We’re Pretty Awesome

Autism, Neurodiversity

You may have heard the saying, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person,” which is meant to emphasize how unique each autistic person is. (In less benign cases, it is sometimes used to shut down criticism about a type of autism therapy or treatment – the autism equivalent of Y’ALL DON’T EVEN KNOW ME.) (Also I know this saying is often worded in person first language but I can’t bring myself to write it that way.) Aside from the fact that I find this a weird saying to begin with (EVERY person is unique, why would anyone expect all autistic people to be exactly the same?), I always want to change the ending. Why just meet one autistic person? If you only know one autistic person, you’re missing out – I know lots, and they are some of the coolest people I know.

So I rewrote the saying and turned it into a design for my Redbubble shop: “We’re Pretty Awesome.” This one is perfect for autistic people to sport on a t-shirt, phone case, or notebook. Clicking on the image below will take you to those products.

Weareawesome

Image has the text “If you’ve met one autistic person… You should meet some more, we’re pretty awesome.” Below that is a cartoon smiling face inside of a box.

Then I also made one for allies, the people who are not autistic themselves but know just how awesome we are: “They’re Pretty Awesome.” Once again click the picture to see the swag.

theyareawesome

Image has the text “If you’ve met one autistic person… You should meet some more, they’re pretty awesome.” Below that is a cartoon smiling face inside of a box.

“Tendril Theory” Was a Plea for Acceptance

Autism

TendrilTheory

*Image is a comic titled “Why it’s hard to switch tasks (Let’s call it Tendril Theory).” 

When I’m focused on something / My mind sends out a million tendrils of thought / Expands into all of the thoughts & feelings / When I need to switch tasks / I must retract all of the tendrils of my mind / This takes some time / Eventually I can shift to the new task / But when I am interrupted or must switch abruptly / It feels like all of the tendrils are being ripped out / That’s why I don’t react well / Please just give me time / To switch tasks when I’m ready.

While I was traveling about two weeks ago, my Tendril Theory comic (shown above) was going viral. What a time to be mostly offline! I would check into Facebook at night in the hotel, scrolling through people’s awesome comments and watching the number of shares grow. I’m not going to pretend to be humble – it was thrilling.

You see, this is really my dream. Not to illustrate other people’s ideas for money, but to draw (and write) my own ideas and somehow make a living from that.

So when someone left a comment asking if they could post my comic to Huffington Post, I simply replied, yes! I honestly didn’t think too much about what that would mean; I assumed it would go up as a image with my name in the byline and that would be that. I closed my computer and drove eight more hours, not thinking all that much about it except to hope, in the back of my mind, that my comic was really going to hit HuffPo.

Then a week after that I woke up at my dad’s house and Mike texted me to look at Facebook. I only had my phone with me, so I checked it out and saw that my comic did indeed make it onto HuffPo, with an intro by a parenting coach. For some reason that’s all I saw that day – I don’t know if my phone failed to load if I failed to scroll down, but I didn’t see the body of the article.

It wasn’t until I got back to my computer, in another hotel room in the midst of our drive back home, that I was able to read the full piece. And I began to have second thoughts about the way the comic was used to illustrate her article. Though she had given me credit for the drawing and though her parenting advice is centered around respect for children, there were some things that weren’t sitting right with me.

I polled some of my Facebook friends to ask what they thought I should do. Opinions were varied. I thought some more. I went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, what I wanted to say to the parenting coach came to me, almost fully formed, from whatever mysterious place that ideas come.

Following is an excerpt of a message that I wrote to Carrie Contey, which I told her I would reproduce on my blog after I had heard her response.

One thing that you must know is that I created this comic about myself: an autistic person, an introvert, who has ADHD, and I am an adult. This comic was never intended to describe children, or to explain a “phase” that they go through. Though it does apply to many children, its primary subject matter is the kinds of *people* – of all ages – whose brains are hard wired to work in this way. 

Creating and sharing Tendril Theory with the world required a great deal of vulnerability for me. In this comic I exposed my inner self and the way my mind works specifically as a request for understanding and acceptance. Moreover, for people like me the ability to delve deeply into a subject or a thought or an idea is not a deficit, something to overcome or deal with or work on improving – it is, in fact, one of our great strengths. Without people who think like us, the world would be a different, and surely a less interesting, place. 

I ask you to re-read Tendril Theory. Read it slowly and carefully. Know that each and every image and word was chosen with great care and deliberation.

When you see the face of the person whose tendrils are extended into thought, see that their face is blissful, meditative. This state of mind is restorative. It’s a refuge from a world that is often overwhelming and chaotic and loud for people like us.

