I’m A Writer With ADHD, And I Don’t Read (Many) Books | Gimme Schalter №44
Like Cindy Lou Who, I was not more than two, flipping through the pages of “Uncle Art’s World of Drawing” on an otherwise unremarkable evening. Suddenly, the black markings beneath the pictures just sort of…snapped into focus.
“Giraffe,” I said. The black markings were letters that formed a word, and the word was name of the animal being drawn on the page. Giraffe. Flip. Lion. Flip. Hippo.
I was reading.
I was hooked.
That night I read all the books in my room — and kept reading everything I could get my hands on, all the way through school. Fast forward three decades, and I still read millions of words every year — but I’m lucky if I read a dozen books.
Before my 2021 ADHD diagnosis, I’d have given you plenty of reasons why that is: I have a dayjob, a freelance career, and a grip of side hustles that leave me very little unstructured time; I’m a parent of three teenagers who demand (and deserve) my attention; I consume an incredible amount of written words every day via blog posts and #longreads, stories and socials. Shoving allllll of that aside to focus on a book takes not just big investments of precious time and concentration, but luck that none of the things I just shoved aside claw their way back between me and the story.
And I have to shove those things aside, because I want to read the way I read back then: falling into stories on Page 1 and falling out of them at THE END, losing myself in their world. Taking in bit by bit of a story over weeks and months just doesn’t work for me. If I don’t know I’ll be able to finish reading a story in a couple-three sittings over a couple-three days, I don’t want to start it.
But today, if you ask me why I don’t read many books? I might just laugh and say “ADHD.”
Last Friday, author and editor Allison K. Williams threaded some advice for authors struggling to compare their projects to already-published books. Comp titles are one of those insidery publishing things that wannabe authors have to get familiar with — and as Williams suggested, the best way to get familiar with the kinds of books your book will sit next to on the shelf is to, you know, read a lot of those books.
Williams’ thread not only went viral, it spawned Discourse. And The Discourse went viral, spawning new Discourses of its own — each with their own context collapses and bad-faith interpretations and all the other things we hate about The Horrible Bird Site.
Days after the original thread dropped, I saw someone I like and respect backlash against someone else I like and respect, who had screenshot-dunked on a third person I like and respect, who’d asserted that it’s ableist to tell writers they have to read widely within their publishing category — because some writers, like those with ADHD, can’t read books.
I’ve written here before about how gifted writers can use the power of language to manipulate perceptions: Exaggerate a little here, minimize a little there, nitpick this while glossing over that, use a word that’s just a little more inflammatory than necessary but not technically un-true and you might be able to raise an army to defend you from a perceived slight. Or mock someone who said something contrary to accepted wisdom right off the Internet.
This phenomenon is widely known and discussed — but what’s less talked about is writers’ ability to turn this power on ourselves.
ADHD is a disability. Even with medical treatment, I struggle with attention, focus, time management, and executive function in ways most people don’t. That list of reasons gave above for why I don’t read for pleasure very often is basically just a list of ADHD symptoms.
…but it’s also a list of excuses.
In any given day I’m doing my job, pitching and drafting freelance pieces, playing video games, listening to podcasts, playing or refereeing soccer, chatting in Slack and Discord, watching TV with my family, writing this newsletter, doing housework, Tweeting, and cooking dinner. I’m choosing to do those things instead of reading.
If I have 37 free minutes in between picking up a kid from activity and doing an interview, I’ll far more often decide I “can’t really” do something focus-intensive like reading in “just” 37 minutes than put the hard thing first and Twitter second. Is this because of how my brain is wired? Yeah. Do I also have the power to make a better choice? It’s hard, but yeah. I do.
Again, I love to read. I love books. Whenever I do crack open the covers of something that really grabs me, nothing’s better than that feeling of being grabbed. And the same goes for working on my novel: If I’m not obsessed with it, I’m ignoring it — and the longer I ignore it, the harder it is for me to submerge my brain back in the universe of that story, get back in the mindset I need to be able to write.
