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Neurodiversity, publishing, and ... me!

January 30, 2018

Foreword

 

So much pressure exists in this society to be like everyone else. To admit that you belong to a smaller sub-genre of human takes a lifetime of careful consideration, weighing and measuring how this will change the life and defences you have taken much effort to create.

 

I assure you this is not an admission of weakness but rather an admission of persistent strength.

 

Awakening

 

Ever read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion?

 

For those who haven’t, it’s a delightful story based on the male protagonist, Don Tillman, who has what was formally known as Aspergers (in the latest edition of the DSM , what was once classified as Aspergers is now classified as Autism Spectrum Disorder - ASD).

 

Despite Don having high intelligence and giving lectures on the Aspergers, he had not yet identified that he, himself, had ASD.

 

Though I adored The Rosie Project, I thought it was quite an unbelievable aspect of the story that Don Tillman could not have recognised ASD in himself.

 

However, now, I have a different perspective altogether—it is absolutely possible. In fact, I am a living, breathing example of it.

 

The biggest discovery of my life occurred at the end of last year, and it has rocked my world. I learned that I have ASD.

 

You might be wondering how I could have lived for nearly thirty-eight years and not realised this when there is so much information out there.

 

The main reason, despite having many autistic traits, is that ASD presents differently in females than it does in males, and much of the literature currently out there is dedicated to male and child diagnosis.

 

Another reason I missed the diagnosis is that a brain finds explanations for everything. If it’s not the right explanation, it will find the next best fit.

 

When I was a child, people didn’t know about ASD. My mother was told by a man who had noticed me rocking that children who are highly intelligent rocked. I showed many signs of intelligence, so the rocking was explained away, and I accepted it.

 

I thought I was an introvert and suffered from social anxiety. Other differences were explained as quirks or personality traits. Other small characteristics—like visual thinking, severe travel sickness, vivid nightmares, or the difficulty still to this day telling my right and left apart—didn’t even register as being anything other than ‘just the way I am’.

 

But as I got older and had more and more situations where I had to force myself to act and play a role in a world designed for neurotypical people, things began to unravel on the mental health front.

 

During an especially high-stress time in my adult life, I fell completely apart. It has been four years since I’ve held a day job, despite being a highly qualified accountant, because I, as hard as this is to admit, can’t cope with one. I didn’t understand how my neurodivergence affected my ability to fit in the square slot that many others can.

 

To live my whole life knowing that I am ‘different’ and not knowing exactly how or why is unbelievably challenging. The number of times I cried and agonised over the belief that I was broken and didn’t know how I could possibly fix myself is innumerable. The guilt that I hold, knowing that my ASD affects not only myself but my family and friends, is tough to measure.

 

Every day I experience intense fear. I calculate the unlimited (mostly negative) possible outcomes of every decision. A social event needs a week of planning. A change to my daily schedule throws me into a complete spin. A phone call induces fear and adrenaline. Attending a writing conference where I have to socialise with other people for a couple of days, takes months of forethought and plenty of recovery.

 

 

People who know me, wouldn’t realise what goes on underneath. Those incredibly close to me may have an inkling. I have created a convincing social veneer and am capable of keeping up this pretence as long as I have the emotional and energetic wherewithal to draw upon.

 

I have always had to pretend in order to fit in. When I am in the middle of a social encounter, I am analysing every word and reaction and refining what works and what doesn’t and measuring it against every other conclusion I’ve come to about social etiquette, so that next time, I’ll know what to do.

 

But don’t take this pretence as being insincere. If I’m your friend, you are extra special to me and everything I tell you is truthful. It’s just all the social angst and those parts of myself that aren’t ‘typical’ that I keep hidden below (or, at least, try very hard to do so).

 

So you may be wondering why I am sharing all this on my author platform.

 

Well, that’s because my ASD is so deeply entwined with my writing that I can’t separate the two out from one another. And also because my attempt to fit in by appearing ‘normal’, played out in a similar way in my writing career.

