Mute

Art is a conversation. Sometimes it’s a monologue that the artist performs alone, without an audience, and sometimes that’s all the artist needs. There are people who create for the sheer joy of it, without needing to share their creations with the world. But I have learned that I am not that sort of artist.

I’ve written before about how important audience response can be. I’m never sure how much this need, for me, stems from a healthy desire to engage in the artistic conversation and how much is just an obsession with praise and external validation. Healthy or not, I long for it.

When I read something or view a performance that speaks to me powerfully, there is always this peculiar little ache in my heart. I long to create something of similar power and resonance. I hear a gifted singer and I want to go and belt out a song with comparable fervor. (I can’t, of course, but I still pretend to.) There is a fierce and unquenchable need within me to create something beautiful and meaningful, something that moves an audience the way that great art has moved me. Is this egotism or something more benevolent? I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I haven’t done it yet, and I keep trying.

Publication is a dream that I’m slowly, slowly working on. There’s no guarantee, and even if it’s coming, it’s probably a long way off. Meanwhile, that peculiar little ache isn’t going away. So I record myself playing piano pieces and post them on Facebook, desperate for even one comment that lets me know my art has spoken to someone. I post on my blogs; I craft long-winded thoughts on social media; I cry out into the void and hope someone will answer back. I am, perhaps, so pathetic and needy that I’m scaring people away.

Does anyone else feel this contradiction of pleasure and pain every time they engage with a work of art? Do I need a harsh pinprick of reality to deflate my vainglorious ambitions? If an artist paints a tree in the forest and no one is there to admire it…

Am I making a sound?

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Morgenstern and Windcaller

Last year was a good one for me, writing-wise. I kept up a rigorous schedule of weekly blog posts with only a few breaks, so the Great Stories series finished with nearly 50 entries in total. I enjoyed coming up with a new story every week, but I’ll be glad to take a break before coming up with a new topic. I also blogged weekly at my fan-focused other site, and I’ll happily keep up with that as long as I have regular readers.

More importantly, after a long dry spell I was able to start and finish two new novels. I love writing first drafts. The seed of an idea sprouting into a narrative, the thrill of exploring uncharted territory, the creation of something from nothing. I still don’t love revising, but after attending a writer’s workshop on revisions (a birthday present from my wonderful husband) I have a few more specific strategies for tackling non-first drafts. So far I’ve used those strategies on Silver and Other (which sorely needs a new title; I’m still brainstorming that one). The hard part is deciding which manuscript to work on next. I have a lot of first drafts.

In any case, I wrote two new books. I can easily guess why I hadn’t produced anything for a year or so. I was pouring most of my creative energies into this gloriously insane project. Instead of writing, I was making costumes, setting up scenes, filming and editing. I’m much better at writing (at least I certainly hope so) but it was awfully fun to try things outside of my usual experience. Fun, and consuming. I had very little mind-space left for novels. I had a few books I started, but just couldn’t finish. I hope to get back to them someday.

Meanwhile, the spark of a new idea came to me just after I finished the last video. Like Empirethe inspiration came from my daughter and her vivid dreams. She described the dream to me, I asked permission to use it, and out of that came Morgenstern. It was a bit of a departure for me, genre-wise. There is still an element of science fiction, but it could take place in a version of this world very close to reality.

The main character is Amelia, a student at a school called Morgenstern Academy. Something is not quite right about Morgenstern. She can’t remember anything of her life before she came to the school. None of the students can. When Amelia realizes she won’t get any satisfying answers from the teachers or administration, she escapes into the world beyond the walls of Morgenstern. It was an interesting exercise to write her reactions. Instead of seeing a strange world through the eyes of someone who’s comfortably familiar with it, we see the regular world through the eyes of someone who is regularly thrilled by things we take for granted, like television and cars. I also got to write a number of twists and surprises, which will probably need to be strengthened in subsequent revisions. But it was good to try something different.

Then I wrote Windcaller. This one is pure fantasy, taking place in a world where people have powers of almost godlike proportions. The main plot point that I wanted to play around with was the idea of a romance with a secret identity. All of my earlier novels contained at least one love story subplot, but my last few books hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong; I quite enjoyed writing those books and exploring plotlines of a different sort, particularly for female characters who are too often sidelined into romantic supporting roles. But I wanted to get back to romance, something with a big sweeping dramatic backdrop. The secret identity idea intrigued me. I could think of lots of stories with a man who is hiding his true identity, secretly pining for the woman who has no idea who he really is. Comic books alone provide us with a myriad of examples. But what about a woman with a mysterious alter ego?

