Friday, March 27, 2015

Words Matter, Says the Writer

One of the things I’m doing right now is research for my fourth book. I love this stage, brainstorming, researching, learning about a world I know nothing about letting the story take me where it will. One of the places it’s taken me is Autism.

Autism is a scary place, you guys. I don’t know the right vocabulary. I don’t know the right questions to ask or the right words to say and ASD moms are amazing (and judging by the comments sections of articles on the internet, they are also passionate and fearless) and I’m SCARED to ask people. But silence breeds ignorance and that's not right either. It's complicated. 
My kids are not on the spectrum. I can’t possibly understand. Can I?

I mean, to some extent, we’re all parents. Doing the best we can.

I want to write books with a lot of different kinds of people in them. I don’t even need these people to be the main character (not always or not yet, I should say), I just want them to be in the story. #Diversebooks and all. I think it’s kind of important to write about people who are not me: middle-class, heterosexual, white, neuro-typical. The more books and shows and movies that include minorities, women, people of color, people with disabilities, people on that giant spectrum, it can only be a good thing, right? So, the only way to do that is to ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s scary, though. What if I say the wrong thing? Use the wrong words? What matters more -- the words or the intent? 

Sincerely Becca is a mom who blogs on ASD and other mom things (and sometimes eHarmony) and she says there are no bad questions, which is why I really, really like her. A lot. 

Go visit her because she's amazing. Click on the picture. I mean right now, go there. 

But the thing is, if I'm writing words that people will read, then both words and intent matter very, very much. 

Research is important, as a writer, sure. But to me, this isn't about "craft". It's less cerebral than that. It's about stepping out of my little box and being able to capture someone else's life, a life that is completely different than my own, with its own challenges and hardships. I can't do that without recognizing my own privilege: the idea that don't have to think about any of this unless I choose to. I do choose to because to continually write about people who have had life experiences only similar to my own is both 1. ignorant and 2. boring. 

I’ve spent hours on the phone with special needs moms (and more hours than I care to count reading blogs**). They’re amazing. They’ve answered all my silly questions and helped me hash out stereotypes and learn about the messy realities of autism spectrum disorder. They’ve told me their stories so that I can tell their stories to people who aren’t like them in a way that isn’t preachy or soap-boxish. 

They don’t know they’ve made me cry. 

I can’t even pinpoint the reasons, except that I’m new at this. They’re not. They’re hardened and matter-of-fact and cavalier and I can’t lie: It’s hard to listen to. I’ve been so sheltered.

I don’t cry because I feel fortunate. I cry for them, literally years after they’re done crying for themselves. They’re used to this, it’s old hat (except when people are mean to them in public, which is like, constantly. So, please settle down with that, mmkay?). Their kids are their kids and they’re doing their thing*. To be honest, my vulnerability is embarrassing, but then again, I’ve cried at Hallmark commercials, so I don't know if it's just me.

It's not just me. Being a mom is hard. Being a special needs mom is harder.

And that’s the crux of it, I think. I don’t live with autism. It’s a new, shiny thing to me but I can’t let it become a novelty. I worry about that. To these parents, it’s real life and it’s not trendy or cool, or neat or charming or buzzwordy, and the kids it affects are not token kids. I have to be careful. Can I make a character that fully embodies a little boy on the spectrum, and accurately portray the challenges and triumphs this family faces while not exploiting it? Will it mean more or less coming from me, a person with zero personal experience with ASD?

It’s a big responsibility. My words matter.

*This sentence was a crazy grammar exercise and I have no idea if I got it right.
** H/t to autism blogs that are amazing: Sincerely Becca, Go Team Kate, Autism in Our House, Mixing the Autism Cocktail. Some of them have no idea that I've read their blogs which is either going to be awesome or creepy for them if they find out.