Lost in Translation

My language pains me.
I long for facility
To spin metaphor.

But I’m too literal.

Even when I write in terms of imagery my words on the page are simply descriptive of what is in my mind. I listen to songs like I am the Walrus with a strong sense of jealousy.

How I would love to be able to take that step beyond my literal translations to that fantastic realm where instead of painting what I see I am able to conjure whole new worlds.

It makes me feel that I have no imagination; that everything I think of is derivative. I am only able to assemble montages of what already exists, apply what others have invented.

My words disappoint me because they are such a pale imitation of the richness and depth of my thoughts. They are static, a snapshot of the mental maelstrom giving no clue as to the turbulence within.

Translating Passion

I have a deep connexion to the written word. The art of writing is one of my great pleasures in life, reading is another. Words are little parcels of meaning and reading one unwraps the gift to reveal a glittering treasure of ideas. Each one is a seed that takes root in the mind, growing and bringing forth sweet fruit.

When I write I use words to build a representation of my mind state. It’s not a simple, mechanical process although experience has made it largely effortless; it’s a creative endeavor in which I use my feelings and mental images as the template through which I shape a story.

I never start with an outline or any structural plan for what I intend to write: inside my mind there is no such linear organization. The ideas exist as a single entity, a gestalt. I see and feel the whole at once, aware of each part but much more aware of how their combination results in meaning that transcends any simple arithmetic of combination.

Words are pigments and brush strokes; the page is my canvas and I paint what is inside my mind, producing an imperfect representation in my drive to express my thoughts. I cannot hope to portray every detail, the intricate richness of what I see behind my eyes. Instead I strive to present a faithful impression, a sketch. To indicate through hints the underlying shape. To provide the dots that my reader can join in their own mind.

Writing is immensely emotive. These elements from my mind that I translate via my keyboard can be painfully intense, carrying as they do a wealth of emotional association. Analogy and visual metaphor have their roots in these feelings: they are the manifestation of my visceral, physical responses to stimuli via the vision-oriented functioning of my brain.

Sometimes it feels as if the ideas themselves are alive within my mind and it is they who strive to be heard through me. The act of writing becomes one of observing as they flow out onto the page. My hopes and fears, loves and loathings want to be heard and they tumble out as I watch, lost in the ecstatic bliss of creative release. To simply call writing a passion falls short: it is far more important to me than that.

#My Writing Process Blog Hop

A couple of weeks ago I received a message from my lovely friend Renee Salas inviting me to take part in this blog hop. I was very interested and not a little flattered to be invited to add my piece alongside such writers as Cynthia Kim, Michael Monje Jr., Sparrow Rose Jones and many others whom I hold in high regard. Renee reassured me that I was worthy of inclusion, so here is my description of my writing process.

What Am I Working On?

The main things that occupy my time are my day job as a software developer and caring for my wife, Anne. Unfortunately there are too few hours in the day for me to devote as much time as I would like to other pursuits.

I am likely unusual in that I do not have writing projects that stretch over much time: I believe a few days is the longest I have ever worked on a single piece. That said, I do have a couple of pieces scheduled over the coming months. One is for an anthology about the impact of the internet on being trans. The other is user documentation for an application I developed. Quite a contrast, I know.

I am also starting to work on expressing myself visually through drawing and painting as a way to complement the images I set down in words.

How Does My Work Differ From Others in the Genre?

I am far from the only person writing about personal experiences, but my combination of autism and gender dysphoria does give me an unusual perspective. I write both prose and poetry; my prose is often poetic in its imagery, which is a consequence of being visually-oriented in my thinking. I like to think I have my own style of expression, a fingerprint that identifies my written voice.

One thing that has struck me since I first began to read others’ writings about autism is how much we have in common in the way we experience the world. Surely this is the source of the strength in our community.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

I had been writing for many years before I ever started publishing my words on a blog. It began as a form of therapy, a way to express and release the thoughts that swirled around my mind, distracting me from everyday functions. I progressed from handwritten journals to typing, and from there to here was but a short step.

It wasn’t long after I began blogging before I started to receive comments from autistic readers who drew parallels between my accounts and their own experiences. I realized that simply by documenting events from my own life I was helping others feel that there was somebody else with whom they had things in common: the same response I felt myself on reading what other autistic authors had written.

