Maybe I Didn’t Overcome My Autism, but I Got This Interview With Sarah Kurchak Instead
October 18, 2020
Autistic author Sarah Kurchak. Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani.
I knew about Sarah Kurchak’s memoir before I knew about her memoir. I found the title, I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, occasionally echoing through my head as I went about my life as an autistic person. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard the phrase, but it almost perfectly encapsulated what I was, and still am, experiencing. I went through a horrible burnout seven years ago, and since then, my life has been constant anxiety, among other fun things. As the result of my burnout, I was diagnosed with autism at seventeen. I was welcomed to my new identity by family members and mental health professionals assuming that, despite my general lack of functioning, I must still be “high-functioning,” or not autistic enough for it to be worth accommodating, or even talking about.
I’ve since found some company by reading the writing of other autistics, but until now, our conversations have been one-sided. Sarah Kurchak, whose work can be found in places like Vox, Medium, and Time Magazine, agreed to an interview with me over email. She discussed I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, which, as I recently wrote about in my review, is a funny, relatable, and honest book that forgoes a neat, straightforward narrative to capture the messy realities of being autistic. Kurchak also shared her thoughts on her writing process, her growing platform, and her advice for autistic writers.
Can you tell me a bit about the structure of the book, and why you chose that structure? It seems like a traditional memoir in some ways, but it’s also written as a collection of essays.
I never set out to write a memoir. I still don’t think of the book as a memoir, although I realize the word is on the cover and everyone else is treating it that way. To me, though, it was always a collection of loosely connected essays that used details from my life to try to tackle bigger topics that face a lot of autistic people. When it came time to piece them together, though, putting them in chronological order was the only thing that made any sense to me, which started to make the whole thing look memoir-y. It’s not really the story of my life, though. It’s stories from my life that I selected to highlight specific topics. I would have written a very different book if I’d only wanted to write about myself.
As I was reading the book, it was hard not to think of the immense pressure that must come with writing a memoir, especially as an autistic woman. You’re already writing something very personal, and you also have the expectations of the autistic community to contend with, and the probability of facing ableist and sexist criticism. What was it like writing under that kind of pressure? How did you manage it?
The process was hard on me. So much harder than I anticipated going into the project. And so much harder than I’ve felt right expressing in any public forum — or known how to express at all. But you’ve hit on quite a number of issues that were oscillating in my head at the time, which feels shockingly validating.
The looming ableist and sexist criticism weren’t major concerns at the time. Sure, I knew they were coming, and I knew that I wasn’t going to enjoy them, because they’re bullshit, but I’m at least used to them and able to handle them with some perspective. One of the good things about getting my autism diagnosis as late in life as I did is that I spent almost a decade as a “normal” writer, and I can compare and contrast how I was treated back then with the way I’m treated now that I’m an autistic writer. Which makes it a little easier for me to weed out — and occasionally even dismiss! — what responses are coming from a lack of understanding or a failure to think of autistics as full-fledged human beings, or whatever. I’ve also spent most of my writing career covering cultures/industries that contain a lot of dudes who don’t like when women have opinions, like music and MMA, so I’ve got a lot of experience with sexist responses to my work. It also helps that, even though criticisms rooted in these isms can frustrate, anger, and even hurt me, I don’t actually care about the people who are making them at the end of the day.
But I don’t have that buffer with my fellow autistic people. I do care about what they think. A lot. And I genuinely want to do the best I can for them. There’s such a huge chasm between what needs to be said about autism by autistic people and what one autistic individual can ever hope to accomplish in a single book, though, and that reality hit me hard when I started working on my manuscript in earnest. I tried to talk about it, and tried to warn autistic people who were excited about my book that I couldn’t possibly accomplish everything they wanted or needed through whatever outlets I had available, but I didn’t get very far. Some assured me it was going to be awesome, some insisted that I was suffering from imposter syndrome, and a few seemed to think I was trying to absolve myself from my responsibilities to the community. All of which made me feel even worse in their own way. I spent a lot of days making myself physically ill with worry over this.
