Marty Castleberg is a recovering academic and organizational consultant who now spends his days surrounded by his stringed companions while he untangles words at his writing desk. He just finished a travel-memoir – Daveland – which is about the choices we make when we can no longer hide a life-long secret.
What are some of the challenges to writing as an adult with neurological differences?
Yes, yes, yes, what to call me? Even the politically correct phrase “learning different” has its problems. At any rate, I’ve come to learn that there are as many advantages to being neurologically different as downsides and I couldn’t imagine giving up those advantages just to be considered “normal.” How boring.
LD people display different symptoms but generally speaking we tend to see the world in more of its splendor and complexity than most people, yet we stumble over the simple things. Because I have little short term visual memory I had to learn to write with my ears (not literally of course, I know they’re big but . . .) which can lead to some interesting grammar and creative spelling, even though everything would be phonetically perfect. (I believe that the invention of spell-check, with all it’s imperfections, saved my life. Literally.) I’ve developed these other senses to fill in the visual gaps, much like a blind person compensates, using sound, touch, and the ability to verbalize stories. In this sense, I view myself as more story-teller than writer.
Hard to explain, summarize, or label… imagine.
It is. I recently saw a piece of research that suggested that over 50% of adults in the US thought that learning disabilities are a form of mental retardation. This makes me vulnerable in a way that most people don’t experience. In our society we judge intelligence by things like spelling bees and test scores, even though those things represent a limited number of gifts and are no more special than the athlete who has to make millions of mental calculations to control their bodies. We know enough about intelligence now that these prejudices are comparable to believing that the earth is flat.
Some have labeled us “puzzle people,” which seems to fit. When I was a kid we got warehoused somewhere; today I would just as likely be put in a gifted program, but many are still swept aside to keep the narrowly focused education machine rolling. That’s why so many of us are in prison. What a waste. We need to get past the bigotry that almost feels sanctioned in our society. Ironically, some of the most politically correct people are the worst offenders. We are appalled when people make fun of the physically challenged yet if someone makes a spelling or grammatical gaff in a public way it will go viral. And for the poor kid who can’t tell the difference between his left and right and switches b with d, or p with q, the world can be crushing.
So it’s with added anxiety I hand over drafts to other writers/readers, even editors, because you don’t want the person who’s helping you shape the story thinking he/she’s working with a complete idiot. And writers can be very unforgiving when it comes to anything grammar or spelling related. Those things represent the backbone of the trade after all. If it ever becomes an issue I can use it as an opportunity to teach, then again, some people believe in a flat world.
What are your tricks to get “unstuck?” when not feeling creative? What gets your engine going?
I can’t say that I’ve ever been blocked. However, I do feel that the act of writing, or the discipline of writing can be a heavy weight to carry at times so I have no problem with putting it down to rest occasionally. I’m in that phase now, having just wrapped up years of work on Daveland. The key for me is that I understand why I’m putting it down, that it’s to refresh myself and take a peak at the sun, not merely some unconscious avoidance strategy. I usually ramp back up by writing smaller pieces until I’ve generated enough juice to jump into a major project.
When I’m in writing mode I like to start with research and strategic reading. I remember Caroline Alexander saying in an article I read some years ago that (I hope I get this right) her work was 40% writing and 60% research. She also said that if she felt blocked it meant she needed to hit the library. Good advice. I also should note that I view writing very broadly. In full writing mode I make sure that I spend as much time reading other works as I spend on my own drafts. Even exploring a place or setting is as important to the process as putting words on the page. And, when appropriate, I will photograph settings and scenes that may be relevant. I studied my photography documenting my time in Argentina to create many of the visual images in Daveland. (My short term memory stinks; my long term memory is stellar.) When I have all the information and tools in front of me I can get a bit obsessive for weeks at a time. It’s rather workman-like: every morning and evening, sandwiched by reading and life. Once I’m in the process I don’t have time to get blocked.
In general, do you know what you are going to write about before you write or does the work lead you?
My writing is about putting a truth on paper that I can’t articulate any other way. Philip Roth talks about his writing being driven by a question that he wants to answer, to learn something he didn’t see before. So, I start with the question and hang on, knowing the question may be irrelevant by the end of the process.
Have you been mentored? Do you mentor? What are your feelings about having mentors or heroes in the areas we love and want to grow?
My case is different than most people, I started my education in remedial reading rooms/special ed. Given my visual problems with language I couldn’t aspire to be a writer, even though the thing that saved me was the book-of-the-month club and not the stuff from the school library.
