In the fifth installment of Writing While Disabled, Kristy Anne Cox interviews C. L. Polk.
Kristy Anne Cox: Hi Chelsea! First, I’d like to thank you for giving this interview!
Readers, I’m conducting this interview via email with the talented C. L. Polk. Chelsea uses they/them and she/her pronouns and lives on Treaty 7 land in Southern Alberta.
Chelsea is the author of the Hugo-nominated Kingston Cycle of novels, including the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Their novel The Midnight Bargain was a finalist for the Canada Reads, Nebula, Locus, Ignyte, and World Fantasy Awards. Their short fiction and essays appear in various magazines and anthologies. You can check out Chelsea’s work at their website https://clpolk.com/.
If you’ve been following the Writing While Disabled interview series, you’ll notice that I’m asking many of the same questions to all these fabulous Disabled authors.
I promise this is intentional! Each interview has turned out unique and full of valuable information because Disabled people, even us geeky Disabled science fiction writers, embody an array of distinct challenges, skill sets, and insights. I’m lucky to probe the minds of so many talented creatives.
Chelsea, do you mind if we start by introducing our readers to you and your work? Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and what you write?
C. L. Polk: Hi!
I am never sure what to say when asked this question. I guess I’m an SFF writer. I bounce between fantasy, science fiction, and romance while stealing from mysteries and thrillers.
In my free time, I like to do fashion. I knit, crochet, and sew, but have resisted the lure of weaving. I love cooking and playing video games—I′m playing on consoles after being a PC gamer for decades, and my navigation skills are pure comedy.
My favorite part of the day is when I get hyped up over something I learned by falling into a research rabbit hole. I’m also trying to build an exercise habit.
When I write, I’m trying to reflect on the problems with community, society, government—you know, the little things! But I’m also trying to write about people who pay attention to their dissatisfaction and let it guide them to a better life.
KAC: Thank you for that, Chelsea.
Readers, I realize I haven’t done a land acknowledgment yet for this series, which is remiss of me—my apologies. I’m interviewing Chelsea from the Denver, Colorado area, which occupies the ancestral homelands of the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples.
CLP: Lots of people live in the Treaty 7 area. It’s the land that sustained the Kainai, Piikani, and Siksika people who made up the Siksikaitsitapi—they’re also called the Blackfoot Confederacy, as well as the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda, and the Metis Nation.
KAC: Thank you.
“What do you write?” can be a tricky question sometimes. After all, it’s hard to fit our stories into formal genre categories. Yes, SFF is about aliens and monsters, but it can also touch upon our lives and struggles. I love your framing here—that you write about “people who pay attention to their dissatisfaction and let it guide them to a better life.” It sounds hopeful in a time when our stories are so grim.
Does your fiction tend to move towards a happy ending?
CLP: I would say yes. When I write a story, it’s because I’m interested in a problem, so my natural urge is to turn it over, examine it, explore it, and eventually solve it.
I know it’s irritating, but when I see problems in everyday life, I automatically assess them and try to fix them. I’m that person who will get distracted because a painting isn’t level, and I want to fix it so badly, but I can’t because it’s not my painting … and it will just eat at me.
If someone has a problem, I ask them what they need to get better, and I try not to withdraw from the situation even if the solution stinks: happy endings aren’t always possible, after all.
KAC: I’m excited that we’re talking about that, because there’s this whole trend where people feel the need to write Disabled characters as problems to be fixed.
Sometimes abled or differently abled authors write a ‘happy ending’ for a Disabled character that doesn’t connect with readers of that disability community at all. Does that resonate with you?
CLP: Oh heck yes. Assuming that the disability is the problem rather than the environment often limits the solutions we can find.
When I’m out and about, I interrogate public space design—why are there stairs in this mall? Why is the ramp one meter wide? Why isn’t it all ramp? Things like that. There’s a narrow range, and if you don’t fit it, the world doesn’t belong to you.
We often see a person’s disability as a problem to solve or hide, because it’s assumed that the Disabled person wants to be ‘normal.’ However, the environment should be easy to use for everyone, and that means offering different solutions to different people.
KAC: I think about accessibility of spaces all the time. Can I use this space when I need my cane? Can I use it on a day when I need my walker? Could I use this if it were a wheelchair day? It impacts everything I do.
