'...to write and read comes by nature' - Shakespeare and escaping the world through fiction


‘How do you think you’ll feel about that?’ the counsellor asked, in his usual thoughtful manner.  In this instance, my actions spoke before, and more clearly, than my words.  From my seat, I could feel the intense delight and awkwardness move through me and activate my body: my legs curled up so my arms could embrace them, I squirmed, squinting through the gap between my knees, ‘Like this,’ I said, ‘I’ll feel like this!’  He looked at me, ‘You do realise,’ he said carefully, ‘You’re describing positive sensory overload.’  I took in what he had said, then my body unfurled and the pleasure in what I had discovered began to slowly sink in.

The reality was, as I watched my short play be performed, the excitement, concern and exposure were so excruciating that  I sat so hunched forwards as to be almost folded in half! I was a cocktail of both pleasurable and adrenaline-fuelled anxiety: I wanted the audience to like my play, I felt devoutly grateful to the individuals who’d made it happen and I simply wanted it to be over!  It was, soon enough.  Thus it was the creative arts were drawing me towards the positive end of the sensory overload spectrum and this was my first outing.

Fast forwards a few months and I found myself in Waterstones one warm, wet weekend afternoon.  This has been a difficult summer and the toll of solving complex problems has pressed hard upon my energy, stirring up anxiety and heightening sensory issues.  It’s a complicated game, caring for oneself admit internal and external storms.  But this afternoon was leisure: coffee then a browse through the sections that most appealed.  Despite my urgent return to reading fiction (the sublime ‘Mrs Hemingway’; JK Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’; Robert Glancy’s excellent ‘Terms and Conditions’, next it is Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’.  Again, I give thanks for public libraries), I didn’t fancy browsing novels… instead, I gave myself the gift of time to both wander and wonder… what was it that I feel like?  As my mind was free to drift, it led me towards the comfort of hardback books, the luxury of detailed photographs, the subject matter ranging from crafting, to gardening and upcycling. 



The longer I browse I feel my body relax as my mind absorbs the plentiful detail, page by page, idea by idea, soothing my troubled mind and turning the tide from uncomfortable, fretful anxiety, straight through neutral and into excited, hopeful inspiration.  It’s not easy, living along the outreaches, with a brain which chemically catalyses such speedy emotional switches and contrasts.  Suddenly I’m stood in the centre of the store and I feel overwhelmingly faint.  The irregular rushing of my heart (an intermittently intrusivesensation that has been bothering me for some days) becomes central to the empty feeling flooding through me, gravity offering me the chance to float.  I know these palpitations are the side effects of over-strenuous anxiety yet they are still upsetting – a clarion call I must address the imbalance.

A gentle arm leads me to the side, guides me to the floor.  I kneel, head lent against books and wait.  I can’t speak, I will my tongue to move, my hands to reach out.  It has scared me more when I didn’t understand what was going on… Eventually the moment passes and I seek fresh air, cooler temperatures.  What has just happened?  A collision, I believe, in emotional extremes: a bedrock of stressful exhaustion is juxtaposed by positive overwhelm – the moody black of a stormy night blasted apart by persistent fireworks.  We are not built to weather such extremes although we can if we must.

Another few weeks pass and I am presented with the wonderful opportunity to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Globe.  Every step of this day was a discovery: under the high blue summer sky I ventured to be true to my autistic self, to allow it the chance to flex its underworked muscles and explore the positive parameters of life.  As my companion and I stood at the stage’s edge, elbows resting upon the stage like children slouching at the tea table, I felt at ease and simultaneously enervated by the experience.

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

The play itself?  Well, I must admit the cynic in me felt that the Mexican setting was an astute marketing ploy designed to return a successful summer run.  It’s probably unfair, but the broad mix of accents made the Mexican costumes little more than fancy dress to my eye.  Of course, there is plenty to enjoy about the vivid colours, swirling skirts and excitable fiesta catcalls of a Mexican setting I just can’t help unfavourably compare it to my memory of Tamsin Greig’s commanding Beatrice in 2006’s outstanding Cuban set production. 

However, a Shakespeare play is always about the language and unless the lines are truly murdered by inexperience then there is joy to be taken: by the anticipation of familiar passages and in the recognition of treasured phrases!  For the slight lack of conviction and verve there was the magnificence of the venue, the novel intimacy of standing, the open air above our heads. What I would truly love to see is an ASC friendly performance at the Globe.  I attended an ASC friendly matinee of War Horse in 2014 and I would urge anyone who truly loves theatre to experience a showing which embraces honest, human responses.  It was not stiffly quiet and dark – the occasional movement and call-outs added substance to the experience not detraction from it.  I couldn’t help but think that had the Globe audience been predominantly neurodiverse the wonderful and rousing whole cast finale would have got the whole yard dancing too!  It ought to have done – my word, I was tempted – yet the pressure of dull convention kept me in a metaphorical corner.

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

photo credit: Zoe Vail Smith

As the summer progresses, I am writing fiction for the first time with a flow and intensity I haven’t felt before.  Who knows where it will go, how it will finish?  I have finally slipped free from the tricks played by my inner perfectionist and it is with joy I am constructing my own protagonists; learning to utilise the imagination that has previously generated too many hypothetical anxieties.  It seems that I can build fiction also and no matter where it leads I shall enjoy the safe haven it provides my mind.

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She is Mainspring Arts' monthly blogger, bringing a fresh autistic perspective to the arts.