Monday, January 14, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Jeannie Davide-Rivera on Writing From Our Strengths: Autism's Insights Into Fictional Characters

Autism is my worst writing enemy, and my best writing friend.

Writing characters is a challenge in my fiction writing because I am autistic. I have great difficulty writing believable, consistently inconsistent characters. These are the kind of characters that say one thing but do something opposite, whose motivations and actions do not match; in other words, who act like real people. 

What does my autism have to do with my character writing problems?

Conventional writing wisdom says that characters need arcs; they must change over some way. This makes no sense to me. Why does a character need to change? I don’t change.
I’m told to write believable, realistic characters—consistently inconsistent characters. Inconsistent? That’s not how my mind words. I’m a “Say what you mean, and mean what you say, please” person.
           What motivates your characters? What causes them to act, or react in a certain way? How do other characters respond to her? What motivates a character? I don’t know, in fact, what motivates people. People are strange; they make no sense.
Struggling to understand character’s motivations highlights how much I don’t understand people. How completely and totally mind-blind I really am; how I can never figure out what makes people tick. Although my mind-blindness hinders my ability to write effective characters, my autism gives me many writing advantages.

There are aspects of the autistic brain that are wired perfectly for effective writing.

The autistic writer is literal-minded by neurology. Our brains are hard-wired to think and take words literally. Remember Amelia Bedelia the literal-minded maid who continually misinterpreted instructions to comical effect? Amelia must have been autistic.
We have an innate need to get to the point, no chit-chat, no small talk—give me the facts and let me get on with my day. The need to get to the point makes it easier to filter the “noise” out of our writing, to say what we mean, and mean what we say, and to do it quickly.
Autistic people tend to focus on details rather than the whole. That makes us very detail oriented. The need for exactitude causes our writing to be rich in accurate details that many people often miss.  An apple cannot simply be red, what kind of red was it? Crimson, candy-apple, garnet, burgundy, ruby, blood red—what color is blood red exactly?

A bird could not simply fly past the window; it had to be a particular type of bird. “Bird” is not enough information. Was it a finch, a sparrow, blue jay, hummingbird, robin? What kind of bird was it exactly? I needed no training in specificity that came naturally. This is one time that fixating on the details worked for me—well, most of the time.
The natural focus on details and the unique character of each element poses problems. We can lose sight of the whole picture, project, or direction of the book. We become lost in our scenes or fixated on minute details that derail the whole writing day.
Point of view is another area in which autism is a writing gift. If I had a choice I would write everything from the first person point of view. It comes completely naturally. It is easy to report only what is in my character’s mind, steering clear of divulging details she could not know or things she cannot see.  In fact, the often-warnedabout “head jumping” (shifting from one character’s viewpoint to another’s, often within the same scene) never happens to me.  I can’t head jump! I don’t have any idea what is going on in other people’s heads.
Of course, not having a clue about what is going on in other character’s heads creates problems. Reading fiction, and a lot of it, is helping tremendously. The author gives me social clues that I wish had in real life. A glimpse of what different characters are thinking, and feeling, and their motivations for their actions. If only life could have a narrator like that!

Character Writing Turned Into Theory of Mind Exercises

Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that other people’s feelings, intentions and desires are different than your own, and then interpret, infer, or predict their actions. It is a fundamental understanding that their actions are based on their inner feelings. Autistic people often lack or have great difficulty with theory of mind.
Writing fictional characters challenges my ability to understand people and predict their actions. It allows me to “practice” theory of mind skills in a safe environment free of social pressures. I am free to be me, to fall down, and commit social blunders in the privacy of my own pages. Misinterpreting other people’s intentions or actions does not have real-life consequences.
Being autistic, having a brain that is wired-differently, brings other writing challenges. The need for perfection, to stick to the writing “rules” without breaking them, as well as, rigid inflexible thinking are all hurdles I need to leap over.
The need for perfection makes it difficult for me to write something and let it go. It is never done; never good enough. At the same time, my inflexible rigid thinking, inherent to autism, makes it hard to edit words already on the page. I can’t finish a piece because I need to edit it to perfection, but I can’t edit because the words become set in stone on the page. 

What are my solutions?

I reserve writing fictional characters for therapy and theory of mind exercises, and focus on non-fiction. I am currently writing about my experiences with autism both before and after diagnosis. I am practicing all the elements of fiction writing -- scenes, dialog, plot etc. -- without having to wonder what is rolling around inside my character’s head because that character is me, and I know what I was thinking. Unfortunately, the other people around me had no clue.
In order to practice writing and letting go, I decided to blog my book—publishing each excerpt as I write it. It has been an exciting, and terrifying experience to write a page, or chapter and then hit Publish, thereby opening yourself up to comments and criticism. Readers are giving me feedback along the way, and keeping me motivated to continue.
Autism has given me many writing advantages. The roadblocks constructed by my autism I will continue to leap over, burst through, and knock down. My blogged book, Twirling Naked in the Streets-and No-One Noticed, is a memoir of sorts about my growing up with undiagnosed autism. I would love to have you follow me through my journey, and peer over my shoulder as I write.

About the author: Jeannie Davide-Rivera describes herself as " a writer, student, and stay-at-home mother of three, stumbling through life with a form of Autism called Asperger’s Syndrome (AS)." She says, "My book, Twirling Naked in the Streets-and no-one noticed, is about my life growing with undiagnosed autism. All of my life I was searching, trying to find a glimpse of me in the world; I found none. There were no books, no TV personalities, no friends that were like me.  No where did I see a reflection of myself in this world.  Since diagnosis all of that has changed, I now see words on pages of books that “look” like me.  I communication with others who say, “ya, that happened to me too,” and THAT has changed my life.  My only hope is that your or someone you love will see themselves on the pages of my book, and know that they are not crazy, and more importantly, they are not alone." For more information, click on her blog here.


  1. Sharing a news :-

  2. I've known about my own aspie condition since 1998. Here is a story about an autistic musician:
    Richard Freeman-Toole

  3. Hi Deborah!

    Exciting update this morning! Twirling Naked in the Streets is now available on Kindle!

    Here is the link:

  4. Hi Deborah,

    I have returned to this post in order to remember where I was more than three years ago. Today I am working on my application to a MFA program in writing, fiction, after completing my BA. I'm excited but am trying to remember "my story" so to speak, to remember where and how this crazy writing rollercoaster all began. :)