Could I blame my lack of novel I/O throughput on being “disabled”? Technically, yeah. But I also have a million advantages and privileges other writers don’t, and some of those other writers also have ADHD and/or other disabilities, and some of them are successful, traditionally published novelists. And I’m not. Scoreboard.
And that, I think, is the heart of all the context collapses and bad-faith interpretations: It IS possible to write books without reading them. You can absolutely feed your brain narratives from shows, video games, podcasts, and synthesize them with your experiences, feelings, and values into the book of your heart. But if you’re trying to write books that will sell without reading books that have sold, you’re making a hard-to-reach goal even harder.
My friend, author and agent Lauren Bajek, did a wonderful job explaining it in this short thread:
No creative craft advice can be a universal rule, even when it’s presented as such. And even if there were such a thing as a universal rule for creative success, everyone’s idea of success is a little bit different. And even if everyone’s idea of success were the same, every rule has exceptions.
But anyone whose goal is to write for a living will eventually have to negotiate challenges that aren’t fair, just, or equal. They’ll have to do a lot of stuff that’s hard even for the most privileged among us. And they’ll have to keep doing it. And, to some extent, they’ll have to get lucky. And as much as we will all be better served by collectively working to knock down barriers and equalize inequalities, we still have to physically write down the stories in our heads in a way that effectively gets them into lots of others’.
And that’s why I do #TyNoWriPro at the bottom of every Gimme Schalter — because so far, regardless of the reasons, I haven’t been doing what I need to do in order to achieve what I want to achieve.
It seems like there’s been a noticable uptick in truly excellent Twitter threads lately, and this one by The New Yorker’s archive editor is outstanding in every way.
Beginning with an anecdote that I’m sure anyone in white-collar work who’s not a dude will find depressingly #relatable, this thread gets deeper, more profound, more upsetting, and more specific as it goes on — with a commensurate increase in bravery (and, hopefully) impact on the world of journalism.
Typically, I use Everything Awesome to highlight excellent writing, journalism, podcasting, digital media, TikTokery or what-have-you.
But this video nearly as old as I am of a 75-year-old Hall of Famer going yard in an old-timers’ game is just the definition of awesome:
There’s a wealth of Internet culture — heck, culture period — that GenXers and Xennials came of age with that’s all but disappeared. Digital media that had to be shared via emailed attachments and direct downloads, or posted on a few megabytes of precious server space and subject to dire bandwidth limitations, largely didn’t make it to The Cloud.
“Basketball (so funny you’ll pee your pants).avi” is one of those cultural relics. Feldman’s Pulitzer-worthy investigation of where it happened, when it happened, and who it happened to is a must-read for anyone who feels feelings at the mention of eBaum’s World or Kazaa.
BONUS: Check out Feldman’s personal website, which is the best I’ve seen in a while.
Speaking of generational nostalgia, I grew up in a time when anti-Semitism was thought of as a long-forgotten thing of the past. The 1980s ideal of fighting anti-Black racism with “colorblindess” might have failed — but I, like most white kids I knew, were truly clueless about Jewish stereotypes, or common Jewish cultural signifiers — let alone historical anti-Semitic storytelling tropes.
The return of overt white supremacy in U.S. politics opened my eyes to a lot of decades-, centuries-, even millenia-old ways that Jews have been cast as villains in European folklore — the kind of folklore modern fantasy writers and artists love to mine when telling their own tales. This guide by Myna, a querying YA writer, is vital for anyone doing (or consuming) creative work in genre fiction.
All the positive momentum I had last update stalled over the last week, as the dayjob got busy and my kids’ summer activities got going. We also fought the heat with everyone else, window units straining to keep the temperature and humidity below brain-fogging levels.
Not only didn’t I finish the 1.5 draft of CODEX 17, I also got behind on producing and posting Three & Out episodes. But with the publish of this issue, I’m all caught up — and as you read this, I’ll be re-training my brainframe on the characters and stories of magical mountaintop city.