The Artist and the Connector

I’ve been doing deep contemplative work all my life. During the CPTSD program I went to last year, I turned toward exploring what I realize is going to be a life-long journey of considering what being an “artist” means, and all the connotations thereof. Questions like: What is the artist? What roles does the artist hold? What can the artist teach us? What does it mean to be seen as an artist? What is it like to LIKE being seen? And what might a life of being witnessed, and of witnessing, look like for me as an artist rather than me as a mental health/trauma worker like in my old life?

One of the greatest joys of my life is listening to people talk about what makes them come alive. And also, to discover what is the thing beneath the thing. There are few core fears—we’re all just variations of them, and we’re all just variations of them. Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but you are.

In preschool I thought a lot about the edge of the universe. In third grade I started studying human evolution on my own. I was bored. I was intrigued by everything and not being challenged at school and my teachers wouldn’t give me extra work when I asked. In middle school I started studying neuroscience. In high school, quantum mechanics, poetry, transcendentalism, genetics, trauma, and mental health. I lost touch with some of those parts. Even my curiosity became suspect in the life I was living in my 20s. I’m finding those roads again. Those insatiable curiosities. And I’m figuring out how to weave them all together into this creative life.

Some of the most important work I’ve ever done is when I bear witness to another, whether silent or in words. When I get to pull out fears and truths they’ve buried. When I get to answer the question we all ask, “Am I alone?” with a resounding, “No,” in a moment of connection, whether with a friend in our deep belly laughs or by sitting with a person in one of the most traumatic moments of their life. The Spock side of my brain wants to say: what an incredibly illogical question when there’s 8 billion of us. How could you ever be alone? And yet, it’s one of our core fears. But it’s not being alone that is the problem.

It’s being cut off. From ourselves. From each other. It’s not knowing how to cross the divides—less the political and more the vulnerable emotional realities we inhabit, whether from chasms real and imagined, manufactured or natural. And being cut off is the point of oppressive systems because it’s how you keep the machine going. Separated. Fearful. Not together. Which is political.

And yes, these are questions that have been asked throughout the ages, that can be found in historic writings. We’ve always wondered if we’re alone—alone in the universe, alone in our lives, alone in our minds. And we are always forgetting to do the most transcendent, bizarrely plain machination of movement through vertebra and synapses and spinal fluid—we are always forgetting to look up.

These things are both more complicated than this and as simple. I’ve written pages and pages about these ideas the past several months. I imagine I’ll write many more over the years. All the things I’ve learned in my life have always been in pursuit of living a richer life, one with deeper meaning, of more profound connection. Of refuting the darkness and feeding it tea and sandwiches because we all get cranky when we’re hungry. And it’s been in pursuit of helping people remember. And of helping myself remember.

I look forward to how much more there is to learn, and of seeing the ways in which I’m going to combine all my lived experience, all my education and training, all my creative pursuits into a life that keeps asking these questions, and keeps bearing witness to the innumerable answers people are living. And maybe, when I’m very lucky, I’ll get to point people back to the truth: the disconnect is the lie. Connection is your birthright.

On Synesthesia + Writing

I have a few hours the next 3 days to turn my mind from poetry to fiction, and then I might not have long blocks of writing, except for what I steal, until preschool starts in October. I’m not looking forward to it for many reasons, but it’s part of necessary life changes, even if it’s not ideal. But I also rely on ample writing time to organize my mind, which is a labyrinthine combination of hyperphantasia, abstraction, flow charts, all that trauma, daydreaming, and various kinds of synesthesia.

There are synesthetic experiences I can’t easily translate into stories without writing them over and over again. There are internal visuals I get that come with texture and flavor, like the snarling black scribble I see, a visual emotion that crowds my head. I don’t know how to name it in words, but it’s haunted me since childhood and feels like a sponge in my mouth and tastes like forest. It could only be soothed as a kid by imagining rolling sand dunes and creamy shades. Normal shit. Definitely didn’t realize other people don’t eat metaphoric sponges or have mirror-touch/pain and mirror-kinetic responses to other people.

Now I try to let the snarl be itself, rather than physically cringing from it. Hard to get away from your own mind, but we all try anyway, only I don’t want to anymore. I’ll take the whole thing as is and keep figuring out how to make it 2-D for writing.

A lot of my thoughts are abstract concepts. Trying to attach words to them sometimes takes me a while. I used to need written scripts for everything in life because verbal wording was a strange language I didn’t know much about unless I was regurgitating facts or mimicking styles of speech like David Attenborough’s to…relay facts. This is how my friends came to nickname me things like “Dictionary” and “Computer” as a kid. Lol, so cozy, not at all clinical and aloof sounding (2 ways people also described me).

