I was in sixth grade when I first visited FanFiction.net. It was 2001, and the movies Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had been released within a month of each other, bookending my 11th birthday. Together, the movies pushed me, hard, into both puberty and nerdery.

I wasn’t the only one — there was a handful of other awkward, nerdy, horny girls in my middle school, and of course we found each other. Together we plastered our planners with printed-out photos of Orlando Bloom or Tom Felton and passed each other folded notes written in a fake-Elvish alphabet we’d found on some random fan site. It was one of these girls who first showed me FanFiction.net, typing in the address on a public computer at the library down the street from the middle school, where we were hanging out before the preteen library board meeting started (yes, we were that nerdy).

More than 15 years later, the FanFiction.net homepage has hardly changed — it’s simple, with black and blue letters on a white background, the top of the page listing broad fanfiction categories (books, TV, movies, comics) and the bottom offering infrequent technical updates. The website isn’t nearly as active as it once was, with fanfiction communities moving to newer sites like Archive of Our Own and Wattpad, as well as social media platforms like Tumblr. But it still holds hundreds of thousands of works of fanfiction.

Fanfiction—which, as you probably know by now, is simply fiction based on existing media, written by fans—doesn’t have the best reputation. Parents are wary of their children accessing the sexual content; movie and book critics compare works they don’t like to it; and some creators, such as George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), have spoken out against it. Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire) has even gotten litigious.

But as a writer, fanfiction was the best thing that ever happened to me. I now write and edit for a living, but I’ve never been as prolific, as unselfconscious, or as joyful a writer as I was when I wrote fanfiction.

When I was 11, it felt like fanfiction was made for me. I’d always loved reading and writing — I started dictating stories for my mom to record before I knew how to write. I also loved Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings to the point of obsession: The year before, I’d memorized all the songs the Sorting Hat sings and could recite them on demand. Somehow, I’d never thought of writing my own stories about my favorite characters, but now that I knew I could, I was wholeheartedly in.

My first fanfiction hit all the fandom clichés: After immersing myself in dozens of Legolas stories, I attempted to write my own. A thinly disguised, slightly aged-up version of myself magically travels to Middle Earth, joins the Fellowship of the Ring, and falls in love with Legolas. I made an account on FanFiction.net — lying about my age to do so — and posted it. The next day, I got my first “flames” — critical reviews not so nicely pointing out that my fanfic was hitting all the fandom clichés. I deleted the story. A few weeks later, I started another: Aragorn and Arwen’s five children go on an adventure, and one of their daughters meets and falls in love with Legolas. I posted this one too. It was slightly more positively received, and I didn’t delete it.

A few of us middle schoolers began writing our own real-person fanfiction, passing notebooks between us filled with epic, soap opera–worthy tales full of love triangles, amnesia, and murder. See, the problem was that almost all of us were in love with Orlando Bloom, and we also wanted our stories to connect with each other’s. That meant we were constantly killing each other off, or turning our characters into murderers who could be sentenced to life in prison, or, at best, shuffling one another around so our rivals would get a happily-ever-after with a celebrity who wasn’t Orlando Bloom.

My first fanfictions were full of clichés — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Writing and reading clichés taught me what clichés were. I thought that my idea of a version of myself falling in love with Legolas was totally original until a review told me otherwise, and until I realized that almost all the other heroines in Legolas romance stories were also thinly veiled versions of the writers. Learning each fandom’s clichés and tropes let me decide whether to avoid them, wholeheartedly embrace them, or attempt to subvert them. By the time I hit my teens, I’d stopped writing self-insert Legolas fanfiction and was focused on exploring relationships (some platonic, some romantic — hello, Dramione) between my favorite characters.

Along with writing, I read fanfiction voraciously. This was the era of dial-up and family computers, and my family had one computer and six people to share it. My hour or so of daily internet time was completely dedicated to reading fanfiction — and I would print out an extra chapter when I had to log off. (I missed out on MySpace entirely because I was too busy reading fanfiction to join.) Fanfiction communities highly encouraged reviews, to the point where reading a fanfic and not leaving a review was considered a major faux pas. Leaving reviews — and getting reviews — encouraged discussion between writers, and though I still got occasional negative comments, the more I wrote, the less of an impact those “flames” had. Different people have different tastes, I learned, and while listening to feedback is important, you also have to trust your own instincts.

When I graduated from high school, I got my own laptop and, almost simultaneously, my family got Wi-Fi. With greater internet access than ever before, I immediately dove further into fanfiction. I joined a Harry Potter forum and participated in regular writing challenges. We’d be assigned a prompt — sometimes a short plot summary; sometimes a specific character, item, or phrase to include. Usually, there’d also be a word count, mostly 100 or 500 words. I didn’t realize it then, but being required to write to a word count did a lot to prepare me for writing and editing professionally.

Fanfiction also became a way to strengthen my real-life friendships. When I was 15, two of my best friends and I started writing an epic story of aged-up, 1960s versions of ourselves who fell in love with the Beatles and a variety of other ’60s rock stars. (We each had a different favorite Beatle, so there was no killing each other off in this one.) We never posted any of our Beatles fanfiction online, but it’s still my most valuable experience of writing collaboratively. Sometimes we had sleepovers for the express purpose of writing fanfiction. I remember staying up past midnight, sitting on the floor and handwriting a story about falling in love with Paul McCartney, while my friend was detailing how she was planning her wedding to George Harrison, and my other friend was describing how she was caught in a love triangle between John Lennon and Ringo Starr. When the sun came up, we walked, in our pajamas, around the subdivision and talked about our stories.

Our Beatles fanfiction tapered off after a year or two. After we graduated from high school, we attended separate colleges in separate states. Somehow, we had the idea to start writing Beatles fanfiction again — a new version of the same basic plot to fit our newly grown-up selves. We held what I’d now call story meetings, usually over Skype, agreeing on plot points and making outlines before going off to write the chapter from our “character’s” perspective, and trading the finished results with each other over email.

I continued writing fanfiction on FanFiction.net, and with my friends, until I graduated from college. My fanfiction writing started tapering off when I took journalism classes that required reporting, and it ended completely when I graduated from college and started a writing-intensive internship. It wasn’t a conscious decision to quit fanfiction — it’s just that my creativity and my writing energies had found a new outlet.

To me, there’s no doubt that my decade in fanfiction prepared me for a career in writing. But when I think about writing fanfiction, the thing I remember most is how fun it was. Those sleepless nights writing Beatles fanfiction with my friends; those lengthy email discussions about the intricate details of the Lestrange family with my internet pals who lived in Ireland; using the last minute of my allocated internet time to print out pages of Legolas-centric fanfiction because I just didn’t want to stop reading.

I still read fanfiction occasionally — sometimes returning to old favorites for a bit of comfort reading, sometimes taking in a few stories in a new fandom after I read a book or watch a movie or TV show that leaves me wanting more. But reflecting on my years in fanfiction makes me want to return to writing it, too — that fun, that joy, is something I miss.