Proto-Author Screams Into the Void

I have completed the first draft of my novel, revised that draft, and sent it to my editor.

*screams into the Void*

I asked my writer support group slash academic mentoring team slash friends I run amok at conferences with if this is what it feels like when your baby goes to kindergarten for the first time.  The parents in that group “reassured”  me that no, in fact, sending your book manuscript to the editor is much, much more difficult than your kid’s first day of kindergarten.

That explains why my organs are liquefying, I said.

It’s been about 36 hours since I emailed that draft, and so far, I have had feelings I did not know existed.  Feelings I don’t have names for.  Feelings that do not appear on this chart:


The chart is a lie.

Having actually finished a novel draft is simultaneously overwhelming and relieving to me.  Overwhelming, because this is something I’ve been trying to do since I was six years old.  That is not an exaggeration.  Six.

Overwhelming, because for all the years between six and 34, “writing a book” was integral to my family’s definition of me, and so it was integral to my definition of myself as well.  As long as I can remember, the fact that I hadn’t produced a book yet marked me as a failure, a disappointment.  I was “not living up to my potential.”

Now, I’ve pretty much shat on my own potential in a lot of other ways.  Like being multiply disabled (ooooooops), or discovering the hard way that litigation is absolutely not where I belong, or losing everything in the housing market collapse and having to live in my parents’ basement until I could get back on my feet.  (The fact that I rebuilt everything I have by writing, ironically, did not change my sense of myself as a non-writing disappointment.  I wasn’t getting paid to write fiction.)

“Writing a book” been integral to my adult social circles too, but in a different way: all English majors aspire to write a book, or assume they will write a book, or know people who are in various stages of writing a book, with various doses of pretentiousness attached to that, or know people who said “screw it, I’m going to be an editor instead.”  In grad school, of course, it’s presumed that you will write a book, because it’s presumed you will be a professor, and you’ll need that book as bait for the ever-elusive tenure unicorn.

Relieving, because for the first time in nearly thirty years, I’m not “writing a novel”; for the first time ever, I have written a novel.  And that chunk of me that was a disappointment for having not written a book yet is full of success.  And void-screaming.  And caramel.  Also bats.

Relieving, too, because everything that everyone finds so daunting about writing a first novel, everything I found so daunting about it, is behind me now.  Now I get it.  Now I understand why all the books and workshops and blogs and fun generator widgets in the world are just amusing distractions from the business of writing.  Now I understand why people who have actually written novels don’t give advice, other than to KEEP WRITING YOU SCHMUCK.

They do it – we do it – because no other advice is actually going to get the dang thing written.

It really is as simple as putting words on paper till you’re done.  Because until you do, until you’re done with that first novel draft, until you’ve reached resolution of the plot arc and everyone can take a deep breath and go home now, the insecurity demon is going to plague you.  It just is.  There is only one way in the entire world to know whether you can actually sustain a credible plot arc, with relateable characters and a readable pace, through 70,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words.  And that is to do it.

Until you’ve done it, you don’t know you can do it.  I didn’t know I could do it until I finished the first draft.  Even then, I wasn’t sure I had done it until I reread that draft and revised.

Even now, I’m waiting for my editor to get back to me with the exact same major questions I have about that draft.  (Yes, ma’am, I know the ending is rushed.  Pls to help.)

And it was that anxiety about not knowing whether I even could fling myself into the unknown sea of words and come out with something worth flipping 250 pages for that made writing the first one so difficult.  Until I finished the first draft, my anxiety was that the finished product would be fatally flawed.  That it would (somehow; anxiety is of course never clear on this) manage to get published, only to be greeted by everyone in this business whom I respect with “this isn’t a book. This is shit.  What even is this?”

The moment I finished revising the draft, however, that anxiety evaporated.  That’s not a criticism I’m going to face.  I know it; I’ve been in the literature business long enough to recognize a cohesive plot when I see one, and I wrote one.

