Note to readers: I use the term “neurodiverse” in this piece. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it refers to people generally called “mentally ill”. I prefer “neurodiverse” for reasons I will explain in the article. Thank you for reading.
Writing is a complex art. Words can be interpreted in so many different ways, depending on the background, culture, and experiences of the person interpreting them. We have to be aware of this, especially when we touch on emotional subjects such as diversity. However, if we have political concerns in the forefront of our minds when we write—if we are walking on eggshells trying not to offend anyone—we run the risk of self-censoring, of watering down our characters and stories so that they lose their vibrancy and impact. They become soulless sermons that exist only to convey a moralizing message, and lose the beauty of art. I am going to explore how to find a balance when writing diversity.
I’ll start out by telling you about myself, so you all to know where I’m coming from. My name is Elizabeth Roderick. I’m the author of many diverse books, and am myself a diverse person. I have a novel published, a racially-diverse LGBT romantic thriller titled Love or Money. I also have a series contracted, The Other Place Series, which is about a young woman trying to kick heroin and get her life together, and a young schizophrenic man attempting to make it as an artist. The first two installments of that series are set to release on May 31, 2016 and July 5, 2016.
My personal diversity is neurodiversity. I’m very high-functioning, but I have suffered from bouts of psychosis since I was a teenager, and have had a series of doctors and psychiatrists diagnose me with every letter in the alphabet.
So, now that you have some idea where I’m coming from and what my “expertise” is, let’s get to the subject at hand.
A blog reader recently took issue with my article on Writing Complex and “Mentally Ill” Characters. He is a disability advocate, and had a problem with some of the terminology I used and concepts I presented. It was his first time reading one of my blog posts, and so he lacked context: he didn’t know I was speaking as an insider (which is my bad: I’d gotten so tired of talking about my psychosis etc. in other blog posts, that it seemed like tedious overkill to mention it again).
Furthermore, the reader, as a person with a physical disability, was sensitive to things potentially harmful to disabled people and their cause of equality. I can relate. You can get tetchy about that sort of thing when you’re constantly dealing with the fact society is set up to exclude people like you, and will discriminate and even physically harm you just because of who you are. If you think this is an exaggeration (a viewpoint many seem to hold), ask me (or the disabled guy I was arguing with, or any other diverse person) for personal anecdotes.
I am happy to say that this man and I worked it out, and we ended up Twitter friends. But it made me examine the language we use in speaking about diversity, because of how tricky it can become. In fact, this man, in taking me to task for my language, used language in referring to neurodiverse people that insulted me. The irony made me laugh out loud at the time—which I was glad about, because I needed a laugh.
He insulted me by referring to neurodiverse people as “disabled” and “mentally ill”. I understand that these terms are valid ones in their way, and I will use them on occasion. For instance, I’ll use “disabled” when pulling the ADA card, when the police or business owners harass or otherwise discriminate against my best friend, who is schizophrenic (he’s an incredibly sweet, intelligent guy, but his way of expressing himself can seem rambly and disjointed to people who don’t know him and his mind, and they often get nervous and think he’s dangerous and/or on drugs). In these cases, I’ll bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act and remind them my friend is part of a protected class of people, and they could be liable to penalties and other action if they discriminate against him.
Despite occasionally making good use of the term, however, neither I nor my best friend, nor any of my other neurodiverse friends or family, are mentally disabled, in my opinion. We definitely have our struggles; my best friend is on SSI for his schizophrenia, and I surely could meet the legal criteria as well if I needed to, though I definitely have an easier time in a traditional work environment than him. But I feel the disability is more society’s than ours, because all the neurodiverse people I know are incredibly productive in the right environment. (For a further exploration of this difficult topic, you can read my piece On Madness and the Nature of Reality).
At any rate, if you call me or my BFF disabled, we will take offense.