 

Patterns

 

‘When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside of you as fate.’

Carl Jung

 

My special interest is writing. My special interest saved my life—literally.

 

Because I am so completely entangled in it, the act of writing and being an author has allowed me to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone.

 

Writing means so much to me that I was able to force myself to give two oral presentations while studying my master’s degree (however, not without the help of anxiety-reducing beta-blockers). To put this in perspective, I’ve quit high-paying jobs in the past because my employer insisted I give presentations to the other staff.

 

I force myself to meet and talk to other authors and industry professionals because I love the craft so much. In all other moments, I barely leave the house.

 

For some, writing is a passion, a hobby, a way to counter boredom, a career.

 

For me, writing is a lifeline, a coping mechanism, a self-soothing activity, and I love it.

 

I haven’t wanted to get caught up in the #OwnVoices campaign because I haven’t wanted authors who write characters who don’t necessarily share their identity to back off from doing so. After all, we all do this as authors. I’ve never been a man, but I write often from a male perspective. If authors backed off from this, I would not have had the pleasure of reading The Rosie Project - a story about a neurodivergent protagonist written by a writer who is non-autistic.

 

But it’s that last sentence that made me think deeper on the subject (something I’m prone to do about most things). Sure, it’s great to have diversity represented in popular culture and be able to see ourselves on the big stage so to speak. But the point remains that The Rosie Project was written by a non-autistic writer. Or as an analogy – vanilla ice cream.

 

But can vanilla ice cream truly understand what it feels like to live the life of chocolate chip? Sure, vanilla can empathise, observe, research and listen to accounts from chocolate chip about being chocolate chip, but no matter what vanilla does, it will never understand the nitty-gritty realities, emotions, difficulties and day-to-day experiences of chocolate chip.  Because vanilla doesn’t think the same, feel the same, or have access to the deep inner-life of chocolate chip.

 

And at its core, this is what the #OwnVoices campaign is all about—authenticity and, more importantly, championing authenticity.

 

Since my discovery that I have ASD, my perspective of my entire life has changed. I have an explanation now for everything I have encountered throughout my years. At first, this filled me with intense relief, but then I became very sad and scared because it also made me realise that my limitations may always be my limitations no matter how much I try to ‘fix’ them.

 

I am wired differently. I will never be vanilla.

 

Reflecting upon this naturally made me reflect upon the experiences I have had in my writing career. I noticed a glaring yet disappointing correlation.

 

Without knowing why, the twelve novels I’ve written and had published to date are, naturally, chocolate chip. Makes sense now. My stories don’t belong in the realm of vanilla that publishers around the world feed to the market. Vanilla is the favourite flavour, so, therefore, there is a big market for it and it sells.

 

 

Looking at it now, my writing career has followed a similar trajectory to my life.

 

I knew as a person I was different, I just didn’t know why. I also came to know as a writer, my novels were different, and I just didn’t know why or, most importantly, how to change it. I was trying to make my books vanilla like I was pretending to be vanilla in my life, but at the core, my books are, and I am, chocolate chip.

 

So, even though The Rosie Project is a story about chocolate chip, it is still vanilla at its core. Across the publishing landscape, this is starting to slowly change with the request for #OwnVoices authors writing about diverse characters.

 

I’ve seen some big publishers recently picking up books written by neurodivergent writers. But across the board, diversity is still underrepresented and under-championed.

 

My Voice

 

Thankfully, five years ago I sent a manuscript to a small publisher, Escape Publishing. It was a new digital imprint of Harlequin Australia, and they were asking for ‘romance stories that didn’t fit anywhere else’. Looking back now, I can see why it appealed to me and why I thought my stories had a chance.