I made a decision that I would try to promote understanding of autism through my writing. My goal is acceptance of neurodiversity, and recently I have added gender variance as well.

As for choosing my subjects, well that is difficult to explain. I have no tactical plan, no list of topics that I intend to cover. Which leads to…

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

I write, so I guess whatever my process is it works. For the most part I find I am inspired by a particular event in my life that highlights an aspect of autism or gender non-conformity. Or else I might draw inspiration from a conversation with a friend, or reading others’ writing.

Whatever the source I will find myself with a concept crystallizing from the solution of thoughts and feelings within my mind. Once that happens it is just a matter of shaping words into a facsimile of my mental construct. Sometimes this feels more natural in the form of poetry.

Ideas crystallize,
The shapeless given form,
Nebulae collapsing
As bright stars come to life.

End of Line

I’m afraid that this particular branch of this Blog Hop must end here. No excuses. I simply put off contacting potential contributors until events in my life conspired to distract me from the task, until the deadline loomed too close to avoid.

Instead I will simply point you in the direction of the writers I linked to in my opening paragraph. All of them are writers I hold in high regard and I hope that if you are not familiar with their works you will take this opportunity to introduce yourself.

A Changing View of Language

I’m selective when it comes to slang; some words I take an instant dislike to, others grow on me. Who remembers rad from the 80’s? Does anybody still use the word to mean excellent? My brother and his friends picked it up very quickly at the time but I always hated it – an abbreviation and slang. Never! I will speak properly, thank you very much. Yes, I was more than a little pedantic as a child when it came to language and its usage.

Some aspects of that persist to this day. I make an effort to use specific words to convey nuanced meaning. I often feel frustrated when I am unable to recall the word for a particular concept. And, as I might have mentioned in an earlier post, I have been known to correct spelling and grammar on notices and suchlike. Obvious errors such as their/there, its/it’s and misplaced punctuation.

Spelling and grammar were drummed into me at school; I developed a view of the English language (the Queen’s English as it was named in several books) as having One True Way that was fixed and inviolate for all time. Grammar was a set of rules that formally defined sentence structure and, of course, rules must never be broken.

What happened between then and now? I slowly came to understand that this codification of language was incomplete and (shock!) not completely accurate. That wasn’t all: I also began to harbor the heretical belief that these rules obscured the truth that any language in current use is not static, that it is changing and evolving. The language is what people are using every day, not some idealized model locked away in a dusty tome.

So now I have reached the stage where I consider language to be a tool. The once-sacrosanct rules of grammar are now just a set of guidelines, advisory rather than prescriptive. The purpose of language is to transmit information, to allow one person to move an idea from inside their own head into the heads of other people. Accuracy is important – I want others to see the same mental pictures as I do, and to achieve this requires following the conventionally-understood meanings of words and phrases.

Spelling and grammar are not unimportant – they fulfill the function of improving clarity and comprehension. Errors introduce noise that obscures the message. If there are multiple interpretations of what I write or say then my meaning becomes unclear. Following the accepted conventions of language usage makes the job of the reader or listener easier.

So I no longer feel uncomfortable when I begin a sentence with a preposition. I feel free to occasionally split my infinitives. Slavishly following grammatical rules actually harms clarity because the words do not flow as naturally. Spelling is another aspect – on this blog I tend towards American English spellings because they will be more familiar to the majority of my audience. I am equally comfortable with either variant. I mostly avoid slang and jargon terms because they may be unfamiliar to some people; likewise I try to avoid terms that mean different things in different variants of English. Always be aware of your audience.

Say what you mean. Sound natural. Be accurate, clear and concise. Like any tool, language must be wielded with a degree of skill. Part of that skill is an awareness of the boundaries, without which your meaning fractures into myriad facets, each reflecting a part of the original but combining into a kaleidoscopic confusion of possible messages.

Filling in the Blanks

“Yeah, mumble mumble last night mumble mumble meal mumble Friday?” Oops. You just asked me something. What did you just say? Well, based on what you were talking about before – the bits I managed to catch – I guess you just asked me if I want to go out for a meal Friday. I’d better see if I’m correct – ask a hopefully relevant question and see what you say: “A meal this Friday? Where?”

