Ruth Yates

What is the relationship between being neurodiverse and your creative practice? Mini interviews with autistic and neurodiverse writers and artists: Jon Adams, Debs Cooper, Kate Fox, Victoria Gray, Penny Kiley and Charles Wheeler

Welcome to the second post in this mini-series about neurodiverse writers and creativity. See here for the first post, ‘Kinship and community’, which is a written interview with Karl Knights, winner of the 2021 New Poets Prize.

For this post, I put a call-out on social media, and shared it with connections, looking for neurodiverse and especially autistic writers and artists. I asked them to answer two questions: ‘Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists who inspire you?’ and ‘For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse), and your creative practice?’ Many interesting and thought-provoking ideas were shared. Here are their responses below:

Jon Adams

About: Jon is both a contemporary Artist and researcher. He works in many differing media including sound, drawing and performance, often referencing his autism, synaesthesia and dyslexia, all interwoven with history, science, time and his past experiences.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

I read whatever I could that showed a flow, a tingle, that stirred a lasting correlation or change within me. Some words or imagery simply cascaded into my life, the poetry of Yeats, the paintings of Burne Jones or Asger Jorn and the CoBrA movement were like fireworks in my mind. I see it as natural to document a research project in poetry, illustrate emotions in metaphoric birds or transcribe psychological experiences combined with time space or place into a performance work. Take my autism you take my life.

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

I’ve always drawn since a young child but only feel I was permitted to write after I was DX’d as dyslexic late in life and could swap the trauma induced label ‘thick’ for ‘now liberated’. My prehistoric school days as an unrecognised Neurodivergent child were dark at times but I managed to survive by translating the world about me through imagery, systems, touching time and intense terminal curiosity. I announced aged 6 I would be an artist, but this was eroded away even before I left school and hence I trained as a palaeontologist instead. I feel deeply my autism also identified late, dyslexia and being a synaesthete are fundamental advantages and core to combining both science and art into a creative career.

Creative work: Taken from ‘Friends scattered’ poem (2020):

“We will
I promised
     one day soon
        sing of honour
and dream of swimming
        once more
my brothers, my sisters”

For more information, see http://www.artspace.co.uk/artists/jonadams/

Debs Cooper

About: Writer living in Bath. First Class (BA)Hons: Creative Writing. MA in Creative Writing: Bath Spa University. Short-lister, long-lister, runner-up and winner of various competitions.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

I was only diagnosed ADHD this year at the age of 58, so I’ve never had a ‘radar’ in respect of recognising other neurodiverse writers.

However, I do read and tend to write, quirky, unsympathetic characters who struggle to fit in. Capable, privileged, single-minded characters, especially those with support groups they can rely on, I can’t identify with.

During the MA I completed this year, my manuscript tutor insisted that I highlight my neurodiversity when submitting my novel to agents because of the current ‘trend’ in championing underrepresented writers: the LGBQT community, writers from working class backgrounds and those with disabilities. As the song goes: “two out of three…”

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

Writing is my safe space. As my brain doesn’t make enough dopamine, I get bored easily, but creating fictional worlds is far from that! Growing up, when things happened (or failed to), writing took the clamour out of my head and kept it above water. I re-wrote upsetting things, invented better scenarios, gave myself happier endings.

A comorbid condition that comes with ADHD called RSD –rejection sensitivity dysphoria – means small setbacks are perceived as catastrophic. So, receiving rejections from agents (I have enough to wallpaper a downstairs toilet!) has been a constant form of self-sabotage, however unbeknownst. Fortunately, Perseverance is my middle name.

Creative work: Excerpt from short story, ‘Mr Samuel’s Gift’:

Mirabelle’s mother has given her a tin of baked beans, a container of dried parsley, a box of blackcurrant jelly and a jar of fruit in juice which the children in her class think looks like sick. One child makes so many vomit-gagging noises that their teacher sends him to stand in the corridor to calm down while the rest of them continue with their endeavours.” 

Read the rest and other stories here:https://debjcooper.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/mr-samuels-gift/.

Kate Fox

About: Kate is a stand up poet from the North, who has been poet in residence for Radio 4’s Saturday Live, the Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run. Her latest collection ‘The Oscillations’ is out now from Nine Arches Press.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

I’m inspired by Joanne Limburg (who wrote ‘The Autistic Alice’ poetry collection and the innovative feminist history of autism ‘Letters to Her Weird Sisters’), Katherine May who wrote ‘The Electricity of Every Living Thing’ and Laura James who wrote ‘Odd Girl Out’. They inspire me with their writing but also as working writers I’m friends with and share tips and frustrations with.

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

Well they’re inseparable because being autistic is as inseparable from my being as any deeply rooted aspect of any other writer’s being. I take great joy and stimulation and security from the patterning of words and thoughts- I suspect more so than if I wasn’t autistic. I also think there’s something important about not being able to dissemble, or pretend in my creative practice which means it reflects my ideas and beliefs and feelings to a great degree. I’m whole hearted in my work let’s say.

Creative practice: Line from Kate’s pamphlet ‘We Are Not Stone’ by Ek Zuban Press:

A metaphor is both a lock and a key”.