I also blithely underestimated how much recounting personal details of my life would take out of me. Despite thinking of myself as a cautionary tale, I don’t think about my life as being particularly hard. It definitely isn’t compared to so many of the stories I’ve heard from other autistic people. But just because my life wasn’t the worst doesn’t mean that it was easy to relive while churning out thousand of words of deeply personal content per day. And it was every day. For reasons too long and boring to get into, I was on a very tight deadline. I couldn’t even take a day off to process or regroup. It was just eight straight weeks of flashbacks and bloodletting for eventual public consumption. With the full awareness that whatever I was doing could never be good enough, anyway.
About a week in, I lost the ability to regulate my body temperature. I would just break into chills about 500 words into my daily count. It also started to wear down my ability to manage some of my other autistic issues, like sensory sensitivity. There were days where my husband and cat’s breathing became too much to bear, and I had to go sit in our apartment building’s stairwell in an effort to write in any peace.
It sucked. I was miserable the whole time. And I felt guilty for feeling miserable, because I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was in kindergarten, and what kind of asshole complains about finally realizing a lifelong goal?
Without getting into details, the editing process was worse.
I’d love to be able to give you some silver lining or happy ending to this, some story of finding something deep within myself that allowed me to push through and survive. But the truth is simply that I take deadlines very seriously because I love a good rule and sense of structure, and I knew I couldn’t afford to bail on my contract. So I pushed through. And I watched a little wrestling every morning. It probably sounds like hyperbole, but that was literally the only thing getting me out of bed for a while there.
Although your book mostly focuses on autism, it’s also a very anxious book. How does anxiety inform your writing process and style? How is writing about anxiety different from writing about autism?
Many reviewers have made note of the self-hatred in your book. In a Twitter thread, you wrote that “it’s right for me to write about [self-loathing], because it’s a big part of who I am.” Why do you think it’s important, to yourself or to the broader autism community, to be open about self-hatred?
Finding the right amount that I am allowed to hate myself in public has been a bit of a Goldilocks situation for me. Not enough, and I get accused of faking or glamorizing autism. Too much, and I’m toxic to the community. Which would be hard enough if I personally thought of my self-loathing as having very direct and specific connections to autism. But it’s even more confusing for me, because I barely connect the two in my daily life. I was a weird loner kid who found understanding in the self-deprecating lyrics of 90s indie rock. Then I joined a profession where self-hatred, or at least a little masochistic streak, might as well be part of the job, it’s so prevalent. It’s just who I am and how I make sense of the world.
I don’t want to hurt anyone with my opinion of myself, which is why I think it’s important that I warn people who might be hurt by me honestly talking about my self-concept about the book’s contents. But I also don’t think me hiding that part of myself is going to do anyone any favours. There are so many autistic people who can and do offer genuinely positive perspectives. I’d much rather people get their strength from those sources than whatever sad facsimile I could come up with.
Also, I finished that thread with a link to a song by Shout Out Out Out Out called “Self-Loathing Rulz,” which may have seemed like a flippant coda, but the lyrics of the song really do get at the more nuanced experience I have with my own self-loathing.
What was it like being openly autistic while working with agents, editors, and the marketing and publishing industries? How do you feel about the ways you and your book were treated by those in the industries?
I think it’s going to take me a while to process that entire experience. And longer to be able to put it into words. I’ve had bad moments and good ones. And a lot of interactions that involved well-meaning people who didn’t even know how little they knew about autism. We have a lot of good people who want to work with us out there, but they have so much to learn. I just hope they get there before more autistic writers have to go through what I did and start burning out.
I read in another interview that you were trained as a fiction writer, but I don’t remember reading about that in the book. Do you still consider yourself a fiction writer? If so, what do you think has led you to focus on nonfiction?
