neurodivergence, the creative process

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough.

While writing an article for Medium earlier today, I discussed the importance of rebooting after the hard work of creating.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal calls this phase “breathing in.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to it as “sharpening the saw.” I think of it as “rebooting.”

Whatever you decide to call it, the fact is that if the quality and/or quantity of your output is declining, it’s probably not because you’re too lazy. It’s probably because you’re not lazy enough.

Image: Blog post title image with post title, URL, and a student resting on top of a tall pile of books.

We All Work Too Much

Yes, of course I’d say that. I’m a confessed workaholic whose addiction has nearly killed me more than once. But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

Remember the 40-hour workweek? For most US adults, it’s more like 47 hours, according to one Gallup poll. Millennials are particularly bad about overworking, being more likely to agree to take on even more work or to refuse to step away from work entirely even for short periods.

A 2010 LexisNexus study found that many workers reported being on the verge of “breakdown” under the onslaught of information they handled at their jobs each day. In 2010! When the total worldwide data created was 2 zettabytes, compared to 74 zettabytes today!

If the information overload feels like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by how we treat the value of staying busy.

We treat the state of being constantly busy as a virtue, as if it proves that we’re valuable or our lives have meaning. There is, I suspect, a good reason for this behavior beyond assuaging our own egos as to our worth: Constant downsizing and job loss through automation have proven to two entire generations now that if we’re not constantly doing work, we’re communicating that we can be and should be replaced.

Rest Makes Us More Productive

For centuries, people scoffed at the idea that rest could be productive on its own, let alone make workers more productive. The US’s current work ethic is largely an artifact of our earliest Puritan ancestors, who firmly believed in the rectifying power of constant labor. (The fact that a good portion of them died of starvation during their first two winters in New England may have had something to do with their obsession.) During the Industrial Revolution, “work houses” were created for people too poor to support themselves, on the grounds that they were poor only because they were indolent and a good 16 hours a day of picking tar out of old bits of rope in exchange for three bowls of gruel and a bed of straw would fix them.

The idea that hard work is a virtue and rest a vice is well ingrained into our culture. The more we study rest and work, however, the more it becomes clear that we have our morals exactly backwards.

Research indicates, for instance, that taking adequate rest periods allows us to get more done in a shorter time frame. For example, when Basecamp decided to move to a four-day workweek, the company found that its staff actually got more done in four weeks than they were getting done in five. Researchers who examine the brains of occupied and idle individuals via MRI and similar scanning tools have also discovered that the brain is “working” even when it’s not engaged in a task – and that, in fact, the brain’s “idle time” is essential to its ability to focus on tasks.

The longer I’m in control of my own schedule, the bigger a proponent I am of work time that allows each worker to manage the ebb and flow of their own energy.

I, for instance, tend to work in intense three- to five-hour bursts – and then spend the rest of the day rebooting. In those bursts, I get work done that the market seems to think I’d need eight to ten hours of a workday to do. At least, that’s the impression I get from all the recruiters who want me to apply for jobs that pay exactly what I’m making now, but that demand I be physically present for 40 hours a week instead of 10.

So far, so good. But “productivity” is a virtue generated by our social expectations, particularly in the US. It’s not necessarily a personal virtue – and when applied to personal work, “productivity” can be a real inspiration-killer.

Your personal work needs you to rest, too. Because:

Boredom is Good for Creativity

In a 2014 study published in Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman tested the effects of boredom on a particular type of creativity known as “divergent thinking.” It’s the kind that helps you do things like, say, generate a bunch of new uses for an ordinary household item.

Mann and Cadman began by splitting research subjects into two groups. Both groups were asked to generate as many ideas as they could for using a pair of plastic cups. Before this task, however, one group was asked to copy numbers out of the phone book; the other was given no such mind-numbing activity.

The phone book copiers ended up generating significantly more uses for the cups than the control group, however. It was as if being a little bored first made the creative mind restless, so it jumped at the chance to do something creative like play with cup ideas.

Mann and Cadman then repeated the study, but with a twist. To see whether degree of boredom made a difference, they created a study with three groups. One group served as a control group. One group copied numbers out of the phone book, as before. The third group was assigned merely to read the phone book. Then, all three worked on finding creative uses for plastic cups.

Once again, boredom helped generate new ideas. And more boredom seemed to do more. The phone book readers came up with the most cup-related ideas, followed by the phone book copiers; both groups outperformed the control group.

You Deserve To Live

If nothing else, take this from someone who actually did nearly die four different times from overwork: You deserve to rest because you deserve to live.


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commentary and current events, neurodivergence

Inauguration Day 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Four years ago today, I studiously avoided watching the inauguration. Instead, I wrote the introduction to Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber, a volume that seemed even more vital then than it had when AutPress released its call for submissions ten months earlier.

Four years later, I still find the Spoon Knife 2 intro meaningful. Here it is, reprinted in full, for another inauguration day – and the entrance into another test chamber.

