Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Autism & the Artist: Part Four



I am worried about writing this part of my series.  I don’t really know as much as I would like regarding the subject as I would like.  I am a teacher and a poet, but most of what I know about supporting artists is what I have tried to do and what I would like to be done for me, and hardly any of that deals with autism directly.  However, I can speak about a few things and I suppose that will have to do.  So here then, is what I have to say about supporting an autistic writer, or more specifically, what I have to say about supporting a poet with Asperger’s.

1.  Support is support.  No matter how you slice it, it comes down to a binary action on your part.  Are you going to support your child, parent, brother, sister, boyfriend, girlfriend, cousin or friend; or are you not going to support that person and his/her art?  To begin with, that is to start supporting someone, there is no magical formula.  You have to be willing to be supportive.  Chances are, that the person you know with autism wants to be an artist for the exact same reasons a neuro-typical person wants to become an artist.  What may be different is that some of those reasons might be amplified or muted, depending on the individual.  For example, the desire to communicate ideas and emotions is a typical motivation for an artist.  With somebody on the Autism spectrum, art might be the only means of communication available, or the only means of communication recognized by other people.  For myself, my poetry comes in part from a desire to belong to something.  My alienation is a fact of my life I will never be comfortable with and poetry is the door I hope opens up into place where I am not alone.  By writing poetry I am in part, trying to belong to a group of people and have the opportunity to feel as if I am normal.  “See?  I have friends who like the same things as I do, and we can laugh at the same jokes.”  What does this get you?  If you can understand the relative value of each reasons the person with autism holds, then you can better understand their needs.  It’s pretty obvious, but I have found that people who want to know why I write poetry have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to do anything artistic.  Why don’t I just want to sit down and watch the game?  Football is a social activity, right?  If I watched football, that would be more socially acceptable, but my needs aren’t being met.  We circle back to the general reasons any neuro-typical person wants to explore art and we discover it’s all about what a person needs.  So, obvious or not, there are a lot of people who don’t understand, and that’s why I state the obvious.

2.  Understand the nature of art.  If you are going to support somebody, it is probably a good idea you understand what it is that person is trying to do, and there are several strata of understanding that needs to be discussed.  You need to understand the medium (music, painting, sculpting, writing, acting, etc); genre (with writing that could be fiction, drama, poetry, non-fiction, screenwriting); the nature of art in general and the nature of the specific art; the place that art holds in the person with Autism you know; and you have to understand the art as it sits in context with perception and acceptance of the art.  This does not mean you have to accept everything as art, nor think that every expression created has excellence. 

Acknowledgement goes a long way in this department, and on a personal note, I would hope that through honesty in your appraisal of the work created will be a valuable tool in the growth of any artist, and those with autism, too. It would do you good to familiarize yourself to some of your artist’s favorites.  If the artist with autism is a painter, knowing why they like Gaugin more than Van Gogh, or despise Titian while praising El Greco, can be invaluable to understanding what it is he or she is trying to do. 

One thing to be clear about, is that you be honest when you deal with the artist who is autistic.  If you despise poetry, then you had better establish some boundaries very early on.  From my personal experience I can tell you that my wife put up with hour and hours of me reading her poems she had no desire to hear.  She is very supportive of my life as a poet, but she doesn’t want me to talk to her endlessly about a new form of poem I have fallen in love with and will be trying to write for the next three months.  She is there to share with my every success and break my fall with my every failure, but she does not want to hear me recite from the latest epic poem I have decided will be my focus for the next three to four weeks.  Does my wife hate poetry?  Not at all.  But there is a world of difference between not hating poetry and loving it as much as I do.  And here is the weird thing: I am not as nearly focused on my career as a poet as other poets I know.  It’s just that when I do start talking about poetry, I keep talking about poetry long after everyone else in the room has grown tired of the subject.  What does that mean?  It means that my Asperger’s doesn’t let me see when other people are finished as soon as I need to know.  If you support an autistic person who wants to be an artist, you need to make sure they know you support them, but that does not mean that your life needs to be consumed with that art.  Say it early and say it often until it sinks in.

