Inspired by “Why I Ride”, Barb Cook’s love letter to motorcycling published in Spectrum Women in October 2016, some of the Spectrum Women Writing Team have decided to share their thoughts on their shared passion for writing…
I am Autistic and also have schizophrenia. I often joke that it was pretty much guaranteed I would end up being a writer with those two diagnoses and the creativity which so often comes along with them.
I started writing young. I got to read out my poetry at school assemblies from about the age of eight. High school English was easily my best subject and often involved improbable marks like ‘A+++’. As a young adult I would write intense and infrequent journal entries in spiky handwriting, which were only ever read by me.
It took me developing a stronger Autistic identity and meeting a role model who suggested my writing could help people for me to attempt any ‘serious’ writing. My autobiography was a cathartic work completed in less than four weeks under the mentorship of the resplendently brilliant Donna Williams. The publisher we sent it to said yes and sent me a contract and my writing went into the world.
Quite unexpectedly I joined a number of other Autistic writers. That was twelve years ago. In the years since then I have been an author and coauthor of several more books. I blog and write for journals and websites too. These days I feel a driving need to write, both to help effect change in my own small way and also to keep challenging my own thinking and to make sense of the world.
I used to think my writing was purely self-indulgent and people were just reading it to humour me. I have since learned that a lot of people find what I write helpful in their own lives. My writing is all based to some extent in my personal experience. I am an Autistic woman with a mental illness, an extremely difficult past and currently a positive focus. I suppose people with any of those attributes – or people that love and care for someone who has them – might find what I have to say helpful and supportive. I love that something I enjoy so much is read and enjoyed by other people.
I’m addicted to paper and pens. There… I have said it! The very first book I held within my tiny hands mesmerised my soul. I was completely in awe at the pictures of Ancient Egyptians that were laid before me. I was three at the time and my brother so fondly remembers that I was completely obsessed with this book.
But it just wasn’t the spectacular pictures that lay before me and enchanted this little blonde haired girl, the shapes and patterns of the letters at that time all looked like hieroglyphics to me. They intrigued and awaited for me to unlock the code and pour forth the wisdom these words held.
And yes, there is more… the texture and the smell. Oh, that glorious texture of the pages held within the covers. In the early days I would only read books that felt and smelt appealing. Pages that had those sateen feel were my favourite, plus they also had the most delicious smell. Literally, when I had my head in a book it was well and truly buried in that book, sniffing and rubbing it over my face.
As the years rolled on I was well and truly established as a bookworm. Enid Blyton was one of my favourites with the mysteries to be told in my childhood.
At eight years of age I wrote and illustrated my first book with my dad’s help called the “Smurf’s New House” (I was obsessed with Smurfs at this time and seemed a good idea to write about them as I pretty much researched them to death!). This was part of a school competition/book week and even though I didn’t win, I was gifted the honour of having my book added to the school library collection (my favourite place to hang out too). I was over the moon and hooked.
In my teens my love for writing grew with the continual prompting by my rather plump spectacle wearing English literature teacher. Only problem was I couldn’t keep the story writing short. Asking me to write one page about a topic was like being tied to the chair, hands behind back and using my nose dipped in ink to write the story. Yes, it was that painful not to let the multitude of words flow forth from my brain.
Fast track to today. I am still addicted to paper and pens. I thought becoming a graphic designer for the past 25 years and working in the printing industry surrounded by paper and ink would satisfy my addiction. Nope. I still can’t walk down the stationary isle of the supermarket without getting one of those weird twitches and my arm extending without my approval to just touch and stroke the pads and pens before me.
The pen and paper was and still is an extension of myself. Through the mighty pen flows forth imagination, wit and a creativity that comforts me. Through these words I can truly express how I feel where the spoken word fails me. This is my true connection to the outside world and for the outside world a way to connect to me.
I have always loved writing. In school, the other kids groaned when we were set an essay but I beamed. It let my fertile imagination run free. It made me feel capable. It soothed me. Writing was so much easier than speaking, especially in the presence of adult figures of authority when selective mutism often reduced my speech to an inaudible whisper.
A love of writing grew from a love of reading: the sensory delight when I held a book, smelling its pages, as I was taken off on a safe adventure! I didn’t have to guess at the emotions or intentions of the characters – the author explained all that to me. I could control the pace of the story and re-read the sections I liked best, savouring new words and expressions. I used to read the dictionary for fun, encyclopedias and atlases too. Even the Automobile Association Handbook. The printed word drew me, in all its forms.
In recent years, I’ve started writing again for enjoyment and I’ve been encouraged and inspired to pursue my writing by some amazing women, including those who write for Spectrum Women. Having an autistic brain means that thoughts are constantly bombarding your mind, often unbidden. Writing helps me bring order to unstructured thoughts, their sense emerging like a magic eye picture when I focus on them in the right way. It also acts as a welcome distraction from the intrusive thoughts that lurk in dark corners, awaiting their chance to rouse the anxiety monster.
Whenever I started to write about autism, I did so in the hope that it might help at least one person. I’ve come to realise that the person I’m helping most is probably me.
I have always loved to write. Since my early years I used to write pages and pages of stories when I had just a simple text assignment at school. It set me free. Books, fantasy, stories have always set me free from any problems I was facing, and being able to create stories myself was even more special.
It took me a while to realize I was actually “writing” when I felt like I was just doing “my thing”. I always thought writing was something for scholars, PhDs, great philosophers. When I do it, it actually feels more like pouring myself into paper than writing. Since I think all the time, I always have too many things to say. Then these ideas keep boiling in my brain until they are cooked and need to get out. That’s when I sit and write. It feels a bit like exorcising my demons, or just lending them some space in my life so they can breathe outside my head.
