Posted in writing

Cat by Cat

I’m reading this new-to-me author, Rachel Hawkins.  I’m in the third book of this Hex Hall trilogy that my author brought home.  She’s into these stories of empowered women saving the universe from whatever evil is en vogue right about now: vampires, witches, dystopian universes, etc.  My author, meanwhile, is writing a short story for her writing class.  I look up from time to time, and she’s still typing away which is good because I’m almost done with this and I know there’s a fourth book around here somewhere.

My author looks over at me a moment, and doesn’t seem to see me, but then she focuses on the cover.  “It’s good, right?” she says.

I nod.  In life, I wrote a lot of children’s fantasy, so the stuff she has around here has kept me busy over the years.  There was a window when she wasn’t reading as much fiction, and she’d come back with these dry non-fiction reads that even she wasn’t actually interested in reading.  I understood why she bought them: she wanted to “engage in the discourse of academia.”  But none of that was really her passion.  A lot of those books languish on the shelves in the upstairs of the house that she shares with her husband, child, and some cats.  Oh, and obviously, me.  I’m her muse, by the way.

I glance up to see what she’s doing.  She’s gone back to typing.  She’s pretty busy these days.  We used to spend hours talking about life, about writing, about my books.  But now it’s like she barely needs me anymore.

In case you’re wondering about this whole muse thing, here’s the best explanation I can give.  A lot of people think that when you die, you go and fly around like an angel.  This is not the case.  Angels are completely separate beings and they are absolutely terrifying, by the way.  You do not want to run into an angel in a dark alley.  Or a lighted room.  People have guardian angels and all, that part is true, but there’s a reason they don’t see them.  Trust me.  At any rate, the rest of us are sorted, as you may know, into heaven, hell, and what the Catholics call purgatory.  Heaven is for the people who do amazing things like getting martyred or live the impossibly pure life and they get the speed tour to the big show where God is and all that.  Hell is somewhere else, I guess, because I’m in the other group, which is like a colossal, what does my author call it?  Oh, a time-out for bad behavior in life.  When you’re through with your time-out, you can head on into heaven in theory.  In practice, as near as I can tell, we all hang out just waiting for the apocalypse which, we’re told, will be exceptional to watch and it will all be over, one way or another.

So, what do the rest of us do in the meantime?  Well, we pray a lot and pray for people and they pray for us and it’s a lot of church all the time.  But some of us get asked by various guardian angels to come and help out with someone or other who is struggling at some task back in the human zone.  And I’m one of those helpers.  In life, I wrote humorous children’s books and you probably have heard of me.  In death, I help console this writer of mine who is—I break off a moment to check on her—about to get frustrated.

“This is garbage,” she says.  Sure enough, she’s off track.

“Of course, it is,” I assure her.  “Shitty first draft.  It’s normal.  You know this is normal.”  I want to go back to my book.  I don’t even know why I’m with her, to be honest.  She’s generally not a writer’s block type.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” she says.  If you’re wondering why I haven’t described her, it’s because I get confused on descriptions now.  In life, I would have called her a fat, middle-aged woman who looks younger than her real age, who has glasses.  I would have compared her to an elephant or a hippopotamus.  Now, I see her soul as well as her body, and then I get confused.  She’s basically a good person, but spends an inordinate amount of time worried about other people and what they’re thinking and feeling.  At first, I wondered what it was, but now we know that she’s autistic, and that means she has this super-empathy thing about her which is alarming to me at times.

“What is it, then?” I say, not letting go of the book.  This should pass quickly.  It always does.  Not like before.

“Baggage,” she says, turning back to her computer.

I close my eyes a moment.  One thing you need to know about my author is that she will spend hours going over things she wants to say to people to prepare for a “quick meeting.”  That’s part of her autism thing: over rehearsal for complicated conversations.  These conversations almost never go as she’s rehearsed them, and it’s a gigantic waste of time.  Still, though, it soothes her to hear the sound of her own voice and sometimes I think the reason I’m here is to give her someone to practice with.  Anyway, despite this, sometimes she doesn’t explain things very well, and then I have to draw things out of her.  “You know, you could just write whatever,” I tell her helpfully.

“How does that help?” she asks me.

“I don’t know,” I say.  It used to help me, by the way.  I tell her this, but her process is different.

“We don’t all have hours upon hours to spend at this,” she says.  “Your method worked because you were rich and white and had a ton of money inherited from your dad, not to mention your wife’s movie earnings.”