Another framing to pair with accessibility is accommodations. What accommodations would make this space, activity, or group accessible to more folx?
With my Neurodiversity and mental illnesses, I’m wondering, will this person or group put up with my speech and behavioral differences? Will I make them uncomfortable just by being myself?
How do you fit into the Disabled community? With which Disabled communities do you identify?
CLP: My disabilities are invisible. I’m hard of hearing, and I need accommodations for that—like subtitles on videos and TV, and slideshow presentations with clear text so I can follow along.
I also need to see people as they’re talking to me. When masking in public became a thing, I discovered I had figured out lipreading. It’s hereditary: the level of my hearing loss increases with each audiology checkup, and I am terrible at learning how to sign. I have hearing aids I dislike and AirPods Pro earbuds, but wearing hearing enhancement is exhausting, so I only use them if I think the effort is worth it.
I haven’t had all the testing I need to put a label on my Neurodivergence. My symptoms fall into the ADHD-inattentive type, and the testing agrees, but I have had people cocking their heads and asking me if I’m autistic for many years. Maybe? I don’t know?
Depression and anxiety are a part of my life. I have survived more than my fair share of trauma. I have osteoarthritis, and I’m nearsighted (people don’t think this matters. That’s because glasses are nerd-chic now.)
Still, I think I’m an outsider to all communities. Or at least, I feel isolated because I often contend with their restrictive standards: I feel like they negate my disabilities because they aren’t ‘normal.’
We all get to measure ourselves against constructed parameters, because if we want to get accommodations in the world we have to prove our disability. What’s disappointing is that even people within the disability community won’t consider you ‘worthy’ to be part of it.
KAC: We have some overlap in Neurodiversity! Depression, Anxiety, ADHD—I have those, too. I also have severely debilitating OCD and Bipolar disorder, Trichotillomania, and an array of vision, neurologic, and mobility issues.
My disabilities are often invisible, too, unless it’s a mobility device day—and if it means anything, I say you’re valid.
It’s a journey, getting the treatment, support, and diagnosis we need in our dystopian, ableist medical systems. Thank you for sharing the specifics with us—it helps our Disabled readers place themselves into our conversation and parse all the excellent advice.
I want to ask you about how we Disabled creatives can find and build community. You’re describing this feeling of ‘not counting’ or being an outsider. You’re not alone: it’s a common issue in our communities. During this never-ending pandemic, isolation has been a big issue for Disabled people, and for Disabled creators especially.
Then there’s gatekeeping. People like to dismiss it as ‘impostor syndrome,’ but it’s not. It may be part of it, but to invoke ‘impostor syndrome’ without discussing exclusion and safety issues misplaces accountability. Would you agree?
CLP: Absolutely. I’ve been thinking differently about impostor syndrome because I have it myself. When I say, “I don’t feel like I belong here,” well-meaning people will reply, “That’s your impostor syndrome talking,” and I think to myself, “But is it, though?”
Because sometimes, the thought of not belonging somewhere isn’t coming from my brain weasels. That kind of message comes from people forgetting or ignoring me—or talking about my work, and mischaracterizing it in a dismissive way.
The subtext is: “It’s not our fault if you feel like you don’t belong, it’s your impostor syndrome.”
Most places where I feel like I belong are online: private Facebook groups, Slacks, closed-membership Discord servers. I feel more welcome in those spaces because I get invited to be in them, and even so, I’m still not quite at ease.
KAC: Readers, I’m going to address you for a moment. I’m focusing the Writing While Disabled series on multiply marginalized Disabled folx, and this is both intentional and important.
I’m seeking and interviewing Disabled creative folx in SFF who live at the intersection of multiple specific marginalizations because those aspects of who they are, those intersections, tend to get erased and excluded from Disability discourse and Disabled spaces.
Disabled spaces too often default to whiteness and white fragility. It’s a big problem, because safe and welcoming spaces for multiply marginalized Disabled folx must be intersectional and anti-racist.
So, Chelsea, back to you, are your feelings of isolation and outsiderness from Disabled communities related to how Disabled spaces exclude the multiply marginalized?
CLP: Oh, yes, definitely.
KAC: Including in our SFF writing worlds?
CLP: Yes. It gets complicated in SFF because sometimes I can’t pin down why the vibe feels off. Is it because I’m Black? Not straight? Not cis? Is it because my writing doesn’t ignore oppression and social ills?
