and kudos appeared, people interacting with the fic at a far higher level than I'd ever expected (it was self indulgent, right?), and as I worked I fictionalized everything a little bit at a time. "Graduate Student", as the POV character came to be called, grew a personality of her own, parallel but distinct from my own, a specialty quite different, and a far, far, better behaved dog. Hell, 101 Ways may end up with something like a plot.
I haven't worked on it for a while. This is because some things have gotten better. New living situation. New advisor. A project that matters. That sort of thing. I'm not living with the soul-chewing loneliness I was when I started it.
I want to keep writing it. I intend to keep writing it, because Echoes of Messatine needs to be leavened with something. It's just that I haven't needed that escape in the same way.
That escape is important. In my case, at least, that escape literally launched a career. Self-insert fic is important and not to be scoffed at, and if you're tempted to write it...
...do. Without shame.