The knock sounds just as Klirran places her brush and comb on the bed, careful not to touch the rough outer blanket, in a line beside her soap, washcloth and toothbrush. She scowls, glances at the washstand—the soda is right there and it’ll take an instant to grab it and finish the line—but the second knock is louder, followed immediately by a third. Impatience. Not Inmera, since the Cloisters won’t need to talk to her about this newest occurrence, and everybody else knows not to disrupt Klirran while packing if the option to leave her alone exists. Emergency, then, or annoyance. Emergency means yelling, though. Calls to grab her gear and come. Annoyance. Klirran sighs, but she grasps the doorknob, the brass worn smooth and shiny under her hand. How many people have used this little guest room? How many felt trapped here?
She turns the key with her other hand, marks the way the loops of the bow leave red-grey momentarily-throbbing indents against her fingers, pulls the door open.
A woman, her tall and lean body tense and pulled inwards, the green silk sleeves tugged tight over her folded arms. Klirran can’t decide if she wants something to grip or if she wants to make the fabric prominent, although with Caiára it is likely both. Anger, certainly. Always is with her.
Sacrifices, though, don’t forget the green, and neither should Klirran.
This is a first-draft piece, so my apologies for its present roughness. It’s also my first piece in this character’s POV. Klirran is an intersex, bisexual, poly, autistic healer mage who is smarter than you and doesn’t care if you’re bothered by knowing it. I loved writing her, even before I got to write in her POV, because she’s confident in her own intelligence, ability, sexuality and gender. It’s wonderful to write a character who is confident (unlike me) and confident despite the societal indoctrination we (non-majority) people get that strips confidence away from us. She doesn’t waste time trying to be something she’s not, and that’s something I’m very much trying to learn.
That last thing is why this piece is important to me, the writer, and why any future reader reaction is downright irrelevant.
This is the first time I’m getting to knowingly, purposefully write (and glory in the writing) from the POV of a non-neurotypical character. The truth is that I’ve accidentally written non-neurotypical characters all my life, and the fact that I’m a writer of fantasy has given me unusual leeway to pursue this. I’ve written a fair few characters who for various reasons of possessing magic have a raft of sensory processing challenges alongside: it always made sense to me that having the ability to perceive non-usual things (like magic) in addition to the usual must make it more difficult for the brain to process all of it. The problem here is not having the words (not knowing that I’m an hypersensitive autistic person trying to write about autism) means that my only way of expressing my natural interaction with the environment around me is to do so by means of magic.
I don’t exist, so, in order for my experiences to exist, my characters need to be impossible.
I’m going to say that again.
I don’t exist, so, in order for my experiences to exist, my characters need to be impossible.
That’s … so many different kinds of awful.
So I’ve written about psychometrists who can’t touch things because they’re burdened by visions of past and future in everything they handle (imagine eating food while suffering images of every person who’s touched it or, worse, killed it). I’ve written about telepaths who’ll sell their soul for the world to just stop thinking and spend the rest of their time pondering the bizarre way humans use language in contradiction to its meaning and their intent. I’ve even written about anxious vampires who really aren’t that neurotypical but just manage to hide it well enough that nobody notices. (Abe, in hindsight, doesn’t strike me as neurotypical at all, and I mean to do something about that.) In at least a dozen different ways, I’ve written about my autistic self, but always justified by something else, or hidden, or hinted at. Once or twice it was obvious – I’ve had an autistic friend ask me if a protagonist is based on her, and I blinked and tried to explain that no, ze is me – but most of the time it’s an exercise in all the ways of writing (my experience of) autism without knowing that I was doing it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though.
I mean, why would I be writing a specifically, visibly autistic character when I didn’t know that I belong to this label? Why would I write purposefully about sensory processing issues and experiences when I didn’t know until a few years ago that those words could describe me? Why would this be front and centre in my creativity when the best word I had to describe myself was “weird”, psychologists kindly called me “quirky” and I focused most of my time and attention on hiding it?
How could it be predominant when the books I read were all about neurotypicals, anyway?
We learn to write through mimicry. We copy other people’s sentence structures, comma placement, word usage. (Thanks, Tracey, for showing me the glory of refusing to use “and” instead of the last comma in that preceding sentence.) We walk away marvelling at a piece of description or a clever turn of phrase, and, in the glorious tradition of the English language, we steal it, use it, claim it. Over time, we take the bits and pieces of all that we’ve copied from the creativity around us, plus whatever we’ve developed on our own, toss them together, shake hard and emerge with something we refer to as an author’s voice (or voices).
We learn about what we’re supposed to write in the same way.
(This is why representation is so important, not just for consumers but also for fellow and future creatives.)
I’ve been reading since the age of two. I don’t remember not reading. I see parents at work trying to find card games that their young kids can read, and I’m baffled by it because it doesn’t match my experience of childhood. I’ve always been reading, and I’ve always been good at picking up the meaning of the word via context (or a dictionary). Less good at pronouncing the damn word, though, because I was always reading words I never heard in real conversation! The best comment I ever got on a school report was the school librarian expressing concern that I didn’t borrow enough books. No, I didn’t … but that was because the school library went straight from picture books to junior-level non-fiction, and what did it matter when I had shelves of books at home plus a well-used regional library card? I’d walk out of the local library with twenty books and read them all, thanks to chronic insomnia and the ability to read as fast as I speak, in a couple of days. No bother, though: I’d just go back and get more. I’ve read thousands of books. More if I count all the ones I’ve read more than once. More still if I count all the ones I’ve read several times.
