I’ve been thinking a lot about being an autistic artist. I’ve been thinking a lot about everything. There’s been a lot to think about during Lockdown, a lot to realise and come to terms with.
I’ve been thinking about being an autistic artist, and what that means, how it works for me. There can be an expectation on autistic artists to always talk about autism. Wonderful autistic artist Sonia Bouè has written about it before, about that expectation that your focus always has to be worthy or on topic. I’m not always inspiring; sometimes I’m snappy and tired, sometimes I fail to be my usual enthusiastic self.
People may know that I am a poet and a playwright, but I don’t talk so much about all the books I write, because they sit in my computer unshared. I have never tried to send any of them to anyone. I’ve let a couple of people read them over the years, but then put them back in the vaults where they belong.
I’ve given myself reasons for this, I’ve told myself it’s because I prefer writing to marketing with all those interactions – but how can that be true when I’ve marketed, toured, and performed in Q&As with The Duck? How can that be true when I love doing public speaking and sharing my experience of the world? How can that be true when I find few things more fulfilling than doing poetry readings?
It’s true that I find the networking difficult, but that’s only true of non-autistic networks, and that also doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I can network once I learn the rules.
I have thousands of poems, two finished books (I say finished, but I continue to tinker with them) and four unfinished books that I’m still writing – one fiction based on the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion, one pure fantasy fiction, two young-adult fantasy fictions and one dark dystopian novel.
I used to think that my problem might be that I hated editing, but I don’t. The more I write the more I realise that I love editing, but what I can struggle with is the Executive Function issues of knowing which bits need editing. A problem easily solved by having someone to advise, but therein lies my networking issue – I don’t want to contact people, particularly people who are likely to give me bad news.
I’m currently trying to steal time from my enormously busy days (spent homeschooling the four children that I still have at home) to write my newest young person’s fantasy fiction. As I finish a chapter I read it to my daughter and bask in her requests for more.
The way I work to grasp a description using my autistic senses, is to pause, close my eyes and imagine the scene. I’m not someone who can visualise the world easily. I cannot picture things in my mind with any clarity, but I can feel them.
If I try to imagine my husband’s face it’s like peering at him through a heavy gauze, I get glimpses of beard and the hazy shape of his head, but it’s a multilayered cloud of every image he’s ever been, an overlapping of eyes with the glasses he wore when we met (but doesn’t anymore), sun glasses, squints and lines. His expressions are heaped, one on top of the other, he is a drunken memory of something that happened the night before; an idea more than a picture.
If I tried to describe him from the picture in my mind’s eye, I couldn’t tell you much about him that would help. I could tell you how soft the skin on his cheek is and the crinkle of his beard as I run my fingers through it, but I’d have to rely on facts I know about him to describe him to you in a way you would recognise.
If I think of an apple I get a vague image of appleyness. I can run my mind over the texture of the skin, its spongey bark, the sour curl as it touches my tongue, the salty sound as it dusts me in droplets. My memory is caught in the experience of my senses and that’s where my writing comes from. I take my time to roll the thing around my body and then see which words are offered from the depths of the dark to match the experience.
On top of my poor visualisation I have a great passion for rhythm and song. Words move together through sentences and sometimes the meaning is less powerful than the punctuation. There is melody in language and I often find myself tapping my toe as I write, to keep the rhythm frantic or smooth.
Some of this comes from being raised in the Welsh language and not English, because Welsh mutates to make the musicality work better; it changes to sound more fluid depending upon the order of the words – for example a P can mutate to a B or an M to soften its interference in the arc of a sentence.
I am an autistic artist not because I write autistic characters or write about what autism is (though I do do those things as well), but because everything I experience and the way that I describe is from my autistic perspective.
It can feel sometimes that the world expects artists who sit in a certain tick box, to always write about that box and stay neatly in it. The rest of the world is not allowed to be my domain, I am not permitted to imagine my way out of that box, though others have imagined their way into mine.
As an autistic artist I don’t personally have an issue with non-autistic people writing autistic characters. I know some people dislike it intensely, but I do think it’s the job of all artists to write outside of their own experiences and things can get really narrow really quickly if we are only allowed to write about things we know from the inside. I do, however, have a real problem with non-autistic artists doing it badly and failing to really understand their characters.
I’ve spent a lifetime studying non-autistic people and their ways, when I write them into my stories I do it from a point of view of understanding (though not sharing) their motivations and their movements. It’s important that every character is whole and real, and disabled characters are far more likely to be plot-points or two-dimensional ideas, than real, whole, living, breathing people.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about what it is I want to do. As a child I wanted to build robots, as a teen I wanted to write, and here I am, just turned forty, and it’s time I changed how I see my writing.
This isn’t a hobby, and I have not trapped these words on paper for no one to see. I have not written hundreds and hundreds of poems to have them dissolve and decay. I was told to never put myself forward, I was told not to take up space, I was told that if I had talent then it would be noticed, but that I mustn’t be pushy. I was told to see my writing as a hobby and to get a proper job. I made those rules when I shouldn’t have. They are terrible rules for someone who longs to have their passion as their life’s work.
I have never had expectations of success – success has never been my mission – but I do want to be heard by those who need to hear me.
I say I’m a writer, because I write, but I think perhaps that’s a label I want to shed. I want to be a storyteller, not a writer. I love writing, but it is a means to an end: If I am not sharing my words then I am not a storyteller. If I am not reaching out then I am trapped inside.
This post is not so much for other people as it is for me. This will hold me to account. One day I will change my bio from writer to storyteller and that will be the mark that I have stepped out of my comfort zone and tried. I feel ashamed that I’ve never tried. I’ve never sent one word of my prose to one agent or publisher. Not one.
Perhaps I’m already making excuses, but I’m going to wait. I’m going to finish this one and then I’m going to re-read this post. It may take some time, and it may not succeed, but I am tired of writing in my spare time when I have so much to say.
I’m an autistic artist because I experience the world filtered through my autistic senses and processor. I believe this makes me enormously lucky and puts me at a huge advantage, despite my autistic rule-following sometimes holding me back. I am proud to be who I am and comfortable that I understand how I work. It’s time I pushed at the limits I’ve allowed to be imposed upon me. It’s time I found my voice again
If you would like to support this particular self-employed person at a time when her work has been cancelled, then you can receive your own copy of her play The Duck, read by Rhi, available now here
With enormous thanks and absolutely no handshakes or hugs or obligations.