In some situations, in some communities, I don’t even bother trying. Sometimes at conventions I stick to one or two safe people, so I can pretend that I’m not being ignored. I go along having a good time until something shatters it—and it’s anybody’s guess when that second shoe is going to drop.
KAC: Are there related contexts where you’ve felt included, welcome, and part of the community?
CLP: I have several friends among SFF writers and publishing professionals, so it’s not like no one has my back—and when I’m out and about in person, I can rely on them.
This might make me look cliquey or unapproachable to some people, because I’m already huddled up with buddies. However, please understand that many multiply marginalized people in SFF do this to maintain a sense of safety.
KAC: I have heard people describe protective groupings as exclusionary cliques—so yes, this is important. Sometimes it’s not about you joining the cool kids’ table. It’s about finding people who aren’t going to misgender you or pile on microaggressions.
It’s exhausting to be yourself, even in spaces full of people with the best intentions. Too often, people don’t honor all the time their multiply marginalized guests spend socializing with everyone, how many spoons they spend educating others.
CLP: Right! I would like to attend a convention and simply enjoy it. If I’m at a convention, it’s probably because I’m sitting on a panel—and that is enough labor! I would like to spend the rest of my time socializing, without having to put on my To Sir, With Love suit.
KAC: Do you have any advice for folx experiencing this kind of marginalization at conventions or in other professional writing environments?
CLP: This: You don’t owe outreach work to anyone.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! There are thousands of articles and books available on the internet, and hundreds of podcasts, lectures, and panels. No one needs your time to get educated. If you feel like it, you can say: “This author has interesting things to say about that subject—check them out!”
KAC: Readers, if you’d like to be more inclusive and intersectional in your Disability community, please seek out some of these resources! For our multiply marginalized community members, having to constantly answer questions is exhausting and othering unpaid labor.
Chelsea, what’s on your wishlist for convention organizers who want to be more inclusive?
CLP: Oh boy. Can I talk about diversity panels? I want to talk about diversity panels.
KAC: Please do!
CLP: In 2019, I stopped doing panels—and I said so publicly—because I was never invited to talk about the things I’m good at talking about.
I would only get invitations to speak on panels about writing diverse stories or about being a marginalized writer—none of those left an impression on me. The panels where I had the best conversations about writing were the ones where I got to talk about epic fantasy, worldbuilding, character, craft, genre … the topics everyone else gets to discuss.
Last year, though, something changed. The invitations to great panels only came from marginalized organizers, while non-marginalized organizers consistently invited me to speak at events with titles like “Beyond European Fantasy.” I would see that and wonder why they wanted me. I haven’t written a single novel with a setting that hasn’t reminded people of England! What would I have to say on the subject? It made no sense.
… Unless they saw these panels as the diversity panel, rebranded.
I think marginalized writers should be on a diversity panel because they came up with the idea themselves and presented it to programming. When will convention organizers stop seeing us as bearers of a single story that defines us and is the only item on our list of expertise?
We’ve said it on previous diversity panels—to get invited, we have to be the best at what we do. Our bar is higher, so our skills must also be higher. Get us to talk about those skills, because we rock at them!
KAC: It’s why I love the ‘Not Another F*cking Race Panel’ at WisCon! Thank you for spelling this out so clearly for our readers.
Multiply marginalized folx are more likely to experience disabling events and illnesses—but Black and Native folx especially. I want people to sit with why Disabled spaces at our favorite conventions and in our anthologies, panels, essays, and stories are still so white.
CLP: You know that saying, “Nothing about us without us?” Yeah. Asking multiply marginalized people what they want is always best.
Because honestly? I can’t give you an answer that will work for all of us—I’m not sure it exists. Different spaces in different communities have different needs, but I’m confident these two things are always going to be true.
First, the answers will be unexpected. Second, the answers will carry the potential to tear that space’s system down—and sadly, if starting over from scratch is the only way to make a space accessible, organizers won’t bother.
KAC: Do you have some favorite topics you’d love to discuss on panels?
CLP: Well, things I already talk about on panels include romance, food, and fashion. I would love to talk more about prose-crafting. I also want to talk more about cities—my percolating science fiction ideas are deeply involved with cities. And I want to moderate a panel on worldbuilding technology, featuring a mix of second-world fantasy and science fiction authors … Gosh, I could go on for ages.