At this point I either come across as “normal”, following the conversation, or I just dropped a spanner in the works and confused the heck out of you. And I never know which it’s going to be! The problem is that if there’s any distraction – background noise or movement in particular – then I fail to distinguish the speaker’s voice. I know they’re talking to me, I can see their lips moving and hear sounds, but even concentrating intently I can only interpret the odd word and have to guess the rest from context.

More often than I care to admit somebody will say something to me and I’ll respond with some acknowledgement. It’s several seconds later that I finally work out what they said and can tell whether my response was appropriate. Or whether I just looked stupid again.

See if you can work out the meaning of this short extract. To make things easier I’ve left in most of the nouns:

__________ impairment ___ social _________ stereotyped and restricted patterns ______ activities and interests, and _____ally signi_____lay in cog______opment or general _____ language.

This is from a description of Aspergers Syndrome that I’ve quoted previously. I admit I’ve been selective in the bits I blanked out, but this is only for the purpose of illustration. In a real situation there would be snatches of other conversations interleaved with this one, and the whole would be obscured by background noise:

The thing is, I don’t have hearing problems. I can pick up faint sounds like the clock ticking at home. I score in the average range in hearing tests. But if somebody says something while the TV is on – or there’s music playing or other conversations going on around us – then although I can hear all the sounds, I can’t separate them very well. It’s a problem with processing the sensory input and I find it hard work and very frustrating, so I often keep out of conversations in noisy environments. In fact I prefer to avoid noisy social environments altogether.

With all this it’s no surprise I prefer to communicate in writing – through email, text or similar mechanisms. The words are in front of me, not obscured by noise, and there is no need for an immediate response. I can take the time to compose my reply, re-reading their comment if necessary and thinking of le mot juste – the right word that will exactly convey my intended meaning.

Self-censorship

Censorship. It’s a word with many negative connotations, associated with authoritarian states and restriction of freedom. But on an individual level it is something most people practise without even being aware of it. Things left unsaid. It may an attempt to spare somebody hurt; it may be to avoid leaving oneself open to attack for voicing an unpopular opinion.

Sins of omission. Being unwilling to speak out because of the possible consequences. Is this a bad thing? Does it depend on context? Is it acceptable not to tell somebody something because you feel it may hurt their feelings? Is it unacceptable to keep an opinion to oneself because it differs from the majority view? Or is that simply self-preservation?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I worry that being open and honest in describing how I’m feeling and the difficult times my wife and I are going through might upset or hurt people who care about us. I don’t know the answer to this one. In general I am opposed to censorship and in favour of freedom of speech. But do I have any right to decide to withhold information that could affect other people’s view of me? To offer them an incomplete picture? Doesn’t that equate with dishonesty? I feel uncomfortable if I contemplate offering false information or deliberately omitting details. If the two situations feel the same doesn’t that mean they are the same? I believe they are, at least in my mind.

So I’m left with this conflict between wanting to avoid causing anybody distress and being open. So far I have leaned towards being open. I am aware that this can cause some of my readers to feel sympathetic pain and that is a cause for concern to me. But I believe that to hide the difficult facts and only write about the good times would be misleading. It would give the impression that I live in some ideal, perfect world where nothing bad ever happens. The truth is that like everybody else I face a range of situations, go through highs and lows, triumphs and disasters. I strongly believe that I have to present an accurately balanced account; I try to do so here.

I apologise if anybody has found what I write here to be distressing; that has never been my intention. But that is how life can be at times. Would life’s highs provide such elation were it not for the contrast with the lows?

Expressing Sympathy

How do you tell somebody that you sympathise with them; that you understand what they are going through and just want to do or say something that will help them cope with it and – hopefully – help them feel better?

I have a deep aversion to any reliance on trite stock phrases: “I’m sorry”, “Chin up” and all that. They always strike me as insincere and demonstrative of a lack of thought. I like to try to cast my words in an original way – to make my message personal and unique to the person and situation. And that can create problems for me because I need time to compose my response. It’s so much easier in writing but that doesn’t help at all when you’re face to face with somebody who is telling you how they feel. Dealing with emotional content in conversation requires a lot of effort at any time. So I struggle, end up muttering “Sorry” – if I can say anything at all – and feel bad for not managing to come out with what I wanted to say and falling into the trap of cliché.

