Posted in writing

Autism and “Shitty First Drafts”

I’ve read Anne Lamott’s ever-handed-out chapter from Bird by Bird called “Shitty First Drafts” many times and also read the entire book.  They throw it at you constantly when you’re learning writing.  Before I realized I was Autistic, I nodded and smiled and figured I was supposed to accept this as sage advice.

But…the problem is, I didn’t need it.

Let me stop you before you think: oh, she thinks her writing is somehow perfect the first time.

I don’t think that.  But I’ve noticed I come to accept “good enough for this project” a lot more than most people.  That said, before I was Autistic, I worked on a novel for over a decade.  Same one.  Taking it apart, redoing it constantly.  I realized I was Autistic this year, and finished it up fully and I am reasonably satisfied I can now revise it.  Not take it apart a million times for another decade, but revise it.  It’s in the drawer now because I’ll have to polish the first 50 pages of it for my “thesis” (final project) in the spring of 2017, but to polish it, I need to have it DONE now, and I do.  I can move onto something else while that rests.  I’m being somewhat pragmatic; I know I have risk of melt-down or being overwhelmed at some point, but I accept that it must be done.  I have gotten used to planning around my husband and son, who both have unusual times where they need help (like any Autistic family) and I know now that I’ll have my own times when I’m not productive, so while the productivity strikes, I gotta work.

Anyway, If you’re not familiar with the “Shitty First Drafts” piece, it goes over how Anne Lamott truly struggles to write.  Yes, a published author struggles.  Yes, it is hard.  We are meant to feel better.

I don’t, though.

Well,  I did when I thought I was neurotypical.  I understood that I was SUPPOSED to feel inadequate as a writer, and, as a result, I acted like it.

But since I realized I was Autistic, I realized that I never felt that way, not really.  I’m a good writer, and I know it.

Not a great writer.  Not yet.  I’m still learning, but good.  Better than the average person who is probably not a writer.  And if I’m fishing for a compliment (I’m not here), it’s more because I want to be reassured I’m good at anything.  That’s just Aspie self-esteem from years of being shitty at the social game.

Maybe that’s what I need: “Shitty Self-Esteem Thanks to Years in School.”  Sometimes I think I’m taking so many years of grad-school to ERASE what K-12 did to me.


Part of it, I know, is since the rise of self-publishing, I can look at a lot of writing that is mediocre (and worse) and yet still finds an audience.  I’ve listened to Write, Publish, Repeat and Fiction Unboxed by Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt and read into outlining and how it can help speed things up.  The biggest tip I took away from all that listening and thinking was this: writing is free.  It’s words on paper.  Sure, if you self-publish, you’re going to have to pay for a decent cover and some editing, etc., but on the whole the words are free.  And, what’s more, we can have a fine time with a mediocre book.  I still re-read my old Trixie Beldens, Three Investigators, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew books.  They are formulaic (well, Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew more than the others) and follow a very clear pattern.  You can tell that ghostwriters worked on them.  But they are enjoyable.

This is not to say that I can’t practice the craft.  I DO.  Believe me.  I’ve been studying writing on and off and will probably pursue an MFA after this (because I collect degrees, remember?).  I know I can get BETTER (everyone can), but I also know that even in traditional publishing, books that are worse than mine have been published.  I’m less worried about whether I can write and more about what to do about it.

I did learn something about writers, though, from the Lamott piece this time, and it wasn’t, I suspect, what I was supposed to learn.

I learned that my saying this, by my shrugging at my struggle is wrong.  I learned, in Lamott’s characteristic humor, that if you say that writing isn’t so bad for you, you will be mocked, shunned, and/or ostracized by the writing community (which, as it happens, has a lot of Autistics in it, so I’m wondering about this).

I learned that to be a real writer I have to tell you I hate it and it’s hard.

But…I’m Autistic.  I got the words gift, not the logic or pictures one.  My gift was words.

In exchange, I have limitations to my executive function, struggle with body temperature regulation, have oral communication freakouts, hate crowds, stress at road construction that involves narrowed lanes so badly I take forever to recover from it, and ditto with anything that makes my travel time unpredictable.  I also live in a family of Austistics.  Sometimes I can’t write because of someone having a meltdown (could be me, could be someone else) or because it’s too hot that I’m overheating or because someone robbed my spoon drawer (it’s usually work…dangit!), but I don’t worry about it as much as I used to: I will write again this week and I will move forward on something.  I write because I HAVE to.  I write because I prefer it to the phone or in-person conversation.  Writing is what I do.

Writing is something I can do at home, where I feel at ease.

Writing is something I can do out in the world, to stim my troubles away.

Craft takes learning, but that’s normal.  I can always get better.

But writing doesn’t scare me.  There are enough real-world battles I have, but this ain’t one.

That said, the piece is funny, though some images miss the mark with me a little bit, like I find the ending section a bit violent, but I also don’t have as many pesky voices in my head telling me I can’t write.  Instead, my voices tell me things like “It takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get to Milwaukee.  You should allow two to three hours.”  They also tell me that, “THAT TAG IS SCRATCHING THE CRUD OUT OF YOU GET IT OUT GET IT OUT.”  Or they tell me, “Work doesn’t appreciate you because you keep trying to improve a system and they don’t want it improved.”  Or my favorite, “Your advisor told you that you don’t know enough to consult, so you may as well just stop trying” (this, when I’ve been consulting on education matters for a few years, and she told me this after I thought I’d like to expand).

So, yeah, I’d like to imagine those voices are little mice and put them in a jar with the lid closed, I guess.  But I see that metaphor as too violent.  I don’t want to kill anyone (Lamott doesn’t mention air holes), and we’re meant to see this as humane since she has a writer friend, she intimates, who instead envisions shooting said mice in the head and that’s where it goes too far for her.  I guess it’s just because I’ve had all of these struggles my whole life in OTHER areas, that writing was something that was easy compared to all that.

I don’t care if you read my writing or not (and most won’t, I get that, but even Platt and Truant talk about only needing about a thousand fans to make a go of things in self-publishing…maybe I could get there).  But I’d like you to, because I suspect we could discuss these matters and find that I’m not the only one who worries less about writing and more about “daily life.”

Am I alone here?


Update: I just finished the novel in question, and I ended up taking a second semester of thesis to polish it up.  It’s effectively “done” (except what my advisor says to fix in the last bit) and I pitch to an agent next month (wish me luck!).  I didn’t take extra time for any reason except: 1) I had written too much and it took a while for us to figure out where to cut this novel ending-wise, and 2) school got so out of control that I couldn’t give it the time to nurture it.



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