My Neurodiversity And Other Animals

This is a story about stories.

This is also a story about autism.

And, I think, this is a story I’ve never told, but it feels like a thing right now.

When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Gerald Durrell. My father started me off with My Family and Other Animals when I was, I don’t know, seven or so (I should see if we have a copy and lend it to Oldest, I expect she’d love it like I did), and I read all the stories he told about his childhood, and eventually moved on to reading more of his adult work, talking about his work as a naturalist, trying to trap animals for zoos, and so on. I worked my way through everything.

One day, I found a Durrell I hadn’t read before. The Picnic and other Inimitable Stories, it was called, and from what I could tell from the jacket summary, it was a collection of stories from various times that were too unpleasant in some fashion to wind up in his other, lighter books. The eponymous “The Picnic” story involved the family setting up for a picnic lunch in the shade of a boulder that turned out, when sun-warmed, to be a dead horse or something of the sort.

These days Amazon has it marked under “Literature and Fiction”. As a child of perhaps nine (I had to have been younger than ten) I did not notice, and most of the stories seemed entirely plausible as outtakes from his other autobiographical work.

The last story in the book is outright supernatural horror. With a light bit of lampshading to suggest that certain of the events were plausibly real, and others were the derangements of a hallucinating madman turned murderer.

I knew Gerry as an autobiographical writer.

It never occurred to me, burgeoning fiction writer that I was, that he also might make up stories. Gerry Durrell wrote autobiography; Gerry Durrell wrote about finding the notebook with that story; the notebook was real. The status of the brain-eating monster in the mirror as described in the notebook was left ambiguous, but when Gerry Durrell finished reading about it, he hung a towel over the mirror just to be safe.

My bedroom had an antique bureau in it, with a mirror that was some three feet high and five feet wide, which faced my bed.

My parents found me at some unearthly hour of the night, barricaded into the bathroom closet behind laundry hampers, out of line of sight of the bathroom mirror (high, small, and aimed elsewhere), frantically reading Pogo books. I tried to explain that I had read a story that scared me and was somewhere I felt a bit safer, and … I don’t think they understood more than superficially, how deeply afraid I was, how profoundly unsettled.

(It is a common trait of people on the spectrum that they take people at face value, and assume they are telling the truth. Gerry wrote autobiography. Therefore….)

We moved. (This is how I know I read this when I was younger than ten.) I tried, at one point, to talk to the psychologist I saw in my mid-teens about it, who I was seeing for issues with social adjustment and integration. She offered the possibility that I, as living avatar of the “Me, an intellectual” meme, was upset by the creature in the mirror because it attacked brains, and I could not explain that this was a completely ridiculous notion and I shut down and maybe I never talked to her about anything real in my head again because if she couldn’t understand this thing what could she understand? We played Mastermind. I solved it algorithmically and got irritated that I couldn’t construct a puzzle that required more than about half the track to solve (why is that track even THERE?).

I had a lasting phobia of mirrors. When I was under bad stress, just a mirror would do it. Picture me, in a bad emotional place, staying in a hotel where the elevator to go up to my room had facing mirrors, and me wedging myself into the hollow where the doors were to get away from them, to not have to face the infinite reflections of infinite mirrorness. On good days, it was a twitch and a shrug, only bad when it was a mirror in a darkened room, especially one that reflected a doorway where something might lurk and snatch.

The book lived on the bottom shelf of the upper floor of the library in my father’s house, and I twitched every time I saw it. Occasionally, as I got older, I considered picking it up and reading it again, in case it might help desensitize me. I was never that brave.

(We went looking for beds, once. One of them had a mirrored headboard. The “ha ha ha ha ha ha no” went on for about ten minutes.)

I went through EMDR therapy. A lot of things got better. (Driving got easier. Still terrible, but easier.) The mirror thing didn’t really budge. I just… had a phobia. One whose entire etiology I thought I could trace: I read a scary story when I was young, and it stuck with me in weird ways. Brains are funny.

The mirror in the bathroom, well, it faces the door. If I went to pee at night I’d mostly-close my eyes and put the light on. A small adjustment to a bit of glitchy brain wiring, an appeasement to the demon spirits of phobia.

