Asperger Syndrome writers: how to write social interaction

If you go to an online group for writers and creative people with Asperger Syndrome, one common topic is whether an Aspie writer can write scenes of social interaction well enough to pass muster. After all, we have a deficit in social interaction skills in real life. We commonly miss nonverbal cues and that can make a social interaction go wrong. So how can we write social interaction?
One factor is the fact that we actually have social interactions all our lives. We may not fully understand them, but neurotypical people also have social interactions they don’t fully understand. Every time we interact with another person, they have things in their head that affect the interaction— and they may not reveal even important things either verbally or through nonverbal cues.
But the most important reason we Aspies can write good fiction, including social interaction scenes, is that it is FICTION. And social interaction in fiction is governed by rules.
Social interaction in fiction takes place in the form of scenes. Each scene in a work of fiction has a purpose— it advances the overall plot in some way. And each character that acts in a scene has a purpose in that scene. He brings an agenda to the encounter.
For example, take the first scene in the novel ‘Gone With the Wind.’ In the first scene there are three interacting characters— Scarlett O’Hara, a sixteen-year-old Southern belle, and two of her many beaus, Brent and Stuart Tarleton.
It seems like an ordinary social call, but all the characters start off with agendas. Scarlett prides herself in being a popular girl with lots of beaus, and she doesn’t want to lose any one of the beaus to the other girls. She flirts with the Tarleton twins even though she has no intention of marrying either one, since her heart is set on her neighbor, Ashley Wilkes.
Brent and Stuart want to rise in Scarlett’s estimation and become the chief members of Scarlett’s string of beaus. They probably have a vague idea that in time one or the other of them will propose marriage to Scarlett and she will accept. But the boys haven’t thought far enough ahead to even figure out that they can’t BOTH marry her and that this fact is likely to lead to a future conflict between the brothers.
Brent and Stuart have an immediate goal in the scene. A barbecue at the Wilkes plantation will be held the next day. There will be dancing, and the boys want Scarlett to promise them as many dances as socially possible.
Scarlett doesn’t want to give the boys the encouragement of too many dances. She has lots of other beaus she wants to dance with. And she wants to spend time with Ashley, the man she believes is her One True Love.
The Tarleton boys have a secret, though. They’ve previously visited the Wilkes plantation and were told a secret: Ashley’s cousin Melanie Hamilton will be at the barbecue, and the Wilkes family intends to announce the engagement of Ashley to his cousin Melanie.
Brent and Stuart think that revealing this will get them what they want— Scarlett’s attention. Girls like to know secrets, and they love hearing gossip about who is getting engaged, especially when they hear it before it becomes common knowledge. Surely this will win them lots of dances and attention from Scarlett at the barbecue!
But because Scarlett loves Ashley, she is distraught. It can’t possibly be true! Her attention has turned firmly away from the Tarleton boys. She absently promises them dances and other attention at the barbecue, but then she leaves without inviting them to dinner, which would have been common good manners.

You can see that it would not require lots of knowledge of real world social interactions in order to write a scene like this. Only a knowledge of what each character in the scene wants— and you, the author, gets to decide that.
Now, you will note that not everything in the scene is normal and typical of social interactions of the period. It is odd for the Tarletons to be chasing the same girl, and it’s odd of Scarlett to accept the brothers both into her circle of beaus. It’s also odd for Scarlett to forget her manners and not invite the boys to stay for dinner. But readers accept that. People don’t always live their lives according to the etiquette books. Because the characters have goals, and they act to further those goals in the scene, their behavior is accepted.

The scene, the first in the book, serves the purpose of introducing the main character, Scarlett, and the major threat to her happiness— her love is apparently about to marry another. This situation is central to the major conflicts of the novel right until the end.

So for writing effective scenes of social interaction, it is more important to know writing rules than the rules of real-world social interaction. And most Aspies with an interest in writing will be able to learn those rules by reading books like James Scott Bell’s book ‘Plot and Structure’ which will help you learn to create plots which follow the three-act structure, which in turn will help you to write valid scenes.

Blogs I’m reading:

Dawn Witzke: Review: A Pius Man by Declan Finn   –  I just finished reading Dawn Witzke’s book last night. An intense dystopian novel with a Catholic touch. And here she’s reviewing Declan Finn’s thriller A Pius Man (Pius like the popes of that name) which basically shoots up the Vatican but in a Catholic-friendly way.