Until the scripts became second nature, I had regular panic attacks about having to speak to anyone. I’d often disappear from activities because verbal languaging could be terrifying if I didn’t know a script yet for dealing with an experience but I also was undiagnosed everything and therefore received no support. Perhaps a blessing and a curse as I didn’t get treatment that pathologized and shamed me, nor did I get help making sense of it all until later in my teens when we just called it anxiety. That too.

I got very lost in my head this year (past few meh). There were no scripts. There was only the all-encompassing narrative of fresh trauma’s impact on the bodymind, the old habituated networks of survival I’ve known all my life; the abstraction of internal worlds built far too thoroughly. As much as possible, I’ll try to organize writing around the goblin twins the next few months, and figure out how to maintain writing as the tether that keeps reality closer at hand, but unlike this past winter and spring, it won’t be the only tool I use for that.

How synesthesia works for me made me self-conscious as I started to recognize that other writers’ minds did not perceive in the same ways. The combo of neuro traits makes some aspects of writing flow easily and makes others feel impossible. Last year, critiques on my writing would often note how abstract a section was, and I couldn’t comprehend the confusion for a long time, so I took a bunch of workshops trying to figure out how other people see writing to try and catch the place where my words can land more clearly. It was boggy. The ground built itself beneath my feet and I didn’t like the feeling. In the past, unless I was doing technical and academic writing, I hid away most of my writing in journals where no one but me had to understand anything. Poetry was the only medium I sometimes shared because it functioned more like my mind.

The neuro trait combo also impacts my writing process, making me sometimes reticent to discuss my process since it dwells in a shifting, intuitive landscape I don’t always have language for. I get nervous talking to other writers because I’m scared they’ll figure out I have no fucking clue what I’m talking about except for blobs in my head that feel like things that I circle dozens of times until I’ve sanded the image down into a line I like. It’s all very wibbly-wobbly.

But it’s also not perfectionism, as I don’t have that claustrophobic, desperate feeling that comes with trying to avoid mistakes at all costs. Instead, it’s musical composition and choreography. It’s the opposite of self-consciousness. It’s allowing things to be as they are. It’s letting abstractions simmer for as long as they need until I can identify language. But it’s time-consuming in a way I don’t mind except for when I don’t have time, which at present, there’s going to be a tasty little dearth of.

When I can’t write much, my brain is a boat without an oar drifting through existential soup. I’ve connected with more ND writers lately, which, phew, helps. Where neurotypical writers maybe get to focus more on craft and publishing questions, we ND writers are trying to peer behind every curtain because we need certain foundational cues before we can even worry about the standard problems.

And what are those cues? They’re as varied as we are. It’s a process that takes longer, but we have our places on the internet where we gather and try to guide each other through the labyrinths we each reside in. And like, it’s cool sometimes, too, but we also usually feel like we’ve missed crucial orientations at every turn of humaning and spend a lot of our time stressing about the thing beneath the thing, which is a technical definition of being Neurodivergent.

There is no conclusion. There is only a lot of open question marks and kaleidoscopic imagery made of amorphous concepts I try to spin into language, and a hope that time will return when it’s ready to make it all easier.

Contentment in the Process, Or, Let’s Be Nerbs About Writing

After going through an imaginary commitment ceremony to noveling 3 years ago (“Through treating paper cuts and inflamed tendons, I do promise myself to thee”), I eventually remembered how much I love short stories. I finished and subbed a few shorts last fall (they were rejected), but then I saw how close I was to completing the third draft of my novel. It was a siren and I’m a sucker for epics. So I paused working on shorts. With draft 3 now complete, I’m back to writing and subbing short stories, and while I wait for emails telling me yea or nay, the thought came to me about just how damn glad I am that acceptances do not make or break my joy. The process of writing is what draws me forward, those little breadcrumbs of an idea that transform into a whole story, all the messy pages of notes, the flow charts and lists and questions to answer. For me, the act of writing is what brings heady contentment. 

I was a child who was entirely overwhelmed and panicked about success. My only good validation generally came from doing well in school and sports. Chronic undiagnosed health conditions had other ideas. My extreme absences as a kid slowly impacted those successes and, therefore, limited external validation. And then my mental health imploded after I reported an abuser and had to deal with an investigation my sophomore year of high school.

It took nearly a decade to find some measure of stability, which is right when my physical health imploded, which took another several years to improve in that regard. During those years, I learned to interrogate the limitations of external validation—the dissatisfaction we humans are meant to feel toward ourselves and our lives if we don’t meet society’s preordained markers of success (the job offer, the graduation, the agent, the big fancy win.)