I’m sure people would love a few panels leaning into rabbit holes or specialized subjects, instead of the usual run of entry-level events. If I think about sitting in a room full of writers who introduce themselves with, “This is one of my hyperfocused special interests,” I’m like, “It’s a Christmas miracle! Let’s do this!”
KAC: Can we talk about your outstanding skills? I’m excited to ask you about your writing method and accommodation strategies!
CLP: Oh yeah, let’s do it! Maybe I can help a reader out!
KAC: What’s your writing process?
CLP: My writing process? It’s hard to pin down, honestly. I think it goes from idea generation to exploration, research, documenting my enthusiasms, drafting, and managing continuous anxiety.
I come up with a story idea: for example, a magic musical instrument.
Then I wander around in my head; I look stuff up on the internet, collecting shiny things. If they don’t click together and start generating exciting connections, I get bored and forget about the idea. If the exciting connections moment happens, then I write everything that comes to my mind, and I keep doing that until the story talks.
Sometimes a good idea won’t talk to me no matter how hard I try, and that’s super frustrating. When it talks, though, I listen and write what it’s telling me—and I know this will sound weird, but whatever: I need to protect that idea like the slightest doubt or criticism will make it wither.
I can’t keep my story top secret, though, because I need someone to point out things I should pay closer attention to or implications I missed. With this feedback, I can reshape what I’m doing to better fit my vision.
Finally, when the deadline comes, I have to force myself to let the story go, even if to me it still needs fixing.
… No, I take it back. All of this sounds weird. I don’t know why I’m like this. It would be easier if I could do it differently.
KAC: This does not sound weird at all—it sounds familiar! There’s this fragile early stage for me, too, where I need enthusiastic excitement about the story idea until it’s grown and developed enough to handle pruning. My earliest readers are my most supportive cheerleaders: they think I’m brilliant and love my writing. The what-you-need-to-fix readers have to wait for the complete draft.
With an unfinished draft, sometimes I need feedback on the structure, or help in brainstorming an ending. I also need support when I’m finishing the draft, to keep up my enthusiasm before the anxiety or OCD or ADHD derails me. Is that resonating with what you’re saying?
CLP: That is it! Ha! Okay, so it’s not weird at all!
KAC: So anxiety shapes your creative process and the accommodations you use to get the work done.
How else do your disabilities impact your writing?
CLP: Well, some days I just can’t write, and that’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s a focus problem, other times my executives aren’t functioning. On certain days, I never make it to the manuscript at all.
There are other problems, too: if I’m pantsing, I might get stuck—but if I outline the book, there’s a chance my brain will say: “The story’s done,” and will not budge because it’s boring now.
To succeed at writing a book, I have to manipulate myself into becoming consumed by it. It has to feel like my brain is too full, and the only way to bleed off the pressure is by writing.
But I’m still afraid of screwing things up—like if this entire house of cards crashes, the consequences will be enormous.
KAC: Anxiety kills so many projects. I feel this so, so much.
A writing piece of advice a lot of us hear is to write every day, and I’ve found this to be deeply harmful to Disabled writers trying to put together a method that accommodates their disabilities. They are worried about being a writer who isn’t writing, about their writing routine or habits. They wonder: “Is this my disability? Is this just regular writer’s block? Have I lost my gift?”
Do you ever feel any of those things?
CLP: Oh gosh, the write-every-day advice! I hate it, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and “Show, don’t tell.”
I understand the message behind the advice: ‘Writing is a skill that benefits from doing it regularly.’ Sure, it feels hard to start again if you don’t do it for a while, but I can’t stand people who insist that True Scotsmen Scriveners write—a lot—every day. And if you don’t, then you’re a poseur or a pretender who’s only after glamor.
Gosh. Could they please kindly stop? It’s so damaging and ableist I want to shriek. Sometimes we can’t write for a day, a week, a month, a year. We’re already on hard mode!
If you’ve been away from writing for a long time, you may be worried about skill erosion or the muse getting bored and abandoning you or whatever.
Beloved, please. It’s crap garbage. I know, because I’m going through it right now.
I’ve been struggling with writing for a while. After The Midnight Bargain and Soulstar, I took a break. I had planned to recharge, fill the well, learn stuff by listening to audiobooks while folding socks … I would consider writing new books in the new year.