Now, I’m not actually worried about this novel’s reception at all.  Every individual response to it is going to be a matter of personal preference.  There is no story ever told that is universally loved, so mine won’t be either, and that’s okay.

At least, that’s what I keep telling my liquefied organs.

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Actually, Yes, I am R*tarded

Today on Facebook, I got called a “moron” and asked “are you mentally disabled?”

The fact that these comments were made after I pointed out that both sodium and chloride are corrosive but table salt is not, or the fact that they were made after the commenter doubled down on the assertion that mercury and thimerosal are the same substance, is irrelevant.  Here’s what’s relevant:

Yes, I actually am “mentally disabled.”

If you haven’t been following along with my other blog, here’s the update: I’m autistic.  Autism is classified in medical circles as a pervasive developmental disability.  It’s also believed to overlap significantly with intellectual disability.

As a kid (and as an adult), I never met any standardized test whose ass I couldn’t kick on two hours of sleep and no breakfast.  If I have a savant power, it’s beating standardized tests.  This includes standardized tests of “intelligence.”  I was a member of Mensa for exactly one year, until the backlash on their early 2005 magazine piece on Mensans with tattoos showed me that doing well on IQ tests is no protection against rank bigotry.

And yet.  My childhood was full of peers, teachers, counselors, and other people telling me I was mentally deficient.  That I was “slow.”  That I was “retarded.”  If my childhood had a title, that title would be If You’re So Smart, How Are You So Dumb?: OMG, Shut Up Retard.

“Retarded” is still a word that punches me in the gut.  Even now, thirty years later, it’s still a word that gets leveled at me in public, too.  I have been asked, by complete strangers my age or older in public, if I am “some kind of retard.”

The only answer to that, of course, is yes.  I am some kind of retard.  I’m an autistic kind, specifically.  Whatever it is people mean when they ask, derisively, if I am “retarded” or “mentally disabled”?  Yes, I’m that.  My IQ scores are as relevant as the fact that sodium chloride is inert.

I can be utterly correct in my facts, against someone who is utterly wrong in theirs, and it doesn’t matter.  I’m a retard.  Hi.


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The Anxieties of Looking Busy

As a lawyer and as an academic, I often burn upwards of 3000 calories a day without ever leaving my desk.  The first thousand, as always, go to basic metabolic functions; the next 2000 go to thinking.

Thinking is work.  I’m reminded of this every time I have to do substantive thinking: when I’m parsing contract clauses, when I’m researching, or as now, when I’m trying to write an academic article but instead productively procrastinating by updating this blog.  Updating this blog or my more focused one, Autistic Academic, are my favorite forms of productive procrastination.  You get posts when there’s something more pressing I should be doing instead.

Partly, this is because I often process one thing by doing another.  Staring at my blinking cursor is worthless; typing something else, anything else, allows the other “stuff” to percolate at the back of my head.

And partly, this is because, despite ten years of doing sit-and-think work, I’m still piquantly anxious about appearing to be busy.  Staring out a window does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m working through the implications of a new piece of case law or lining up deconstruction of a complex phrase in my head.  Leafing through the pages of a book does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m looking for a specific quote that I need to continue writing.

I tend to hold very still when I’m thinking deeply.  This is in stark contrast to the frenzy of rhythmic movement that typically consumes my days, that helps me regulate sensory inputs and process spoken communication (coming and going).  As a kid, I was lambasted regularly by parents and teachers for “doing nothing” when really what I was doing was thinking through the problem.  Explaining this did not help.  “I’m thinking!” was most often met with “Well, think while you [do the thing].”  How I was supposed to do Thing without having worked out how to do Thing was of course never explained.

That anxiety was compounded when I hit the work world.  I was in my thirties before I learned (and I mean learned, as in “discovered totally new information to me,” as in “had the revelation that”) that people typically do not get fired for pausing in the middle of their work day.  I genuinely had no idea.  I had worked more or less continuously since I was fifteen, and it still took me over fifteen years to realize that standing still would not get me fired.

