Monday, May 13, 2013

Autism and Creative Writing

I have met, in physical and virtual spaces, many autistic creative writers. A good number enjoy fan fiction, some are poets, a few prefer stage and screen, and others write non-fiction — creatively conveying knowledge and experiences. The sheer number of blogs and forums dedicated to autism indicate the community outputs a significant number of words daily.

Writing is always a creative act. There are non-verbal writers, and there are loquacious individuals like me. Autistic traits affect communication, presenting some challenges, but autistic writers find ways to adapt. I love writing on paper, but that can be painful. When I cannot write, I type. When I can't type well, I dictate. When I can't dictate, I type… slowly.

I consider myself a good writer — not great, but good. That's not false modesty, since I have earned a few acknowledgments for my works. However, I also know my works are far from timeless masterpieces. There are many writers I admire, men and women with more talent than I posses. They likely also have more discipline when finishing projects. My perfectionism leads to too many unfinished works.

There are two broad issues I want to address in this post, based on questions I've been asked by parents.

  • Is "fan fiction" really creative writing?
  • How do you write good fiction if you lack empathy?

I'm addressing both because they are related.

First, fan fiction. Why is it not creative? A great many authors have started their careers by writing about characters or situations created by other authors. Isn't that "fan fiction" legitimized? When a writer agrees to tackle the James Bond, Star Wars, Star Trek, or the Bourne series, that's fan fiction — unless the author secretly dislikes the characters. Then it is writing for money. Isn't taking over any series fan fiction? Most young adult series have several writers. These authors should be "fans" of the series.

Writing with constraints is like writing sonnets: there are rules, but you still get to be creative. In fan fiction, the constraints are the characters and settings. You cannot violate established canon, or other fans will complain vocally. If I made it big and was asked to contribute to a series, I doubt I could. An author has to be immersed in the universe of the series. I wouldn't mind being the creator of a series (I have three well outlined, in fact), but to assume another person's universe is intimidating.

Isn't writing historical fiction, or even non-fiction, constrained in the same way? I'm always impressed by the research required to write some works. James Michener comes to mind. His books are amazing. They are also constrained by events.

Fan fiction, therefore, doesn't need much of a defense from me. Having characters and places pre-defined doesn't automatically write a story for you.

The second question, regarding how I write fiction, implies a similar lack of creativity that the parents assumed of fan fiction authors.

I've always had several "imaginary worlds" in my mind. I create places and characters to explore what makes people do the things they do. Most of my works examine that basic question of life: Why are some people "bad" and some people "good"? Why do we struggle so much to be kind, honest, and trustworthy? When we try to create a rigid ethical or philosophical system, that system eventually fails us. How we react with life contradicts our values makes for good stories.

What if ghosts really did explain the bumps in the night? Wouldn't being a ghost be a lousy existence? Stuck watching others, unable to do much more than thump about the world. I've always felt sorry for ghosts — though I also know they don't exist.

I'm fascinated by the idea of worlds between life and death, Heaven and earth. The worlds between Hell and earth are particularly fascinating. I've outlined a trilogy of books with characters "stuck" in the between spaces — knowing their choices led to this predicament and their current choices have eternal implications. How would knowing, with complete certainty, that there is a Heaven and Hell alter behaviors? Would the knowledge change anyone? Already, we know true believers are among the worst people.

What if there are Klingons or Vulcans or other aliens out there, with their own ethical systems? Using "aliens" to explore cultural conflicts risks offending fewer people than comparing "real" cultures. I'm not a science fiction fan, but I understand that sci-fi explores human issues from safe locations lightyears away. Science fiction explores politics, philosophy, and theology from that distance.

When I write, I am trying to ask myself, "Why would this character make the choices he or she makes?" Is it nature? Nurture? Culture? A bit of everything? And, more importantly to me, can a person change?

Fiction, therefore, is how I examine the human condition. I'm asking myself questions and plotting out possible answers to those questions with fictional characters. What gets strange is when I "lose control" of a character and write something I didn't anticipate. Of course, I am in charge of the characters — what they do, I had to imagine. That means my creativity was outpacing my analytical process.

My creative writing is constrained by what I know about psychology, neurology, and other fields. My characters do what I imagine "real people" would do.

Some people tell me that writing is therapeutic. For me, it is almost occupational therapy. I write to understand the people and events around me. I don't write simply to create something new; my imagined worlds and universes are tools to understand reality.

7 comments:

  1. How do you write good fiction if you lack empathy?
    Since you didn't clearly answer the above question, allow me to do so for you.
    The fact is that Autistic people lack cognitive empathy and have a hard time with emotional empathy, but because we have compassionate empathy in spades, we are able to understand somewhat how a character might feel in a given situation, and because we're writing a story not reacting to a situation, we have plenty of time to use logic to figure out how that character should react to what they're going through. Simples!

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    1. I beg your pardon. Autistic People are able to write a story, no matter what it is. I know for the fact, since I have been dealing with Autism, all my life. Yes, I have been dealing with Autism for all my life.

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    2. When I'm writing, I often reflect on how I felt when in a similar situation. Sometimes I will adjust it, though, as some people will have a less or more intense feeling (e.g a hotheaded character will need to act less irrationally, feel a little more anger or a brave person will fight instead of fly and feel a little less scared) we all have our own ways of getting around our empathy problems.

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  2. I'd argue I don't lack empathy in any form -- if anything, it is more intense and complex and must be sorted out to communicate more clearly. It is the process of analyzing and sorting, the writing to understand, that guides my fiction. Instead of simple, quick connections, "She hit him, therefore he's angry" I go down the path of "Why" that never ends. Why was she angry enough to strike him? Or, what if it wasn't anger, but a carefully crafted choice to anger him? What if he responds coldly, with a more chilling anger? And on it goes. Every paragraph takes time to unravel motivations and responses. That seems like empathy to me.

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  3. @C.S. Wyatt: I got mixed up and then couldn't edit my comment, but let me explain. There are two types of empathy, cognitive and affective. Autistic people have trouble with cognitive empathy, which involves such things as automatically picking up on someone's mood from their body language and instantly knowing exactly what to do for them, for example. However, we often have affective up the ying yang, meaning that when someone is injured, we almost physically feel the pain they must be in, and this is so intense sometimes that we withdraw from the situation through not being able to cope with it. This is the opposite of people with major personality disorders, who can immediately pick up on what hunched shoulders mean, but just don't care, even using the situation to their advantage. If you lack neither cognitive empathy nor affective empathy, then you must be some other kind of allistic, probably a neurotypical.

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    1. Your post seems to reflect how I evaluate situations. I don't "read people" automatically, but I do analyze their reactions as best I can. I tend to miss the subtle social cues of people, which causes plenty of social misunderstandings. Probably why I'm easily mislead or manipulated in some situations. Body language is a nightmare.

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    2. Do you have a resource for the various forms of empathy you cite? Normally, people use "empathy" as an all-inclusive term, which is problematic for many of us trying to explain that we do "feel" for people and animals and so on, but we miss facial expressions, body language, and even tonal expressions of emotion.

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