In mid-December, with teeth aching from the sweetness of Hallmark movies and a half-crocheted afghan to complete for Christmas, I changed TV channels in search of a different kind of background noise. That’s how I stumbled across a treasure: the Emmy-award-winning biopic, Temple Grandin.
I wasn’t familiar with Grandin and have since found I’m not alone. Grandin, who is on the spectrum, was born at a time when autism was barely acknowledged let alone managed with any competence or understanding. Still, she rose from an asocial child to autism advocate. Also, a Ph.D. professor of animal husbandry whose designs are used in over half of America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses because they are comparatively humane.
How she did this contains lessons for the struggling writer.
As played by the talented Claire Danes, one of Grandin’s most effective strategies was to focus on gaining competence and experience, which in turn inspired confidence.
For example, having the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family, she used resources that weren’t standard practice, such as speech therapy.
In the private school she attended, she worked hard to explain the science behind a visual distortion, gaining both technical knowledge and the respect of her peers when she was the first to solve the puzzle.
When she couldn’t identify the meaning behind facial expressions, her aunt made visual cue cards and Grandin drilled herself mercilessly until she had them memorized.
She absorbed her mother’s social scripts to handle specific situations, such as meeting someone for the first time.
She plied her unique observational skills during time on a cattle farm, gaining deep understanding of animal behavior and farm mechanics.
Notably, as her competence increased, Grandin’s confidence improved and her meltdowns diminished. (You’ll notice the order of acquisition? Skillset leading to confidence, not the other way around.)
Follow Grandin’s Steps to Gain Writerly Competence
- Invest in education: If you have money, one option is to hire the best mind(s) you can afford to help you gain competence. (An editor or book coach, for example.) Or you could attend relevant workshops, especially intensives that provide personalized and timely feedback on your writing rather than abstract concepts to later apply in solitude.
- On a tighter budget? There are still plenty of DIY options: Milk the expertise in a critique group, obviously doing your part to reciprocate. Study your favorite writers and emulate their techniques. Read craft articles online. Borrow books from the library.
- Whatever you do, ply your trade, which means writing. A lot. Then learn to apply editorial principles to your work.
But what if there is plenty of evidence that you possess the skills already, yet anxiety is crippling your efforts? Or what if you’re willing to work hard but anxiety is getting in the way of an active apprenticeship? Here, too, the movie had suggestions.
Are you a worrier in general? Highly conscientious? If so, much like being on the spectrum, these tend to be stable traits. To some degree you are probably stuck with the symptoms. So stop waiting to feel okay to write. That day is unlikely to arrive.
Write, but learn how to manage your emotions using some options below.
Construct Your Own Squeeze Box
To perform well, we humans need to keep our flight-or-fight hormones within manageable levels. In Grandin’s case, this was essential as one public meltdown could see her expelled from vital opportunities.
Fortunately, while on her aunt’s farm, she made the serendipitous discovery of a “squeeze box,” later re-dubbed the “hug machine.” It was a device which used gentle compression to restrain and calm unruly cattle. Grandin’s human-sized adaptation was strikingly effective in managing meltdown symptoms, though it was initially mistaken for an erotic device and destroyed by her college. (!) It took a scientific experiment, advocacy from allies, plus an open-hearted roommate before Grandin was permitted to use it again.
Alternatives to a Squeeze Box
- Reduce adrenaline, before or during writing spells, through repetitive use of large muscles, such as running in place. (Consult your physician beforehand.)
- Some people use weighted blankets, likening them to the human equivalent of a thunder shirt.
- Conduct a brief meditation session before writing.
- Invoke the scents of home and comfort with aromatherapy.
- Eat healthfully and avoid caffeine.
Search for Allies and Mentors
To a large degree, Grandin built her success upon the support gained from others. Her mother was her first and most powerful advocate—an educated and determined woman who refused to institutionalize her daughter, even when it cost her her marriage.
Besides family, Grandin found allies in her educators and even strangers. So keep an eye peeled for the people who will support you while calling forth your best possible writerly self. Make a list of their names. And if the list is sparse, challenge yourself: what will you do to lengthen it? Will you permit yourself to show vulnerability and ask for guidance?
Mottoes or Touchstones
Grandin’s science teacher unwittingly gave her a touchstone for bravery when he encouraged her to go to college. “Think of it as a door—a door that’s going to open onto a whole new world for you, and all you need to do is decide to go through it.”
When she faced a daunting threshold, Grandin got into the habit of revisiting this imagery.
You, too, can settle on a motto, word or metaphor associated with bravery. (You might recall that I use “Try Sh*t,” which the ToolMaster crafted in playfully scrolled letters that I’ve hung over my office door.)
Want something more private? Use a cue card or put it in your bullet journal.
Take it to Pictures
Grandin processes the world in images, which has the advantage of accessing the preverbal, reptilian part of the brain. Supposedly this leads to faster, more intuitive, and more creative solutions.
Follow in her footsteps by:
- Making a list of times you have been brave before. (Ideally, make it specific to writing, such as the time you entered a contest, gave your first reading, agreed to a group project, or wrote the scary story that filled you with pride despite its lackluster reception.)
- Turn your list into a photo collage and make it portable by putting it on your phone.
- Alternatively, craft a short movie, complete with soundtrack.
- Review the above immediately before a writing session.
Last but not least…
Take Refuge in Wonder, Playfulness, and Meaning
Intrinsic joy and fascination—these were two of Grandin’s superpowers, enabling her to push through a vast number of obstacles. She also tapped into an enduring mission to reduce animal suffering.
You can emulate her by:
- Cultivating an exogenous sense of play. For example, I know writers who wear tiaras and feather boas when they anticipate an intimidating writing session.
- Even better, tap into the excitement you feel about the project itself: Feel a secret thrill over a scene that will blow everyone’s mind; a heartfelt monologue that will make an important point about the meaning of life; a stunning metaphor you can’t wait to play with.
What effective tricks or techniques do you have in your squeeze box? Alternatively, is there any one thing in this post that you’d like to try?