Writing With ADHD Part One: Writing, Emotions, and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

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It’s been a few months now since my official ADHD diagnosis. The fact that I’m almost 40 years old has not escaped me. There were a lot of weeks where things Were Not Well in My Head. Not scary bad, but the kind of bad where you’re looking back at your ENTIRE LIFE and things both make a HUGE AMOUNT OF SENSE but are also terribly depressing to think about. Some of these insights will make it into a larger piece some day, but I do not have the emotional resilience or spoons to talk about that right now.

What I can talk about is ADHD and writing, because for me, these two features of my brain are inextricably intertwined.

This is not a “neurodivergents are magic” post. It is not a “neurodivergents are broken” post, either. Neither of those things are true, and there’s plenty of wrongful discourse about each of them elsewhere. What I want to show you is the give and take of ADHD so you can either understand yourself a little more, or understand people around you a little more, and see that the path from story to publication is a long, long one, fraught with unique challenges in an industry very much not built around people with disabilities.

Writing is a Compulsion and a Calling

ADHD folks, as well as many people on the autistic spectrum, have deep, deep interests–and sometimes, they become coping mechanisms, familiar distractions, or even careers. While generally speaking, ADHD types flit around from interest to interest (hi, I’m also a musician and abstract painter and voice-over artist, and yes, I work a full time job in addition to all this), some of us do have what I think of as “core interests.” The Cricut machine gathering dust by my desk? That is not a core interest. That was driven by impulse and a need for better circulating neurotransmitters. When it became clear that working the Cricut was going to be a) not easy b) sticky? and c) riddled with errors, I quickly gave up. Same for that concertina that I bought. Or that Sculpey clay. And that time I thought I might be a historical costumer in spite of having zero attention span for sewing.

I started writing novel-length things when I was about 11 years old, and I now realize it was both a coping mechanism and a way to sort through my complex emotions (I’ve written about some of that here and here). I’d always been an absolutely voracious reader, immersing myself in fantasy worlds at every possible chance, and writing felt like a very natural reaction to that. I didn’t start by blocking out novels or learning about process. I just started writing.

Writing is how I process my emotions. Full stop. I don’t even feel my emotions in real-time. Even big, pandemic-sized emotions. So writing, and emotional expression through writing, is a compulsion, a need, a drive inside of me that needs venting and examination. I cannot express how absolutely personal my writing process is to me in ways that make sense to someone who approaches it from another angle. I’ve learned that the majority of people out there don’t feel completely enmeshed to their hobbies like I do. And that’s okay. I have to write to feel. The rest is gravy. Sort of.

This means that writing is sometimes easy for me. When I’m primed for production (i.e. on the right meds, getting the right therapy, etc.) the writing process is not difficult for me. Since I started finally taking medication to actually address my ADHD and not just the symptoms, I’ve been able to write at the kind of pace I was 14 years ago when I first started contemplating publication. My daily goal is around 1500 words, and since I’m on deadline now (yay) that helps my brain get the little extra adrenaline boost to keep going, too.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and the Publishing World

But, and I can’t stress this enough: I have struggled immensely to write consistently over the last 10 years. Yes, I have books. Yes, they’re being published. But Queen of None is a perfect example of a book that languished because of how I approach publishing. More on that in a moment.

Though I don’t think I have it as severely as some folks (my son has ADHD and Autism, so I can at least speak to our small sample set) I experience what’s called rejection sensitive dysphoria. Remember how I said that I struggle with expressing emotions outwardly–oh, it’s super complicated.