As the response to this blog post suggests, I’m not the only one who suffers from anxieties of productivity, though I hope the extent to which I have suffered them is rare.  But even that I doubt to be the case.  We are a culture obsessed with both productivity and behavior; the inevitable result of those twin obsessions is an obsession with “looking busy,” regardless of the actual “busy-ness” being pursued.  Consequently, the hardest part about my job isn’t the thinking, the analysis, the argument, or even the getting published.  It’s managing the anxiety.

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The Bank of Fucks: An Extended Economic Metaphor on Emotional Labor

Reading this week has been all about emotional labor for me, starting with this piece by Jess Zimmerman at The Toast and continuing with this huge MetaFilter thread (which I am still reading, over a thousand comments in).  In both conversations, one suggested solution to the problem of disproportionately heaping uncompensated emotional labor onto one party in a relationship is to monetize it – to put in economic terms exactly what this work is worth.

This comment on MeFi by Meeks Ormand in particular got me thinking:

I’ve realized in reading this thread that I’ve had my own vocabulary and way of thinking about this for some time. Simply put, good will is a commodity and a perishable one at that. Every time you ask for a favor or someone’s time, you are spending it. Doing favors or giving someone your time accrues it. This helped me understand why I don’t always want a particular persons help, I don’t want to owe them good will. It’s perishable because what have you done for me lately is a legitimate question. Just because you did that one thing that one time however many years ago doesn’t mean you are still entitled to whatever good will was accrued. Ill will is a separate but related thing that is much more shelf stable, earned from being some flavor of jerk, though you also spend good will to get it.

I’ve been struggling for some time with a particularly draining relationship in my life.  It’s not so much that I don’t give a fuck about this person as it is that I no longer have any fucks left to give.


I thought this was a metaphor until it happened to me.

Put another way: this person’s account with the Bank of Fucks is overdrawn.

If we treat emotional labor and its close counterpart “good will” as currency, then we can explore its movement within the economy of our relationships.  Introducing yourself and getting to know me opens your account with my Bank of Fucks.  Performing emotional labor to my benefit deposits good will into your Bank of Fucks account; demanding emotional labor from me withdraws it.  If your demands greatly exceed your deposits, your account runs out of currency, and I run out of fucks to give.

Attempting to offer emotional labor without introducing yourself and getting to know me first is weird; it’s like trying to make a deposit without opening an account (and it immediately makes people think the currency in question is counterfeit).  Demanding withdrawal after withdrawal without making deposits makes the question “what have you done for me lately?” as legitimate as the question “but when have you deposited enough cash to cover this withdrawal?”  The words “fuck you” become analogous to the words “transaction denied – insufficient funds” (long recognized as the middle finger of checking accounts everywhere).

It also works to explain why a person will go to absurd lengths for some people but not others.  Namely, some people have better standing with the Bank of Fucks than others, whether or not they have earned it.  “But s/he’s your faaaamily!” is the emotional-labor version of “but s/he’s a shareholder!” – “this is a person who bought in on the ground floor and therefore we are going to comp them even though their account is overdrawn.”

Thing is, “comping” people doesn’t work forever, even for “shareholders.”  Eventually, the Bank of Fucks becomes unstable; its reserves drop too low to cover withdrawals even from account-holders who have been making regular deposits.  You start crying during It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey parcels out his honeymoon budget a dollar at a time to keep the S&L afloat over the weekend.  Because you know how it feels to portion out your fucks, one fuck at a time, to people whom you know deserve more because they’ve given you more, you just can’t give it.  It feels like burnout.


Bank holiday.

The surprising thing about a Bank of Fucks account is that it is remarkably easy to pay into.  Take, for example, teaching.  As teachers, we expend a bountiful quantity of fucks on our students.  Transmitting knowledge is pennies compared to the work we spend making things readable, accessible, approachable, absorbable – the amount of time we spend putting ourselves in our students’ shoes to help them get it.  One would think that our students’ accounts would dip into negative balances in the first week.