Here we go.  I was privileged in life, she keeps telling me, and now I have to listen to her tell me why my method was the method of a privileged white person.  I start reading my book, but look up when I see that she’s stopped bothering to write at all and is rereading what she has already written.  I move closer so that I can see it, too.

It starts with this lovely piece she wrote for flash fiction.  She loves it, I love it, and when she workshops it, everyone else loves it, too.  But she’s always trying to stick it onto something else.  Last workshop she was told that it should start a story about Autism and family life and she’s apparently trying to make that happen.  She’s trying too hard.

“You know,” I say, tentatively, “You could try another story.”  I know this is not likely to gain a lot of traction with her.  She’s been planning this story in her head for three weeks.  That’s part of her process: she writes out the plot in her head before she sits down at the keyboard, and it does tend to work out reasonably well, normally.

“You don’t get it,” she tells me.

“What don’t I get?”

She sighs.  “Do you remember the time when Abby got us “off topic” one day in class?”

“Which time?” I ask.  Abby is this fat Mexican woman, in her mid-to-late 20’s, who is in my charge’s writing class.  She’s always going on and on about things I honestly tune out.  By the way, I can’t see Abby’s soul, just my charge’s soul, in case you were wondering.

“The time when she talked about not being able to turn off being Latina to write,” she says.

I think a moment.  Oh, that time.  “Which time was that again?”  I said, realizing that was a common theme with Abby.  She drove me crazy sometimes, but my author adored her.

“The one about whether or not she could turn it off,” she says, unhelpfully.

I think about the time I think that she was talking about.

“It’s not like I can turn it off,” Abby had said.   Oh, yeah.  I kind of remember.  My writer was sitting in her memoir class with about six other students and a teacher.  I have to admit; these small classes were nice and they sometimes made me wish that I had had actual training in writing.  But given I made millions doing things my way, one of those shot-in-the-dark writer myths-turned-reality that almost never happen, I still think my path worked out just fine.

Anyway, I remember her teacher, who is this young guy with pale skin, as if he never goes outside.  He’s not quite vampiric because he smiles a lot and is a good dad, which does make a lot of points with me.  In life, I had four kids of my own.  “Well, no,” the teacher had replied.

“So, yeah, whenever I write something, isn’t it going to be like that I’m not just writing for myself, but for my culture.  Like, I have to be a Latina writer or something.  I can’t just be Abby.” I remember her saying.

My writer had nodded at that.  I, meanwhile, had wandered into the special breakroom we muses have and got popcorn.  This was stupid and was going to be a while, and I remember that I had wanted something to eat.   Meanwhile, this conversation was going straight up my writer’s alley.

“Well, you don’t have to be a Latina writer,” the teacher had said, patiently.  “You can be Abby who writes who is Latina.”  During this part of the exchange, I tossed some popcorn into the air and tried to catch it in my mouth.  No choking risk when you’re already dead!

“No, she can’t,” my charge had said.  I sighed dramatically.  She ignored me.  “You can be a writer.” He’s a white guy, by the way.  I think that matters here; I don’t know.  The writer-I’m-supposed-to-mentor would tell me it does. “She has to be a Latina Writer.”

Abby nodded at my author.  “See?  If there were tons more Latinas writing and publishing in my area, then I could be just Abby.  Instead, I have to be Latina Abby.  It’s just hard to get started sometimes when you know that’s what you have to do.”

I had stopped listening and had wandered out into the hallway at this point, so I don’t know how the conversation ended, but my writer now was looking at me like it was obvious what the connection was.  It isn’t at all obvious.

“Don’t you get it?” she asks me.

I don’t, and admit it.

“You’re impossible,” she says.  She stands up and goes upstairs and gets me a book and hands it to me.  It’s called Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  She read that a few weeks ago and tried to get me to look at it then, but I was busy re-reading A Wrinkle in Time.

“Read it,” she says to me.

I grumble at her.  She goes back to writing.

My writer and I have been together, by now, by my count, about thirty years, so we know each other quite well, but along about the time she was trying to study for a Ph.D., I stopped paying much attention to what she was doing.  After all, my expertise was and still is, the craft of writing fiction.  Why would she need me to help her with research?  The answer was, clearly, that she didn’t, and she didn’t appreciate my attempts to get in her way while she was trying to master all those obnoxious theories of literature that take all the fun out of it.  So, I found other things to do.  We’d been together three decades and had grown so far apart in the last five years, it was like we didn’t even know each other anymore.

