Hello all and welcome to my new blog series Mental Health in Fiction! If you have been following me for a while, you might remember a similar series that I had going for several months last year called Neurodivergence in Fiction. I had a ton of fun and was honored to share tons of fantastic articles from some really great authors. If you didn’t catch any of those at that time, they can all be found here.
I’ve really been missing the series and wanted to come back to it, but I wanted to make it a little broader and have it cover all of mental health and not just what is labelled as ND, so Mental Health in Fiction was born. Every Wednesday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be sharing an article written by a guest author. I’m happy to have you along for the ride.
For today’s post, I’m so thrilled to be sharing an article from Darby Harm, author of the Everserse series!
If you go back and look at my first novel now – I don’t recommend it – you’ll discover a confused, anguished mess. Though The Book of Elizabeth contains ideas and characters I still love, writing the book felt like wrestling a bear. Every story did until just a few years ago. Ideas looped in on ideas. Scenes twisted into other scenes. Characters blurred together. I didn’t realize where my frustration lay until I learned at the age of forty-two that I was autistic. That changed my life and my craft in profound ways I’m still trying to process.
I struggle with linear thought. Everything is parenthetical, branching off, growing in, looping, and lacing to the point the original idea gets lost in the hedges. I interrupt myself in the middle of a sentence to start another one. This was my writing and in many ways my life, looking back on it. I never knew this was happening, or the utter damage it did to crafting any kind of narrative. Once I began to recognize this, it didn’t immediately translate into success in my writing. A consequence of this thorn bush thought tangle I experience is very little becomes actionable very quickly in my life.
Only in the last year have I been able to see how my thoughts get stuck on sound, an image, or just a concept that I repeat over and over. Some of this I realize now is stimming, especially with music and the sound of voices. Voice motivates me more than anything in my fiction. At least some of my success, if there is any, emerges from endlessly repeating what people say until the rhythm of their voices becomes a map. After a while, I know the path well enough to leave and get back.
I didn’t immediately connect my success in crafting voices to being autistic, or that there was a path I had already forged that could lead me to more productive places elsewhere in my craft. Once I did, once I understood it was about slowing down all the ideas, scenes, and thoughts vining into hundreds of others, I became conscious in a way I never was before.
I struggled with the idea I was autistic. I had, like many people do, poor ideas of what being autistic means. I thought because I was creative and in some respects highly emotional, I simply couldn’t be. I internalized decades of ableism. That trapped me in a moment that went on for years. The problem was just me. I’ve been writing since I was four or five years old. My only ambition in life – save being an astronaut – was to write. I went to the University of Iowa. Trinity College in Dublin. I sold my first novel in 2007. What was wrong? I just wasn’t talented enough. I didn’t have it. I couldn’t be a great writer, or tie my shoes, or pick out clothes with any ease.
I didn’t work.
When I started writing Ever The Hero in 2016, I began in the third person. By this point, I knew I was autistic. Kit Baldwin, the main character of the first book and the series, became my avatar. I work things out in my writing, but I began to realize around 2018 that things weren’t working. The story was there, Kit was there, but she wasn’t coming through. I wasn’t. I kept feeling as though Kit wanted to speak and so one day without much thought I started writing the first paragraph in first person. And there she was. There I was. In the first paragraph, she simply voices what I hadn’t been able to say:
I don’t work.
The experience proved utterly liberating. Not only did Kit’s voice instantly and effortlessly convey in a few sentences what the book labored to say in a few hundred pages, but I also gained an awareness I didn’t have before. Her sentiment reflects an internalized ableism that I regret now in some ways, though it’s honest to her experience and mine. But I had to find that thought and voice and acknowledge it before I could go forward.
One reason I struggled in third person for so long is that I tried to achieve some authorial voice like the authors I admire. But Virginia Woolf or Kelly Link speak with authority because they have clarity. I don’t have any. I don’t hear myself in my head when I think; I hear other people. Even writing this essay challenges me, because I read it and don’t hear or see myself. I just see gibberish. A broken radio.
Voices run in my head like music. I play songs over and over and over again. Dialogue runs in my head over and over and over again. What authority could I bring to something I couldn’t control? Once I stopped fighting myself, and embraced the beautiful chaos in my head, listening became more than just repeating. Listening became embodying and liberating. Kit’s voice set me free, as did Valene’s, and Abi’s in later books.
Between that moment and now, I focused very hard on learning to slow down and listen. Experience. I perceived my work as mitigating in some sense my autistic tendency to vine everything like Maleficent does the forest at the end of Sleeping Beauty. Lately, as I’ve become more comfortable with who I am, I’ve let the vines back in a little. In Ever The Hero, Kit discovers a powerful alien device called The Myriad. It once belonged to a mysterious cosmic entity called The Ever. The Ever goes around the universe and beyond, accruing and absorbing people, bottling them in this strange jar inside its chest.
Kit fuses with the Myriad. She becomes The Ever. She hears the voices of billions of people. She fights them for control of her own mind and body. She experiences their memories as if they were her own, her thoughts branching into theirs in ways she struggles to avoid. My early attempts at this in the book feel wanting now. I was only at the beginning of my understanding when I wrote the book. The Ever clearly reflects a desire to understand myself, and continues to in ways I hope are more successful. Kit spends most of her time fighting and denying The Ever, the voices, the infinite distraction within her.
She gains wisdom, as I have, in doing this. But in my most recent writing, I’ve become less afraid of myself. More appreciative. Kit has, too. She grows to accept and acknowledge her inherent beauty. The singular mystery that is her mind and spirit. More and more, I want to embrace what makes me unique. I want to let my craft grow along the lines it follows.
Earlier, I said I have no voice. This isn’t entirely true. I do have a voice, and I think I am closer to finding it now than ever before. My voice is not typical or expected, and I don’t surface it by pruning branches. I need to listen. I need to hear. I need to let my voice come to me and let it go through me to the page, where if I’m lucky, others will hear it.
You can purchase Ever the Hero, as well as Darby’s other books, here!
About the Author
I’m an autistic writer living in Iowa with credits in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Shimmer, and other venues. Publisher’s Weekly called my novel Ever The Hero “an entertaining debut uses super powers as a metaphor to delve into class politics in an alternate America.”
Author website: www.darbyharn.com
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