Josephine Corcoran: Ignoring blog commentsJosephine tackles the topic of how the blogger should respond to certain types of blog comments, particularly those on very old posts.


Riding your obsessive interests

Captain_KirkAs a person with Asperger Syndrome, I have Special Interests— obsessive/intense interests in a number of topics. My Special Interests include languages, ancient Roman history, The Walking Dead, and Star Trek.

Right now, especially Star Trek. At an intensity that’s a distraction from my writing work. Which is an on-going problem— it’s hard to plot and write the story I’m supposed to be working on when my mind is buzzing away at a Special Interest.

When I am feeling a Special Interest very intensely, it takes up more of my time. Because my Star Trek interest has been at the top of my mind lately, I’ve been rereading some of the Star Trek novels from my collection. I have a whole bookshelf that is nearly all Star Trek books. This takes up time I should be spending on writing, blogging and housework.

I’ve also been highly tempted to buy new Star Trek novels. I haven’t bought new ones in years. In part because since my father’s death in 2004 there has been no one to go to the bookstore with.  And of the two most recent Trek novels I’ve bought, one was dreadful and the other was so-so. But still, I keep looking on Amazon and sooner or later I may buy.

Special Interests can cost an Aspie a good deal of money— money we mostly don’t have since Aspies have an 80% unemployment rate. One of the tough parts of riding a Special Interest is to say ‘no’ to buying special-interest-related items when the interest is very intense. When this happens I may feel intensely like I ‘need’ certain items— and have less sales resistance to buying them even when they cost too much and I don’t have money to spare.

One thing that helps me is to rate the Special Interest that triggers the desires. A brand-new Special Interest does not warrant purchases, because the interest may fade quickly and may not recur for years. With a lifelong Special Interest such as Star Trek, a few modest purchases may be justified.

Others are harder to figure. With my interest in languages the problem is that I like to try new languages, but don’t know how interested I will be in them in the future. So I go for free audio language lessons from Book2 with a new language and tell myself when I’ve completed the lessons then I can buy something related to that language.

As a writer there is one way to keep a Special Interest from becoming a distraction— use the Special Interest that is obsessing you in the story. Herman Melville did that when he wrote Moby Dick— he gave us a lot of information about whaling and the life at sea in the book.

Of course if you are writing an Amish romance, it may be difficult to work a science fictional Special Interest into the story. Your current interest may not be something you can incorporate into the story. But you might be able to use your Special Interest as a reward when you have completed your writing quotas for the day.

Another trick might be to try to reactivate a previous Special Interest which DOES fit your story. How might you do this? Well, here’s an example: I currently have one writing project which is set in Russia. The Russian language has been one of my Special Interests, on and off, since my late teens. Doing a little work with Russian language tapes or listening to online radio from Russia might ramp up that particular Special Interest, and that might keep my interest on the story a bit more.

The worst temptation for an Aspie Writer when the Special Interest bug bites is to drop the current writing project for a new, more compatible one. I almost did that a couple of days last month, when instead of working on my current project I did some planning/outlining for a starship-based science fiction story which was compatible with my Star Trek obsession. But today my plans are to be a good girl and work on my proper project— mainly doing planning/outlining since I didn’t do quite enough of that before beginning.

Question: do you have Special Interests or other obsessions which can be a distraction from your writing/blogging? How do you cope?

Was Emily Dickinson an Aspie?


Emily Dickinson— who knew she was a hot chick?

There is a scene in the 1930 film ‘Freaks’ when some circus freaks welcome a ‘normal’ person to their midst by chanting “One of us, one of us, gooble-gabble, gooble, gabble, one of us!” And that is exactly what I feel like chanting whenever I hear that some famous or interesting person may have had Asperger’s Syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve recently come across info that Emily Dickinson may have been ‘one of us, gooble-gabble,’ and it means a lot to me because I’ve only recently started to read Miss Dickinson’s poems in a Dover Thrift Edition. And they are not only good, they are better than good— they are weird. Here’s a sample:

“I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.”

That is just the sort of thing that makes Miss Dickinson into my new poetic role model. And when I went to just now to get the link (above) for the Dover Thrift Edition I already have the b-st-rds showed me a complete edition of Miss Dickinson’s work which I am now totally lusting after but can’t afford since I just ordered a second-hand book of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems and I like his name because it has two ‘Yev’s in it so I had to buy it….