Windcaller takes place in a barren waste called the Aridlands. No rain has fallen there for centuries. The privileged classes live on the Plateau, where the mighty windcallers bring rain to sustain life and keep the gardens lush. The lower classes perform heavy labors to earn their pittance of water and food. naShola is a young noble woman whose parents oppose this unjust system. But her father is poisoned, and her mother must travel to a distant city to seek help. In the meantime, she instructs naShola to play the part of a callous noble so no one will suspect their plans and prevent them from succeeding. naShola obeys, until the strain of the deception drives her to desperation. She steals the forbidden powers of the windcallers and secretly brings rain to the Aridlands.

She finds unexpected help in the form of Tlanis, a lowly but proud man who hates naShola, the cruel noble, but is intrigued by the veiled windcaller who comes to the Aridlands at night. It’s deliciously angsty and I had so much fun with it. Though the climax involves their romance, it also includes a massive confrontation between hordes of windcallers, in a storm that rocks the Plateau to its very foundations. That’s the kind of love story I like to read, so it’s the kind I want to write.

These two books, by the way, were written during the most severe bout of depression I have ever experienced. I’ve had flashes of bleakness before, and I’ve always struggled with anxiety. But this summer I was consumed by a relentless fog of meh. Just feeling like everything was stupid and pointless, that it always had been and always would be. I feel quite fortunate that I was able to recognize those thoughts as false, generated by mental health issues rather than reality, so I could work through it with therapy and medication. Still working through it, though it’s better than it was. And having a rigorous writing schedule was really quite helpful in terms of giving me purpose and structure. I’m not sure if the quality of these books suffered for being written during a depressive episode, but it’s far better than not writing at all. Whether I ever get published, whether my books ever travel beyond my own small sphere of influence, I will always, always, always write. My brain needs it. My heart needs it. It’s a light in the fog.

Great Stories: Stranger than Fiction

As a writer, I’m naturally interested in stories about the writing process. Not every one of those stories is to my liking, of course, particularly when they make it look like becoming a published writer is a whimsical, simple matter. But there are some stories that really capture the agony and absurdity of the eternal striving for writing excellence. If you can throw in a little surreal fantasy, all the better!

Stranger than Fiction is an odd little movie (directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm), with a very understated role for the usually over-the-top Will Ferrell. He plays Harold Crick, who is introduced by the narrator as a mild-mannered, routine-driven IRS auditor…who can suddenly hear the narrator speaking. The narration is unaffected by this phenomenon, continuing to describe Harold’s goings-on undisturbed, but Harold is understandably perturbed, particularly when the narrator announces his impending death. Unlike a character in a screwy comedy, he addresses the mystery methodically, as perhaps any of us would. When doctors and therapists have no explanations for him, he finally approaches a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), figuring that if anyone understands narrators, it would be someone who studies books for a living.

Their conversations are quietly hilarious, as the professor systematically determines what sort of category character Harold would be, and hence who would be writing him. Meanwhile, the audience is allowed to find out before he does with an introduction to the reclusive Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has a bad case of writer’s block. All of her books kill off the main character. Now she’s trying to figure out how to kill Harold Crick.

There are other plot strands, including Harold’s unexpected romance with a tax-dodging baker (leading to one of my favorite puns, “I brought you flours.”), but it’s all leading up to the question — is Harold really about to die? Is there any way to avoid it? Does Karen have any idea what’s going on?

Eventually, just as Karen gets her brilliant idea for the death scene, Harold and the professor realize who his narrator is, and he manages to contact her. There is a marvelous scene with Karen typing her manuscript on a typewriter, and as soon as she types, “The phone rang” her phone rings. She’s already sensing something odd is happening when she finally answers — and finds herself speaking to a character of her own invention.

There is no explanation for this, whether Harold existed before Karen wrote him, how much of his life is under his control, or whether this has happened with any of her other characters. Too much of that would muddy the story. The important question is: if you have created a beautiful story, with a perfect, heartbreaking death for your main character, is it worth it to sacrifice him? Even if he’s a real person? Surely not. But Harold’s potential death is heroic and meaningful. Even Harold, when he asks to read Karen’s draft, can understand its poignancy. But how could you kill a real person just for a good story?