That didn’t happen, because 2020 happened instead. Then 2021 said: “Hold my beer,” and through all that, I couldn’t write.
I tried, but it wasn’t working. I struggled my way through a couple of novelettes, I threw away three novel starts, and I tried to write a fourth, but it was so slow, so painful, so heavy—I’m trying to fight my way out of those nightmarish thoughts right now, and it’s so hard.
Writing used to be easy, but I couldn’t do it anymore.
Then a little while ago, while I was doing research for a story, I stumbled on a video of Mark Knopfler talking about how he learned to play guitar. In the video he would stop and play for a few seconds, and I noticed that everything else went away as soon as he started playing. It was just him and his favorite thing in the world to do.
And that’s what I needed: to get back to where it was just me and my favorite thing in the world to do.
So today I wrote for fifteen minutes, and in those fifteen minutes I found my groove. The words came, flowed—and I haven’t lost the skill. It’s in there. I can still touch it. And as for the rest?
Eh, I’ve gotten pretty good at editing.
KAC: Wow. Thank you.
You know, I think the reason I keep asking this question is that I’m worried. The negative voices are so loud when I can’t write. Because if I am a writer, if writing brings me joy, if what makes me valuable to others is storytelling, then what do I have left when that’s gone?
Many creatives aren’t writing right now, because depression and suicide are so common. We lose many beautiful, brilliant people to suicide and despair—which are significant issues for Disabled people, and for multiply marginalized Disabled people especially.
I’m thinking about the kids who take a writing class and hear: “A real writer writes every day.” They go home and never write again, because they hear that as confirmation that they aren’t good enough.
To people who don’t struggle with truly disabling mental illness, who don’t know trauma from the inside, this exchange might sound melodramatic—but it’s not. It’s how my brain works. I will struggle with these intrusive, unwanted thoughts my entire life, so new tools are just invaluable.
I feel seen right now, so thank you. “Beloved, please. It’s crap garbage.” Someone is going to read this and use it as a lifeline. Thank you.
CLP: I hope so. It’s easy for me to slide straight into the darkness. It’s always waiting for me.
I persist, though. I try to find my way out. Lately, I’ve been saying out loud the things I would like someone else to tell me, just in case people who need to hear them are listening.
KAC: I’m so glad you’ve found ways to survive, persist, help others, and create. I love the idea of saying to others the things we need to hear ourselves.
How do you return to a project after an interruption?
CLP: I don’t have a step-by-step list, exactly. I return to the notes I took while building the story. Some of them might be excellent suggestions.
I have extensive worldbuilding notes in Notion. In the section labeled ‘Inspiration’ I have Pinterest boards, playlists, face claims, lists of stories and movies, and even single scenes. I have journal entries, chat logs, and the research that I used to come up with the story: I refer to these things regularly to keep myself immersed in the feelings.
I can also read the manuscript, but usually that means doing a revision pass—which isn’t the mind state I need to create manuscript words.
KAC: Is this similar to your regular writing routine? What is your process?
CLP: Yes, this relates to my routine, but I don’t know if I have a set process: my writing activities vary from day to day. My ADHD craves novelty, so I must change what I do and how I do it. Otherwise, I will switch to ‘bored now,’ and that’s another problem.
As a writing friend said, though, the important thing is to touch the manuscript. So I open the manuscript things. Those are:
On my desktop/laptop:
- my Scrivener file;
- my worldbuilding database (I’m currently using Notion, but I’m feeling the itch to try something else);
- my Pinterest moodboard;
- my streaming music service playlist;
- my Google Docs (I use Docs so my readers can get a look at what I’m reading);
- my 4thewords project page for the book;
- One Stop For Writers (I love it);
- a word tracker (I like Christie Yant’s “Tools for Writers.” It’s a Google sheet!).
I have a to-go kit as well:
- Google Docs;
- Nebo/Apple Pencil;
I used to lose writing days because I didn’t want to type, but I knew that if I wrote by hand, I wouldn’t want to transcribe. So I use this digital notebook called Nebo with my Apple Pencil, and handwrite it up on those days when I don’t feel like typing. It’s lighter than any laptop I’ve ever had, including my MacBook Air, and it fits into a big purse, so I don’t have to haul a backpack around. The charging time is also decent, and I can hotspot it to my phone for internet connection. I just started using it, so I’m in love with the novelty!