I also use “mentally ill” on occasion, because most people don’t know what “neurodiverse” means, but I feel it’s a misleading term to be used in general. Sure, when I’m in the midst of a psychotic break or in a deep depression, I’m certainly ill, the way my body is ill when I have the flu. The rest of the time, I’m not. I may be, as a lot of people behind my back (or occasionally to my face) have said, “a little bit off”, or “eccentric”, but that’s not a frigging illness, people. We weirdos are what make life interesting.
Notice I used the term “weirdos”. This was one of the terms the blog reader took offense to: I used the term “weird” in referring to my complex and neurodiverse characters. I used the word fairly unthinkingly it’s true. That’s partially because I was raised thinking “weird” was a compliment, rather than an insult: it’s part of my culture. I like being called “weird” instead of “off”, “mentally ill” or even “neurodiverse”. I also used it because, in context, I wasn’t referring just to neurodiverse characters, but also “complex” ones, so I used a catch-all term I felt was aptly descriptive.
For the reader, though, the term wasn’t apt; he was reading it as a physically disabled person, and he feels a kinship with all those he considers disabled, which for him includes the neurodiverse. I can well imagine why the reader doesn’t want to be called “weird” for using crutches or a wheelchair, especially because he hails from a different country where the term doesn’t carry the same colors and connotations that it does for me—a grunge-era girl from Seattle (I want to add here, for illumination, that the actual DSM diagnosis for Autism, and for other so-called mental disorders, contains the word “odd”, referring to “odd behavior”; for me, “weird” and “odd” are interchangeable, but “weird” is more common in my local vernacular. There’s no better word I could have used without sounding contrived, formal, or self-censoring).
So, what is the answer? Should I have changed my voice and not used the term “weird”? Or should I have used it along with a convoluted caveat, thus destroying the flow of the piece? Well, in this case, I kept the term, but added a caveat at the beginning of the post to give readers context about me.
When we are writing stories, however, we don’t generally have this option; most readers aren’t going to plunge into the story knowing the writer’s background and beliefs, and so might misinterpret our narrative as being ignorance, bigotry, or an outsider’s point of view.
Before I get to how I deal with this problem in fiction writing, I’ll talk about another way we can touch off political angst in writing about diversity: how we present concepts relating to diverse people.
Another thing my blog reader took issue with was the fact I said you could make readers relate to your complex and neurodiverse characters by showing they had a special skill. In my reader’s mind, this technique reinforces the stereotype of the “magical autistic person”.
Autism is another form of neurodiversity that I have some personal experience with, and I completely agree with my reader that it’s incredibly aggravating to pick up a book that touts diversity in the form of an autistic character, only to find that character is a clone of Rain Man. My problem isn’t with the fact that those characters have a special talent, however; my problem is with the lack of insight and creativity on the authors’ part, which in turn reinforces tired stereotypes.
A large number of my neurodiverse friends and family have extraordinary talents, though. I, myself, while I won’t claim any measure of talent, was able to write thirteen novels in two years during an episode of mania, during which I needed very little sleep and was able to focus on writing to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. I’m told that this is part of my “illness”, but to me it’s just the way I am, and it’s something I’m actually proud of. So I don’t want to censor myself from writing about neurodiverse characters with special talents: I feel like talents are something we should be proud of. Neurodiverse people get so little respect from society in general, why should I be shy of writing about one of the things some of us are respected for? And, frankly, why would I write about any character, diverse or not, who is boring and without any talent? (I shouldn’t say that. Great books are written about “boring” people).
My reader did make me second-guess myself, though. I don’t want to reinforce tired or unfounded stereotypes. In his words, he thought my piece didn’t “anticipate how clichéd a view of disability normie [this is how he refers to non-disabled, neurotypical people] writers have, how they’ll view what you wrote through misconceptions.” It made me take a second look at the schizophrenic main character in my Other Place series, and think about how people will view him. And this is something we should always do with our diverse characters, at least after we’ve written their stories: do a bit of second-guessing.