I still remember when we were fairly new to each other.  She was ten when I came to her, and for the first decade or so, it was great.  She’d reread my books once or twice a year, and she’d get this glow about her.  She knew the author.  She knew me.  And I was always with her for whenever she had a bad day, which was often.  She didn’t have many friends ever, and what friends she had she sometimes misread their intentions.  Some took advantage of her, others drifted apart.  I’m her only long-term friend, and we haven’t been speaking all that much.

I thought about what she was like then, when she was still a kid, before she realized all the things that adults and books in her life told her about how her life would be amazing because some day, someone would see her on the inside and forget how she looked on the outside.

I knew it wasn’t true, but I never shattered her beliefs.  I found that I couldn’t, the longer I knew her.  In life, I would have looked right past her and made a joke, but in death, she was my world.

Did I mention she adored me?

I still remember how she sat up all night reading my book about a voracious reader, like her.  How she’d reread it over and over again well into college.

I look over at her and, for an instant, see her from when she was ten years old, before she knew she was autistic and her dreams of the world weren’t realistic.  When she had hope that wasn’t so jaded.  She just wants me to read a book.  One book.

So, I read Freire, and she types.  Great, this is about us bloody stupid white males taking over the world.  She’s gotten somewhat obsessed with this stuff over the years of our estrangement, and since we’ve started working together again, since she’s turned back to fiction, she’s been producing increasingly political materials.  I could still somewhat control her when she was just concerned about people not like her, but since she’s realized she’s autistic, and thereby disabled, she’s been nearly impossible to coach.  She’s got all these little rules like capitalizing names of oppressed groups.

As I’m reading, though, a thought comes to me.  I remember when I was alive and wrote this book that became commercially successful.  In the first draft, my fantasy figures who were workers were from Africa and sort of like pygmies.  I thought they were adorable, but the world did not agree, and I had to change them completely.  I made the financially prudent decision and hadn’t really meant to harm anyone, but I didn’t then and don’t now understand what all the fuss was about.

I glance over to my writer, who has decided to write a blog post instead.  Sounds like her.  She has this audience of autistic women, mostly, who read her stuff and like it.  She tells me that she’s working on understanding her identity as an autistic and this community helps her with that.  I’m glad they do because then I don’t have to deal with that issue, myself.

“Papa,” she says, suddenly.  She calls me that.  My real-life kids did, too.  “How can I build a culture of autism?”

I look at her.  She’s asking me?  I’m still stuck back, trying to unpack that conversation with Abby she had in class.  But I want to help her.  This is the first time in a long time that she’s asked me a question that I don’t think she has the answer in mind already.  A real question, and I don’t know what to say in reply.

“What I’m trying to do,” she says, “is figure out what it is to be autistic and to help other autistics to understand.”

I try to keep up as she talks about how Neurotribes was the first history book of “her people.”  I’ve heard this before, but I still have no idea what she’s going on about.  I try Freire again, hoping the answer is there, but then I realize she’s asked me a question.  “I’m sorry?”

She glares at me.  “Nevermind.”

“I mean,” I begin, “I don’t get this stuff and you know it.”  I wave the book around.  “I’m trying, though.”  And I was, more or less.

“But you’re an author,” she reminds me.  “You are a part of the culture, even dead.”

She’s not wrong.  I did very well with my writing.  I think I mentioned that.

“I guess what I’m asking about is how can I begin on this stuff?  I feel like it’s so much responsibility.”

I think about the materials we’ve read together, and separately, about writing.  Suddenly, I know.  “Bird by bird, love,” I say.  “Remember?  Just start with one bird, then the next.”  That’s the sort of generic thing that works for a lot of people.

She turns back to the keyboard.  “Which bird?”

I smile.  “Just pick a random one and see where it takes you.  If it’s your story, it’s your story.”  That should hold her.  Myself, I was a workhorse with writing.  I’d call her lazy, but it wouldn’t be fair since I can tell she’s thinking writing all the time, even more than I ever did.  So, I head back to Freire and she starts to type.  While she’s working, I think about what I’m reading.  He’s going on and on about how it denies the humanity of the oppressed to oppress them, but they’re also denying their own humanity.  I flip to the back of the book.  Okay, he’s Brazillian and dead, so he’s probably wandering around purgatory.  I toss the book aside and, to at least humor my writer, decide to get the answers from him directly.  “Are you good?” I ask her.  I don’t mention that I’m going to go consult this Freire person.  I’ve been told it’s too confusing to humans and even if they can get their heads around our existence, they’ll end up using their muses and other guides by getting them to harass everyone in purgatory to the point where no actual praying goes on.  She nods, so I slip off to talk to the man myself.

