There was never a moment in Ada Hoffmann’s life when she wasn’t a huge geek. She was one of those who was born and raised in geekdom, and has continued the proud tradition herself through reading fanfics and participating in LARP. This feature is not kept only to the personal side of her life, but includes the professional spheres as well. She is working toward earning her Ph.D. in Computer Science, studying creativity in computers, and her writing is focused on speculative poetry and fiction.
Hoffmann got into poetry while she was earning her Master’s degree when she read A guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects by Catherynne M. Valtente, “It was beautiful and dreamlike and sharp and like nothing I'd ever read before, and I suddenly thought, ‘I want to do that, too.’” She had been doing other writing prior to this point, primarily in speculative fiction, but for her this was the turning point into poetry. Today, Hoffmann continues her love of the speculative genre in both forms.
Getting her writing off the ground was like the stories of other writers, with slight variations to make accommodations for herself as an autistic writer. Using the computer and internet as tools, Hoffmann could connect with writing critique groups online. “I'm lucky to have been born in the time when I did, because computers make so many things possible that would have been much more difficult for me, as an autistic person, if they had to be done face to face.”
The internet unfortunately is not a fix for everything. Writers today are expected to start author’s pages, blogs, and run social media platforms to promote their work and get their name out into the world. While this aspect of self-promotion can be hard for all writers, it is particularly so for Hoffmann and other writers with autism, “I often don't know what to say to keep a blog or social media account going.” Ultimately, what she thought was her biggest weakness turned out to be an advantage. She turned her own platforms into an opportunity, using her own unique blend of firsthand experiences, “I started talking about autism and reviewing speculative fiction books with autistic characters in them.” It is from this work that she feels that she has gained most her following.
An attitude writers with autism face when submitting or even discussing their work is: how can someone with autism write poetry or fiction? “First,” Hoffmann said, “some people hear the word ‘autism’ and picture someone who can't communicate in words at all. Second, other people have internalized the belief that autistic people have no imagination, and you need imagination to create a new thing.” Both of these images of a person with autism are stereotypes. Like all disabilities, autism comes with a wide range of ability levels. “Many of us find writing or typing easier than speaking, which means that even some people who cannot speak aloud can type and write poetry, including Tito Mukhopadhyay and Emma Zurcher-Long.”
There is also a prevailing myth that people with autism cannot be creative, and since you need creativity to write the conclusion is that an autistic person obviously cannot write. Hoffmann noted that not all poetry requires a rich imagination. Poetry allows for writing about real events and thoughts as they occur without a lot of added inventions. For other types of writing such as fiction, “While some autistic people struggle to imagine events that aren't real, others have very rich imaginations. Some autistic people develop special interests in imaginary worlds and characters, and some use imagination as a coping strategy when the real, Neurotypical-dominated world is too difficult.”
For Hoffmann, her interest in science, poetry, and future possibilities does not end with her life as a writer. She is smashing through the stereotype that you cannot be both scientifically inclined and imaginative by working on a project, that aslo demolishes this stereotype. Her current work is with trying to figure out if a computer can generate poetry. “It's artsy and science fictional and it amuses me immensely. I am the kind of person who needs my imagination to be engaged, and the more dry, numerical branches of computer science would not suit me as well.”
The idea is that by testing to see if a computer can do a creative task—such as generate poetry. If by imitating human creativity in a computer, maybe we can then turn around and learn something more about how our own brains work. Right now, very little is known about the creative aspect of humans, and is what makes the biggest difference between humans and machines. Though, this is not the only reason she wants to pursue the project, “The other is the perennial science reason of ‘because we haven't done it before and it's cool’.”
One problem with her research, though, is how do you measure creativity? Anything that relies on the scientific process requires a way of being measured, and being replicated. “You can define [creativity] in multiple ways,” Hoffmann explained, “based on the work that it produces, or the method by which it produces it, or by the social acceptance and success of the work. There's a lot of interdisciplinary work to be done taking concepts from the psychology of creativity and applying them to systems that are not necessarily anything like a human brain.”
Overall, Hoffmann has found academia to be a good fit for her. It does not have the standard 9-5 hours, and allows her some flexibility to make her own schedule. The difficulty for her has been in the elusive process of networking. “Networking is terrifying to me.” She admitted. Luckily, she has not been left to fend for herself. She has found that her supervisors within her Ph.D. program have been very supportive in guiding her. Not only through her Ph.D. process, but also as she begins to consider what is beyond.
In the spirit of giving it forward, Hoffmann has advice for any aspiring writers with autism who might not know how to get their foot in the door. First: write, write, WRITE! This is true for anyone who hopes to establish a career as an author. It’s impossible without practicing! “Join an online critique group; there are many available that are suitable for beginners and most autistic people will find the online format easier than a face-to-face group.” Hoffmann recommends using these groups to improve your writing, because you can receive critiques. It is also excellent practice for getting used to being edited and critiqued. “It will hurt at first but it will also make you level up and write better.”
Don’t stop at only getting your work critiqued! Read others work, and offer your own suggestions, “You will learn just as much by giving critiques and by learning to look at story drafts with an eye to how they can be improved.” She also recommends becoming familiar with your planned genre, and read advice on writing, “But take it all with a grain of salt, including mine. If you are disabled, then advice like ‘write every day’ or ‘network a lot in this specific way’ may not be appropriate for you. This does not mean you are not a real writer.”
Most importantly, “Don't listen to anyone who says that autistic people can't write good characters, or can't write with empathy, or can't write in any other specific way. It is not true. You will probably find that some parts of writing come easily to you and others are more difficult, but you can work on building your skills at the difficult parts, just like any other author.” Authors are always finding innovative ways to improve their writing, so focusing on an area you might be less developed in does not mean a writer is any less-than another writer. Try not to compare how you write, or your writing process, to other writers. “Every career is different and your success won't look exactly like anyone else's.”
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