My schizophrenic character, Justin, is an incredibly talented painter, and The Other Place Series are magical realism books. Justin’s artistic career takes off in a way artistic careers very rarely do in real life: very, very quickly. Also, his connection with one of the other characters is close almost to the point of telepathy at times. I try to show the reader in subtle ways that this is intentional “magical realism” hyperbole (an accentuation of the bizarre things that happen in real life, without reaching the level of fantasy), but such things are notoriously misinterpreted by readers. People could definitely interpret the sort of “magical” world in my novels as me trying to say that neurodiverse people are somehow magical.
The reason I wrote the novels this way is twofold: it’s a compelling way of telling the story and presenting the concepts I’m trying to illuminate clearly. If I had written the books in a more realistic manner, readers might see only Justin’s struggles, and none of the beauty, magic, and mystery of his world. Because, and this is the other reason I wrote the books as magical realism: I think a sort of magic actually does exist in the world. I know, I know: I’m prone to psychosis, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m wrong.
These books were how I processed and explored the fact that I’ve seen some fairly bizarre shit in my life, and I believe that, at least in some cases and in some ways, neurodiverse people’s inability to relate to “mainstream” society helps them to see the world more clearly, and to tap into something unexplainable. The psychic/psychotic connection and the blurred line between illusion and reality isn’t a new concept; it’s older than the bible, and it’s shared by a lot of my neurodiverse friends in different ways. This idea has been presented in a trite and flippant manner at times, and very well at others. I think I have a unique perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote these books; I just have to be sure I handle the subject with enough skill so that I don’t reinforce negative or false assumptions by non-psychotic people.
So. How do I keep readers from misinterpreting what I’m trying to say? The simple answer is, I can’t. No matter how careful you are, you’re always going to have people who don’t “get” what you’re trying to communicate. And the more important your message, the more risk you’ll run of being misinterpreted, and of pissing people off.
That isn’t to say that we should throw all caution to the wind and not be aware of political concerns when we write, but I think having those concerns front-and-center in your writing, and self-censoring, is a huge mistake. I think it can actually be counterproductive, because that sort of writing often isn’t very compelling, and the only people who will read it are other advocates for the diverse community: you’ll be preaching to the choir, which gets you next to nowhere. At the very least, I don’t feel it’s the way I can best get my personal point across. Others will feel differently, and so I’ll leave the other methods to them.
My personal technique is to not self-censor or be concerned with political issues at all during my first draft. Since I’m never sure what my underlying message is going to be until I’m done with the book anyway, it’s not difficult for me. Then, once I know what I’m writing about, I’ll examine not my characters or concepts, but the beliefs and messages presented in the book from many different angles, so I can anticipate people’s arguments and misinterpretations. Then, when I’ve made sure my reasoning is sound, I’ll tackle revisions. I won’t censor the characters or my voice, but I’ll try to make sure my concepts are presented as clearly as possible by subtle tweaking.
I’m proud of my point of view, and I say what I want to say to the best of my ability. The more compelling I can make my characters and stories, I know the more people I’ll be able draw in, and the more likely they’ll be to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to what I have to say, even if they don’t agree with me in the end. If my opinions and viewpoints are well-reasoned and come from experience, it won’t keep the critics from hounding me, but I’ll be able to answer them with my chin high.
The long and the short of it is, we have to understand our characters and our stories, and we have to show readers their beauty and truth so they understand them, as well. We won’t always be successful, and we will likely endure criticism, but if what we have to say is important enough to us we’ll persevere anyway. That’s pretty much what making art is all about, in the first place.
Note to readers: If you are a non-diverse person thinking about writing from a diverse perspective, you might want to check out my piece Writing What You Don’t Know, or David Gillon’s Piece, Creating a Disabled Fictional Character. Also, if you are writing a book from the point of view of a non-diverse character whose goal is to somehow “save” a diverse character from themselves or their situation, or if the main plot of the book is that non-diverse character’s “coming to terms” with another character’s diversity, I’m going to write a whole different blog post on that, and there are plenty others already written, which you should search for.