We have this saying in my chosen family of fat disabled queers: “Go at your own pace.” A saying, a reminder. To ourselves, and each other. A way of holding onto our reality, insisting it is enough. A counter to the thousand tiny and huge ways that the world insists that we are too slow, that our pace is wrong.
It comes from a particular moment in shared history. My boyfriend was in the fashion show at a queer fat activist conference. Our beloved friend was running the show, and at rehearsal declaimed in a booming celebratory voice for the models to “Work it! At your own pace.” Ever since then, we have been saying this to each other, encouraging each other to go at our own pace.
For me, it is sayings like this that help, in moments of pressure and judgment. Help me remember that my intention is not to try to match the expected pace set by others, but to listen to my own self, to honor my own disabilities, and go at my own pace. The frequent repetition of this kind of exhortation is a balm for daily experiences of ableism, and a way to interrupt my own internalized ableism around how I move through the world and do everyday things, from how much I write, to how I get from one place to the next, to how I think through something.
Part of going at my own pace is about refusing to invest in passing as non-disabled, in all the ways that I have invested, much of my life. Honoring my actual reality by not trying to match the expected pace, or the pace of others. Honoring how I move, how I think. As if it was simply ok to be who I am. As if I not only believe that it is ok, but also believe that I don’t need to spend so much energy and so many spoons hiding my disabled reality. As if I don’t need to pretend that I have more mobility, or that I am in less pain, or that I am not mentally ill, or that I am neurotypical. As if I can just accept that the way I cope with difficult things is different, because autistic people’s brains work differently and that affects how we manage things like grief, because my access needs impact what help I can actually get, because dealing with a crisis when you have a migraine or are experiencing flashbacks is a just different kind of thing.
This intention, around not investing in passing, needs frequent reminders and bolstering. It is not easy to choose this, to remember it, to honor it. Just today, I was reminded by a dear friend, who is also autistic, that it’s ok to stim. That despite what we have been told as autistic people, stimming is not only ok, it actually helps. I need these reminders. I needed that one today, because I was struggling with that very thing, struggling to let myself stim in public, in a way that would be perceivable to others. Just a gentle nudge, a reminder of what I already know but was forgetting in the moment. That it’s ok to be who I am, and to let other people see it. To not spend so much of my very limited resources on hiding it. To go at my own pace.
When I read Geometries of Belonging (read for free here), by RB Lemberg, one of the first things I thought was, “this story goes at my pace.” Just the fact of that, the way I moved in time with the story, felt like a miracle. Because I honestly don’t recall ever feeling that way before. Feeling like I didn’t need to work to match pace with the story, because it moved like I do. Like it didn’t take extra brain to follow what was going on. One of the next things I thought was, “ohhhh. I need to read more stories written by other neurodivergent writers.”
I cannot explain how deeply affirming my reading experience of Geometries has been. The pacing alone…the way this story moves just flat out works for me. It begins slowly, builds in spirals. When I am in it, I am fully immersed and held, supported. I get to attend to the things that are important to Parét, follow the way he thinks, connect with how he feels, and this gets to be so much deeper because I am not using such a big part of my brain trying to match pace with the story. I found myself breathing slow and even as I read, almost like I was meditating. It was as soothing as letting myself stim feels.
The story itself is told from the point of view of a man who is mentally ill. Throughout the story he gets triggered, and manages that, gets overwhelmed, and manages that, is cognitively impaired, and manages that, slides into pockets of depression and hopelessness, and manages that. It is woven deeply into the story, and I think an essential part of why the pacing works for me. Because so much of that experience resonates, especially the ebb and flow of it, the constant thread of managing. My days are threaded with managing sensory overwhelm, brain fog, pain, and PTSD symptoms. Getting to read a story centering a queer disabled character who moves through the world this way, in all the complexities of his life…I don’t have words for how much it means to me. To witness Parét grapple with ethical difficulties as a healer, take steps to avert war, honor his own needs, take a stand that values consent over cure, and be deeply in his desire for his dominant, all amidst the ebb and flow of managing his disabled reality…it was nourishment that I didn’t even know I needed.
This story, at its core, challenges cure narratives about both disability and transness. Paret is asked, by the family of an autistic non-binary trans person named Dedéi, to perform a cure for both their transness and their autism, despite Dedéi’s insistent repeating “I do not want to be remade.” Ada Hoffman says in her review on Autistic Book Party: “Approximately zero story time is spent on the decision of whether to perform or not perform a cure. It is obvious to Dedéi that they do not want to be cured, and it is obvious to Parét that he will not perform mind-healing on a patient like Dedéi who does not want it. The conflict in the story comes, not from agonizing over what it would be appropriate to do with Dedéi, but from the fallout and social consequences of Dedéi and Parét both sticking to their principles.” For me, an autistic trans reader, a story that grapples with cure in this way is nourishing on so many levels. And, these are intensely fraught and emotional things to read about. So I was particularly comforted by the pace, by the internality of Parét managing his own distress, overwhelm, and symptoms as he moves through the story. The pace, the way the story flowed, made it easier for me to manage, myself. I could hold all of this really charged stuff because the story held me as it unfolded.
This reading experience changed me, as a writer. It unlocked something I didn’t even really know was locked down inside me. I felt like I had all this new permission, modeling, capacity, to go at my own pace in writing Shocking Violet. To write a story that ebbed and flowed as disabled characters managed their everyday lives, building and renewing access intimacy with each other. To give that experience of managing overwhelm and trauma symptoms and brain fog lots of room in the story, integrate it fully.
Shocking Violet is abundant with disabled characters: characters with chronic pain and illness, autistic characters, characters with mobility disabilities, mentally ill characters. Many of the central characters in Shocking Violet are disabled in more than one way. And this way of writing, that moves at my disabled pace, that honors the disabled realities of these characters in how I tell the story…it feels amazing. Like one of the deepest ways I could continually choose to honor myself as a disabled writer. It feels like the next step in my journey around centering disabled characters in my fiction.
So, I have characters who let themselves stim, who struggle in honoring their access needs, who grapple with being triggered, who honor each other’s need to manage symptoms, who try to go at their own pace, who get overwhelmed and figure out how to manage it, who push through, and who slow down because they have to. And I am making this aspect of disabled reality a consistent thread not just in the plot, but integrating it into the pace of the story, in the way the book builds and flows.
Over the last few months, I‘ve been approaching the book sideways, sliding in to capture moments that need to be written right then, instead of writing in a linear way, which had been my original approach. I find myself frequently writing moments like the ones I describe above, that ebb and flow of managing. This way of approaching the book is new, and it feels right. Like it is honoring my pace, where I am at right now as a writer.