Then, it feels like a dam has been opened and all the watery words are coming out with all their might. It’s liberating but at the same time very tiring, but it makes me happy and calm for a while after I’m done. I guess I can’t say I write, but more accurately that I experience my mind’s words materializing. So the reason I do it is in a way not knowing how not to.
I always read a lot and admired the ability these people had to put their ideas and emotions on paper so it could reach and touch others. I didn’t realize until these last years that what I wrote could also touch people and help them, so now I feel really blessed to have this opportunity. I’m very thankful.
I have never really given the reason I write much critical thought. It is one of those things my mind directs me to do that I am not absolutely horrific at. As a solitary and introverted being, writing is an ideal activity for me. It is a form of expression that feels natural and true as I partake in it. It is an innate need in me, a desire to take the myriad of words from my unsettled mind and sort them out soundly. It is a way of making sense of my inner world as well as the confusing and overwhelming one outside. It is therapeutic and opens doors to new discoveries. It brings meaning and purpose.
Writing always came naturally to me, even as a child. I always loved reading, thus writing was something I always wanted to explore. However, it was not something I would find joy in until years later. Having struggled in school with constant executive functioning difficulties, sensory overload, learning disabilities, and social snags with others, I was often too overwhelmed to write even though I always carried with me a strong desire. It was hard to organize my thoughts, to be still, and though I occasionally kept a diary and wrote poems, I did not really go beyond that.
It was not until I went to College in my mid-twenties that I really began to write in a more frequent manner where I was expanding and elaborating, and applying abstract critical thinking. This was a vast and often terrifying new avenue, but also very exciting. I was taking a vocational diploma program in Social Service Work so I could work in the schools as a support worker for students with disabilities, which is now my career. Much of the course involved writing about really heavy topics as well as a lot of self-exploration around developing awareness and self-care strategies. I was told by my instructors that I had a very succinct and smooth writing style and writing was something I should do more of.
I had no issues with the academic assignments, because the focus was on facts rather than feelings. The self-reflection assignments often dealt with emotions, and personal aspects of my life which were as difficult to write about as they were to process. This was during the time I was learning to accept my autistic identity.
Nonetheless, I wilfully pushed myself through these writing exercises because there were grades to earn and deadlines to be met and, as a perfectionist, there was no way around not doing what had to be done. It was challenging at times, but just became another part of my routine over time.
Writing became a form of mental exercise, and my brain was the muscle that was gaining strength, endurance, and forming new neuro pathways. Much like an athlete trains for their sport of choice, writing assignments in school helped me to become a stronger, more solid writer. I learned to take the words I was visualizing in my mind’s eye and bring it to form whether by hand or by typing.
My writing became more authentic over time as I began to accept myself as an autistic person after years of denial. It’s ironic, because the things I was uncomfortable writing about then are the things I write about now with ease. If what I write helps one person, my work is done. It’s healing for me to take the thoughts out of my head, often complicated and abstract, and simplify them through the written word.
Though I can be eloquent and articulate when I am speaking about something I have knowledge on, I am overall best at expressing myself through writing. I can revise, process, and go back, while when speaking, there is never any going back and changing what was said.
So why do I write? It’s necessary. It helps me organize and give life to my scattered thoughts, and further explore and get to know my true self. It helps me paint the images in my mind with words. A lot of autistic adults struggle with their identity. Writing is continuing to assist me in finding mine. My thoughts are the key, and the mediums in which I get the writing out are the doors. And in order to keep the doors from becoming locked, I need to keep twisting that key.
I write to get my thoughts and my feelings out of my mind to free up space.
I write when my mind has too much to say and my mouth cannot keep up.
I write when my mouth cannot bring itself to verbalise what I want to say.
I write so that I am not interrupted when communicating my views; you cannot stop my train of thought when it is in printed form.
I write because I have a lot to say.
I write to share my story in an unselfish way – not for personal gain, but so another woman in the same situation I was could read my story and say, “Hey, that’s happened to me too!”
I write because other Spectrum Women have written to share their stories in an unselfish way.
I started to write more when I discovered I might be Aspie.
I was always good at writing. My spelling, grammar, and attention to detail were often complimented. I was told that I did well with communicating in this way.
In order to process my rapid-fire thoughts about being Aspie, I had to write. It was the only way to organise what was flying through my mind at breakneck speed, trying to secure itself to this new reality of mine.
One page turned into five, which turned into ten, which turned into twenty-seven.
I realised that when this document was done, this was not something a non-Aspie would do in order to convince herself that she was not Aspie.
This writing became my manifesto, my explanation of my existence, my truth.
My writing has stalled a bit since receiving my diagnosis for a variety of reasons: recalibrating my personal and work life with this new facet of my existence, being stressed, and not wanting to sound too preachy or self-aggrandising.
This does not mean that I have run out of things to say – far from it.
It means that I’m being more selective and thoughtful in what I write.
I wrote a lot before I had my diagnosis because I had a lot which needed processing and writing was an excellent and safe outlet for it. I still need to process, but a lot of it now occurs away from my laptop keyboard.
This does not mean that I have run out of things to process – far from it.
It means that I’m better able to work on myself within myself and not need to externalise it as much.
I want to write more, but I want it to be worthwhile, to be helpful, and to be inspiring.
I hope that this will happen in time.