6 Surprising Ways My ADHD Brain Helped Me Write an Award-Winning Novel
“Once I latched onto a good idea, I couldn’t stop myself from writing it down. I now recognize my ADHD in that process: First came the wandering imagination, then the hyperfocus that drove me to commit my best thoughts to paper.”
Two decades ago, I was flunking out of a writing job while learning all about my new ADHD diagnosis, and why it was holding me back at work. Today, I’m an award-winning novelist.
How did that happen?
Though my diagnosis only came after I hit career trouble at age 36, by intuition alone I had already found a calling that fit my ADHD brain. As a journalist and then a content creator for non-profit groups, I found that writing gave me creative control, something new and interesting to work on outside my own world, ever-changing topics to explore, and a finished product to point to at the end of the day. I didn’t understand why at the time, but early in my career I had shied away from jobs that required focusing for extended periods, working inside a rigid or bureaucratic system, or keeping track of details.
Those choices came crashing down when an employer made radical changes to my writing job and expected me to adapt. Suddenly, I was in charge of managing information and administrative details that came at me too fast and rarely held my interest. My colleagues handled the transition with ease, but I hit a wall. It made me wonder what was going on in my head, and that led to my life-changing diagnosis: inattentive-type ADHD.
Since then, I’ve found new and better jobs (including a stint freelancing for ADDitude). On the side, I tried my hand at writing fiction. Now that I’ve published my first novel and some other fictional works, I can look back and understand how my ADHD mind shaped my fiction writing.
Writing Delivers the Freedom My ADHD Brain Craves
For me, the most significant connection between ADHD and fiction writing is freedom. To create, I didn’t need permission from anyone — no college degree, license, or job interview was required. Most of my learning involved experience and self-teaching. Writing fiction gives me even more autonomy than does journalism. I create the characters — and anything they say or do in my stories happens because I decide to make it up.
In my novel, To Follow Elephants (#CommissionsEarned), I used that leeway to create both human and animal characters. In tandem with human characters living a human plot, To Follow Elephants puts the reader into the minds of giant pachyderms. It reveals their thoughts, their culture and religion, and how they pass on their knowledge to new generations. I had the power to imagine what is happening in elephants’ heads, and nobody could tell me I was wrong.
Writing Capitalizes on My ADHD Creativity and Hyperfocus
When I started writing fiction, I had so many ideas that it was hard to settle on one story line. But once I latched onto a good idea, I couldn’t stop myself from writing it down. I now recognize my ADHD in that process: First came the wandering imagination, then the hyperfocus that drove me to commit my best thoughts to paper.
Like my mind, my writing process was often disorganized and interrupted by fresh ideas. I first wrote a different manuscript that I now call my “practice novel” before the concept for To Follow Elephants came to me. And in the middle of writing the second novel, I happened on an idea for a stage play. I couldn’t continue with the novel until I got the play out of my head by committing it to paper. I also changed the focus and structure of To Follow Elephants several times and cut many parts I had worked hard to write because they dragged down the story.
Writing Harnesses My Non-Linear ADHD Thinking
The end result of To Follow Elephants reflects my ADHD mind, too. As you might guess, my novel doesn’t unfold in chronological order, nor does it stick to a single character’s viewpoint. While the plot progresses in a straight line, some information is revealed along the way only when it is most needed, or when it punctuates the drama, through flashbacks in time. The flashbacks explain how each character, including the elephants, got to their point in the plot.
For instance, what mysterious event is Colonel Mubego, the prison warden, and his prisoner, Karl Dorner, hiding from Dorner’s son, Owen? What family secret does Wanjeri, elephant researcher and Mubego’s niece, carry as she helps Owen learn the truth about his father? The reader learns the answers to these mysteries in flashbacks as Owen closes in on them. And where did the inspiring myth of the baby elephant crossing the river come from? You find out when the time is right.
It took a great deal of effort to perfect this structure and make it progress smoothly, but I managed to make it work. In one review, a reader said she consumed the book in one sitting, so I must have done something right.
Writing Rewards My ADHD Observation Skills
Most people with inattentive-type ADHD have no deficit of attention. We actually pay too much attention to everything around us and everything inside our own heads. That can be a big problem when we need to focus on a teacher, or a boss, or a spouse, and we can’t keep our eyes, ears, or minds from wandering. It’s quite useful, though, for gathering and writing the details that bring to life a world and its characters inside a novel.
In several parts of To Follow Elephants, the descriptions of characters’ observations in African landscapes and cities reflect exactly what I saw and heard during a vacation there three decades ago. I could still remember the intriguing things I saw, and how I felt about them, long after I returned home. I projected a plot onto my travels and turned my safari vacation into a book that’s equal parts thriller, adventure, and portrayal of elephant civilization from the animals’ point of view.
Writing Allows My ADHD Brain to Find Motivation in Inspiration
It’s a good thing my ability to absorb and recall details is enduring, because it took me a while to write them down. I wrote the novel in fits and starts for many years. Life got in the way, as did new ideas, and I was busy learning how to write a novel at the same time I was writing it. That familiar ADHD enemy, procrastination, also took its toll.
Some authors follow a disciplined process by writing a certain number of words or pages each day. I can’t fathom doing that. I have to write furiously when inspiration or motivation comes, followed by long periods of inactivity. Looking back, I see the lack of short-term gratification as a big drawback that caused me to procrastinate and set the manuscript aside for months at a time. I craved a quicker reward than writing a book provides. Showing my work-in-progress to writer’s groups helped to put me back on track, and when new ideas popped into my head that I could incorporate into the manuscript, it prompted me to get back to work.
Writing Conditioned Me to Overcome Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
As I wrapped up the writing part and dipped my toes into the publishing stage, I confronted a common ADHD challenge whose name I recently learned: rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD).
This ADDitude article describes RSD as “a sense of falling short — failing to meet [your] own high standards or others’ expectations.” Imagine writing your personal masterpiece and eagerly sending it to a publisher or literary agent, only to have your dreams crushed by a rejection letter — over and over. Sounds like a great way to trigger RSD, doesn’t it?
Fortunately, my prior writing experience had conditioned me to rejection and how to best handle it. I know that rejection is just part of the process of finding the right match between a writer and their publisher and/or agent. It’s like a job search, or dating. Ultimately, whenever a rejection (or no response) came, I discovered a new agent or publisher who was a better candidate, and my hopes lifted again. And in the back of my mind, I knew that self-publishing was always an option. Many entrepreneurial authors (probably some of them with ADHD) are having great success with self-publishing these days.
As I approached more and more publishers and agents and racked up the rejections, I fine-tuned my search until I found a small publisher particularly interested in my kind of novel and I finally got a publishing contract. Holding the finished book — with my name on the cover — in my hand was reward enough, but a year later To Follow Elephants won a prestigious Nautilus Book Award.
While ADHD still frustrates me, I’ve learned that some aspects of ADHD are an advantage if I find a way to put them to good use. That’s what I did to complete my novel.
I’m working on another one (or maybe seven) now.
You can learn more about Rick and his novel at rickhodgesauthor.com.
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