KAC: Where do you fall on the outliner versus discovery writer spectrum?
CLP: I need both.
I want my first draft to surprise me, so I don’t painstakingly outline the entire book. If I wind up making a choice that renders my outline useless, I get angry at having wasted time on it, and I rebel. But then, what dominoes will get knocked over in the plot? And what will my ending revelations be?
When I was still in the early stages of The Midnight Bargain, I knew what would happen at the climactic battle, and I wrote it down immediately. I steered the story toward that moment—part of the book’s climax is essentially that page I wrote back then. At that point, I was still unsure about what characters to keep in the story! (I didn’t keep the magical perfumer from Chapter One, sadly, but maybe I will write something about her in the future.)
Sometimes, though, I can’t rely on my inner vision. I write a route, and I grumble—but it’s for the best.
I outlined Soulstar, for example, figuring out the situations, the choices, the consequences, and how to arrange them. The story wasn’t as fun to draft as The Midnight Bargain, but I’m still pleased with the outcome.
KAC: Would you mind telling us about your worldbuilding process?
CLP: My worldbuilding process? It’s really chaotic!
I start with the magic, usually. For example: “Magicians can only accomplish small magical feats on their own. For larger feats, they need to summon a spirit.” Hold on. What does that imply about the world?
And I immediately wander off. How does a magician summon a spirit? Maybe the people who could do magic used it to gain societal power, and they maintain their hold on said power by … then it’s off to the races.
That’s my main worldbuilding action. I come up with a neat idea, figure out how it affects the world, then those ideas branch into other ideas—it’s quite a jumble.
Once I have a lot of material, I sort it and separate it, but that’s secondary to the actual worldbuilding. I dash from one enthusiasm to another, stopping when I have a realization, then diving in to explore. It might be backwards, but that’s how I do it.
KAC: Does thinking about disability play into your worldbuilding?
CLP: Yes. Thinking about Witchmark, I wanted the primary mode of transportation to be the bicycle. I designed Kingston’s streets so that cyclists and pedestrians were dominant on the roadways—sidewalks are wide, stair entrances to businesses are rare, and all carriages feature lifts for wheelchair users.
I love thinking about societies that work toward accessibility in design and public space—even if I haven’t yet written a story that reflects how a fully accessible world could be.
KAC: Do you have a particular narrative approach to Disability and Disabled characters?
CLP: I don’t think I do? I haven’t written enough to have a handle on that approach. Maybe after a few more books?
KAC: Would you mind telling us about some of your Disabled characters and their arcs?
CLP: Well, there’s Miles from Witchmark, of course, with his PTSD and c-PTSD; he sustains serious injuries that he hasn’t fully recovered from even by the end of the third book. He’s not all better now, and he won’t ever be, but he has received the treatment he needs to continue living his life—it’s not a tragedy.
KAC: Pre-published or early-career Disabled and Neurodiverse writers often get this message that their own lived experiences are ‘unrealistic’ or ‘unbelievable.’ They’ve heard from their writing groups, mentors, and editors that abled or differently abled readers might not identify with a character like them. Does that sound familiar?
One time I was writing a scene from the POV of a character who is experiencing the ADHD symptoms I like to call ‘pinball brain.’ It’s that state where you are supposed to do a task, but your ideation is firing willy-nilly. You think of something, that makes you think of something, which makes you think of something else. It happens to me all the time—it’s the bane of my life.
I thought the character’s ADHD was the most obvious thing ever, but a beta reader littered the scene with comment after comment about how overwhelming and hard to follow it was. They were surprised I had neglected to edit it, seeing how well the rest of the story was written.
I stopped working on that story. I wasn’t good enough to write that crucial scene, so I threw the whole thing out.
I didn’t know what I was doing, or that I had ADHD: I was describing something that happens in my head. Sometimes I try to fix lunch, but pinball brain leads me to scrub the grout in the bathroom, with four more started and abandoned housekeeping tasks in between. In the end, I can barely make it to the kitchen because I’m nauseous and on the edge of fainting—and recovering is going to take hours.
Still, pinball brain is how I find creative solutions to problems or understand complex situations quickly.
