At the end of May we chatted with writer Sarah Kurchak about her new memoir-in-essays I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, a clear-eyed look at a life lived with undiagnosed autism. Below is the edited transcript of our chat, edited for maximum blog-readability. You can interact with the original thread here.
WOTS: The essays in “I Overcame” are arranged in a series of steps, but aren’t prescriptive – rather a description of your personal experience. How did you decide on this structure?
Sarah Kurchak: The short answer is that I didn’t have any better ideas! Basically, I needed a way to label my moderately connected essays. Just numbering them as chapters felt weird. Randomly naming them after the larger issues they addressed felt haphazard.
So I decided to stretch the idea of my story being a cautionary tale to its limits, and break my life into a series of anti-steps. It’s silly, but so is the idea that anyone should use my life as an example of what autistic people can and should do to live a good life.
WOTS: The anti-steps concept really resonates, and make these essays feel more like a memoir again, which creates a really interesting narrative in itself!
SK: I also hope that, if “don’t try this at home!” wasn’t enough of a warning, looking at titles about drinking, confusion, and professional pillow fighting scares people off of trying to follow the Kurchak path!
WOTS: Your writing is frank and humorous, and as personal essays often are, told in your unique voice. What was the editing process like? Were there any major changes in tone or structure from your first draft?
SK: The editing process was rough for me. My original vision — and my original draft — relied less on personal confessions and anecdotes and got more into general ideas that I wanted people to reconsider about autism. I understand why changes needed to made.
I still think potential autistic readers would have been ok with what I was trying, but I imagine it might have been a bit harder for non-autistics to engage. I think personal anecdotes in writing can be like small talk. It does something for some people and I try to accommodate.
But there were definitely times when I felt like I was making some really painful negotiations. Like “If I do a little more personal bloodletting for public consumption here, maybe I can make that point I really want to make here.”
WOTS: We’re glad you became more comfortable in adding personal anecdotes, but can understand the discomfort involved. Reading the end product really did feel like sitting by your armchair, listening to you share.
SK: I’m glad to hear that. (In person there would probably be about six thousand more verbal asides equivalent to the footnotes.)
WOTS: In the intro, you talk about people putting you into a role-model position that has been uncomfortable, and this collection was written to give a neutral perspective. Gauging reader response so far, do you feel this has succeeded?
SK: I’ve definitely sense a certain amount of relief in the feedback I’ve received from my fellow autistic people so far, which I think is the best possible emotion you can hope to inspire when your goal is to offer a more nuanced, anti-tragedy, and anti-inspiration porn story.
WOTS: So glad to hear this! It’s awesome when work hits the mark the way you want it to.
SK: There’s something else that seems to be happening, though, that I didn’t anticipate at all. I’ve heard from a couple of parents whose autistic girls are excited about the book. Not necessarily the contents, but its existence at all. That’s enough to make them happy.
When I was writing the book, I told myself that, if I could save one little Sarah out there from going through what I did in the exact same way, that my book would be a success. But maybe I’ll get to be the protective big sister and the cool aunt. That means a lot to me.
WOTS: It looks like you’re well on your way to achieving that!
WOTS: Okay, the question we’ve been intrigued to have answered – how exactly does professional wrestling influence your writing? BONUS: Which essay in the collection are you referring to that is specifically structured after a match’s narrative?
SK: First of all, as someone who has spent the majority of her adult life feeling extremely insecure about her lack of post-secondary education, I think I tend to gravitate to art forms that are doing weird and brilliant things while being dismissed as trash. Wrestling in particular compels me because it features so many different forms of collaborative storytelling on so many different levels. There’s just so much to learn from the way these physical and verbal storytellers convey emotion, short and long-term plots, etc.
Step 10 is the essay that was originally inspired by the structure of a particular match that I was obsessed with during the writing process. A lot of that structure was lost during the editing process, but I still wanted to acknowledge the inspiration. Both because I wanted to have some sort of example of how much I appreciate wrestling’s influence on my work in there, and because I really wanted to see the words “Captain’s Fall Anal Explosion Time Difference Web News Posting Tag Team Death Match” in print.
WOTS: The last essay, “Damned If I Know”, poses some very honest questions you have about your own future. What helps in coping with a future that is uncertain?
SK: Oh, hell. The title is more accurate now than I when I wrote it. I’m barely hanging on right now, and I have no constructive wisdom to offer anyone, including myself. I think all I/we can do is realize that nothing has ever been certain, and some people have lived with that reality for their whole lives while others have been at least somewhat insulated from it. And then try to process and cope with those realizations in a way that doesn’t harm other people.
WOTS: Agreed 100% – that’s fair! And there’s wisdom in admitting you have no answers. Sitting with that feeling (we have found) can lead to answers, too, eventually.
WOTS: What are some of your writing rituals, and what inspires you when you feel blocked?
SK: For a person whose brain wiring thrives on patterns and a certain amount of structure, I have shockingly little of it in my work habits. I write at random. I probably wouldn’t finish anything if I didn’t have deadlines. When I’m blocked, I cry.
WOTS: This is 90% of writers, if they were honest with us…
SK: If you’re not self-flagellating and pouting, are you really writing at all?
That said, there is one thing I’m finding really inspiring in general right now, and that’s a series of wrestling shows called ChocoPro Wrestling. The sheer amount of bonkers genius they’ve pulled out of limited circumstances makes me want to try.
WOTS: Who is in your current TBR pile? Do you have a favourite new title from 2020?
SK: I would love to be able to say that I have a favourite new title, because that would mean that I am reading and participating in the industry and culture into which I have had the gall to launch a book but… my executive function hasn’t really allowed me to finish much.
I have a constantly growing TBR pile in the hopes that changes, though, and Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s Slingshot and Madeleine Ryan’s A Room Called Earth are at the top of it. I’m also excited about Kay Kerr’s Please Don’t Hug Me.
At the beginning of self isolation, I randomly declared that now was the perfect time to finally finish the 2023 trilogy by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, but who knows if I’ll follow through on that.
WOTS: What project do you plan to work on next? (Is it the autistic teen sex comedy you originally pitched when signed for this project?)
SK: I’m trying to be pragmatic about my future as a writer at the moment. Unknown authors releasing their first books are always in a precarious position, and mine has been increased by the current situation. It’s entirely possible I will never have the privilege to publish again. My current plan is to mourn that and mess around for a bit while taking care of paying then rent. When I’m ready, I’ll start to consider projects that will feel amusing and/or meaningful to me even if no one else ever wants to read them or has a chance to.
The autistic teen sex comedy will most likely be on that list. I also really want to write a collection of essays that explore pop culture about sleeping with things you really shouldn’t. (Like Duran Duran’s song about a man banging a leopard… and Duran Duran’s song about banging a robot.)
But mostly, I fantasize about running away and joining the DareJyo dojo.