Link to creative work: www.katefox.co.uk

Victoria Gray

About: Victoria Gray is an artist and practice-led researcher, based in York, UK. Her work includes actions, interventions, time-based sculpture and video, being presented in museums, galleries and festivals in performance art, fine art and choreographic contexts.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you? The video by Amanda Baggs, ‘In My Language’ always moves me. I identify with the rich textural language in the film. Everything speaks, but not necessarily in the verbal or linguistic sense. The work of philosopher Erin Manning on autistic perception has been fundamental to my artistic practice, and has helped me to see that my innate understanding of process philosophy is inseparable from the way in which I understood the experience of being autistic. I could also recommend the books, ‘Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct,’ by Donna Williams, and ‘Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness’ by Melanie Yergeau.

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

 I didn’t receive my autism diagnosis until age 36, but it’s significant to note that from an early age, the absence of linguistic language to describe my differences in sensory perception led me deeper into my body, and more specifically, led me to develop a somatic language; an artistic practice whereby my body was the primary material and mode of communicating.

Since my diagnosis in 2017, I’ve reflected that my performance and movement practice had perhaps always been a way of stimming, although I wouldn’t have known to call it stimming at the time. Stims are often described as techniques for sensory regulation, particularly to ameliorate sensory overload for autistic people. For example, in my experience, swaying from side-to-side helps me to process what’s incoming, if it’s too much.

But. It’s very hard, particularly as an adult, to have permission to do this. From an early age I must have learned to mask my stims, which is to say, mask my autistic difference in daily life. So in that sense, my impulse to move and make performances was perhaps driven by a desire to unmask. An instinct that art might be a socially acceptable place for stimming my heart out, and exploring my neurodiverse way of being in a safe space.

Creative work: Quote on Victoria Gray’s practice by Denys Blacker:

“Victoria Gray has developed a difficult-to-define, embodied thinking in her performance practice. Gray finds ways to go underneath appearances, connecting to a less appreciated level of existence.”

For more information, see website: https://www.victoriagray.co.uk/

Penny Kiley

About: Late diagnosed (three years ago) autistic female. Ex music journalist. Professionally, a freelance writer and editor. Creatively, a life writer. Currently revising a memoir about punk rock and autism. I have written poetry in the past (while doing an MA in creative writing) and hope to do so again at some point.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

I wish I knew about more autistic writers. I know the ones that write about being autistic (they were part of my journey to and through diagnosis), but where (or who) are the ones that just write?

I recently enjoyed ‘Letters to My Weird Sisters’ by Joanne Limburg because it’s intelligent, analytical and thought provoking. As well as sharing experiences that I relate to, it looks more widely. I’m looking forward to reading more by her.  And I’m enjoying Katherine May’s ‘The Electricity of Every Living Thing’, so will read more of her too.

I don’t really like seeing “autistic” and “inspire” in the same sentence.  I’m inspired by good art whoever does it but I don’t want to see autistic people as “inspirational”.

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

When the arthritis in my hands got worse a few years ago, I stopped being able to write by hand. When it suddenly got a lot worse last year, I worried about even being able to type. People helpfully told me about voice recognition software. “But the point of writing is so I don’t have to talk,” I told them.

When I talk, I am not fluent or coherent. When I write, I am. That’s why I write.

My teachers used to tell me (based on school/university essays) that I was good at “saying a lot in a few words”. I think I developed this approach to communication generally, because I was always afraid of not being heard, so had to get the words out as succinctly as possible before people stopped listening. This is probably why I have been drawn to poetry and “writing short” in general.

Creative work: Earlier this year, Penny Kiley was longlisted for the Spread the Word life writing prize. The piece, ‘How To Watch Your Mother Die’, is in the anthology here. It’s a story about grief viewed through the lens of autism. Here’s an extract:

“It will happen the year you find out you’re autistic… You will realise there is a reason that you’ve always felt like an outsider in your own family. Knowing you’re autistic will change the way you look at yourself, and the way you look at your family, and your understanding of how they all communicate (or not). You will need this information later.”

Charles Wheeler

About: Charles Wheeler is an autistic spoken word artist from Leicester, UK, shouting back against neurotypical capitalism.

Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

Canadian writer Sarah Kurchak (@fodderfigure on Twitter), my friend and fellow Japanese wrestling obsessive, whose memoir spoke so many devastating truths it took me nine months to read.

American artist Soren Häxan (@hotdogfuneral on Twitter), also my friend, whose breadth of
talent is breathtaking – visual art, games, poetry, prose, character work, twitter bots, historianism, and all of it utterly captivating and searingly innovative.

For you, what is the relationship between being autistic (or neurodiverse) and your creative practice?

God, it’s the same as my relationship with breathing. I am autistic, and my creative practice is inextricable from my own self – how could it not be? I absolutely despise person-first descriptions (“with autism”, etc.), talking about me like I carry this extra element of self round in a little suitcase, as an accompaniment to an already-whole person. I am a whole person and “autistic” is a value-neutral descriptor of that. I write and perform as an act of self-realisation and self-advocacy, speaking my reality into the sights of a world that was not built to recognise or accommodate it. It’s a beacon to people like me, it’s a call to arms for everyone who would support us, it’s a guilt trip for everyone who should know better, and it’s a warning to the boots trying to stamp us down.

Creative work:  Extract from poem ‘Electric Alleyway’:

“Nobody taught you how it should feel.

Nobody gave you the lessons

That seemed to clue everyone else in.”

See website http://www.charleswheeler.co.uk/links/. Written work is available at: charleswrites.itch.io.

The third and final post in this series will be about some of my favourite autistic writers. It will also include a list of the recommended writers and artists that people have shared in this series. This will hopefully be a useful resource for further reading and listening.

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