When I ask the reader to please give me time to time to switch tasks when I’m ready, note that the words “when I’m ready” are quite specific. It doesn’t say to give me a little extra time, an extra minute, or a few more seconds. It asks you not to impose your timetable on me. 

Read Tendril Theory one more time and see it for what it is: not an operating manual, but a plea for acceptance.

Carrie wrote back to me promptly, even though she too was traveling. Her reply was respectful, empathetic, and thoughtful. She submitted to me for review an edited version of her article that incorporated the points that were most important to me, also offering to remove my comic or remove the article from HuffPo altogether – whichever I preferred. I found her new version of the article to be highly satisfactory, and really I felt she went above and beyond what I’d asked of her by including much of  my point of view.

And so, I am proud to share, The Tendril Theory on Huffington Post.

This tale has a happy ending, but it was an important and potentially painful learning lesson for me. I got lucky that it was someone as compassionate and open as Carrie Contey who brought my work to a larger platform, when it could easily have been someone less scrupulous. When I put Tendril Theory out into the world, I admit that I didn’t think that much about how it would be used and by whom. I didn’t think “this will go viral,” I just though naively, “here’s a thing I made, maybe some people will like it.” I didn’t even put a watermark on it – I just asked people to give me credit if they shared it, and hoped that they would.

If I merely wanted to post up comics as a hobby while I pursued a more traditional commissioned illustration career, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. I am reminded of the comic Rob Delaney and his policy for Twitter joke theft: “Go ahead and take ’em, mother*^%er. Here come five more.” Sadly, I am not as prolific as Rob Delaney, and my comics aren’t my side gig – or at any rate, someday I hope they won’t be.

So I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I know that I have to think about what I want to do with my work going forward, how and where I want it to be used, how I can I balance sharing comics for free (which I fully intend to continue doing) with parlaying this work into an income, however modest it may be.

Patreon is one avenue I am looking into – where artists can get paid every time they release work, kind of like an ongoing Kickstarter project. Another one that I have up and running is my Redbubble shop, where you can buy my artwork printed on notebooks, coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, and more (I have sold a few Tendril Theory items already – woot!).

I have another comic idea in the mental pipeline, so I will see if I can handle its release a little more carefully. Even so, I am still thrilled with the popularity of Tendril Theory and in the end I can count the HuffPo article as a success.

On Conquering Creative Fear

Creativity, Writing

Erin5two

When I was a little kid, probably only five or six as I was just beginning to be ready to sleep over at a friend’s house (and for sure there were some midnight calls home to my parents to come get me), the prospect of a sleepover with my best friend and next door neighbor Bethany was pretty much the most exciting thing I could think of. Whenever Beth or I would come up with the plan to have another sleepover, the very idea of it was so thrilling it was almost too painfully awesome to contemplate (even though we spent almost every day together and lived about 40 yards away from each other).

But sometimes our parents said no, for reasons incomprehensible to our kindergarten minds. Then, the disappointment was too devastating to bear (even though we spent almost every day together etc). So I came up with a plan: we would always just assume the answer was going to be no and start feeling sad about it before we even asked our parents. That way if they said yes, we’d be super happy, and if they said no, we’d feel pretty much the same. I felt that this plan was BRILLIANT. It’s etched so vividly in my mind as a stroke of utter genius that I can even remember exactly where I was standing when I revealed my amazing idea to Bethany – right on the border between our yards, near the tree that was shaped like a W.

As a Sleepover Disappointment Coping Strategy, it was pretty decent, but as an approach to life in general, I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty lousy.

All too often in my life I have followed this protocol of protecting myself from disappointment, rejection, and failure by assuming things are not going to work out. I am probably in the running for an Olympic gold medal in Emotionally Dealing With Bad Things That Haven’t Even Happened Yet. Focus too much on what will go wrong, and eventually you don’t try so much. Don’t try so hard. Don’t dare.

What does all of this have to do with creativity? Well, it all comes down to fear. Fear of failure is something that lots of people deal with, probably all people at some point in life. I think fear of risk is something slightly different, and it’s even worse. Fear of failure means being afraid of the moment you crash to the ground. Fear of risk means being afraid to even leap. It’s a fear of being vulnerable at all. An addiction to safety. Unfortunately for safety junkies like me, being creative is ALL ABOUT being vulnerable. It’s taking something that you made and putting out into the world – it’s inherently risky. Giving form to your ideas is like exposing parts of your innermost self. Even if no one ever sees the things that you create, I feel that there is a risk in just bringing them into being.

fearmeme

Today is the last day of my 12 week course on “creative recovery” with The Artist’s Way, and in a bit of synchronicity it will be the last of my posts on creativity for the month of March (though I’m sure it’s a topic I will return to now and again). When I started the process of reading the book and writing the journal, I was skeptical of the idea that I was a blocked artist. I thought, I am an artist, I just happen to be TOO BUSY right now to create the things I want to create. Uh huh.