When I come back, having attained the York Notes version of Freire’s point, in English, from some passing scholar I bumped into, she’s stopped writing again.  I look over her shoulder, in my invisible state so as to not freak her out, and she’s rereading her stuff.

I read over her shoulder:

Okay, so picture this.  I’m back at high school.  I’m not in high school, but I’ve graduated and I’m subbing during one of my trips back home between jobs.  I’m sitting in the English department offices, where I’ve always felt welcome.  There was one Spanish teacher who was newer, but everyone else was there when I was there as a student.  We’re sitting around, talking about something or other at lunch.  I’ll make up some lines here.

            “So, how’s it going?”  Mrs. D., the Spanish teacher I had in middle school and once in high school and who was so tall and thin she looked like a model, asked me.

            “Normal day,” I said.  And it was.  Whoever I was subbing for didn’t know they were getting a competent teacher, so they had boring plans and I was just babysitting.

            “Can you stop by at the end of the day, so I can show you how to run the videodisc player?” she asked.  “I’m making sure they give me you next week, when I’m at the conference.”

            I smiled.  It’s nice to be requested.  “Sure.”

            I start skimming here.  She’s caught up in the mundanity of a teacher’s lounge.  It was dull when I watched her living it, and it’s even duller on the page.  I slowed down when I got to the end, which seemed to be the important part.

            I don’t remember how the conversation progressed, but I remember somehow, we’d gotten onto the topic of Amy Black.  Amy was two or three years younger than I, but I knew her from plays and forensics.  She was probably on the newspaper since I think she would have bypassed English 9, too.  Amy dressed dramatically and had dark hair but pale skin, so she was considered beautiful in that timeless way.

            “Her writing was so beautiful,” my AP English teacher, Mrs. S., said.  She had a reputation for using the pen she wore around her neck on a shoelace-thickness strand like a microphone.  I’d always liked her.

            I looked at her.  Of course, she had beautiful writing.  Amy was the kind of girl I dreamed I could be, but fate gave me a heavy body and Autism.  Fat meant I was ugly, and Autism meant I would be too weird to be just “quirky” in an affectionate way even if the social structure of the average high school permitted fat people to be regarded with affection, which it did not.

“Okay, this story is a pointless digression, so I’m stopping it,” she decides.

“Don’t shoot the bird!” I tell her, after I’ve backed away a respectable distance before reappearing.  “Not yet.”

She frowns at me.  “It’s terrible, though, and pointless.”

“Wait, not yet,” I say to her.  “Okay, so I don’t know why you’re using initials there, so that part is a bit dotty, but why’d you pick that memory?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “It was the first bird that came to mind.”

Sometimes I wish I could do one of those dramatic things like they do in the movies.  You know, I morph myself into this Amy Black character and talk to her and try to psychoanalyze her.  But I knew Amy Black.  I went to school with her, too, even if no one saw me, but my writer.  She was one of those people who was the ideal for what my author wished she could be, but because she was born looking a certain way and her brain worked a certain way, she couldn’t measure up.  I didn’t want her to feel bad, though, so maybe it would be better to try another scene.  “Maybe try another bird?” I ask.  “Save this for later?”

“Maybe I don’t want to,” she says.  But then I can tell she’s thinking about Amy Black. I think about Amy Black.  I envision a pale girl with long, curly black hair and blue eyes.  Even in high school, she looked somewhat doll-like in appearance, the exact sort of thing that my writer would wish that she, herself, looked like.  Amy was a singer and actress, and my writer can’t carry a tune, though she’s a fairly strong actress.  My writer once said that she had accepted that she couldn’t sing, and that never much bothered her even though it meant that Amy Black, two years younger, got a larger role in The Music Man than my author did.  I knew deep down it bothered her a lot, however.  Learning that Amy was a good writer, though, must have shaken her because she realized this was yet another thing she was reasonably good at, but others would be better.  My author is competitive and always has been, but she keeps most of her competition inside her, so it eats her up from the inside, but no one ever knows about it.  Times like this, I wish she had friends.  Real friends.