The short answer is money. Not that I make much of it as a non-fiction writer. But I would be making even less — or none — if I’d pursued fiction more seriously. And I have no other skills, so I can’t really try a day job while I write a fiction manuscript on the side.
What are some of your favorite books by autistic or otherwise neurodivergent authors? What are some books you think aspiring autistic writers should read?
I’m going to start sounding like a broken record, but I really do think that All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, edited by Lydia X. Z. Brown, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, E. Ashkenazy is such an important and brilliant anthology. Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s Slingshot is incredible. I’m also fond of Laura James’s Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World.
In general, I would recommend that aspiring autistic writers read everything and anything they can get their hands on. By autistic writers and non-autistic writers. But I would also recommend stepping back a bit and insulating yourself when it’s your time to sit down and write. In so many walks of life, autistic people are trained and encouraged to second guess themselves, ignore their own instincts, and model themselves on others who are considered more “successful” for whatever reason, which can be disastrous for writers. If you struggle at all with boundaries and believing in your own voice, as I do, you’re going to need some space.
Pro wrestling is one of your greatest passions. Do you have any tips for someone who wants to get into watching pro wrestling? Where should they start?
I’ve seen you mention that you want your writing to be helpful to other autistic people. But I also wonder how we can be helpful to you. What are some ways the autistic community can support you and other autistic writers?
I think the most important thing that autistic people can do is support the autistic writers they believe in. Share their work. Pay for it if you can. Send them a few kind words if executive function permits. And please focus on the writers who actually speak to you. Don’t feel like you have to support anyone just because they’re autistic. Do it because you believe in their work.
I’m grateful for all of the support I receive from autistic people, but I don’t expect it. In fact, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to support me for the sake of the community, or to fight for better representation in the future, or whatever. I’ve talked to some people who are clearly not going to appreciate my tone or the type of work I do, but who felt they had to buy my book because they want to support any autistic who gets published. And that made me sad. My work isn’t going to be for everyone. I don’t want anyone who doesn’t believe that it is for them to feel like they owe me shit. The future of autistic writing is so much bigger than me. I promise it doesn’t hinge on how you respond to me or my book.
Beyond that…well, I’m probably going to articulate this terribly, but I have to try, because it’s been weighing really heavily on me lately:
One thing that I would really appreciate is a better understanding that autistic writers who manage to achieve any sort of platform at all are still full-fledged human beings, and far more than the sum of what you see in their work and on their social media. I know how easy it is to assume that you know a lot about a person from their Twitter profile — especially when they write as guilelessly as I often do — but even someone as filter-free as I am has stuff about them that they’ve chosen not to reveal or that might not be instantly apparent to people who don’t truly know them. As a result, we’re probably going to have moments where we respond or behave in ways that are informed by and reflect the entirety of our experiences. Which might not always be in line with what people think they know about us.
I’m not saying that autistic writers of any profile shouldn’t be called out if they’re doing or saying harmful things. I simply mean that human beings dealing with their own shit — which they may or may not have made available to you — aren’t always going to behave exactly as you think they should based on an abstract concept of them. I’m still the same person with the same social media accounts that I had before I wrote the book. I haven’t really gained much in the way of resources since then, either. But the way that people who don’t personally know me treat me has changed a lot since then. I’m really struggling to adapt to this new world. I’m doing my best to be a decent public autistic figure, and I want to use both my privilege and my good fortune for the greater good, but I don’t want to lose my humanity in the process. I’m very grateful to anyone who remembers that I am still a person behind it all.
Here’s where you can buy I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder: A Memoir as of October 18, 2020. (I am not a part of any affiliate programs and do not receive compensation for links, clicks, or purchases.)
Blackwell’s (UK) has a paperback edition.
Hive (UK) has an ebook edition.
Indigo (CA) has a paperback and ebook edition.
Amazon (US) has a Kindle ebook and paperback edition.
Bookshop has a paperback edition.
Indiebound (US) can give you a list of bookstores near you where this book might be available.