Writing is Communication Too

If you get a group of writers together, on the internet or in a workshop, someone will eventually ask the ultimate navel-gazing question: why do we write?

My stock answer–the one that’s easiest to explain and makes me look least weird–is that I write because I enjoy it. There’s nothing like the rush of chasing an idea, my fingers flying across the keyboard, barely able to keep pace with my thoughts. There’s no other activity I can get so completely lost in.

That answer saves me from having to reveal this: I write to set the words in my head free.

My brain latches onto interesting ideas in a way that makes it hard to stop thinking about them. Once something grabs my attention, my mind will turn it around and around, shaping and growing it like a vase on a potter’s wheel. Writing the idea down stops the rapid spinning of the wheel and leaves me with the equivalent of a finished vase I can share with other people instead of a hard lump of clay sitting in my brain.

Shaping an idea in my head feels like this:

Ultimately, I write because I need to. I communicate better through written words than spoken words. When I write, I can take as much time as I like to shape my thoughts into a coherent whole. I can get feedback from others to check for clarity. I can let an idea breathe and grow over days or weeks.

The process is something like this: Write. Revise. Reconsider. Delete. Edit. Clarify. Rethink. Shape. Walk away. Come back. Write more. Think more. Print it. Read it. Share it. Revise, revise, revise. Done. Mmm, maybe just change that word. Or this one. Okay, really done. Yeah? Yeah.

Doing this in a spoken conversation is impossible. There’s no delete button for spoken words. Revising, in the form of explanations and clarifications, is rarely successful. Once you say something, it’s out there in a way that is, ironically, indelible.

Communication Deficit or Communication Difference

So do I have a communication deficit? (one of the core diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s)

That may depend on how we define communication. You could argue that writing is a one-way process. I carefully shape my idea and put it out there, feeling quite content with how it looks and feels, and then I go on my merry way, chasing another bright shiny idea.

It’s all very neat and tidy. It’s also very autistic. What could be more characteristic of an aspie than a one-way information dump followed by a determined retreat back inside my head to ponder the mysteries of the universe, or at least the mystery of why someone keeps leaving sandwiches on the sidewalk of one particular street where I walk my dog?

But, short of a mind meld, writing is my best shot at sharing what I want to say. I could talk all day and not get across half of what I can communicate in writing. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve shared things with my family–in writing–that we’ve never talked about. Big important things and little niggling things, all of them left unspoken, sometimes for many years.

The result has been anything but one-way. Sharing my thoughts in writing creates an opening for others to start conversations, to ask questions, to offer insights and to share their own thoughts. This is communication–deep, fulfilling, nontraditional communication–in a way that I’ve rarely experienced.

It feels so good to share something with my husband and see a light of understanding in his eyes. It’s done wonders for our relationship to revisit past hurts and misunderstandings in a fresh light. There’s a new level of understanding opening up and I think it’s because I’m finally able to communicate, really communicate, how I experience and process the world around me.

I’ve also discovered that writing is a way to communicate with myself. The process of exploring Asperger’s is helping me integrate disparate parts of myself into a whole. It’s creating a map of my inner landscape in a way that is profoundly healing and empowering.

Perhaps this is what I meant when I said I write because I need to. Writing connects me to those around me, and it connects me to myself.

Once a Writer, Always a Writer

This is one the first things I ever wrote, when I was seven. I remember hearing my mother telling parts of this election day story to someone and deciding that I wanted to make it into a book. I still have it, in all its stained, stapled glory, and thought it would be fun to share.

If you look closely enough at these pages, you’ll see my aspie traits shining through. Note the atrocious handwriting.
Aspie trait #2: oddly advanced vocabulary and syntax for a 7-year-old (quite puzzled, indeed)
I have a feeling a lot of this writing is actually echolalia (the repetition of another person’s words, which is common to kids with ASD) and I was mimicking my mother’s telling of the story to another adult.
More aspie traits: a pedantic approach to social situations and a rigid adherence to the rules (going out the “in” door! *gasp*). I was also a pretty funny little kid, no?

27 thoughts on “Writing is Communication Too”

  1. This is one of the best explanations for why writing in the blogosphere and other similar venues is so satisfying! Yes, to the “write to get the words out of my head” reasoning. That’s wonderful that you have some of your childhood writing to look back on…amazing what you can deduce now about the child you were then.

    1. Thank you! I think a lot of us write to get the words out. And thanks to the internet, we can share those words with others who have similar interests. It’s interesting to look back at things like the few school papers and report cards that I have and see them through the lens of Asperger’s. A lot of the signs are there, but I suspect even if I was a kid today I might have slipped through the cracks in school and not been diagnosed.

      1. Writing is like carving statues out of wood. Speaking is like throwing knives at a tree. My aim isn’t always very good.