Sometimes that’s a problem with my writing, too. My character figures out what’s going on, and it makes perfect sense to me. My edit notes, though, say: “This character jumps to conclusions too often.” One time I said, “I don’t understand this! It makes perfect sense to me. I left a ton of clues! Look here, here, and here.” The response: “Slow it down for the readers who can’t connect those things.”
That made me think about it in terms of accessibility.
How accessible should a story be? The prevailing attitude is that books should be accessible to a straight, white, able audience, and I see the merit in that. Other experiences, though, have to be explained—context clues are not good enough.
This makes me angry. It makes me feel like that white, straight, able reader should never try to understand me. Instead, I’m supposed to center my stories on them. It feels like no one cares about your experience if you’re not the right kind of person.
KAC: “The right kind of person.” I feel this so hard. ADHD hits me in much the same way, so I feel you’re describing my brain.
With OCD, when I try to capture how my brain works, some readers don’t understand. I end up feeling like it’s only okay to write mentally ill or Neurodiverse characters as an outsider. I’m giving other outsiders a fascinating look inside—but as a ‘tour guide,’ not as a person who lives in that kind of brain.
It’s like I’m not allowed to write for people like me; everything has to be translated for that fascinated outsider.
CLP: Yes! Sometimes reading a story is about gaining a perspective you don’t have, so you can walk away understanding new things. You shut up and listen, without expecting everything to cater to you.
KAC: We are communicating stories into one another’s minds, but that process can’t work if the audience doesn’t understand the story—every writer has to wrestle with that.
For own voices Disabled authors, though, there’s a particular set of challenges, because they’re writing at that intersection of Neurodiversity and storytelling to a broader audience.
CLP: Can I point out that it’s the same problem Disabled people face in everyday life? We have to make extra efforts to navigate the world with a disability, while able people are free to select whatever aid they feel like using.
Here we are again in writing, trying to be understood—and when someone understands us, it feels like an exceptional event.
KAC: What about harmful tropes around Disability and Neurodiversity? Do you have any pet peeves? Storytelling trends you’d like to see people stop following?
CLP: Pet peeves? Uhm.
I get mad at unkind portrayals of teenage girls who love something very much. Like … oh, Harriet Clayborn from The Midnight Bargain, who knows Bargaining Season up, down, and sideways. She has dedicated herself to gathering this knowledge because it is intricate and fascinating, but also because her whole life and future hinges on it! Shouldn’t she want to know everything about it? Some readers say very unkind things about her, and I get so damn defensive about it!
I am prone to enthusiastic delight, too. Maybe that’s how I do my Neurodivergence—I find something that is so cool it becomes an obsession, and I learn everything I can about it. Then I will move on to something else. I want to experience all the cool things the world has to offer!
KAC: The people I’ve experienced as the mansplaining gatekeepers of fandom want to interrogate the validity of women, femmes, enby folx, and the things they love. So I love this as a reframing: “enthusiastic delights.”
CLP: I have heard about “collecting” or “curating” fans—who want to keep/preserve/enshrine their fandoms—and “adapting” fans—who will adjust/create/transform their fandoms.
What I notice is that the adjust/create/transform people love a thing even though it is not created in their image, and they fit themselves into it. But the keep/preserve/enshrine people resent them for this, and that’s sad.
KAC: You’re allowed to love a thing even if you don’t know all the same facts, have not watched all the same films, have not read every book in order!
Then we get into misogyny, because people love to hate teen girls and what they love. But teen girls are wonderful! What they love is wonderful! Tell me about your favorite deep sea creature—I want to know all the details! If you’re a young femme or enby writer, tell me about your incredible character. She’s not a ‘Mary Sue!’
CLP: Mary Sue is fake. I am not taking questions on this. Ever.
But if ‘Mary Sues’ exist, then Luke Skywalker is one too, and we are allowed to love wish-fulfillment characters!
KAC: Thank you.
Then we get into the problematic fave territory, where women, femmes, and enby folx are held to a different standard. We aren’t allowed to speak about the troubling elements in media, because if we do we aren’t genuine fans: we’re social justice warriors destroying SFF.
This attitude compounds across multiple intersecting marginalizations. “How dare you love black elves?” “How dare you imagine a Disabled black queer elf outside the gender binary?” What it means is: “How dare someone like you love elves?“ That plays out across writers and writing communities, too.
CLP: Let’s play it out like this: “How dare you love queer, black elves?” “This way! It’s super easy! Queer, black elves are awesome!”