Still, I’m as bad on the receiving end. I say “Thank you”. Then I start thinking that that’s not enough – I think it sounds like it’s just an automatic response, without any thought. I worry that the person will think I’m ungrateful or insincere. So I want to expand on it but I can’t easily think of appropriate words on the fly – I end up feeling frustrated with myself on top of whatever it was in the first place! Not the other person’s fault – it’s pressure I put myself under.

It would be so much easier if I didn’t feel when people I care about are troubled – when they are feeling sad or hurt. Most of the time I don’t know what to do to “fix” the problem and that hurts me because I think I’m letting them down. And I can’t say all this to them at the time – I can’t tell them how I feel about their situation. I could write it here but that’s clearly not the same. Are a few muttered stock words like “I’m sorry” backed by my full conviction better than another person’s empty words of reassurance uttered in tones of sincerity? I don’t know. Perhaps the end result is more important than the intent, at least to the listener.

All I can really do is tell them that I care about their situation and I want to help if possible. Would it work if I just said that? Or does it sound like a politician’s response to some disaster? When I run the words through in my mind there’s no emotional inflection – it’s like a string of syllables without any semantic aspect – sounds without meaning, empty. I’m saying what I mean and even I am unconvinced, so how could I convince a person I’m speaking to that I am sincere? Writing is a much more comfortable medium in which to express myself.

Writing My Way To Happiness

Why do I derive such pleasure from writing? It ties in with my special interest in words. It provides a means for me to communicate without speech. But it’s more than that – there’s the joy I get from the creative act of crafting a written work and the release I feel when I am able to express how I feel through this medium.

My first writing, naturally, was at school – “What I Did On Holiday” and the like. I was taught spelling and grammar from the outset and this has stood me in good stead – knowing the rules and conventions allows me to decide when to bend or break them for effect. But it’s not just my scholastic education that has influenced how I write – I’ve also picked up elements of style and structure from works that I’ve read over the years.

I’ve never had much trouble recounting events but imaginative writing has always been a problem – I find it impossible to invent characters and settings and have to fall back on stereotypes – so I avoid writing fiction when I have any choice in the matter. The last time I remember writing a fictional account I was at school – it was a diary entry from the perspective of Rev. Parris while we were studying The Crucible. I chose to concentrate on events from a segment of the play rather than attempting to ascribe feelings to the character, and found the most interesting aspect to be my attempt at recreating the language of the period – special interest strikes again!

I enjoy writing poetry in various forms – the range of constraints within the form offers an interesting challenge – but I worry that I’m not very good at it. It can be a challenging technique to become truly proficient in – I’ve always had difficulty maintaining the rhythm of the prosody because I have trouble determining the appropriate stress and intonation of words in speech. I have a somewhat monotonous tone and rhythm when I speak – I’ve got better at it over the years but it doesn’t come naturally. (My wife sometimes asks me to read to her at night to help her fall asleep.)

None of my essays are what I would describe as long – one English teacher wrote on a school report, “concise but errs on the side of brevity” and I had several similar comments across various subjects over the years. I believe it’s linked to my AS and my lack of small-talk in conversation. I have an innate inability to waffle – I consider this to be a positive trait because I find listening to such talk causes my attention to wander, and I just want to tell the speaker to get to the point!

So, how do I write? I get an idea in mind for a subject – often about myself or something that evokes strong feelings – and just start writing. Sometimes I’m inspired by an article I’ve read; sometimes it’s a way of dealing with my emotional state. Sometimes I drift off topic but I do try to maintain focus. Since I enjoy writing much more than editing, I worry about the end result being a bit rough around the edges – I never spend much time reviewing and polishing. I start at the beginning with no idea how it’s going to end, and keep writing until I’ve included pretty much everything I wanted to cover. I read it through, maybe tweak a couple of words here, a phrase there, and somehow it seems to turn out all right. I can’t really explain my writing process any better than this: I know what I want to convey and the words simply come out.

In some respects it does come easily to me – I can turn my thoughts into words with little effort. But only when writing. And this fluency is another reason I gain pleasure from it, when I contrast it with the hesitancy and mental blocking that afflicts my speech. I find the written word to be a more natural means of communication.