Explaining Difference Through Creativity: Some 2am thoughts

It’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week this week. This isn’t a ‘this is what dyspraxia is and here’s my story of being clumsy and awkward’ post. I’ve written and spoken plenty in that vein – you can look for it elsewhere, or I’ll direct you to it if you like. This is to address a perennial question that came to me again reading someone else’s tweets earlier while I was procrastinating my book/phonecalls/articles/god-knows-what-else: Are dyspraxia and creativity linked, and is it helpful to explain it through creative works? I’ve talked about the link before, and basically yes it is. With these caveats:

  • Lead with the person, not the issue. Remember those anti-drugs plays in secondary school R.E, with earnest just-out-of-drama-school dialogue and bad hair? There was usually an impressionable teenager led astray by someone called something like Skippy or Pushy and the whole thing was set up to hammer home the moral. No-one wants to see creative works like that. They want work that’s substance and person-led, not issue-led. A friend of mine has written a great relationship play in which the leading woman is a classic dyspraxic with peaks and troughs of ability, while her boyfriend is a straightforward City fly-boy who doesn’t know failure or vulnerability – or so it appears. It’s great because it frames the condition in a way anyone can relate to without making them feel lectured at.
  • Use fiction to help explain it, without labelling other people’s characters.  Fiction and art can do a better job of conveying dyspraxic profiles than medical definitions – especially the emotional and psychological effects, which are often left out of diagnostic checklists. I’ve done talks where I’ve related a peripheral character in Jane Eyre whose only self-worth comes from her devout Christianity, to my own destructive hero worship of another woman as a teenager. Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For A Heatwave has one of the most beautiful depictions of a late-diagnosed dyslexic-dyspraxic woman I’ve ever seen. That said, I don’t think you should explicitly label someone else’s characters as dyspraxic, (or ADHD/dyslexic/autistic) if the author hasn’t said they are, or if the author isn’t alive to answer to it. As with all labels, spreading it too thinly/carelessly can diminish it.
  • Aim for a wide audience. For a number of reasons (mostly stigma and resources) outreach initiatives sometimes tend to preach to the choir and not reach people they really need to. A while ago a successful businessperson I met in an unrelated context told me he’s dyspraxic and has had depressive episodes since childhood. Later I heard from an ex-colleague of his that he’d been rather difficult to work with. Knowing ‘the two d’s’ and how they look to the unaware I could picture why. Out of respect for his privacy I said nothing (hidden-disability ‘outing’ can be as problematic as LGBT outing) but it put me in a dilemma and part of me regrets saying nothing. Because awareness-raising among the kind of people you don’t see at awareness-raising events is important. And the successful people with hidden disabilities who don’t speak out because they’re alright-jack and don’t have to could help those less fortunate if they did.
  • (kind of related to point one) Don’t ‘do diversity’ for its sake. I can end up on the “wrong” side in representation debates because I think wider representation is best achieved through greater diversity among writers and creatives, not someone in a majority group plonking a minority in their work because they’ve been told it’s the right thing to do. Writing’s a personal endeavour; if a creative only wants to represent themselves and their experience of the world that’s their prerogative as far as I’m concerned – what matters is that others get to represent their different experiences as well. I don’t want to petition Downton Abbey to include a dyspraxic character for the sake of it. What I would like to see is a drama series that’s as good by a writer who happens to have it.  

(Ahem: What I would also like to see is a documentary on dyspraxia/hidden disability generally – I recently filmed a small segment for ITV London and the producer has set me up with an email contact – I’m assuming this is stage 1 of a 502-stage process…)

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