RSD means that many people on the neurodivergent spectrum, and particularly ADHD and autistic folks (who are often twice-exceptional), really flail when rejection is involved. Failing at things hits our core, in many ways because so many things come easily to us. Except when they don’t. And we have lots of baggage, tons of social and academic and personal rejection, and it gets very tangled. For me, that rejection turns inward. I have high-anxiety RSD, which means I’m not explosive: I’m implosive. From the linked article above:

With high-anxiety RSD, symptoms may include:

  • Avoidance of situations with a possibility of rejection
  • Withdrawal from others in order to avoid rejection
  • Rumination, or thinking about the experience of rejection again and again

You can probably see how the above would severely impact a writing career, especially when you want to break out. Now, I don’t EVER lash out at bad reviews or rejection. But many people with ADHD/RSD do. That’s part of the disability. And there’s no system built to make it easier for us (not that we’re not used to that… the whole world sometimes feels that way). I mean, there is therapy, of course… but that’s just part of the process.

Back to Queen of None. I wrote the bulk of this book in 2009-2010. I sent it out to a single agent and a single publisher, both who passed on it, and I decided that the book wasn’t worth sharing. Even though I believed in the book, even though I knew it was good. Year after year, I’d go back to Anna’s story and tweak it, fix it, come so very close to sending it out again… and then I’d can it again.

Flavors of Rejection?

Yeah, you say, rejection sucks for everyone. It does! But publishing is built around rejections, vagueness, long waits, and shifting targets. And for those of us with RSD and neurodivergent brain, that’s a lot of stress. There are even flavors of rejection that make it more frustrating!

I prefer a straight-out rejection. “This isn’t for me.” My brain likes that. I can understand opinions and let that go. I can even understand if you don’t like my style of writing, the setting, the language, the sensual scenes, whatever. What gets me are specific, totally fixable issues of rejection. Because as an ADHD brain, I’m very plastic in my thinking… but then weirdly rigid. I don’t see a book as a final, finished object until it’s been through a developmental editor. The best writing I’ve ever done has been because of editors and readers who have asked the right questions. I am not seeking perfection in my drafts, I’m seeking progress.

But rejection is taxing in ways that are hard to explain if you don’t experience it directly. I’m learning to push past it and in a lot of ways I have–but I promise you, for neurodivergent brains this takes an exceptional amount of energy to do so. Again, not saying that rejection isn’t hard for the rest of us. I have no problem with people critiquing my work—I do struggle when it’s me as a person they’re rejecting. Which, when you’re agent-hunting and you have RSD, is what it feels like.

I recently got an agent rejection that called my premise and work “enchanting” and wonderfully written, but felt that my main character was emotionally distant. She is autistic! She isn’t emotionally distant, she has trouble processing her emotions—and her whole character arc is about finding love, and learning to express herself! But also, I felt that there were many ways I could make this better, and that it was a shame that this agent passed over an opportunity to show a neurodivergent character in a romance that approached it differently. I want to revise and edit. It’s my favorite part of the whole process. It seemed like such a missed opportunity to me.

But you’re not supposed to respond, you’re not supposed to gripe, you’re not supposed to fight back in any way. So I just imploded on myself.

Photo by Andrew Hutchings on Unsplash

And then I was hurt for my own character and for me. Because people say they want to commit to diversity, but when you open up yourself and show characters that actually show it… it’s suddenly not marketable. I highly recommend that editors and agents asking for #OwnVoices really think about what that means, and consider when people self-identify in their queries as well. Not asking for special treatment, but understanding goes a long way. “Marketing” disability is a slippery slope.

My agent searching over the last ten years has been the same scoop. Every couple of years, I double down and do the query thing. Every time, I get lots of super close calls, full-manuscript requests, partial requests and then… either I get ghosted or rejected. And every time I give up for about a year or two and then try again when I feel like I can deal with the rejection-o-rama.

Too Much or Not Enough?

I am a very intelligent human. I know that rejection isn’t personal usually. Intellectually I grasp that there are thousands of reasons why this didn’t work for this particular agent. But I’ve come so close, so many times, my brain starts to tell me that it’s never going to happen. Because I’ve dealt with rejection — from peers, from family, from colleagues — my whole life. Just because I have a diagnosis now doesn’t make that easier.