Most recently I’ve had writing coaches that were basically guns for hire who had nothing invested in me. And I have a long list of favorite writers I’ve read over the years who I re-read to inspire me during different writing phases. I’m especially inspired by writers who had similar quirks to my own: Gustave Flaubert and John Irving to name two. There were also the great examples of how to talk about things that are intensely personal. I didn’t want to be a poster child for anything but I so admired how writers like William Styron, Kay Jamison, and Joan Didion were able to get inside their experience without wallowing. Genius.
Otherwise, there are scores of people who have touched my writing along the way by giving me their eyes and encouragement while being good humored about my quirks.
My life would be very different if it weren’t for the people who saw my little neurological quirks as potentially beneficial rather than problematic. The first was my former partner Jude, the special ed. teacher I wrote about in Daveland, who led me through a diagnosis and helped me build a life that embraced my quirks. She never let me forget the benefit of seeing the world through different eyes. Then, I was a minister’s intern for awhile and I started writing one-minute PSA radio spots for him. He was the first person who told me I was smart who I actually believed. (I came from a family of story-tellers, so knowing how the story should sound came easily to me.) The minister playfully laughed at my grammar and spelling mistakes as he turned my paper draft different directions to read it. Then, during my doctoral work, I had a journalist sit on my committee so that I could try to pull the grammatical mush together that had passed me by in grade school. Then my research work, experimenting with narrative as an intervention tool, forced daily production that I couldn’t just pull out of my hoo. I got a lot of encouragement to expand my writing to a larger audience. They were grateful to read something that didn’t look like it came from an accounting firm. All of these people were the real inspiration.
How did Daveland come about?
When I first started drafting it I thought it would be a humorous travelogue about my struggles learning spanish in South America. One of the challenges was the lack of dialogue, a result of not knowing the language, so I invented the wisecracking Dave. When my initial readers came back with feedback they said two things: 1. the real story was about me coming to grips with my neurological issues-it needed to be a memoir. And 2. MORE DAVE! I cringed, but I knew they were right. What I didn’t know at the time was that the concept of “Dave” went to the heart of what I was trying to express. It was more than just a filler for dialogue, Dave was the story, and I couldn’t see it until the second draft. Unfortunately, by the time I was done with Daveland, the publishing industry was in a tailspin from the economy and a digital reality that it wasn’t prepared for, so I knew that selling the dreaded memoir would be nearly impossible. I did have one insider suggest that autism would be a better issue for me: “it’s hot right now.” Plus, I had no platform, which made me a risky bet, so I figured it was a sign to move on.
Then two things happened. I used my musical and sound background to produce a cd for a local poet I’d accompanied while performing around San Francisco. Then I realized that Daveland would be most beneficial to those who would probably prefer audio in the first place. So, I thought, I will do it for people like me, I will make an audio-book. Another thought occurred to me. If I do it right I will have a platform when I’m done so I can sell the paper rights after the fact.
So, not only did I start working on my narrative skills by reading everything aloud, I started mixing music and getting permissions for different scores from around the world. (Best find: the military orchestras.) I learned more about GATT laws than I ever wanted to. I also gathered sounds from around the city, including staging my own custom sounds in the garbage room of my building. After about 150 music mixes, developing a new narrative voice, and thousands of sounds later, I had an audio-book that was scored and sound-scaped-9.5 hours of radio theater.
What responses to Daveland have you loved the most? Which have you been the most surprised by?
If there was a surprise it’s that so many people close to me struggled with the larger theme of Daveland: hiding and coming to grips with the less than perfect parts of ourselves. They have their own Dave stories apparently.
Otherwise, what I’d hoped would happen has happen. I’ve unearthed a number of people who share some of my quirks. One is a professor at an R-1 University who said he graduated from high school illiterate. I would like to learn more about my reader’s stories. How did they learn to read? Who helped them? What was life like for them back then? Now? Do they feel the need to hide it? I had thought that their Dave stories would make a good follow-up book. Stay tuned.
What have you had to unlearn?
Academic speak. I never really fit into academia and was grateful I found a doctoral program that valued making knowledge accessible to the greater community. My luck continued as I developed some notoriety for integrating narrative into formal written feedback. In fact, while researching at Harley-Davidson for ten years they referred to me as their Reflective Analyst/Learning Historian. If I’d given them a steady diet of dense academic sterility I wouldn’t have lasted a year with these guys. It made me realize the value of a well crafted narrative to force someone to stop, reconsider, reflect.
Best writing advice?
Learn to listen to your own voice.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.