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.