 

I’m not sure if this publisher knew at the time, nor my editor, when my first novel, The Paler Shade of Autumn, was accepted, that they were supporting neurodiversity before there was ever pressure to do so. Because even though my novels are not obviously about characters with ASD, each of my characters are, in many creative ways, neurodivergent. And the worlds I create have been filtered through me, influenced by my own experiences and perceptions from the perspective of a woman who has lived her entire life with ASD.

 

It is so plainly obvious now why all my earlier works are about women who are ‘different’ and are trying to come to terms with their differences while finding their place in the world. The stories are a projection of my own struggles. And at their heart, my stories are about the lead character finding that one person she can truly and completely connect with when it feels as though there is no one else in world with whom she can.

 

 

Over the years, in order to find a readership and get marketing dollars behind me, I tried to make my novels more and more vanilla, (like I do in real life in my relationships with people). But I now know that I can’t simply ‘fix’ these different characteristics in my books just like I can’t fix my neurological differences. So, no matter how much I try to be vanilla, I won’t be. And nor will my books.

 

No wonder I came up with the author brand slogan – No Ordinary Romance.

 

As a person with ASD, I also have incredible strengths that neurotypical people don’t necessarily possess—extreme focus (for hours upon hours upon hours), vivid imagination, and my creativity isn’t contained within a box. The same could be said for my books.

 

The best way to support diverse voices is to give us the freedom to write what we want, especially when the outcome is not vanilla. I don’t want to write a story that explicitly showcases a woman with ASD (though I can see the need for it), so let’s think broader than that.

 

Let’s recognise that where true diversity comes from is the point of source, the experiences, observations, beliefs, and ideals, not necessarily the diverse character being written about (though I don’t discount that this is important in representing diversity too).

 

The voice, in and of itself, is diversity. Diversity can then be experienced, not necessarily in the portrayal of a divergent character, but in the intricacies and nuances of the story itself influenced by the intricacies and nuances of the writer. Publishers, you’ll know when you see it because it won’t be vanilla.

 

If publishers start taking a chance and offering different flavours like chocolate chip, pecan ripple, or strawberry swirl to the market, and getting behind those voices, readers may just shock booksellers and publishers alike by actually:

 

  1. celebrating that different flavours exist

  2. enjoying these different flavours.

 

But, at the end of the day, this is my take on the subject. My opinion is drawn from my own experiences. I can’t speak for others in the community, but I can assume from the strong drive behind the #OwnVoices campaign that there are many people with a similar story to mine who want to be heard and accepted and/or read diverse #OwnVoices stories.

 

Now that I know why I will never fit in the vanilla mold, I feel much more willing to accept my diversity and write the stories I want to write. My hope is that others feel this freedom too.

 

 

Thank you to my readers who have picked up my books, read and connected with them. I know I am far from the only person trying to find footing in this world. So, thank you, it means more to me than you will ever know.

 

Thank you to my publisher, Escape Publishing, for, despite the obvious un-ordinariness of my novels, taking a chance on me. It, again, in many different ways, means so much to me.

 

*A side note:

 

Publishers/agents, if you happen to read this, please don’t write-off an author simply because you believe they haven’t read widely in the genre. I hear this point come up time and time again and even as a point of ridicule.  

 

As someone with ASD, I now know because of my specific way of thinking (logical) that I find non-fiction much more palatable. I always have, from the time I was a little girl. While you may have been reading The Babysitter's Club or Harry Potter, I was reading a medical book, Guinness Book of World Records, horoscopes, accounts of past life experiences, and the Reverse Dictionary.

 

It takes many misses before fiction can capture and hold my attention. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t read a lot of fiction or myriad non-fiction in preparation for the novel I am writing. And it doesn’t mean that I haven’t put in the hours, days, weeks, and years of perfecting my craft as a writer. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not serious about my career. Discriminating people, no matter how inadvertent, at the gates like this is another way of shutting down diversity.

 

** Please excuse me if I have got any terminology wrong. This is a new area for me, in regards to understanding language and terms, despite having lived in this landscape my entire life.

 

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Jacquie Underdown 2018