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that it’s satisfying, and beautiful, and thought-provoking. It’s a truly bizarre story that can only serve as a metaphor, since we can reasonably assume that no writers have the power to actually create real people. But sometimes they feel so real. What if you could meet them face-to-face? Would they hate you for tormenting them so much? It really can be a terrible wrench to put them through all the suffering necessary for a good story. Sometimes being a writer can feel downright cruel. And sometimes it feels like ruthlessness is the only way to break through writer’s block. These are lots of hard questions without any simple answers, but this movie is a kindred spirit for any writer devoted to seeking those answers.

Blog Post: Based on a completely and totally untrue story!

There’s a particular storytelling trope that really gets on my nerves as a writer, and I wanted to explore what bothers me so much about it. It usually shows up in TV episodes and movies, which are presumably written by writers, and yet it demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process.

It usually goes something like this: there’s a new book that has become fantabulously successful, earning the writer fame and fortune and acclaim for their ability to come up with such an incredibly creative, original story. But the the truth comes out — the writer didn’t make it up at all! It actually happened, in real life, to their friend/co-worker/childhood acquaintance!! Oh, the scandal, the outrage! The writer is a complete phony and hasn’t a creative bone in their entire body!

Sheesh.

This is nonsense. Coming up with ideas is just one fraction of what a writer does. It might even be the easiest part. That’s not to say that’s okay to use someone else’s ideas or someone else’s life experiences without permission and without giving credit. Of course a writer who doesn’t acknowledge their sources would be unethical. But that kind of thing rarely happens (in fact, it’s far more likely that the writer of some shocking “non-fiction” memoir is revealed to have fabricated much of their supposedly true story). Because guess what? Real life experiences, as I’ve said many times before, do not automatically make good stories. Not without some careful crafting to make them into a readable narrative. And that is where a writer’s primary skill lies. Not in coming up with ideas, but in transforming those ideas into good stories. Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction (and yes, obviously, if you’re writing non-fiction, it’s dishonest to market it as fiction), its success will depend almost entirely on how well it’s written.

When people claim that there aren’t really any new stories, that might sound depressing. But all it really means is that so much of human experience is universal, that the same sort of stories keep appealing to us over and over. It’s not a writer’s job to come up with something completely and entirely new — it’s their job to take something familiar and make it new all over again. Was Harry Potter the first story about a secret magical world and a boy gaining the power to defeat his parents’ nemesis? Of course not! Pointing out its similarities to previous fantasy stories doesn’t prove that it’s weak or unoriginal. Take a look at how the story is told, and you’ll see why it was so successful. On the other hand, you could find plenty of stories with clever premises that just weren’t told very well, so all the cleverness in the world couldn’t save them.

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? Well, from a legal standpoint, our modern copyright laws didn’t exist. He wasn’t doing anything that plenty of other writers weren’t also doing. (I am not suggesting we get rid of copyright laws. They protect the very real work that writers put into crafting stories, and prevent others from stealing credit and money.) But sure, he didn’t come up with every plotline entirely from his own head. Was he unoriginal? Lacking creativity? Hardly. The way he told stories, familiar though they may have been, was so inventive, interwoven with humor and philosophical discourse and witty wordplay, that he made the stories new again — to the point that most modern audiences assume he must have come up with those stories himself!

So is the ability to come up with original ideas irrelevant for a good writer? No, not at all. Innovative premises are vital to keeping things fresh. But they are only ever a beginning. Coming up with the idea for a book is the first step. Then you have to actually write it, and hopefully write it well. After that, as long as you’ve given credit to any sources of inspiration, any fame and fortune and acclaim that you receive has been justly earned.

In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Fear

“People who are governed by fear are the most dangerous sort of all…Worse than anger…far worse than envy or bloodlust. In fact, you might say that every other dangerous emotion has its true roots in fear. Never underestimate a fearful man.”

This is from my novel Mimic. There is a definite irony in the context of who is speaking, and to whom (he’s manipulating her for his selfish purposes, enabled by her fear that he’ll reveal her secret), but I think it carries truth nonetheless. I’m also quite fond of Yoda’s iconic words from Episode I: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” Of course appropriate fear, perhaps better termed caution, is essential to protect one from unnecessarily endangering one’s self or others.  But in excess, it is debilitating, mind-clouding, even dangerous. I believe that the less I am governed by fear, the better my life will be.

So how’s this for irony: I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.