You need to understand how the world at large interacts with art.  Again, I speak from a poet’s perspective, and so this information may not directly translate to other mediums or genres, but there is a lot of crossover none-the-less.  I am speaking about success in the world of art, and my experiences in the poetry community.  I am a fair poet.  I have had four chapbooks of poetry published, four full length collections of poetry published, and more than a hundred of my poems have been published in dozens of literary journals.  One of my more popular poems was anthologized in 2013 alongside some poets who I admire greatly.  I have received grant money from arts councils (not as much as I would like) and I am friendly with quite a few well known and respected poets.  None of that means anything.  Supporting your artist with autism will be to help him or her understand that success, no matter who we are, is a long, steep path.  It is not a destination.  It’s a hard concept for new artists to understand under the best of circumstances, but it can be devastating to someone who already has a difficult time interacting with the world and may not know how things work.  As someone who supports an artist with autism, you need to understand that your artist may be producing quality work, and might be an amazing artist, but that does not equate with success as defined by the world at large.  Most of the world defines success by popularity, position, and wealth.  Artist rarely have all of that.  I know a lot of poets who are absolutely amazing who never get the recognition I think they deserve.  That does not mean I am saying those poets who are famous are not deserving.  I do not know of any famous poet (within the poetry community) who do not deserve their position and celebrity.  I do not use the word celebrity as a pejorative, either.  I know there are poets I do not read, but I do not begrudge their success.  I am 46 years old and I have come to accept I will never rise any higher in the poet/poetry food chain.  I will continue to write my poems and hopefully continue to have my poems accepted for publication, but I do not expect I will ever be the poet people clamor to invite for a reading or book signing.  You may be forced in all likelihood to be a cheerleader for your artist with autism without ever having their efforts and passion pay off.  Accepting that is a huge part of what support means.

I don’t want this to be a disappointment to you, but there is not very much to be done.  As a poet I found comfort in being rejected.  It meant I was being treated like everyone else and I was the one responsible for my own success.  I suspect that your child, your partner, or your friend, will be frustrated in their failures, but all the more pleased when they see what success they have is a result of their effort rather than the manipulations of others trying to compensate for perceived differences.

Well, I told you I didn’t know much in the way of advice when it comes to supporting the autistic artist, but I still managed to write too much on the subject.  I hope this, as my other parts in this discussion have shed some insights into the mind of an artist who sits on the Autism spectrum.  I know that as someone who has been identified as high functioning, I do not speak to many people who have the daily struggle of supporting and loving those with more severe manifestations, but I hope this helps a little.   

Friday, January 8, 2016

Autism & the Artist: Part Three


Today I would like to talk about the things which my Asperger’s Syndrome interferes with regarding my life as a poet.  Last time I discussed the positives of my AS, and it felt good to talk about a few of those things.  However, some of you probably already know that some of the things which are positives can also work against me.  For example, being single minded is an advantage, but it can also be a deficit if I am not careful, or if I have gone too far down the path and I am not able to readjust to see the big picture.  What I am going to talk about today are not those sort of things.  I know it is already going to be a real tough thing for me to discuss, and I want as little ambiguity as possible.  Therefore, the disadvantages I am going to talk about today, are in my mind, unable to be listed as advantages.