        Well, my carving isn’t always either. 😀

  2. I often don’t know how I feel until I begin writing – so it’s been a crucial part of my marriage to an NT to be able to write to him things I need to get across. It started out feeling, for him, a one way type of communication, but it ended up really helping us immensely. In any kind of tense situation I usually just get overwrought, I can’t think of what I want to say, and I’m angry on top of it so it’s a mess. But if I write to him, THEN we talk about it – we can work it out. Writing is also what helps me process anything complicated, so it’s helped me figure out various issues in my life that I could THINK about until I made myself sick, but couldn’t actually figure out until I had it down on paper. Nice and neatly. Of course 😉

    1. This is great to hear. I also shut down and have a lot of trouble verbalizing when I’m upset. I haven’t tried writing in those situations but perhaps I should. I’m so happy to hear that you were able to work things out for yourself by writing. I’ve been amazed at how much I’m learning about myself through this process.

  3. Yes, it’s easier in writing. For me, it was quite a revelation to discover that people “got it” when I wrote it out.

    Eventually, I tackled fiction writing to see if I could both figure out real people and could write characters that seemed real to readers. On that, I was both successful and not: most people found my characters believable enough to get caught up in the plot and to want to read more. However, I received lots of letters that asked me to explain motivations because people felt that there was something they didn’t quite get. And, I discovered that many people had assessments of those characters, and explanations of why the characters did what they did, that were quite different than mine. (OK, they seemed totally weird by my lights.)

    I’ve never had trouble with non-fiction, though. I always placed what I wrote during my working years. Every year or so now I still write something for placement, just to prove to myself that I can do it. Also, I edit other writers, and am amused to discover that I’m the one urging a writer to spend more time on the internal states of her characters instead of plot or dialogue. Guess I learned something over the years!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’ve written some fiction and often have the same reactions that you do. People sometimes point out that a key character motivation is missing or I’ve made an inexplicable leap, even though it seemed perfectly clear to me when I wrote it. But I do think that writing fiction is a good way to explore how people “tick” and to play with various social or relationship scenarios.

  4. This is the best thing I have read about the power of writing. I love the clay metaphor, that is very accurate. I also love that you point out that although writing in itself is one-way communication, the result is anything but a monologue when writing online. Precisely.

    And how writing something and showing it to people can create understanding that can’t be achieved with face to face communication. I have done just that recently, and it made a huge difference – not because the person couldn’t understand me before, but because it gave me the chance to communicate a layered complexity I could never have built up in speech. (I’m working on a post about that)

    All that you say about the reasons it is easier to express things in writing – the writing phases and how you can’t delete spoken words are so very much true too! Really, really good post, Thanks so much for writing this!

  5. but I disagree that your child-handwriting is atrocious. I think it is pretty good for a 7 yo kid… Regular, clear, easy to read… especially since this is the first piece you wrote. Mine was very similar in tat age.

    1. The sad part is that my handwriting today hasn’t progressed much beyond what you see there and at times is considerably worse. If I have to write something that another person will need to read, I write at about half my normal speed to make it legible.

      1. That does sound bad. The handwriting you show above is expectably for a kid, but not an adult. I am guessing you are happy that handwriting is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Except for the occasional short note or message:-)

        1. I’m glad handwriting isn’t used much anymore either. When I had to take essay exams recently for college classes, I spent as much time fretting over whether professors would be able to read my answers as I did about whether the answers were correct!

      2. It is of course crucial that they can read it. Beyond that, a handwritten exam is a situation where atrocious handwriting is acceptable because people are focussed on content, nervous, hurried et.c. I can write stylish when I’m up to it, but not in exams due to nerves, content-focus, rush et.c. so I focus on answering first and then go back and re-write ineligible words in the margins with an arrow to the word they are clarifying before turning it in (not just handwriting but also mistakes and ambiguity). It looks like crap, but it is unreasonable to expect people to focus on handwriting in an exam situation.

  6. Speaking to communicate, while I can do it, has never been easy and I can never really say what I mean. My pen is my voice, though I’ve never shared it with anyone much. I write stories, but that’s about the only thing I share with anyone; I’m never sure how to approach people about talking about things, even when I know there’s something I need to talk about. Any advice?

    1. Hmmm, I find initiating conversations very difficult too, especially if I have too much time to think about it in advance. I usually just barge right in with whatever it is I want to talk about. I have noticed that other people will open with lines like “Do you have a minute to talk about something?” or “I’d like to get your input on something” or even “I’ve been thinking about _____” I guess those are more soft openers for conversations, a way to let the other person know that you’d like their attention and an exchange of ideas.

  7. Wow, another great post. I’m slowly making my way through all of the old posts and topic-subjects. There are so many levels. It’s like this wonderful labyrinth of wisdom.

    Your description of writing as communication is so right on for me. I love the way you describe it as like a vase on a potters wheel. This is very much the way that I write as well, and why I write. It’s the most powerful and clear way I have to articulate what I am trying to say. That which seems to stick to my lips if I try to speak what is in my head in words.

