I sometimes wonder whether, growing up, anyone ever uncovered my “dirty little secret.” I was not always good at hiding it: I misread social cues. I struggled to focus on conversations. I made few friends. I mimicked behavior I saw in movies or television in a desperate bid to seem “normal”; flew into rages over “nothing,” cried for “no reason,” needed help with things that I could not express. Looking back, I wonder whether anyone watching at the time realized that I’m autistic.*
The truth was, even I had no idea until less than a year ago. Now it all makes sense: the intense fantasy life, the obsessive fixations, the explosions of rage and implosions of sadness that seem to come “out of nowhere.” Even as an adult, I sometimes have no idea what I’m feeling, even if I’m actively sobbing, or laughing, or pressing my back into a corner, trying not to shake. Ask me, and I’ll probably tell you I’m tired, or hungry.
Turns out, this is not uncommon. Many autistics struggle with identifying emotions—those of others, but especially our own.** In fact, we are often accused of being emotionless, or even of being devoid of empathy, or lacking some fundamental spark of humanity; being “shells of” people, but not people per se.*** So, how does a shell of a person go about trying to write stories—that most “human” of creative impulses?
Obviously, I hope, I am not a shell. I feel ALL THE FEELINGS. Still, I labored long under the assumption that my inability to name my feelings made me a terrible writer. At one time, I collected “emotion wheels”—those color-coded charts of the human psyche, often seen on Pinterest—like magical ciphers that held the key to literary greatness, if only I could decrypt them. But does it really make anyone a better writer to know that “disappointed” is a subset of “hurt,” which is itself a subset of “sad?”
Think about the last scene you read that truly grabbed you: white-knuckling the binding, breath caught high in your chest, desperate, starving, even, to turn the page. I’m willing to bet that no matter what scene you are thinking of, no matter what genre, sentences like, “I was scared,” or, “She was furious,” or even, “His heart broke,” were probably few and far between, if they were in there at all. More likely, you encountered sentences like this: “My heart raced.” “Her jaw clenched.” “He fought back the urge to sob.”
All of these examples are fairly cliché, but not without reason. Bodily signals are more or less universal, though rarely do they offer clear answers with regards to our feelings. Sweaty palms, dizziness, and a fluttery stomach might be Cupid’s arrow, or maybe embarrassment, or low blood-sugar. But in that uncertainty lies drama—mistake embarrassment for love, and you’re in for a world of hurt.
Writers create instant tension whenever characters are uncertain of their own feelings, leading to some of the most compelling scenes in fiction, whether comic or tragic or somewhere in between. Is this anger, or jealousy? Is this attraction, or terror? That tightness in the chest, that moil in the guts, that prickling of the skin, all alloys into one magical ingredient: tension.
We read to feel, and we write to feel, and to make others feel. It’s a deeply intimate exchange, largely carried out with strangers. Somewhere in the middle, there’s also an attempt to understand how and why and what we feel. I can’t claim that writing has improved my emotional fluency, or that my lack of emotional fluency has somehow made me a better writer, but I can say this: I no longer fret so much over words like “joyful” or “confident”; “insecure,” or “ashamed.” I worry about my characters’ physical reality first—especially in a rough draft—and leave the hashing-out of their psychology for my private notes. I search for the right words to make the blush on their cheeks feel singular to them and their world. I let that lump rising in their throat form in mine, and try to hold onto it for as long as they would before swallowing. I wonder how conscious they might be of the tears welling at the rims of their eyes. And sometimes, in that space, they feel almost human.
*Like many autistics, I prefer identity-first language over person-first, i.e., “autistic person” over “person with autism.”
**The technical term for a difficulty in distinguishing or verbalizing emotions is alexithymia. Many (but not all!) autistics experience it to varying degrees.
***Ivar Lovaas, one of the early pioneers of autism research and the “corrective” therapy known as ABA, famously said that autistic children are only people “in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose, and a mouth—but not in the psychological sense.” Surprise, surprise, he was also an early proponent of gay conversion therapy.