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.

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