The Jonathan Coulton fandom helped me become my best self

Jonathan Coulton taught his fans that if you were consistently creative for long enough—if you worked on honing your craft and creating new material every week—people would take notice.

This year, long after I had stopped both wanting and trying to “be Jonathan Coulton” and had settled on being me, the JoCo Cruise team took notice.

Specifically, they had noticed my work as a Professional Internet Writer and wanted me to write for the cruise website. Jonathan Coulton’s cruise, the one I had attended for four consecutive years. My favorite place in the world.


The first part of my Jonathan Coulton fandom story should be very familiar: I heard some of his music, found that his clever lyrics and achingly awkward song subjects—standing alone at an office birthday party, for example—hit some similarly aching part of my own soul, and got my hands on the entire discography. I went to his shows. I met people standing in line for those shows who became instant friends. I met other fans online and started hanging out in the JoCo Forums and on Twitter. I had a long-distance relationship with another fan that lasted as long as it took me to realize that I didn’t want to spend 14 hours on multiple planes just so we could go on a date. This is all standard fandom behavior.

But the Jonathan Coulton fandom is a little bit different, and it has to do with Coulton’s origin story.

The short version: in 2005, Coulton was working at a software job and wanted to change his life. So he quit his job and started Thing A Week, a year-long challenge to create a new song (or, less specifically, “thing”) every week. By the time the year was over, he was an Internet Rockstar.

Of course, with creativity there is rarely a “short version.” Coulton had been writing songs long before starting Thing A Week; he had been a Contributing Troubadour at Popular Science magazine, for example, and had performed with John Hodgman. But the idea that you can pick up a guitar—or a notebook, or a Cintiq, or whatever—and transform yourself is a huge part of the JoCo fandom, and so in May 2010, I started my own Song A Week project.

(This is not at all an original thing to do, if you are a JoCo fan. A lot of us had weekly thing projects going, hoping that creativity would give us something that was missing from our lives and—as we presumed it had for Coulton—make us bigger than ourselves.)

Over the next two years—yes, I made my Song A Week project last twice as long as Coulton’s, mostly because I reached the end of the first year and I wasn’t famous yet—I developed a geek rockstar persona and a tiny group of supportive fans. When I dropped the rockstar persona, which involved a very short denim skirt and an enormous blowout, my audience grew and became even more supportive, and when I transitioned out of “trying to make it as an Internet musician” into “actually making it as a freelance writer,” they were the most supportive of all.

The Jonathan Coulton fandom was in fact changing my life, and I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.

In 2011, Coulton, along with music/comedy duo Paul and Storm, launched the annual JoCo Cruise. I missed the first one—which is one of my biggest regrets as a human, because I am a completionist—but have been on every cruise since.

It is hard to explain what the JoCo Cruise is, and it is very easy to explain what the JoCo Cruise is. It is nerd summer camp. It’s a place where you can hear Jean Grae perform hip-hop one night and watch John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss swap Neil Gaiman stories the next day. On the fourth JoCo Cruise, I got to sing lead vocals backed up by Coulton’s actual rockstar band, as part of JoCo Live Band Karaoke. There are puzzle hunts and bardic circles and enough tabletop fans that Wil Wheaton was able to sit on a literal Throne of Games. One year, there was a Lego room.

More importantly, the JoCo Cruise is a friend incubator and a creative incubator. If you missed that magic moment in college or grad school when you found the friends you wanted to both hang out with and work with forever and ever, you get another chance on the JoCo Cruise. It’s like being in school (or summer camp) again, and the friendships come just as easily.

So do the relationships, by the way. If you thought it was easy to find yourself instantly immersed in romance simply by spending time on an online message board, I just want to say get yourself on the cruise. There are people who meet on this boat, and people who get engaged. There are people, every year, who get off the boat and shortly thereafter announce that they are relocating to be closer to someone they met on the cruise. I packed up and moved to a new city twice. This is also a cautionary tale.

It is cautionary because the cruise is truly a magical place, in that people find themselves capable of being so much more than the people they feel like they are the rest of the year. It’s as simple as being asked to dress in formalwear for dinner; suddenly, in this room full of tuxedos and evening gowns and meals that are eaten in courses (instead of out of a microwavable container next to your laptop) you are behaving like the romantic hero or heroine you always wished you could be. Suddenly, you are making plans that have to come true on land, and you think you know how that will go, and it doesn’t always go that way.

But once you figure out who you are, the same way that I had to figure out that I wasn’t an Internet Rockstar and I wasn’t a romantic Lego piece that needed to fit into the picture on the box, you find your people. The ones who like you for who you are. The ones who—as Jonathan Coulton promised would happen—notice you.

Jonathan Coulton is nearly always working on something new. That’s the next part of the JoCo fandom story, the one we are just starting to understand: you have to evolve, or maybe you choose to evolve. A lot of us have been singing the same songs for a decade. They’re wonderful songs. They have carried me to this moment, very securely.

But we all get to figure out what to do next. Some of us are getting married, some of us are having children, some of us are writing for the cruise website, and some of us are launching new tabletop games. We are in many ways realizing that we have to grow older, especially those of us who became JoCo fans at an age when we hardly thought of growing older at all. To look at my photographs from the various JoCo Cruises is to see a person who changes just as much, every year, as she used to change from photo to photo in grade school.

So, to say that my fandom story “ended” when the JoCo Cruise team asked me to write for them—even though that would be a perfect capstone on an amazing story—would be to dismiss all of the fandom years still to come. There will be new forum threads and new romances and new friends, and so many things still to create—because it’s about making something new every week. That’s what the Jonathan Coulton fandom has taught me.

[Image courtesy Jonathan Coulton’s website]

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