National Day of Testing: An Introduction

“You know what my days used to be like? I just tested. Nobody murdered me, or put me in a potato, or fed me to birds. I had a pretty good life. And then you showed up.” – GLaDOS, Portal 2

My debut piece in The Spoon Knife Anthology relied heavily on the mythology of Portal, a video game in which the player-protagonist navigates a series of nineteen test chambers, accompanied by promises of cake and increasingly sinister commentary from a sentient supercomputer named GLaDOS. As the player progresses, completing each chamber becomes increasingly difficult. Breaking out of them altogether becomes unavoidable.

Portal is primarily a puzzle game. The same test chambers that trap the player-protagonist and obscure the final goal also provide both the tools of escape and the necessary practice in how to use them. The moment of escape is devilishly simple but requires quick thinking; the game’s ending implies exactly how far one can test the chamber.

For several months after submitting my first Spoon Knife piece, the concept of the “test chamber” intrigued me. “My Mother, GLaDOS” was my first tangible test (of the) chamber, the first time I’d committed some of the rawest and most gaslit parts of my childhood to print and the first time, outside the safety of my therapist’s office, that I had ever criticized the malignant programming that tested me. I played with the concept of the “test chamber” for several months before generating the Call for Submissions that produced responses in the form of the poetry, fiction, and memoir that appear here.

The writers (and editors and publishers) of the book you now hold in your hands all have this in common: we all diverge in some way(s) from the normative, the expected, the acceptable. We’ve all been pathologized, scrutinized, corrected – often, in horrible ways.

As I write this, the United States finds itself in a new test chamber, one whose outputs will inevitably affect the rest of the world. Those of us who find ourselves already marginalized, like the authors represented here, will suffer first, but we will not suffer alone. All of us need the tools of defiance and resistance.

The Spoon Knife Anthology gives its readers the chance to name demands for compliance when we see them, and to try on the means of defiance and resistance. In Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber, we explore what happens when those tools – and others – are applied to a particular purpose or demand. We test the chamber in which we find ourselves, and in so doing, we find the power to subvert it.

Dani Alexis Ryskamp
January 20, 2017


For more literature on compliance, defiance, and resistance, visit autpress.com.

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commentary and current events, neurodivergence, writing

Notes From My Upcoming AWP Panel Presentation(‘s Recording Session, Because COVID)

Tomorrow, I’ll be recording a panel for AWP on “Neurodivergence in Literature,” along with colleagues and dear friends Nick Walker, Alyssa Gonzalez, and Mike Jung.

I’m a co-founder of Autonomous Press; I’ve published multiple works through Neuroqueer Books; I was the managing editor of Neuroqueer; my MA thesis was on poetry as a neurodivergent/neurotypical common language; and my current project is a paper outlining what is is we mean by “neuroqueer,” in which I’m relying heavily not only on the writings of the three originators of the term but also on being able to text them memes at 2 am.

So I guess I’m qualified to pontificate on neurodivergence in literature, lol.

The panel will include specific questions aimed at each of the participants, plus a half-dozen or so general questions. I have already forgotten what the me-specific question is, and I have no idea what my co-panelists will say, so the panel itself is worth seeing. I will insert the day/time/etc. info here when I have it.

Here’s a sneak preview at what’s banging around in my head in response to the questions for the panel.

Blog post title image featuring a typewriter and journal in the background.

Opening Remarks on Neurodivergence in Literature

I fully expect to riff off whatever everyone else says at this point in the actual panel presentation. For the purposes of this blog post, which has a somewhat different audience, I’ll start by defining some terms:

“Neurodivergence” is commonly used to refer to everyone whose brain isn’t “normal” (a term with its own problems that I’ll get to in a second). Currently, it’s often a catch-all term for things like autism, ADHD, and PTSD, as well as things like traumatic brain injuries or the effects on the brain from drug use. In disability activism, it sometimes gets tagged “our minds are not fine,” a play on early activists’ claims that physical disability should not preclude them from full social participation because “our minds are fine.”

When I discuss “neurodivergence in literature” for the sake of this blog post, I’m primarily interested in the ways in which author and narrator perspectives diverge from what we think of as “typical” cognition. I’m interested in divergences from both our idea of “normal,” or what already-is common and expected, and from “normative,” or what we believe should be common and expected.

The difference between “normal” and “normative” is one I don’t see addressed in the vast majority of conversations about neurodiversity/neurodivergence, to our detriment. Those two ideas interplay in ways that hugely impact how we understand cognitive, emotional and neurological differences, yet we rarely if ever tease them apart.

For instance: When we say a person is “neurodivergent,” we mean they differ or diverge in some way from some other reference point – typically referred to as the “neurotypical.” What we often don’t do is distinguish whether the “neurotypical” reference point is “normal,” i.e. common or expected, or “normative,” i.e. someone we think should be normal or expected.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a lot.

Also, I personally make a distinction between talking about “neurodiversity in literature” and “neurodivergence in literature,” as well as between either of those ideas and “neuroqueering” as a practice. To me, “neurodiversity in literature” speaks more to who gets to be represented or do the representing, while “neurodivergence in literature” is more about what and how non-normal or non-normative bodyminds get represented. “Neuroqueering” is a specific species of “how,” and it’s not actually the topic here, which is a shame because I’m currently obsessed with it.