Photo by author of snowy woods and a rambling creek

Then came an utterly uncontrollable and personally devastating situation in my adult life. It was from within that mess that I jumped back into fiction writing. I gained so much ridiculous self-liberation in a few short weeks just from twisting my experiences into horror-filled fantasy and sci-fi stories. It let me enact some control over a life that had been layered thick with trauma. Writing fiction became the rope I clung to in violent waters, without care of where it was pulling me, just that it was. Finding a word, and then another and another, to build up a string of dialogue, or the thrill of seeing how a piece of setting can foreshadow, is one of the strangest, most lovely forms of alchemy I’ve ever been a part of.

Yes, I look forward to being published. I look forward to short story sales, querying my novel, writing more shorts, novels, and poems, doing dramatic readings and narrating, adding personal essays and memoirs to my work, teaching writing workshops, and leading silly horror retreats with costumes, but I’m enamored with the writing part. I like the writing because it’s what sustains me—me the person, me the body, me the mind. What comes when the stories are published is the visible part of the career, but the writing, oh the writing, is the biting mouth that drags me into the woods and doesn’t let me go. And I don’t want it to. In fact, I might just bite back.

And my hope for all of you creators is that’s what you can find, too. Stories and art and projects that wrestle you down into murky depths of meaning and questions, ones that drag you bodily into their worlds until you relent and live those worlds into creation.

Feral Sounds – Short Autofiction

Once upon a time, a feral wolf pup bounded through forests, avoiding its den and tasting freedom in its four furry feet. Come evening, the pup always returned to its shelter, where it tucked itself into corners, behind wastebaskets, under shelves, and became very, very good at mimicking nothingness to save itself an inch or two of pain from the harsh, snapping jaws around it.

Then, the little wolf grew, as wolves do, first from pup to teen, teen to adult, and its lengthening legs took it further and further away. And through its growing up, it saw how binding itself into knots to contort and fit the whims of others kept it safe and secure, and also, it kept the wolf silent.

The wolf bristled and despaired over the trade-off. Sometimes it howled its rage; at others, it drew attention to the cruel beasts around it. But mostly, the wolf shrank and stilled and stifled. What is survival but the things best kept tidily burrowed away?

But when moons’ gathered fullness, the wolf could not contain itself. The moon pulled like gravity at the hidden truths inside the tender creature. The wolf gave in, allowing itself to taste the dark divinity of freedom and want, and it yipped and raced and danced itself into frenzies, howls of enduring desire licking out its lips.

The howl was the problem. Each time it was unleashed, it became that much harder to put away. Somehow the howl seemed to grow and stretch, and over the years, it did not fold up so well into the wolf’s secret places anymore. The wolf’s chest could not hold it much longer. How the wolf tried to shove it down, twisting the howl in on itself, barely closing its meaty body around it. Until one day, the wolf wrote down its howl in the dirt. It thought to transcribe the sound, to give it form but only in summary. Nothing complete, nothing wholly described. Perhaps that would make it small again.

But the howl had other plans. At first, the howl seemed to obey. It appeared small, yet its resonance vibrated steadily and stealthily, its size and volume growing into a page-long subtle crescendo. The wolf did not see it until it was too late, until the howl had grown so big there was no longer a chest, a body, a box to contain it. The howl could no longer be resisted. It could only be borne, guided, but it could never, ever, never again be silenced.

Writing From the Ruins

This space is in flux. I had planned to use it as an anonymous record of my time going through a master’s in counseling as a disabled survivor of complex trauma who had long believed counseling to be their future, but 2020 had its own plans. When I first cancelled my admission, I thought the change might be temporary. In a few years, I could reapply when my kids were in school.

(Picture by author; not for reuse)

As the days turned to weeks turned to months, a sneaky feeling trickled in—an enormous sense of relief took hold. I was glad I couldn’t go to grad school (limited childcare in the time of covid). I came to see how everything I had done to become a counselor (and many things for the sheer fun and thrill) was also the perfect training ground for a life of creating fiction.

(From living in snow caves I co-built, never being warm while living in said snow caves in the middle of the Wyoming Range in February, multi-day canoe trips, extensive therapy plunging the depths, studying abroad, working in haunted houses at probably too young an age, working in the violence prevention field for several years, being a professional disabled dancer (after the snow caves and the canoeing), hell, even being a gift packager for a large big box store with angry suburbanites breathing down my neck…)

The soil in my life has been rich for growing all manner of flowers and weeds. Now I get to scatter them as bouquets across all my writing.

And I must say, if I could choose anything at all to do for the rest of my life, it would be to write.

And live in a tree.

So what becomes of this space now? I suppose it will follow me on the strange journey of making things up (mostly those of a fantastical nature) and trying to share those words stitched into the confines of paper, in the ether world of screens, and over sound waves carrying stories spoken. Hopefully, if I’m lucky, I’ll find wonderful creative people to work alongside to improve my stories, and those tales will be enjoyed by the people who need them, myself included.