1.  Alexithymia.  One of the downsides to Autism and/or Asperger’s Syndrome is these conditions are often accompanied by secondary conditions which complicate both diagnosis and treatment/handling of the issues caused alone or in combination.  While it is true I have some secondary issues related to my AS, it is Alexithymia which causes me the most problems as a poet.  Simply defined, it is condition where a person seems devoid of emotion because they are functionally unaware of their emotions. By extension, alexithymics are also unable to appreciate the emotional motivation of others, and generally find emotions of others to be perplexing and irrational.  Wikipedia has a definition more closely related to my issues as a poet.  It states: alexithymia is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating.  As it applies to me, I have a limited ability to read the emotions of others and I have a pronounced difficulty expressing my own emotions.  If you read my poetry, I am very much a poet who writes in the first person.  Not being able to express my emotions means that my poetry lacks the linguistic depth of my peers.  One of the fundamental aspects of poetry is figurative language which connects with a wide audience.  Not being able to express my emotions as easily as other poets puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to writing effective poetry.  Don’t get me wrong, I have been very successful as a poet, but there are marked differences in the actual language I use and the way I express my emotional self.  Different is good, but different can interfere with adhering to certain expectations.  Not understanding the conventions of emotional expressions in poetry affects how I see line, line-breaks, constructing progressive ideas and themes, and many other requirements for writing poetry.
2.  Alienation.  I spoke of the ‘Alien Planet’ explanation as to how people with Asperger’s feel.  Well, I desperately want to belong.  I mean I want to be a part of the group, one of the gang, a member of the club.  I have specific, personal experiences which amplify this need, but that is not where I am going with this.  I want to belong, and that means I spent a lot of time trying to belong rather than focusing on being a better poet.  I did not learn as quickly as I should that if I would have worked on being a better poet, I would have been accepted more readily into the world of poetry.  As it is, I pushed way too hard, and the result was alienating a lot of fine poets by being the equivalent of the annoying little brother your mother made you take everywhere you went with your other, older and much cooler friends.  I wore out my welcome on so many fronts, that when I became relatively isolated in the pursuit of a teaching career (I teach high school) it was both necessary and it probably became the best thing that could have happened to me.  I still push too hard, and I lose out on a great deal of friendships and working relationships with other poets because they have simply had their fill.  It’s a struggle to know that in my pursuit to be a member of a community, and to do so within an art which is reliant on the communal, I behave in a way which is counter-intuitive to my goals and that I will always do so.
3.   Single Path Orientation.  Because of my AS, I get locked into one way to do something, and I can rarely find another way, even when my original plans fall apart.  Because I imitate, I have conditioned myself to find the one pathway which will give me the desired effect.  I have one process for writing, one process for editing, and any attempts to change that are met with an aggressive, internal opposition.  When I was undergoing an evaluation for possible vocational rehabilitation services from the VA, I was told by the occupational therapist he was surprised I successfully navigated the armed services because of my “pronounced difficulty with authority.”  My difficulty with authority extends to even myself, when I try to affect change in my writing habits I know will benefit me.  Still, I find one way to write a poem, or one way to conceptualize a book, or even one way to draft my poems, and that is all I have patience for.  For what would end up being my second full length book, and the third book length manuscript I had written, I took more than a year to accept that the structure I had created could in no way work.  I knew it and I kept trying for so long, and only accepted the truth after a lot of unnecessary struggle and internal fighting. Many of my poems which have been published are revised and edited as I go along, meaning my first draft is what most poets would consider a third draft.  Unfortunately, once I have finished the draft, the poem has a 99% chance of staying exactly as it is, with not even a comma changed.  I know that thoughtful editing and consideration can make my poems stronger, allow me to see different ways to express the poem, and allow for different directions to emerge, but none of that matters.  I sit down to write a poem, and that poem gets written right there, or there is a good chance---I’d say 75%, it is not going to ever get written.  It’s one of the reasons most of my longer poems have sections.  They are really shorter poems written about the same thing, as opposed to poems composed over the course of several days, weeks, or months.  I marvel at the long poem like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, not only because of the scope and depth of such poems, but because I know they went through a process I am entirely incapable of incorporating in my own writing life.  Not being able to vary the way I write also comes out in my expressions.  I am overly fond of alliteration and assonance.  My metaphors are constructed within very strict parameters, and I have difficulty understanding the purpose behind the decision to have a line break here or there.
4.  The Stars must be aligned.  I do not write poetry when I want to, I write poetry when I need to.  Oh, I can draft any day of the week, but most of my attempts go no farther than a line or two.  Most poets know what I am talking about, but what I mean by this is that everything has to be perfect for me.  Everything.  I keep dozens of notebooks around my home and classroom, and they are full of false starts because I have a predilection to a clean, presentable notebook for me to write in.  The page needs to be immaculate.  If the journal is too worn, even though only half filled---it is rejected.  If the page itself doesn’t look right, I turn the page until I see a page I can accept.  If I write too small, too big, too messy, too neat, then I have to scribble and start over.  I am definitely a writer for the computer age.  With word processing programs, I can save a file and open a new one with only a few clicks.  I can go into an existing file and delete and start over (with the 25% of poems which might see an attempt at revision past my first draft), and I can edit my poem ten different times with ten different sets of line breaks, experimenting every time.  I also go long periods of time between writing anything I find of worth.  My longest window is about three years, but I hope next time won’t be so long.  When I do write poems I am excited about, it’s a flurry of action, and a mad rush to get it out of my system. 
5.  This last one I am not certain how to classify.  When I am about 90% finished with a project, and I have to do that last 10% of work, which is to edit and make certain I have all of my punctuation, spelling, grammar, and the like correct, I lose interest in the project.  I want to write something else.  Unfortunately, I am plagued with the single-mindedness I spoke of earlier, and I cannot dismiss my work until I am satisfied it has had closure, which most often comes in the form of publication.  Basically, I cannot work on another manuscript or project until the current project has been disposed of, and I will do anything I can to avoid finishing a project because of the kind of work it demands.  Writing in most other areas/realms I can edit and polish and be fine with it, but not with poetry.  Somewhere in my head, and I do not know what that might be, I am fighting against some prejudice against the refinement of my own work.