When I figured out I’m likely autistic, a whole bunch of things cascaded, a whole bunch of things happened, and it took me months and months to solve them, and I’m still solving them. All the things where I could say “Okay, this isn’t going to change for me expending more effort on it, I can stop trying now and do something that might work” are still finding their new normal.

But one of the things that I didn’t expect at all was that the mirror phobia has quieted down to a dull roar. I never consciously sat down with myself and said, “Look, you were an autistic kid, and you trusted Gerry Durrell to tell you the truth, with all the naiveté of childhood and all of the earnest gullibility of neurodivergence. When you learned that story could be fiction a few years ago, it was a bit of a shock, but you never really wrapped your head around why it got you like that. And that’s because you trusted him, and you knew him as an autobiographical writer, and it never occurred to you he might do something else for fun.”

But apparently, somewhere in me, that child-self wound healed, because finally I knew why it was there.

I go into the bathroom at night, and look at the door behind me, and twitch a little, but I don’t always turn on the light. I don’t need to anymore. That story has settled in my brain a bit: I took it that seriously because. The shape of it fits this way, not that way, and I know how to adjust.

This is a story about stories. The story we have for why we are the way we are, that matters, and when it changes, that can make a difference. Even in unexpected places, like a remembered story, a horrorshape, a lingering nightmare in the corner of a mind.

Also, if you like supernatural horror, that one’s really fucking creepy, and I can’t recommend it for reasons I hope you understand, but I can point you in that direction. You do you.

Flash Fiction: No More Heroes

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig is “The Complications of Heroism” so I have written “No More Heroes”.

(Rendered complex by the fact that I thought I’d said everything I wanted to about complications of heroism when I wrote “There Where Things Are Hollow“, a wee Cap and Iron Man conversation fic. Themes overlap but are non-identical, I suspect.)

Anyway. Tiny story.

Continue reading Flash Fiction: No More Heroes

Flash Fiction: Calendar of Fortunate Days

I’ve been meaning to play Chuck Wendig’s “Flash Fiction Friday” game for a while now and run behind enough on reading blogs that I usually see the prompts after their deadlines, but I caught this one and got something written for it just under the wire.

So, I give you: “Calendar of Fortunate Days”, behind the cut.

Continue reading Flash Fiction: Calendar of Fortunate Days

I finally saw The Last Jedi

Okay, I finally saw it a couple of weeks ago and then I went and read all the things about it that I had open in tabs in three different programs and I stewed on it all a bit and contemplated, and there were a couple of things that I was genuinely boggled by in the fan commentaries I saw. So I’m going to put a cut in here for those people who don’t want to see the spoilery bits, because I didn’t see it until a month ago and there might be people who care.

Continue reading I finally saw The Last Jedi

Passion and Disturbing the Universe

Autism is an experiment in passion.

(I don’t know which blog to put this on, heh. Let’s go with the writerblog, because I’m going to be talking about writing and fandom and stuff, but I started it on the religionblog.)

Long ago, in another lifetime, I got into a conversation on rec.arts.sf.fandom where, if I recall correctly, I argued that The Fannish Spirit was one that encouraged a more enthusiastic engagement with the material than was considered socially acceptable, more or less. I was at the time frustrated with a world that considered overt passion déclassé, that expected particular roles, particular fitting in, and I was at an age where I was hitting the expectation that I would give up “childish” things – my games, my roleplaying, my storytelling – in order to do something Practical. Or something.

I was not at all sure where I fit into that world, that model of “adult”, that considered passion unimportant, even tacky. (And these days, I see the people looking at the nihilistic lulz culture, the ‘caring about anything is Uncool, if our “ironic bigotry” upsets you that shows you’re weak’, wondering where it came from, and think back to where I was at the turn of the century, looking as a young adult for some reassurance that it was actually okay to care about things.)

I see so much saying that passion is untrustworthy, that logic and reason must rule. (But go into that dark bar and have a beer with Dionysos every so often, as Le Guin said, and there is a reason that I have long cherished that particular piece of that particular introduction.) Investment of myself is something that – at least for the right thing, the right moment, comes so easily for me.