I worry about my children. That’s perfectly normal for a mother, especially when one of the children has special needs. I worry about our house falling apart and how we’re going to pay for repairs. I worry about running out of money; also fairly typical for a family living off the single income of a school teacher. I would say one of the main things I discuss with my therapist is how to fight off the crushing anxiety that weighs on me. Well, at least I’m working on it.

But I’m functioning. I’m doing my best to confront adulthood even if I’d rather hide under the bed like a three-year-old. It’s another set of fears that’s on my mind right now. The fears that keep from me putting my work out there for other people to see.

The fear of rejection. The fear of ridicule. The fear of achieving only the infamy of public mockery — or the fear of not getting any notice at all. These fears are truly crippling. I long to be published; it’s the only career I could feel really passionate about, even if I never become more than a mid-list author. And yet I hesitate to send out more queries, fearing that I’ll ruin my chance with another set of agents. Fearing that one more round of form rejections will have me so depressed that I’ll just give up on it forever. (And yet if I’m not querying, haven’t I already as good as given up?)

Even with my sillier hobbies, I fear to put it out there. Fear that for every person who enjoys the goofy Star Wars video I made, there were be some nasty troll. That there will be more snide laughter than good-natured chuckling. I am constantly torn between wanting so much to share what I’ve created and cringing in terror at the very notion of it. I’m not sure if the Internet has made this mindset better or worse. I find it delightful that I can post fan fiction and gain a following of readers who happily provide immediate feedback. I’ve also tortured myself if I post something and don’t get any replies within the first half hour. I’m sure without the Internet, my neuroses would find some other way to manifest. But anyway.

I suppose it would be helpful for me to acknowledge what I’ve been able to do, in spite of my fears. I’ve sent out plenty of queries. I’ve gritted my teeth through the rejections and sent out more. I’ve gotten helpful suggestions from beta readers and hunkered down to do revisions, even though I loathe revisions and sometimes truly fear that I’ll just make my book worse by trying to fix it. I’ve put some of my creations out there, fannish or otherwise, and weathered the negative responses along with the positive. It helps that I haven’t really encountered any trolls yet. But when I do, I’ll just have to remind myself not to listen to their voices, any more than I should listen to the little troll inside my own head whose name is Fear. I’ll finish with another quote, from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This Time, It’s Personal (But it’s always personal)

Back when my husband (then-boyfriend) was participating in a writers/actors/directors workshop in college, he invited me to the staged reading of all the plays they’d been working on. One of the plays was a sort of dramedy that explored a marriage wherein the husband suffered from narcolepsy. I enjoyed it well enough, though it seemed like it still needed a lot of polishing. And then, during the audience feedback afterwards, a woman spoke up and almost immediately began crying. Apparently she had come to see this play specifically because she was living it as the wife of a narcoleptic. It was powerfully validating for her to see it portrayed like this.

I recall feeling deeply uncomfortable. First of all, because this woman was having a personal, emotional moment and it gave me a sense of eavesdropping on something private. But secondly, I felt like every criticism I’d had was now irrelevant. What did it matter what I, a non-narcoleptic or spouse of a narcoleptic, thought? This wasn’t a metaphor for marriage issues as I had originally been interpreting it; this was a real problem and I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, so my opinions didn’t matter and I’d better just keep my mouth shut. (Ha, like I would have ever opened my mouth, shy and timid mouse that I am. But anyway).

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve grown and learned a great deal in the intervening years about what it means to engage with art on a personal level, both as the creator and as the audience. And I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self this important truth: your opinion is still valid. It’s not more valid than someone else’s, but it’s not less valid either. And you can just throw out the idea of objectively assessing a work of art, because such an assessment is impossible by definition. Every artist will approach their creation with a set of experiences and opinions, and every audience member will engage with that creation with their own entirely separate set of experiences and opinions. And that’s okay; it’s more than okay; it’s what makes the creator-audience relationship so exciting and dynamic.

Sure, you can assess skill to a certain degree of near-objectiveness. Some writing is clearly better crafted than others; great painters have more proficiency than lesser painters; a poorly-edited movie is going to be less coherent than a well-edited one. But those observations can only get you so far. Everything past that point is going to be opinion, and opinions are always, by definition, personal.