But they usually don’t.  Any student can, and many do, maintain positive balances throughout the semester simply by doing two things: showing up and trying their best.  That’s it.  That’s all the paying in that has to be done.  It doesn’t even have to be directed at us, specifically as individuals, as long as it’s directed at our efforts generally.

There are, of course, students who run negative balances.  We all know who they are.  There’s always someone who feels it necessary to send repeated emails whose questions are obviously answered in the syllabus, skip class and then demand personal tutoring, or whinge that it’s not faaaair they took a points hit for missing a deadline that all their classmates managed to meet.  “Do  my emotional labor for me,” is the gist of all of these good-will-draining communications.  “I never carry fucks.  Cover me.”

….Why should I?  Pay your own bill.


Too big to fail?

What to do when someone comes knocking, trying to make further withdrawals from an overdrawn account?  What to do when a shareholder demands to be comped further, despite having overdrawn their account some twenty years ago, because “faaamily”?

The answer, of course, depends on the relationship.  The risk – because the demand – is that you will expend further emotional labor, gambling it on the infinitesimal chance that this person will finally start doing their own damn emotional labor.  This is where the Bank of Fucks analogy can be very useful in personal relationships.  If a family member who owed you tens of thousands of dollars showed up asking for another fifty bucks, would you gamble it on the chance that this time they’ll pay their tab?  It’s worth asking.

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The 8 Tribes of SciFi –

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Dystopia, Normalcy, and Satire

I have been pondering the following CFP:

Normalcy as Dystopia: Disability Studies Perspectives

This panel welcomes submissions examining how British, American, or world literary texts fashion, reinforce, or subvert normative standards regarding what constitutes body form and function. Proposals addressing the SAMLA 88 theme are especially welcome: for people with disabilities, the hegemonic ideology of normalcy creates the dystopian reality within which they must live. This panel seeks submissions that focus less on texts containing disabled characters and more on ones exploring the ways in which societies disable individuals. Papers are welcome that investigate embodiment, bioculture, and/or what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson terms the “normate.” Papers analyzing discursive structures that contribute to shaping current thinking about ability and disability are particularly welcome. By June 3 please submit a 200-word abstract, brief bio, and A/V requirements to Dr. Chris Gabbard, University of North Florida,

Part of me is  thinking of proposing a paper on Field Notes on Allistics or Fairies for the Almost Ethical Treatment of Humans (FAETH).  The rest of me keeps rereading this CFP and thinking, “Dude, we are way ahead of you.”

Meaning: to give a papers on Field Notes, FAETH, or both, I would have to work backwards, explaining what the dystopian “normate” is that is being challenged by those projects.  I would, in essence, have to dismantle the satire of both in order to explain its working parts, and in doing so, I would largely kill the power that satire has.

Satire has turned out to be one of the strongest weapons autistic people have in the fight for our rights, as well as one of the major sites of developing Autistic literary culture.  Unlike other abilities, like the use of expressive language, talking, or understanding other people’s feelings, satire is a power that becomes stronger for us because we are presumed to be incapable of understanding or generating it.  As much as I would love to discuss how that works in a panel on normalcy as dystopia (heaven knows I experience neurotypicality as more dystopian than anything), I also know that to do so is to blunt the cutting edge of one of the few blades we have.

Autistic author, engineer, and amazing human being Alyssa Hillary suggested to me that an anthology along these themes would make an outstanding Autonomous PressNeuroqueer Books release.  I’m thinking that, more than the academic angle, I think it would make an outstanding literary anthology: a place we can do satire, fiction, and poetry (the three genres we produce in reams despite being “incapable” of understanding them) that is its own explanation.

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As part of my ongoing activism in favor of being treated like a human being rather than an alarming epidemic, I am, once again, pushing back against Autism Awareness Month with satire.

I’m posting an “inspiring” story of overcoming autism every day in April at . Feel the inspopornation!

(For 2015’s satire campaign, see )

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