KAC: From the POV of a multiply marginalized writer, scholar, and fan, we’re just trying to see ourselves in the imagined worlds we love. Still, us being part of fandom as actual peers ruins it for a group of angry, vocal people.
CLP: It sucks that we have to be coolly unbothered by this stuff. What if you weren’t a total jerk about people doing what they like? It doesn’t harm you, so what is your problem?
KAC: Of course, no one wants to think they are part of the issue. But when we don’t listen to each other and make changes, marginalized fans are blamed as troublemakers and get pushed out of the community.
Chelsea, we’ve talked about accommodations and accessibility, meaningful inclusivity, safety, and about building community for Disabled people at SFF conventions, workshops, and professional writing spaces. Do you have any additional thoughts for us?
CLP: Actually, a lot of efforts to get feedback from marginalized people fall apart. And the reason is always the same: non-marginalized people jump to defend themselves or indulge in self-blame when the feedback they get is negative.
Don’t do it, and don’t let anybody else do it, either. It’s why a lot of marginalized people dread feedback situations: they can’t talk about what hurt them because they have to soothe the feelings of non-marginalized people.
Non-oppressed people must understand how they have unknowingly internalized the beliefs and techniques that perpetuate oppression. While you fight that oppression, you’re going to screw up—and someone will point it out to you. It might hurt a lot, but you’ll also gain knowledge you didn’t have before.
That marginalized person needs you to get over your distress at the mistake—and trust me, I know that distress is powerful! I’m a perfectionist!
Drill this into your head:
Step one: Say: “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what I was doing. Thank you for pointing it out.”
Step two: Shut up. Don’t put the marginalized person in a position where they have to soothe you.
Step three: Go to your people, those who are working hard to end oppression. Tell them what happened and discuss solutions.
Step four: Don’t do it again.
KAC: Thank you.
Okay, moving back to craft, may I ask you how your approach to worldbuilding impacts your pacing? In Witchmark, for example, your protagonist never infodumps the reader about the world of the story—but as they encounter elements of how magic and the world work, you give us brief explanations that are needed to understand the action without dragging it down.
Did you know all these worldbuilding details before you started drafting the story? Was the pacing good from the beginning? Did you nail it down with revision?
CLP: It’s been a while, so I don’t remember the exact details. I look at it like this: the reader already knows everything I wrote about because I drew most of it from everyday knowledge. I trust the reader to pay attention and pick it up, and try to write in a way that invites them to engage their knowledge. That kind of active participation is valuable and generates interest.
“What is Barrel-printing ink? Oh no, what bad news? Mathy must be this character’s boss. Oh crap, they have to kick people out of treatment? There was a war, and they expect to treat even more people for PTSD? But those beds are already full … oh shit, no wonder he’s angry!” I wanted this to be the running internal reaction of the reader.
Stopping to explain stuff doesn’t let the reader involve themselves in what’s happening on the page. That’s why I’m an exposition holdout. It’s not that I don’t want to do it—I just need the reader to be desperate for that exposition!
KAC: In Witchmark, each new character brings new dangers and new conflicts, which keep things tense and compelling for the reader.
Did you have these characters well fleshed out before you drafted the story? Their arcs and goals, and how they would create conflict for the protagonist?
CLP: I don’t know! Maybe? I don’t know how much detail I went into before I started writing.
The things I write about a character in advance never actually appear on the page. That doesn’t make pre-writing about a character useless, but more like a gesture sketch—I’m scribbling stuff down as fast as I can, trying to capture the character’s energy.
Sometimes I list the characters by name to see who will clash with who. I don’t use forms or formulas, but I have some questions: Who are they? What do they want? Why haven’t they succeeded at that yet? What do they need to talk about in therapy?
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. I like to be surprised when I’m writing. If I know everything, it becomes a chore.
KAC: Chelsea, I appreciate you letting me take up so much of your time and energy today! This conversation has been delightful and informative. Thank you so much!
Readers, Chelsea writes as C. L. Polk. Their Kingston Cycle trilogy is up for a Hugo right now! Please look for it at your local bookstore, or order it online! Again, their website is https://clpolk.com/.
Do you have a method or accommodations to share with us and other Disabled creatives? You can join this conversation on social media using #WritingWhileDisabled and #StrangeHorizons! The rest of this series is available on Strange Horizons!