But the things where it comes easily are not the things that the world outside respects. The bubble in which it’s okay to, for example, spend two weeks delving into gaining a superficial but details understanding of the history of the social crucible that gave birth to fandom, the modern pagan movement, the modern environmentalist movement, fascism, and fundamentalism (among many other siblings, half-siblings, and cousins) is not a large one, and it’s constantly threatened by this sense that if I must be so tacky as to have passion, I should monetize it, I should turn it into capital. If I want to return to college, I’m told I need an excuse that will bring in sufficient money to make it worthwhile (and with the cost of college being as it is right now, I can’t really argue with that; I can only hope that the ‘free state college for all’ movement has won some victories by the time the kids are old enough for me to imagine trying), and the masters’ I would love to pursue is wholly impractical and thus “But, why?”

Passion isn’t a good enough reason for anything, you see.

But back to autism is an experiment in passion.

I was talking, recently, about how my development is in many ways a steady sequence of finding things to fall in love with, and the way that shapes my stories, the things I tell, because my longest, truest passion has been the writing, the storytelling, the sense of falling in love with a piece of the world and trying to express that to someone else. And each story comes with little bits of other passions – delving into ecological architecture for a solarpunk city, or the class history of the temperance movement in the late Victorian era, or other things. And the more of these passions I pursue, the richer things are, because I can’t write fantasy steampunk like Cracked Pots without an awareness of the crazed mystical uprising in the same time period as gears-and-steam nostalgia, and I can’t chew on temperance ladies without poking at the class dynamics I was investigating when digging in a bit of history thirty years later when I was loving on Captain America.

Everything that I do uniquely, everything I do that is most of myself, is driven by this sense of falling in love with a moment, with an idea, and asking it to dance with me. And all of that is driven by that particularly, peculiarly autistic passion, that thing that gets called “special interests” by people who want to tut-tut over it all, but damn if I don’t write good nineteenth century mystical bafflegab social justice aesthetic pastiche.

Because of that intersection of passions.

There have been times I’ve wondered if what I do, what I care about, can be truly worthwhile, and at root that’s likely because I don’t have a passion for capitalism. I have passions for creation and knowledge and I write because I don’t know how not to and the stories happen and people keep telling me that “Delayed Exchange Deferred” in The Death of All Things made them cry and that’s a thing that matters in the world. (And that was a story I was passionate about, that needed to be told.)

But it’s been a long time since I was secure in the idea that passion was okay. That it was enough on its own, a justification of its own thing. I think back to those conversations in rasseff, and other things, and having this breakthrough that the art that I do, the art that I care about, the art that can only happen because of me, that I love, that I invest in… that’s something that genuinely matters in the world.

There will be time, as the poet did say, to murder and create.

And the time to dare to disturb the universe can only be now.

So I write.

Autism is an experiment in passion and this is the monomania that has animated me since I was a child, upon which all other passions depend, and which all other passions feed. I need not despair when I read someone’s perfect words, the ones that make me come alive, the stories that I hungered for without knowing I hungered for that, right there, because I can trust that that which I conceive in passion may feed some other spirit, somewhere down the line. I know that I can do that, because I have done it.

And so I will do it again.

Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the things about the alchemy of reading is that it is possible to take it in and be transformed. Often in ways where it’s impossible to articulate the difference between who one was before and who one has become.

I don’t know how to articulate the process of becoming as I am that depended on the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. I can only gesture, the finger pointing at the moon, and give you two quotations, one from Earthsea, one from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness. Somewhere in the alchemy performed by combining these things, I came into being as I am.

Only in silence the word,
Only in darkness light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.

– The Creation of Éa

and

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number–Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysus, every now and then.

I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.

Bright the hawk’s flight, but also remember the dark bar.

My oldest nom de ‘net is ‘Darkhawk’.

Writing and Reading Short Fiction

I never used to be a big short fiction reader. I mean, I read it, a lot of golden age SF compiled into books, but it wasn’t really the thing that grabbed me. The pieces were the wrong shape, I suppose. I would have things that stuck with me – the story I’m working on at the moment owes so much to the normalcy of flight in Heinlein’s “The Menace From Earth”, even though I suspect that nobody I don’t say that to will spot how it circles on that particular story’s thermal.

Something shifted, somewhere. I’ve written a couple of fairy tales – one published in Les Cabinets des Polytheistes, one still being anxiously polished like an Arkenstone while I try to figure out what to do with it – and those are shorts. When I read the call for submissions for The Death of All Things I immediately had what grew into “Delayed Exchange Deferred” right there, at my fingertips, the shape and the kick of it. A few other things exist for me now, as shorts that I can work on, which is… remarkable to me as someone who has mostly lived in half-stewed novels for a very long time.