Next time, for my last installment, I will try to answer the question of what is to be done for the artist who is autistic.  How can you support the Autistic artist, and how can you best interact with those artists who identify on the Autism Spectrum? 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Autism & the Artist: Part Two

Today I want to write about where I, as a poet with mild autism, seem to thrive.  I will primarily be speaking of the places and instances where autism actually works to my advantage.  I want to shift from the general difficulties I spoke of in my last post because I think it is important to show that even what others think of as a disability can in fact be an advantage at times.  Also, I need to be clear that as I talk about my own experiences, I will be speaking of poetry as opposed to art in general terms.  It isn’t that I don’t believe in the inclusive nature of other genres, only that as I get specific with my examples, I need to speak of those things for which I have actual experience.
I did not begin my journey into poetry knowing I was on the autism spectrum.  I was not diagnosed until I was an adult, so I have had a majority of my success and failures simply thinking I was simply struggling to be the best poet I could possibly be in much the same fashion other poets struggled.  That was not the case.  Looking back now, I can see where my autism interjected itself into my life as a poet.  Here are a few key ideas:
1.     Rejection never got the best of me.  Once I decided I was going to be a poet that was it.  There was no more discussion or debate regarding that choice.  There has been plenty of debate over what I should do to become a better poet, but not the decision itself.  This means all of those rejection letters I received as young poet in my 20’s, some pleading with me to stop writing, merely rolled off my back, much like water off of a duck.  I was utterly convinced I was going to be a great poet.  Since my 20’s I have tempered my vision of artistic greatness and come to accept I will most likely toil at poetry in relative mediocrity and anonymity for my entire life.  That’s okay.  But I look back now and realize my autism granted me a certain amount of tenacity because I was single-minded, and remain so to this day. 
2.    Being single-minded gives me an advantage when it comes to research and focus of attention.  Well, yeah.  That’s how special interests work, right?  Well, yes, and no.  That I have special interest answers how I can be focused on writing and talking about writing to excess, but being single-minded gives me an edge in reading up on a particular subject in order to write a poem, and like William Heyen, to write a great many poems about the same thing.  Just this last summer, I wrote 55 poems from the same first person perspective, all using the same writing strategy to help ensure consistency of voice and structure.  So?  What’s the big deal about writing 55 drafts?  Well, I wrote them from July 15th, through the September 9th.  In December of 2008, I began writing a series of poems based on a poem by W.S. Merwin.  In two months I had an entire book drafted.  For better or worse, I write a lot of my poems in a dizzying flash of heat and frenzy. My singular focus pushes me.  I become driven.  In fact, the busier I am with my life in general, the more productive I become as a poet.  This aspect does have some drawbacks, but those will be discussed later.
3.    Asperger’s helps me in the revision process.  I hear about drafting poems from other poets and I often wonder how it is to leave something alone for a few days before the revision process begins.  You see, I continually revise as I write, often times going through three or four drafts in one sitting.  I don’t say this to brag, but to explain my condition pushes me to test my writing.  I will fiddle with a poem until one of two things happens---I am completely satisfied with the poem (aside from a few cosmetic considerations) or the poem breaks.  This for some might be a deficit, but it is a godsend for me.  Because I model my behaviors on sets and routines I see others do, I need to have faith what I am doing is working or not working.  Otherwise I grow frustrated and anxious.  I draft a poem over and over and what I consider my first draft (writing I do in one sitting) is probably a second or even third draft for other writers.  This doesn’t make my process better, either.  In some ways I envy other writers their ability to let writing steep and ferment.  However, from my perspective, for my peace of mind, my revision process, born through my condition, helps me to make sense of my art.
4.    I don’t know what can’t be done.  Now I have plenty of real issues when it comes to self image as an artist, but in one regard, specifically, I seem to enjoy an advantage.  I am a bit of a chameleon when it comes to poetry.  I have never settled into a singular voice when it comes to my poetry.  Oh, there are certain hallmarks in my poetry which can identify me as the author, but I seem to move in extreme sweeps in my poems.  I am either firing on all cylinders or I am completely misfiring.  I write a lot of landscape meditations, but I also write a lot of tongue-in-cheek poems.  I write in a hybrid of lyric and narrative, but I also write political poems.  I enjoy the Japanese forms of haiku and haibun, but I also write persona poems.  What I write is not dictated by what I last wrote.  In essence, I cast my gaze like a wide net, and I write about a lot of different subjects and from a lot of different perspectives.  This isn’t to say other poets don’t do this, just that I suspect other artists who fall on the autism spectrum are often perceived to only be capable of having a few areas of focus or special interest, and that isn’t necessarily so.  Some of us have so many different things we want to do, we simply don’t know where to start, and that delay often does not fit in the neuro-typical vision of how things should work.


One final thought for this installment, if I still have your attention:  Much of my success is because I had a family who dealt with me and made decisions geared towards treating me like everyone else---that is, like a person who was both an individual and as part of a family.  I have heard Asperger’s called the “Alien Planet Disease” because it often feels like we are somehow stranded on an alien planet trying to learn how to operate.  Yes, I have often felt that way, but the expectations and support my family (specifically my grandparents) had and gave me was possibly the strongest foundation I had when it comes to having success in general, and the space to believe I could in fact be a poet.

Next time, I will discuss the challenges I face as an artist with actual interactions with artistic expressions.