Much of The Artist’s Way for me was about admitting to myself that I really am afraid to make the things I want to make. It’s much safer for me to keep them inside and just keep telling myself I don’t have time for them, yet. Sure I have time to write a couple of blogs and moderate a few Facebook pages and do commission work as an illustrator and raise and homeschool two kids and start a co-op, but write a memoir? Nawwww. Draw a comic book? If only!

Though I did, through the exercises in the book, trace some of my personal insecurities back to comments that influential people have made to me along the way, ultimately I know that the buck stops with me. My fear can’t be placed at anyone else’s feet. I know that it scares me to be vulnerable and I’ve always been that way. But I am beginning to let myself set fear aside long enough to taste that excitement of doing the things I really want to do, as thrilling as letting myself anticipate a sleepover with my best friend when I was five.

A Month on Creativity

Creativity, Identity, Writing

Erin5four

Drawings I made at age five.

I believe that all people are creative. I know many disagree with that – often it’s the people who think they themselves are not creative. But creating simply means bringing something into the world that was not there before – it might be a drawing or a song, or a mathematical proof, or the execution of a football play, or just a solution to a problem.  Creativity is part of being human. The idea that we are “not very creative” is a story we tell ourselves, and it is false.

I do believe that everyone possesses this well of creative energy. It doesn’t mean that everyone is a genius or a master of something. It doesn’t even mean that everyone has to “do what they love” as a job. It just means that everyone is born with the ability to make something out of nothing. People themselves are works of creation, of course – a baby is a new person who never existed before.

I’ve always taken a special interest in children’s drawings – not just my own or my children’s. Nearly all children begin to draw at some point in their development; it’s a preliterate form of expression that has been with our species since before we invented an alphabet. Before adults begin to interfere with the process, all children – not just the “artists” among them – have a natural sense of composition and form. Ironically, it’s when formal instruction is introduced that children tend to lose that innate sensibility, and trying to get their drawings “right” is something that cuts them off from their own creative powers.

Erin5one

Another of my drawings from when I was five years old.

Last month I was at the local art museum with Mike and the kids and we went to visit the water fountain at the same time that a school group was there drawing the fountain – I would guess they were about second or third graders. I was surreptitiously watching them draw for a few minutes, though it seemed most of them had finished their pictures by the time we arrived. The students whose drawings I loved the most had a kind of confidence and immediacy to them – some done quickly, some undertaken with more care and time, but the best ones to me all possess a sense of freedom and uninhibitedness that can’t be faked.

I saw one girl, on the other hand, who had drawn a few timid lines, looked around at her neighbors, caught me watching her, and began to furiously erase her work until she literally ripped a role in the paper. Past a certain age – maybe kindergarten age? – I think there are always a few of these types of kids in any group. Sometimes they are in fact the Artists of the group who have been singled out by parents or teachers as being “good at drawing,” but sometimes they are at the other end of the ability scale, the ones who have noticed or had pointed out that their drawings don’t look as good as the other kids’.

Later that day when we were in the kids’ art space at the museum, I gestured to the wall of children’s drawings, things that had been done there in the museum and pinned up, and asked Mike to guess which one I liked the best. It wasn’t the most realistic, the painstakingly “shaded” close up of a flower, the most technically advanced, the one that probably 9 out of 10 kids or adults walking by would instantly pick out as best. It was a delightful still life, done in a simple line drawing style, terrifically out of proportion, the perspective nothing close to reality, but it was alive, and made perfect sense in its own little world on the page.

That drawing had the sort of energy that most adult artists try to tap back into for the rest of their lives. When I was a freshman at RISD, my first semester drawing teacher had us sit and scribble in large newsprint pads for the first 20 minutes of every class. We were not to draw anything representational or try to make it look “good,” whatever that might mean. When I was 18, frankly, that exercise was baffling and frustrating to me – I was there to make “good” drawings, why was I scribbling? – but now I totally understand it. To make something good, it must be real, and to make it real, you must let go of making it good. It’s at the heart of why early childhood drawings are so fantastic. They are not focused on making Art, they are purely making.

I’ve decided to write on the theme of creativity in this blog for the month of March. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Right now I am still reading and doing the 12 week course for The Artist’s Way and at the same time have also been reading Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. There is considerable overlap between the two books so it’s been fascinating to read them simultaneously. At the heart of them is the idea that tapping into your passion – whatever form your personal expression of creativity takes – is to tap into your authentic self.