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.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Autism & The Artist: Part One

          I have been seeing a lot of articles regarding autism and Asperger’s Syndrome lately, and some are thoughtful, reflective, and funny.  Some are quite informative, and most mean well.  Right now Autism seems to be a buzzword and medical hot-topic, and because I have been diagnosed as falling within the spectrum, I may be a bit more aware of such discussions.  However, very few are intersecting with what I feel to be a fundamental issue I struggle with on a daily basis---Autism and the arts.  You see, I am a poet.  I mean, I am not just a poet.  I do other things.  I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, and even those things certainly create a great many variables in my life, it is poetry and artistic expression I am going to talk about now.
          Before I begin to discuss my interactions with artistic expression, I need to define a few things for you.  First, I fall under the category of mild autism in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) ---what used to be classified as Asperger’s Syndrome.  True to form with many others diagnosed with Autism, I have secondary issues.  Among them, I have Alexithymia, which is a disorder which affects my ability to identify and express myself on an emotional level.  I also believe (though I have never been tested) I have a mild version or variation of Prosopagnosia, which is essentially face blindness.  I have a pronounced difficulty remembering people’s names, even those I work with on a daily basis.  I recognize their faces, but I have difficulty accessing their names when I need them.  As a poet, I am much more affected by the Asperger’s and the Alexithymia I must also state I was diagnosed as an adult.  In fact, it’s been just under two years since I was diagnosed.
          I would like to begin with Special Interests & Social Interactions.  If you know someone on the Autism spectrum, or if you are on the spectrum, you may understand that a lot of people with autism develop special interests, for which they become somewhat obsessed.  The stereotypical areas of focus seem to be math, numbers, science, trivia, and sub-genres of culture (e.g. superheroes, science-fiction, etc.).  The stereotypical nerd or computer programmer comes to mind.  I am not going to tell you anything new when I say these are popular for autistic people because these areas of focus seem to allow for obsession and rely upon abilities/interactions which fall outside normal social interactions.  These sub-genres allow for, and even demand the ability to obsess over the minutia often shunned by popular and more widely accepted social interaction touchstones.  Take football or baseball for example.  All of the popular kids like sports.  Some even play in Fantasy leagues, and they will talk about their favorite teams at the local sports bar or at work.  This is socially acceptable for everyone.  Take Phil, who is mildly autistic and who has a special focus for football, and he can talk stats with the best of them, because that is how he explores his focus.  But when the others have had their fill of discussion regarding stats and want to move on to player salary disputes, Phil is just getting warmed up and he still wants to talk stats.  Phil starts bringing up player salary stats to try and be a part of the conversation, but by then, the office guys have moved on to why Coach X hasn’t decided to start using Wide Receiver Y, and Phil becomes more and more marginalized.  To no one’s fault, Phil is not invited to go to the sports bar for beer and the game.  Phil quickly becomes that guy who knows about any stat, but is too intense for regular, friendly socialization. 
          That’s how it is expressed.  Phil will naturally gravitate to those people who not only have the same set of special focuses, but allow for his awkward social interactions---the avoidance of eye contact, the long-winded and complicated syntax, and the excess of energy for establishing opinion.  What this doesn’t tell you, is that the only reason Phil joined the conversation was because he thought everyone wanted to know everything there was about what he is passionate about.  Phil doesn’t understand when enough is enough.  He doesn’t know when the conversation is over.  He isn’t able to transition to new levels or different directions as easily.  His momentum is a hard thing to influence and shift.  He thinks because you are changing the subject so quickly, you haven’t listened to him and acknowledged his subject mastery.  He feels as if you are not taking into account what he has had to say.  You are foreign and strange, and Phil moves away from interacting with you just as much as you move away from him.  The difference is that Phil doesn’t necessarily realize that it’s the autism making him feel this way, and he feels like it’s his fault you don’t want to interact.
          Now, when the special interest is acceptable, either acceptable because other people enjoy the subject, or it’s easily categorized in the realm of nerd or geek behavior, everything is fine.  However, when it’s art (whether that is writing, painting, music, or something else) an added level of discomfort is added.  First, it is difficult because most people like art, but they do not understand its creation.  Why anyone wants to be an artist when you can be a banker or lawyer is a strange thing, indeed.  For someone with autism, it is excruciating.  Not only because people look at artists differently, but because people look at autism and those with autism differently.  However, at least one more layer exists.  Autistic people often scaffold their behavior and actions on those around them.  Somebody with autism who wants to be an artist, must first learn artist behavior by imitation, and not being able to read what is essentially based in emotional expression is all too common.  Now imitating is an essential step in the progress of an artist, but here lies the struggle:  Autistic artists will always struggle to make the shift to authentic, individual, and original creativity.  For the artist with autism, knowing when to make that shift, and how to make that shift is incredibly difficult.  

(At this point, I will sometimes be using the second person “we” to describe some aspects of what I am discussing.  Please know that I am only able to speak of how I feel, as no two people with autism manifest in the same ways)

I will use one such issue from my own experiences.  One of the issues I have with poetry is the skilled and crafted line break.  Often times, well considered line breaks can make the difference between a fair poem and a really good poem.  So much (not to employ William Carlos Williams intentionally) depends upon good line breaks.  It is an aspect of poetry I have struggled with and continue to struggle with to this day.  I liken it to reading the faces of people. Just as someone with autism struggles to read the emotion and intent in another person’s face, I struggle to understand the subtle differences in the choices line breaks can connote.  The person with autism knows there is something to be gleaned in the subtle shifts in facial expressions, but the specific emotion is not a nuance easily understood.  The autistic person will take their cues from these facial expressions and guess at which facial expressions they themselves should make in order to help them express what they are feeling. When I began writing poetry, I began with imitating the line breaks I saw in other people’s poems, not understanding that line breaks other people used would not work for me.  My poems were different and therefore required different line breaks (as well as different forms and constructs) but I could not see that.  I could not see how one person’s use of a line break, which worked, could not have the same impact when used in a poem I was writing.  My imitation was a cause for consternation as I was trying to learn from the act.  This conflict---learning from imitation, but imitation failing on so many levels, was confusing and disheartening.  I still struggle with line breaks, even though I have become better.  I have created a list of rules and rarely let myself stray from them. 

Another challenge facing an artist who wants to be an artist is that those with autism struggle to be accepted and viewed as normal.  I cannot speak for those who fall on the severe end of the spectrum, but I do not a common theme among those who can talk about their experiences is the struggle to be viewed by the world at large as simply normal, or average.  The desire to express one’s self in art is to say to the world I see things differently.  This presents a huge conflict of interest for the individual with autism.  We struggle in a daily basis to fit in with the crowd, to be just another face and avoid being thought of as different, but the artistic spark is telling us to be different.  When we look at other artists without autism, we see a confidence in this opinion and we get depressed because that confidence is not a thing we can imitate.  We have to own it, and sometimes the best we can do is to pretend we are confident in our art.  This isn’t meant to take away from the struggles people without autism go through to be artists.  I am simply trying to explain the depths of what the autistic artist struggles with which feels to be in addition to the typical struggles artists in general face on a typical day.

* * *

In a few days, I will continue with my discussion relating more specific issues and struggles.