Then comes the spiral, and the constant resonating in my head: Am I too much? This question has plagued me since I was a child. I was too quirky, too weird, too enthusiastic, too dreamy, too passionate, too invested, too nerdy, too creative, too scattered, too messy, too artistic…

I’m being vulnerable here because this is the kind of thing that really still plagues me. I’m okay with people not liking me. The trauma of high school taught me how to mask and get through it. But masking is exhausting. I can’t pretend to be neurotypical, at least not for long. The writing world was the first place I felt like I belonged, so the blows can be particularly rough.

Also, failure and rejection are two totally different things to me. I figure I’ll have to write about that later at some point.

Impulse and “Clamming Up”

That’s why Queen of None sat on my hard-drive for so long. And it’s not the only book languishing there! OH NO. I am going to talk about impulse in another post because oh honey… but the opposite of impulse is a kind of clamming up neurodivergent people do. We retreat. We get stung, we avoid.

So when I saw a call for novels from Vernacular Books and submitted Queen of None, it was my impulse that saved the book from my clamming up. I really didn’t think the book would land, but it turned out it did.

Over the last year, seeing the glowing reviews come in for Queen of None–alongside my ADHD diagnosis journey–made me really re-think how I deal with rejection, and how I have learned to ignore my own instincts because of my RSD. It’s not a good thing. I do have moments where I feel I can conquer the world, but most of the time I’m floundering pretty significantly. This constant oscillation is shit for my ego. It’s shit for my emotional growth. It means I have a very hard time making long-lasting friendships and connections and networking (which is like, that central part of “making it” as an author). It makes is hard for me to get out of my own headspace and just increases my isolation. My working memory is awful, so the whole process of submitting queries (where all the rules are different, they use different processes, and the wait times are eternal) drains me of energy like no one’s business.

But I’ve got to keep going. I just have to be a little more aware of myself.

Disability and Gentle Writing Advice

I have a disability. It’s invisible both by design and by adaptation. I’m really good at pretending I don’t have a disability: You see the tweets and the videos and the Kirkus review and the aggressive writing schedule. What you don’t see is the analysis paralysis, the depression, the withdrawing, the panic attacks, and the constant internal turmoil over the easiest things that I just can’t get myself to do. I am so much harder on myself than anyone knows, and I don’t even properly know how to express it.

I know, though, when I really think about it, when I trust my instincts, I am a good writer. I have a fantastic work ethic, wonderful editor relationships; I connect with readers, and I’m always striving to be better at my craft.

I am the only writer I can be, and only I can write the words I make. The list of things my ADHD has made more difficult or made almost impossible is exhaustive. I’m still learning just how much so…

This is why I absolutely love Chuck Wendig’s Gentle Writing Advice. This particular point is so good, but I would take it further:

My point here is that harsh writing advice is in ample supply these days.

And, frequently, it’s a very masculine style of advice, very Western, very pedagogical with a lot of stern grumpy faces and lectern-pounding.

It lends the very act of talking about writing this feeling that there are answers to how we do this thing that we do — that writing and storytelling is an equation, and as long as we adhere to the formula and plug in the proper variables, we will Properly Compose Content. And we will win awards and become bestsellers, huzzah and hooray.

Chuck Wendig

I would add: “And, frequently, it’s a very masculine style of advice, very Western, VERY NEUROTYPICAL, very pedagogical with a lot of stern grumpy faces and lectern-pounding.

I have heard so much harsh writing advice. I have been lapping that shit up since 2003. My head is full of it, and mostly it’s from my own damned self. I don’t need sunshine and rainbows, of course not–I don’t need to be babied. But I do need to be reminded of the joy, of the emotional growth, the hope, of the supernatural beauty of the creative process. I don’t need to be reminded of the crap because I have a habit of listening to the crap alone and then I stop writing.

And if I stop writing, I forget how to feel.

Writing is my compulsion. ADHD is my disability. But writing is also my salvation. And my hope.

Photo by Justin Lane on Unsplash

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  1. Thank you for sharing! I’d love to know how – if at all – your ADHD medication impacted your writing and creativity. My doc wants me to try Adderall, but I’m worried about it’s impact on creativity.

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