This – the metaphorical truck cavalcade holding all the books I’ve ever read – is why I get so frustrated by the opening of the TV show Scorpion, which announces the team as a group of neuroatypical geniuses plus the neurotypical woman who translates the rest of the world for them. (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much.) It’s why I get frustrated by cishet people who explain to me why cishet people say and think and respond the way they do. It’s the base assumption, from the speaker, that I don’t know what the neurotypical/cishet life is like, on account of not being either, and therefore I can’t understand. It’s not quite splaining, because at least the person in question isn’t trying to tell me about my own experience, but it’s a close second, and it’s based on a fallacy of my own ignorance.
Because yes, cishets and neurotypicals don’t know what it is to be queer and autistic. People who don’t suffer chronic pain (acute pain, by the way, isn’t even remotely similar) don’t know what it feels like to have pain day in and out with no expectation of an end. It’s not irrational, I suppose, for people to flip that on its head when I’m forever telling people that they’ve got no idea what it is to be me.
Except for said metaphorical cavalcade, of course. Except for the world of media that prioritises the stories and experiences of certain kinds of people.
I speak fluent cishet. It’s a nonsense language to me, but I speak it. I was raised in a cishet household by parents and a sibling and a big extended family, all of whom assumed me to be cishet and treated me as though I was and would always be cishet. I know that when Mum said the moronic words are you sure when I came out, she was speaking from a position of having that assumption destroyed and not knowing how to process it. It doesn’t make her reaction right or acceptable, given its grounding in cis/heterocentric assumptions of how people are, but I know why she said those awful, hurtful words, even if I’ll never be able to forgive or forget them.
(No, Mum, because I didn’t spend months agonising over how to tell you something that may mean, given your Catholic upbringing, that I am no longer worthy of your love.)
In the same way, I’ve read thousands of books about neurotypicals. Any autistic person capable of reading books or watching/listening to film or TV has been subjected to countless portrayals about how society assumes people think, behave, interact and process. I can only speak from my own experience, and remember that this is only my position, but to assume, after all those books and films and TV shows, that I need someone else to translate neurotypicals for me is both ridiculous and insulting. I know how you think and behave! I’m subjected to your way of being in the world every time I pick up a book or, worse, leave my bedroom! In point of fact, I understand and speak your language so damn well I didn’t get diagnosed when I was young! I understand and speak your language so well you don’t even know I am not part of you, yet the moment I discover and then admit I’m not, you assume my ignorance. No, I don’t understand why you do what you do. I don’t understand the sense underpinning your thinking and your communication. I know what you do, though.
This isn’t even the worst bit.
This isn’t why I was crying while I was writing a few first-draft paragraphs about a character who, on re-read of the novel I’m supposed to be final-editing, leapt out at me as the autistic mentor my completely fucking autistic protagonist needed.
I was crying, while I got to try out a character and prose style that spoke to my lived experience, because this felt so strange and unnatural to me.
My own fucking voice felt alien.
I am so used to engaging with neurotypical characters and speaking neurotypical language that I’m writing books about neurotypical characters from a presumed-neurotypical viewpoint with a neurotypical approach to setting, character, plot and narrative delivery. When I do express even a tiny bit of the lived experience for which I have been denied language, I need the flimsy overlay of magic as a construct to do it, and even then I only express those parts of my experience that make sense within that construct.
I try to write neurotypical, because that’s all I’ve read, all I’ve seen, all I’ve been taught, but it’s not my native language.
I’m not just talking about word choice. I’m talking about sentence construction and the content of what we write.
I’m not visual. To say I don’t give a fuck about what things look like in a media that for me is about abstract concepts delivered through words is an understatement. I engage with the world through sound and touch more than I do what I see. There’s no movie inside my head, but I do have a thumping good radio. I do like bright colour and use of space, and apparently I’m just visual enough that I can make event flyers and play around with InDesign (although who knows how well I’m doing it), but hair colour or clothing or jewellery or wall hangings are all just background noise to me. It doesn’t convey. Half the time I don’t notice it, in large part because I’m noticing or trying not to notice any number of things other neurotypical people can’t sense. My meaning comes from different angles.
When I write, anything, in terms of description, I struggle with the big-picture images I’ve always been told readers want. I don’t care what the room looks like. I don’t see it as I read. I care about the texture of the seat coverings as my narrator sits. I care about the speaker’s tone of voice, and the smell, and the temperature, and a whole raft of other small-picture details that impact me/the narrator as they negotiate the space. This, to me, conveys realism, because this is how I feel when I’m out in the world. I don’t see the room. I feel the patterns of threads on the couch. Yet all my life, in writing classes, I’ve been taught to include more description. Go big-picture. Be more visual. Write all this stuff that feels irrelevant to me because that’s what people want.
Maybe, with neurotypical protags, I’ve got to work on this.
I’m going to posit, though, that with neuroatypical/autistic protags, though, I don’t. Why should I? My experience with autism is small-picture detail coming from angles that most people disregard. I should write more characters who notice small details in the things they touch, like me. I should toss the seeming pointlessness of describing rooms and clothing and focus on what works for me, which is very personal, immediate sensory detail as it relates to the protagonist. I get to go small. I get to analyse. I get to show the observation-and-thinking process that is natural to me and never makes it into the books I’ve read and written. I don’t, glory be, have to describe facial expressions! Do you know how many times I’m having to overuse words like “smile” and “frown” because I don’t know how else to write what I don’t see in the first place but know, based on my reading, readers expect to find?
I get to, finally, write what I know after a lifetime of writing what everybody else knows, and that’s amazing.
A writing teacher, a parent to an autistic child, once read a piece written by an autistic person and commented on how different the voice was in terms of language and structure and expression, and how she felt it expressed the interior processes of (one person’s) autism.
I don’t have that. I’ve spoken your language for so long I’ve lost my own.
But I want to write more autistic characters.
I want to find my language.
I want to stop silencing myself by copying you.