    I can know what I want to say in my head. Have read the subject through and through, but when it comes time to share it, I can oft times come out sounding like one of those metronome clocks sitting on the desk, and if only I sounded as steady as that. The monotone parts is where I mirror the metronome. The making sense as I am trying to talk can get lost in my grasping for words and ideas to share what I know, and am trying to express with clarity, what is so important, so poignant in my heart, but which somehow gets lost in translation. Instead of sharing my heartfelt passion for something, sharing how important it is to me, how important the subject could be to the person, or a community, what comes across is flat affect. I sound like I’m a TV commercial for No Doze. You would have no clue that I am trying to share something that means so much. I realize as I am typing this that I’d never fully understood this until now. How much this has been an issue for me. That what I was expressing outwardly often never matched how I was feeling inside. That always confused me so much and I could never understand why that was. It was like a can of soda with all this fizz, and then when you poured it out, pouf!!! What happened to all the fizz (carbonation)?

    I read something in one of the posts yesterday related to an internal ache, and that’s a good description for how it feels. I’d never been able to identify it before now. It was this fleeting thing I was trying to grasp. How I would feel something inside, intensely, but when it came time to express it out loud, I sounded like I was commenting on the weather. It was like all of the passion and emotion dried up between what I was trying to say, and the actual words. I can see that now, and see that it is somehow a part of the communication challenges having to do with being an Aspie. I don’t know exactly what it is, if it has a name, but I can see it is somehow related to communication challenges. Another awareness moment.

    It’s again why, as you shared, I can write and take that lump of clay, and turn it into something that does come closer to expressing and sharing what I am trying to convey, and hopefully succeed. Writing is where I connect the deepest. It’s where I share and then read it again later and think where did that come from???

    As you said, I have the ability to read, edit, and revise so that I can be as clear as possible. And having said that I know that even with the written word I can’t always convey what I am trying to share, and that sometimes despite my best intentions and efforts, I can be misunderstood. Something gets lost in translation. But it is still the best and most effective way for me to express and most often I am able to get across what I am trying to say.

    I totally agree too that some of my deepest aha moments come when I write because I am putting my thoughts to paper – even if it is electronic paper. In those moments it’s like I’ve turned on a light in the attic and things come to light that I had not seen or maybe understood before.

    My hope too as that as I sit down with our kids to share this diagnosis, they will choose to come to this blog and others that I value and trust and glean something from all of the wonderful sharing that is taking place through the written word here. I plan to share with them in that way as well.

    Your cute story from childhood could have been my own writing and style of speaking at that age. I still have terrible handwriting and wonder if I am dealing with Dysgraphia or Dyspraxia in addition to being an Aspie. I have a brother with Dyslexia, and a nephew with the other two conditions mentioned above.

    So much of value here. Thank you.

    1. This is an incredibly painful post to come back to because I’ve lost so much of my writing ability since this time and that is the biggest ache of all right now.

      At any rate, I hope that you’re children are interested in learning more. If they’re only moderately interested, I have an “essential reading” section that lists key posts for people who don’t want to read 500k words. My own daughter turned out to be very much interested and has done a lot of research on her own too. She also shares my blog with pretty much everyone she knows and people she works with and her friends have come to see her as a resource now, which is great.

      I think the handwriting thing is probably related to our general motor skills problems (which are very common in autistic people of all ages), though I suppose dysgraphia is a fancy, specific way of saying that anyhow. 🙂

      1. Thanks, I will keep in mind what you said about the 500k words. I am putting together a resource list for them and they can pick and choose what fits for the moment and come back to other things. Musings is definitely at the top of my list as a resource for them.

        I’m sorry that it has gotten so much worse. Sending TLC thoughts ❤

        1. Wow! I just looked at the Essential Reading section. It’s fantastic! Thank you for putting that together and organizing it so well. I know this will be a great resource for for kids and family, and everyone else that I plan to send to Musings . . . when I begin publicly sharing outside of this blog. You rock!!! 🙂

  8. ” I communicate better through written words than spoken words. When I write, I can take as much time as I like to shape my thoughts into a coherent whole. ”

    You took the words right out of my mouth.
    I have a difficult time just getting a coherent sentence uttered in verbal communication- and the more stressed, overloaded, or exhausted I am the more difficult speech becomes. I don’t know how bad I did this as a kid, but I have seen video and audio of myself in the last 2 years and so much of it is full of stammering, stuttering, slurring and garbling just about every other word I say… And if I manage to pronounce it right, I am probably not using the right word… Even simpler words like “and, but, the” and short phrases ” I went into the yard ” tend to get lost somewhere between brain and mouth.
    I also tend to garble my words in writing-especially hand written word. Auto-fill and spell check are my best friends.
    Speaking of writing- I had atrocious handwriting well into middle school…

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