I swallow, though, and remember how much she used to look at me, like I had all of the answers.  She had trusted me once.

“Writing is your thing, right?” I say, finally, carefully.  She’d given up acting since she knew her body limited her too much, and neither teaching nor law seemed fully like her calling.  She’d put all of her self-esteem on writing, and some “normal” person, already tremendously gifted in other ways, was better at that, too.  I did understand, but there isn’t much I can do about it.  That’s life, after all.  Maybe she just wanted a friend to hear her out.

Maybe she just didn’t want to feel alone.

I thought about what the scholar had told me about Freire.  If she’s autistic, the issue isn’t that she’s not talented and that Amy is talented; the issue, maybe, to her is that she’s talented, but limited because of her disability, and if that’s the case, then the Amys of the world who have need to make opportunities for my author and others like her, the have nots, to be heard.

“What you’re worried about is that your voice has little representation, and if you write and happen to get published, your voice speaks for all autistics, so you want to be sure everything you say is worth saying because the chance may not come again?”  I venture.

She nods.

“And Amy Black, to you, represents that unearned privilege thing?”

She nods.  “I’ve googled her, though.  She’s not some great author or actress or anything today, at least, from what I see.  She’s just ordinary.”

“So why does it bother you?”  This is obviously going nowhere.  Somehow, I’ve screwed it up again.  I wonder if the muse popcorn machine is working again.  Someone fried it last week, and it hadn’t been repaired, the last I’d checked.

“If someone that talented didn’t do anything with that talent,” she says, and I can tell she wants to cry, but is trying not to, “then what hope do I have?”

Then I realize something.  She’s trying to carry the whole world of autism on her shoulders and has somehow kept persisting, but this is what breaks her?  This is what finally gives her writer’s block?  “You do what you always do,” I tell her.  “You work harder than everyone else because you can’t rely on charisma or luck.”  As I say the words, I feel stupid.  I just told her, once again, why she’s lesser, why she’s not as good as everyone else.

Sure enough, she looks at me like I’m an idiot. I want this to go right, so I try again.  “You’re worried since now that you identify with a marginalized group that you didn’t even know you were part of until recently you realize that it is actually much harder than just working hard.”

She nods.  Maybe I’m not such an idiot.  “It’s not that anything has changed, but maybe I’m more realistic now that I know.  I already had to work harder, but now the stakes are higher because we need our voices to be heard, and yet, if I go too autistic in my work, who will understand it?  So, I have to work even harder than that to produce something worth reading, for a publisher to take a risk on, and if I do, then I have to hope that whatever it is they like doesn’t demean autistics in any way while trying not to offend others at the same time.”

I nod and suddenly the popcorn machine goes out of my mind.  I get it now in one of those brief flashes that sometimes happen.

She needs me.

She needs me, with my, what does she call it?  Allistic?  Neurotypical?   Whatever.  She needs my brain to explain things.  She needs me because I’m not autistic.  She needs me.

But I’m just an author.  And now, a dead one.  So, I say, quietly, “Bird by bird.”

She looks at me again and sighs.  “Bird by Bird.”

One more try.  “Don’t try to put the weight of an entire group on your shoulders.  If you build your part of the aviary, slowly, and carefully, and others build theirs, then you’ll get there.”

And maybe if people like I was in life wouldn’t keep tearing down cages or killing the birds, the aviary would get built a lot faster.

She turns back the computer and smiles at me, “maybe for us, it should be Cat by Cat,” she says.

I smile and pick up my Hawkins book.  “Sure.  You build the clowder, but you don’t have to do it alone.  There are plenty of wordsmith Autistics who can help.”  Autistics are very cat-like, and so I get the inside humor of the reference, but something has changed now, and I sense it.  While my author pounds away, seemingly lightened, I feel as though I understand something now that I didn’t before.  I’m here to learn as much as to teach.  I think back at my African pygmy creation, the jokes I used to tell about Jews, and how I used to mock fat people.  I look at my author, trying to change the world with her writing.  Suddenly, I realize that she’s trying to change the world, for real, and the enemy isn’t a witch or a vampire.  Once upon a time, that enemy was me. I set down my book and head back, into the shadows, to see if I can find that professor again.  I have some more questions to ask him.

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