I have a son with low-functioning autism. He is non-verbal. This is a specific circumstance of my life that a great many people do not share with me. It informs so much of my day-to-day experience, and of course it affects my perception of stories, particularly ones that portray autism. I’m done feeling apologetic for that fact that I can’t objectively read or watch anything involving autism, judging it by its artistic merits alone. That’s just not going to happen. And my reaction is perfectly valid as long as I’m aware of and acknowledge how my personal life experiences are coloring that reaction. As long as I’m aware, in turn, of how other people’s reactions to my writing or any work of art are going to be colored by their own experiences. The quest for objectivity belongs in the realm of science. When it comes to art, it’s personal.

I saw Rain Man before my son was born and then again after he was diagnosed. It was a vastly different experience. The first time — I enjoyed it, thought it was a heartfelt, well-told story, with nice touches of humor and pathos. The second time — I was in tears almost from the very beginning. What struck me most was the character arc, not of the autistic character, but his brother. At the time the film was made, living in a group home with dedicated caregivers was just about the best they could envision for someone with the degree of disabilities Raymond has. So he doesn’t change much. He has a little adventure, but he’s not going to suddenly become functional or independent. The best possible outcome for him is to return to the group home, with at least the added feature of having a relationship with his brother Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, undergoes a drastic shift. He begins the film as a very selfish, resentful man. He essentially kidnaps his brother just to try to get the inheritance he feels he deserves from his recently deceased father. Having to take care of Raymond, however, is a transforming experience. He has to think of someone else’s needs almost constantly — if he doesn’t, he could trigger severe public meltdowns or endanger his brother’s life. And gradually he learns to take care of Raymond not just out of necessity, but out of love. It all builds up to the climax, when he must become selfless enough to recognize that Raymond can’t stay with him and that the best thing he can do is let him return with his trained caregivers to the safety of his group home.

Let me tell you, taking care of someone with severe disabilities is beyond exhausting. It’s physically and emotionally draining on so many levels. And there are times when I fear that it’s turning me into the worst possible version of myself. I need stories that tell me there is hope of becoming a better person because of my caregiving.

Which is why reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. Because for me, personally, it presented the exact opposite message. I know this book is a celebrated portrayal of autism; it’s a bestseller; it’s been praised every which way. It might be a deeply sensitive, well-written book, a warm and meaningful experience for countless readers. All of that was irrelevant to me, because the main character’s parents are terrible. They do awful, awful, awful things, and it’s implied that it’s because his condition was so challenging for them to deal with. His autism made them worse. I couldn’t bear it. Oh, I know there’s a lot of realism going on there; marriages are frequently strained or broken by special-needs children. I already mentioned my fears of becoming the worst version of myself. I’m not denying those fears. I just don’t want to read a book where all those fears play out in vivid, vivid detail.

Clearly, this is not a universal experience. As it happens, my husband enjoyed the book. It’s not the parents’ story; their dysfunction is peripheral to the main character’s growth and development, and he liked that character’s story. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get over the parents’ messed-up lives. Both opinions are valid. I don’t have to like the book just because lots of other people do, including parents of autistic kids. I don’t even have to like it because it’s well-written. It’s not for me.

The Speed of Dark was a very different experience. I came across it in a bookstore shortly after our son had been diagnosed and I was feeling very morose, particularly after perusing the parenting shelves that were full of cheerful guides on how to raise your child to be perfectly well-adjusted. Even the books on autism seemed to focus on high-functioning, verbal kids, and I just felt so alone. I didn’t need advice; I needed a story. And I found it, written by one of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until then that I learned she actually has an adult son with autism. Obviously she drew upon her on personal experiences and viewpoints in the creation of her story, just as I did in my reading of it.

It’s a book with a lot of ambiguity. Set in the near future, it addresses some pretty intense issues. Is it right or wrong to seek a cure for autism — is it wrong to even call it a “cure” when it’s just a different way of seeing the world? I’ve seen reactions to the ending ranging from exuberantly positive to deeply negative, which seems to indicate that Elizabeth Moon struck a peculiar balance between portraying the main character’s choice as either right or wrong depending on your own personal perspective. My daughter read it recently and said it was a sad ending. I think it left me more contemplative and wistful than sad. But it was what I needed at that time in my life. I understand the criticisms I’ve read about it. I understand the frustration that too many books about autism focus on a cure plot-line rather than almost anything else. I wouldn’t object to the wider inclusion of autistic characters in stories, because the more variety we have, the more likely chance of finding one that strikes the right chord with an equally wide variety of individual readers.

The important thing is recognizing that your personal response will rarely, if ever, be universal. And that’s just fine. It’s still no more or less valid than anyone else’s personal, fully subjective reaction. It’s always personal.