And, occasionally, I’m venturing into reading short a bit more. Perhaps because that’s something I can fit into my life – between the kids and everything else it is complicated to sit down and do anything long, and a short I can swallow in one gulp.

Which is part of how I read “Avi Cantor Has Six Months To Live”. Which – given I saw that it was World Suicide Prevention Day yesterday – I am finally getting my act together to comment on.

I’m not Jewish, or of Jewish heritage, but I’ve long had the traditional fannish appreciation of Jewish minutiae, and there are those there. And there is the quiet endurance of the main character, Avi Cantor, and his ongoing struggle with life and death and identity and…

… it is one hell of a story.

I don’t know what to say about it, honestly. Avi’s struggle, that story, is a piece of why I wrote “Delayed Exchange Deferred”, though, so maybe we can get the stories out there that will make the world whole again. If we just tell enough of them. If people read or hear or see enough of them.

Tikkun olam.

Alas

Signing this weekend has been cancelled/postponed. Will notify if we manage a reschedule.

Release Day!

Death of All Things is out today, really truly officially. (I got a comment a bit ago on twitter from a Kickstarter reader who had an emotional response to “Delayed Exchange Deferred”, though, which gave me such warm fuzzies. Um. To the extent that ‘warm fuzzies’ are appropriate with that story, which is… complicated.)

The trade can be obtained via this link; the Kickstarter edition has a few extras kicking around, and there’s an ebook as well.

And I’m in there with other people who people have actually heard of! Who are worth reading!

I will be at Flights of Fantasy in Albany, New York on 9 September from 2-4 pm, for a Zombies Need Brains signing event, if anyone will be in the area. I’m not expecting a whole lot of people to be looking for me in particular, given this is my first fiction sale, so if anyone does want to show up to see me in particular it will make my everliving blue-eyed day. (At some point I’m sure they’ll list who-all will be there on their website, but they haven’t as of this writing, so rather than an incomplete/partial list of who will be there I will just name me.)

Storybuilding: A Ramble

I’m working on this story.

I have… nine tabs of reference material open, assuming I haven’t lost some somewhere, all of them about real-world culture and organization of the Marines (both US and Royal). That’s not counting the brief things I have opened, researched, and closed (“How would a Marine address their Navy corpsman?”).

Or the other things I’ve had open. Common world surnames, say, that’s one I keep having to pull up every time I get another speaking part. The aliens’ names are easier, there are only two of them in the platoon, and I can just make something up that’s in accord with their vocal apparatus. Trying to reach out for names that paint the suggestion that there’s a broad world full of human beings that contribute in the subtext, though, that requires some actual thought. And some thought, because just snagging ‘most common surname’ by continent or something is still lazy. Just a slightly broader lazy than before. But if the worldbuilding wants to include breadth of humanity it has to actually show it in the interstitial bits.

And then there’s more overtly political questions. I sit with this story, this story that I’m trying to root in a particular military experience, while proclamations are being made about trans people in the military, and I go, “… is there someone trans in this platoon?” Because that’s as conscious a decision as having women in the platoon, as having names for people that reach beyond European standards, and the odds are good that someone like Karou the hyenoid alien does not exist but I am damn sure that Chelsea Manning does. It’s easy to just grab the easy names, the assumed genders, the just-like-every-other-story bits, easy and lazy and anyway if it’s just like every other story why am I sitting and writing it in the first place?

And it goes on. Trying to articulate a plausible Space Marine ethos means spending a bit of time sitting with actual Marine expressions to try to figure out how that would translate, how to include it, how to express it in the story without sitting down and doing the “This Is What It Means” talk from people who are busy with their actual mission. It means coming up with story twists and angles that will let that actually show, rather than remain entirely invisible underneath the events. Which isn’t a different writing problem than questions of human diversity at all – it’s all about how to take the things that are true in the storyworld and make them visible and plausible.

I did a little mini-tweet-thread about this question of breadth of humanity, mostly talking about Cracked Pots, the novel in progress, but it holds here too. My gods, it’s full of PEOPLE. And figuring out the people means figuring out the things, the details that make them all real. All the effort into the little telling details and right moments.

This particular story is capped at 5000 words for the market I’m writing for.

Longer stories produce… notably more tabs.