Monday, May 12, 2014

#MyWritingProcess Blog Hop: "Shaping" Clay is Exactly Right

To start things off, I want to thank Jeannie Davide-Rivera for asking me to participate in this blog hop. She is the author of Twirling Naked in the Streets and No One Noticed; Growing Up With Undiagnosed Autism, a thoroughly enjoyable memoir that speaks bluntly of its own truth. Jeannie was one of the first autism bloggers I met when I started blogging, and she published her own book just a few months before I released Nothing is Right

When she asked me to participate in this conversation, I was really excited! I teach process-based writing for a living, and I don't think we talk enough about how our writing and thinking processes work. Autistic activists talk about it a lot... the "we" I mean is creative writers. We talk about tropes and craft, and we spend a lot of time during our formative years in workshops, developing our processes, but then what? What happens to life after workshop?

That's what I'm here to talk about today. This blog hop is organized around three questions: What are you working on?; How does your work differ from others in the genre?; Why do you write what you do?; and How does your writing process work?

I don't think I can answer all of these things in one post, so consider this a conversation starter. My writing process will be the main topic of my essays this summer.

What are you working on?

I always have a couple of projects going. Right now, I'm working on doing the primary writing on Imaginary Friends, my web serial for this year. There is an Indiegogo campaign for it, and if it gets fully funded, then I will be able to release it over the summer instead of taking all year with it.

Imaginary Friends is a sequel to my first novel, Nothing is Right, and it continues my ongoing major work of documenting an example of an autistic life as lived from the inside. In this installment, we will join Clay Dillon for his catechism year and his First Holy Communion. His challenges with the concept of organized religion, his continued social and intellectual development, and his growing sense of distance from his family form the core set of topics that the episodes in the story will revolve around, and the overall idea is to show how this particular constellation of forces shape him.

The trick to the story is that it is as bleak as any horrible "autism scourge" memoir that you'll see getting hyped by the grief community, but the tragedy is not autism. Instead, the tragedy is the lack of understanding, acceptance, and guidance that is brought about by his family's inability to see his needs and respond to them. I write this way for a reason, too: With all the people who write about autistic lives using words that drip connotations of tragedy and loss, I feel the need to call attention to the fact that the only loss I ever felt was when I lost confidence in the ability of the people around me to help me grow and develop. What makes my story, and by extension Clay's, not a tragedy is the fact that both of us eventually found our way to people we could have confidence in.

That brings me to my second project, Defiant. Defiant is a web serial that tells the story of the adult Clay Dillon, starting with his diagnosis. It ran for six months last year, and I called a hiatus after 26 chapters because I was just getting busy at work and I had a few other projects I was taking care of. The themes in this story run opposite the ones in the "Shaping Clay" series of books that span Clay Dillon's childhood. In this series, we see Clay start to access resources and come to terms with himself. He professionalizes, and as he does so, he finds colleagues who help him to develop toward a career teaching. Most importantly, though, he finds a partner and starts to rebuild his family.

He also starts to deal with some developmental issues that were deferred by the collapse of his support system in his youth, though, so it's not all sunshine and rose petals. And then there are the scars of that earlier life, which keep itching for his attention and asking him what might have turned out differently, if just one thing had been like...

While I'm working on Imaginary Friends, I am also polishing that first season of Defiant for release as a paperback. I won't be changing the core plot, but I will be working on a few stylistic issues that I missed during the week-to-week writing and posting of the book. After that's done, I will also be working through the essays and poetry on this blog and putting out treasuries of each. It's gotten to the point where I have enough posts to do that now.

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

Well, for starters, I'm not writing a memoir. All of the other autistic writers I've read who write the kind of personal family drama that I write seem to choose to write their own memoirs. I thought about doing that, but instead I decided to intentionally write a fictional life. Sure, there are parallels between my past and Clay's. I couldn't write honestly if I didn't draw from my own experience. I'm not trying to reconstruct my past, though. At least not literally.

Instead, I'm writing a developmental memoir. The literal events in the book did not happen, and the reason why I have selected them as scenes for Clay's life is because they illustrate some kind of belief or thought process that I also experienced as a child. So, instead of writing about my life, I'm writing about the stages and order of my development as a person--both as a child, and also later as an adult. The goal is to build a comprehensive and credible theory of mind that shows how and why certain behaviors can happen.

I'm not trying to tell the story of an autistic development, though. Instead I'm trying to tell a story. I'm trying to open up about how class, gender, regional attitudes, religion, and ethnic heritage/custom all play in to the particular opportunities and challenges that Clay encounters. I'm also trying to show that some of his developmental differences are caused by a collision between Clay's thinking style and the environmental factors that put pressure on him.

In short, I'm calling attention to the fact that autism is not something that one experiences in a vacuum. And I hope that that convinces some other autistic writers with backgrounds that are very different from my own to write their own stories. I want them to come out of the woodwork and show me all the things that I didn't know about when I wrote my stories.

Why do you write what you do?

The same reason anyone else does the things that they do. Because my environment and my brain chemicals conspire together to propel my mind and body at certain problems with a certain kind of momentum.

To be a little less flippant about it, I could not do otherwise. The big problem of my life has been and continues to be my struggle to understand how to communicate my ideas to the world around me. There could never have been any other topic for my writing. In fact, before I knew I was autistic, there still wasn't any other topic to my writing. The only difference is that calling this exploration "autism" grounds it in a reality and a system that other people find approachable. Before my diagnosis, I was attempting to use the avant-garde to describe these things. Today I use (and when necessary, steal, re-define, and/or repudiate) the language of psychology, and I work it into my narrative obliquely.

It's still the same discussion I've always been having, I've just found language that's more accessible to my audience.

How does your writing process work?

That's a heck of a question, isn't it? I'm tempted just to say "well."

That wouldn't be fair, though. We need to talk more about process, because it is important and I don't think a lot of aspiring writers pay enough attention to it. Process is more than just rewriting or revising or working on story structure. It's a matter of controlling your environment, accessing your own emotional core, and re-experiencing deep feelings in a deliberate way while you painstakingly articulate each stage of the development of that feeling, through to its eventual passing and your moving it from your present to your memory.

If you can't do that, then you're not really getting to the human element in your tale yet. You're not giving us a person to listen to. It has to come first, before craft or story structure. Yet, to some extent, you can not learn what traits and choices will resonate with an audience until you learn story structure, because the architecture of a tale is part of the way that you build the same feeling in your audience that you want them to identify in your character.

This is what is meant by writing an empathetic character. That character can lack empathy. That character can be someone we are meant to feel contempt for. It doesn't matter. Until we're feeling, the character doesn't work.

Haven't you ever noticed that the characters we feel contempt for also show a lot of contempt to others? Look at Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Or Frank Underwood from House of Cards. Or Walter White. Look at the contempt they exude.

Your contempt for them was a function of the writer's ability to make you experience empathy. Despite the fact that the characters lack it, the writer has still made you have it.

That is my process. Whatever scab I have to pick, I pick it. Whatever feelings I have to unpack, I unpack them. I'm alexithymic, so I already need to process my emotions out loud with a partner in order to be able to name them. Writing is the next logical step--it's a process of curating examples of those emotions and presenting them to others, so that they can understand them.

What's Next (Monday, May 19)

Next week's writer will be Nicole Nicholson, who blogs over at Raven's Wing Poetry. I asked her to come into this blog hop because I wanted to keep up Jeannie's idea of spreading the word about autistic writers, but I also wanted to reach out and cast a wider net with this project. Since most of the other writers who have contributed to this discussion are writers of prose, I asked Nicole to give us her insight about how she writes poetry.