The best of failures – mini thoughts on disability rep and wellbeing

“You should definitely do this” said one judge and the others nodded. I knew it was over, so stood up. To be fair, it was the worst pitch I’VE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE. I was failing. Not failing well, like you’re meant to, but failing badly while sweating.

This tale begins early autumn 2019. My story about autistic homelessness, WHEN I WAS A TROLL, had been shortlisted for the Old Vic 12. The final pitch session was in London and so I went, got sensory overload, and got lost. Those of you who know me appreciate lostness happens to me a lot. Especially in London. (Being piss poor means I can’t always pay for travel support workers)

(AUTISTIC TANGENT ALERT: Multiples come together to make sensory soup to drown out my senses. Everything blurs into one smudge of grey and everything smells of lead pencils. LONDON IS SO LOUD! There’s no actual need for it, turn yourself down fella. Why be a noisy unpredictable drunk everyone wishes would go home? I genuinely don’t know how London-based autistics manage. You should come and live in the North. Manchester’s pledged to be the UK’s most autistic friendly city, come here instead and we’ll have a chippy butty.)

Anyway, I made the whole event a mad farce, but the judging panel were nice and pretended not to notice. They didn’t like the idea, not really, but they weren’t showing overt boredom. They were… you know, neurotypically polite and genuinely nice human beings (no monsters here) but polite situations are really really hard for me to read which is TERRIFYING! (Just be honest with your autistics, don’t mince words please, it helps us shine.)

In many ways, like a lot of disabled applicants, I can leave pitches like this wondering if I’ve travelled five hours to tick a representation box (X amount of disabled people applied and X amount were interviewed – hooray our diversity figures have changed) when in reality they have no intention of working with your piece at all and the job was always going to Dave. I mean, they must have read the pitch beforehand? This is a real concern. Not just for disabled people, but for other marginalized artists too. If I were a black or brown autistic, I’d worry double (it’s intersectional and it’s REAL). Over the past 18 months, I’ve been learning these things the hard way. Yet learning is good, it’s making me wiser in who I work with. Or if I work at all. Jury is still out.

Listen, I am NOT saying The Old Vic 12 did box ticking. Let’s be totally clear. I AM saying I WORRY about box ticking EVERYWHERE I go! When Lenny Henry gave his speech to the RTS, I was so relieved I wasn’t alone in just wanting to be hired. Recently I moaned (hate how it makes me a moaner) to a development person at the BFI that maybe I should go back in the disability closet. Hide and mask like days of old. I’m not joking either. It’s a challenging industry and being openly autistic might be putting barriers in my way that I don’t even know about. There’s huge stigma and when I get lost, or go mute, it doesn’t help! GOD I JUST WANT TO WRITE STORIES!

Some barriers I do know about. Like finding out I wasn’t invited to training events on a different scheme because the organizers didn’t know what my needs would be, so decided I wouldn’t want to be there. I was forwarded emails by peer on the same scheme who had been invited, as she thought I should know and felt bad. I didn’t know what to do with the info, so I said nothing. What can you say?

Another barrier is building concrete creative confidence when you are constantly referred to as “the token disabled” which has happened at every networking event I’ve been to this year without fail. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. (It’s hidden sometimes as a joke, sometimes not, so now I introduce myself as the token autistic cos what else can you do?) I’d like to be positive about it, but these are my peers and it makes me sad. It could seriously undermine all my hard work if I wasn’t so pig-headed. To be fair, it’s just rude (ironic considering I’m the autistic one.) All I’m saying is I JUST WANT TO WRITE STORIES!!!

Therefore, sometimes people like me come across defensive, suspicious, or (insert your own unfair description here). Yet we are used by an industry not yet level to make it appear level. Schemes that are designed to lead nowhere apart from being elaborate photo ops. And we smile, apologise, and say thank you (because we might be wrong this time) and no one wants to look bitter do they?

Sure, in many ways I’m lucky. I can fall back on this knowledge to protect the ego from accepting “failure”. Sure, I take that. It’s true. I know it’s true because no one is good enough. Desperately mediocre people do well in lots of fields, including the creative industries. (Genius is a myth. As is perfection.) Acknowledging this doesn’t discredit the truth of the previous observations, it just demonstrates how mentally exhausting being a disabled creative is and why many give up.

In the Old Vic 12 case though, my story was wrong for the scheme. WHEN I WAS A TROLL is based on some of my own experiences of street-sleeping and teen pregnancy. It’s exciting to write about how I want to do this so bare with me – I’m writing stimming scenes with music taken from real living plants! There’re magical realist elements (as that’s the best medium for exploring socio-political themes) and my main influences are Frankenstein, The Hulk, and the film Happy as Lazzero. There’s even a bull-man monster too. It was just wrong for the scheme; my story shows death as transcendent release, not the jolliest tale, but I NEEDED to explore an event from my life (being held in a room for hours that felt like days) and that means I must do it somewhere else.

You should definitely do this” said the one judge though. The others nodded. I got up to leave. They were surprised. (You’re meant to stay even when it’s over.) And then she added something that made the trip worthwhile. “But you should be careful who you do it with” 

I waited. She continued.

“To me, your well-being not this story is important. And I would hate to see you trying to say something so raw with people who can’t support that process.”

WHAT? I’ve been writing a while now and no one. NO ONE. Has ever said that to me. EVER. I didn’t know what to say. I was amid healing from another development project and felt quite vulnerable. I cried on the train home. (And can I just say, Virgin Trains sort yourself out. How much cash do you expect people to part with, only to sit on a crowded floor by a toilet? Put. More. Carriages. On.)

Something is shifting in the arts. I’m forty and been writing for about ten years. Everything so far has been “you’re replaceable” “no one cares” “get over it” “be faster” “snooze n lose” “fifty million words by tomorrow” “just do it” and “where there’s a will there’s a Dave way.” This felt different. This shift is the new wave of new people entering the field into positions of power. They have differing priorities and perspectives; this is why diversity is key.  Inclusion still has a way to go as that’s a active process that requires sustainable action. But new perspectives informing decision-making is refreshing. Exciting times eh!

Fresh people bring different ways of marking success. If these priorities are integrated into the various creative industries, we will have more writers crying on trains. This is GOOD. We need our writers soft, not hard, resilient, and defensive. It is in the soft heart spaces that the truth about love waits to be spoken and every story is a love story, if you’re prepared to really see the truth. For writers to be at their softest, they need supportive teams. Writing isn’t just beats on a sheet, it’s about the quality of the heartbeat within the creator. That heartbeat needs to be powerful enough to propel stories forward into the hearts of others. To keep one writer soft, takes a strong team.

That judge with her ethic of wellbeing offered me something more valuable than making the shortlist. She invited me to think again, make wiser choices, to find people who will support the soft rawness until all that needs to be said, is said. Her kindness for a lost stranger, who had once been a Troll, will not be forgotten.  She softened me.

It was the best of failures.