OK, where was I? Oh, Emily Dickinson, Aspie poet. I don’t know enough about her life to evaluate her status as Aspie or neurotypical, but I do like her work. Maybe you might, too. Or some friend of yours, newly diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or Aspergers, might appreciate a copy of Emily’s poems as a gift. (See, I’m calling her Emily now, next thing I’ll be asking her to my house. Even though she’s dead.)

A lot of us modern poets are a bit afraid to get into poets from the age of rhyme and meter, but you will find many treasures there if you give it a chance. Because good writing is always worth a look.

The Asperger Writer and Executive Function Deficit

Look, Serbian cattle!

Look, Serbian cattle!

‘Writer’ is one of the careers mentioned for people with Asperger Syndrome in one of my books about the disorder. Yet why don’t I have more success in getting my writing projects finished? Executive function deficit, AKA executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction is a fancy way to describe some traits we Aspies have. We can be chronically disorganized, easily distracted, have difficulty making and carrying out plans to get a complex task done, we are constantly ‘a day late and a dollar short’ as my Dad used to say…. Much like people with AD/HD, we can have severe problems in getting tasks done. And the world is none too tolerant of this deficit— one reason that around 80% of Aspies are unemployed.

Workplace accomodation: Employers don’t expect their wheelchair-bound employees to run up and down a staircase during the course of their workday. They don’t expect their blind employees to sort objects by color or other visual cues. In the same way, employers should be prepared to accommodate Aspie employees by limiting the amount of tasks requiring high levels of executive function that the employee must perform (and giving him extra tasks of the sort he’s good at), and by breaking down complex assignments into smaller  parts. (It is of course legitimate for an employer to not hire an Aspie with poor executive function for jobs that are nothing but executive function tasks, just as they needn’t hire the blind man to work in the color-sorting department.)

I believe that we Aspies can become excellent writers in spite of our executive dysfunction. Because our brains work in a different way, our stories can have unique qualities. We can use our obsessive Special Interests to master topics related to our stories, making those stories richer. (Think of Herman Melville, the Aspie author of Moby Dick. His Special Interests in whaling and the sea made Moby Dick what it is today— a book well worth repeated reading, if you haven’t had it spoiled for you by being forced to read it in school.)

Each Aspie is different, and our executive function deficits are different. Here is my assignment: grab a writing instrument and something to write on (I recommend paper and pen over chisel and stone wall, but whatever works for you), and write down some issues in your writing life that may be affected by executive dysfunction. To help you get started (and to give my page trolls something criticize me about), here is my list:

  • My messy writing area. I have had a pile of papers on the left side of my desk for years, that I dare not disturb, because then I won’t be able to find stuff. I haven’t looked at the bottom of that pile in over a year, and there may be some paper in the pile that ought to be thrown out. There are books on my writing desk. Some are urgently needed reference books, like my thesaurus and my KJV Bible and my Strong’s Concordance and my Esperanto dictionary. Others were part of long-abandoned projects, and one or two should even be given to Goodwill rather than cluttering up my home.
  • Disorganized way of handling writing project related papers. A writing project generates papers— notes, print-outs of internet research, lists of characters or story events. For my most recent project, I have papers in three places, and some stuff still in my computer that needs printing out. I have in the past lost important notes about a writing project and never found them again.
  • Mental disorganization about the steps to writing a novel, novella or short story. Poetry is easy. I can hold all of a short poem in my head. In some cases I’ve done two or three revisions of a poem in my head before I ever wrote the poem down. But longer writing projects can’t be held in the head like that. My story writing is wildly disorganized and I often generate tons of character lists, scene lists, and actual scenes to the point that I’m paralyzed at the prospect of organizing it into anything resembling coherent fiction.
  • Everyday life disorganizations. Or, how can you sit down and work on your novel when the sheep have escaped? Being disorganized about your essential daily tasks means those tasks take longer than they need to, and this will cut into your writing time.

Once you’ve made your own list, how do you fix things? Don’t do it all at once. Just identify one little thing that you could do to improve your performance, and do it.

What if you don’t know what to do, or the things you’ve tried don’t work? You might try reading books aimed at adults with AD/HD, particularly ones on organizing. I’ve found some great suggestions that help, sometimes. (I let the new organizing systems get cluttered over time— I must schedule weekly cleanups and cleanouts to keep this from happening.)

Do you have an executive dysfunction, whether from Asperger Syndrome, AD/HD or some other cause? What problems does it cause in your writing life? What methods have you used to cope? Drop me a comment and tell your story (briefly, if possible).