What is the Current State of Neurodivergence in Literature?

In three words: “New, but not.”

Literature has always been a way that people explore neurodivergence, just as neurodivergence has always existed within the human population. Humans as a whole have always been neurodiverse.

Right now we seem to be at an inflection point. The #ownvoices movement and similar changes to how we think about who gets to tell stories and who gets to star in them have made publishing more accessible to people, including neurodivergent people, not only to get published but to do so without having to mask their own neurodivergence.

Yet this inflection point comes with its own risks. Every time we define a set as separate from or different to another, we risk balkanizing it. That’s a risk we face with neurodivergent authors and characters currently: That we’ll reach a place where #ownvoices neurodivergent literature becomes a gimmick.

What Are Some Successful Instances of Neurodivergence in Literature (as an author or reader), and What Makes Them Successful?

Some of the most successful examples of neurodivergence in literature do not deal with authors, characters or readers with diagnosable conditions. Often they succeed because no one involved is diagnosable. Rather, the story moves the reader into the position of experiencing neurodivergence without getting to label it “oh, this is what it’s like to be autistic” or “this is what it’s like to have hallucinations” or whatever.

A few mainstream releases that come to mind include Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Each book/series takes the reader on a rather intense departure from what we think of as normal/normative, rational cognition.

Yet in each case, there’s no tidy DSM diagnosis to slap on that experience. What’s the ICD-10 code for “becoming an eldritch being” or “eating a dead murderer’s memories” or “conversing with one’s heart as it walks around outside one’s body”? These authors and their works take readers into that experience without categorizing or defining it, and it leaves a lingering effect on the reader.

What Are Some Examples of Unsuccessful Works?

Nearly every book that tries to present neurodivergence by means of labels ends up reading as a failure to me. Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, for instance, is split directly down the middle as a success/failure, and the moment it makes the turn is the moment Oates outs the protagonist as autistic.

Prior to that point, the reader is immersed in the experience of being a depressed autistic woman in a claustrophobic small town. Oates actually captures that very well (I speak from experience, having been this person). Cressida’s decisions make sense in the context of that claustrophobia and her depression and her deeply rooted sense of being irrevocably different yet unable to explain it to anyone.

But the moment we’re told “Cressida has autism,” suddenly the entire story is about that diagnostic label. Suddenly Cressida is not relatable. The reader gets yanked out of the experience of neurodivergence and back into a world where “normal” is a very tight, specific set of feelings and behaviors.

Labels have such a powerful effect on neurodivergence in art, and it’s rarely a good effect. I have always appreciated, for instance, that Bill Watterson staunchly refused to respond to questions about whether Hobbes was a “real” tiger or a “stuffed” tiger or “just a product of Calvin’s imagination.” The truth of Hobbes, of course, is that he is any/all of the above, all at the same time. To carve off any of those facets in the name of “understanding” Hobbes is to murder him.

Incidentally, this is also why none of the characters in my own novels get diagnostic labels in the text. Several of the humans have diagnosable neurodivergences. But the one time I revealed one to a reviewer, the reviewer managed to miss every other neurodivergent experience in the text – and even to miss some of the labeled character’s most obvious symptoms!

What Do You Hope Will Not Happen Regarding Neurodivergence In Literature?

I really hope the entire concept of “neurodivergence in literature” doesn’t get reduced to a gimmick or a sales pitch.

I do think there’s an incredibly important role for #ownvoices authors and books. But I want to avoid a world where we start requiring authors to out themselves as some kind of diagnostic-label neurodivergent in order for their depictions of divergence to be taken seriously. Conversely, I want to avoid a world where we assume that every author who writes neurodivergence well can be reduced to a diagnostic label.

“No label, no divergence” is just neurotypicality under another name.

What Do You Hope Will Happen Regarding Neurodivergence in Literature?

I hope we move away from the “normal,” “rational,” “common,” “typical,” “expected,” etc. as the default expectation, in reading and in life. I want readers to be ready for anything when they open a book, and willing to go wherever the book does.

My undergraduate class in Short Fiction was taught by a man who insisted that if a protagonist’s actions didn’t make sense, either the protagonist was mad or the writer was a hack. This, to me, is a prime example of neurotypical-as-normative dominating the conversation. There is no room from such a perspective to explore the myriad worlds of the human mind – to expand ourselves via reading as well as to expand the spectrum of human representations in text. There’s only “this has to make sense to me” or “it’s crap.”

I want to see labeling fade away. I want to see neurodivergence expressed in literature as actions and experiences, rather than lists of symptoms. I’d like to see readers get so used to experiencing characters’ mental/emotional states that they stop asking for diagnostic labels and actually find them jarring.

Authors don’t need to prove themselves or their characters by sharing diagnoses. They need to provide an experience that changes the reader. Readers, in turn, need to be open to that experience as one that can change them, rather than pushing it away with “oh, well, if this character doesn’t have these symptoms or that diagnosis then they can’t be neurodivergent.”

And I don’t think the road to that world is as long as it might be. I don’t think it was ever as long as folks like my Short Fiction professor want us to believe. Literature is a malleable medium; it’s always had room for the weird and often delighted in it.


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