This is Not an Essay
Art, work, and identity within capitalism and disability
I want to write. So badly. I want to create something out of my experience with transness and disability. Particularly out of my pain, my shame, and my struggle, so that other folks struggling with the same things I am can maybe feel a little less alone, a little less ashamed, find ways to love themselves a little more and hate themselves a little less. So we can identify and find each other and build more nurturing spaces and subcultures for ourselves. So we can figure out how to more effectively resist and navigate oppression. But I also want to produce writing because it feels like I’m doing something, like I’m tangibly contributing something to my communities and to the kind of world I want to live in. One that, ironically, doesn’t value or identify people based on traditional capitalist standards of production.
Usually, these days, I can’t write or create much of anything. The most my body can manage is paragraph or two on social media. Usually I’m too stymied by a variety of things. I’m only even able to write these words out of some paradoxical loophole my brain has overlooked — that I’m somehow permitted to write about not being able to write, because that’s not really writing about anything, not anything important anyway. The only way I can cheat some feeling of having produced something is by the pre-emptive concession that it will have no value.
It’s a clearly toxic swing back and forth from creation/production being important to a ridiculously intimidating degree, to having no value to anyone whatsoever. I know this panic-denial loop is unhealthy and unsustainable. I know that the most one’s work can be is ripples that contribute to a larger cultural swell, and that that’s good. True appreciation and value is relative and personal, not institutionalized. But within a culture, not just an economy, that is capitalist in nature, the degree to which we consider work successful or essential to personhood to begin with is insidiously associated with capitalism’s prohibitive standards. Despite years of identifying and deprogramming these associations, I still can’t shake them entirely. Which is why I must tell myself that this is not an essay. Because right now, it’s the only way I can escape the punishing weight of those internalized standards and actually get something written.
I live with neurodivergence that can lapse into danger if I’m not diligent with my self-care. I also live with a brain injury sustained from mainstream psychiatric “treatment” of this neurodivergence1. Because of my incurred limitations, and the still present stress of living in a world that seeks to erase nonconforming people like me, I go through periods of what many would call inactivity or nonproduction. These periods have lasted a few hours, a day or two, a few months, or multiple years. And they still regularly occur despite my recent progress in cultivating sustainable alternative healing methods outside of the dangerous medical industrial complex. This writing itself was interrupted by a period lasting more than six months. Additionally, many of these sentences I am forcing out on days spent in bed, unable to concentrate or struggling to shake off an inner voice insisting that this writing is stupid, pointless, an embarrassment that will never be good enough or of interest to anyone.
In the past, when my neurodivergence was still pre-crisis, pre-MIC, I could push through distraction, anxiety, and paralyzing depression. I could will myself to continue working on a piece, to finish it. And when finished, I had the energy, confidence, and luck to have it published somewhere people could find it, engage with it, and provide some tangible proof that my message had been delivered. Despite never receiving compensation for my work, proof of its consumption and seeing its message exchanged validated that I was at least participating in the marketplace of ideas. (Capitalist culture is all to happy to validate one’s work, identity, and ideas so long as they don’t compromise it.) I worked on private projects as well. Fiction and nonfiction books that I planned to submit to publishers to fulfill a dream of seeing a spine on my shelf with my name on it. After a few years, when people asked me, “What do you do?” I finally accrued enough self-esteem and traditionally tangible justification to respond, “I’m a writer.”
Crisis changed all this. My suicidality intensified to a degree I’d never before had to endure. My anxiety became a constant overwhelming threat. My depression seemed to have permanently drained the meaning and motivation from all activities and outlooks. I struggled to decide on and carry out plans to make a sandwich, let alone construct an essay or piece of fiction. I often still do. A brain injury sustained from ineffective electro-convulsive treatment compromised my memory, my concentration, my ability to multitask and make decisions in certain situations.
The constant work of figuring out how to live often pushes aside aspirations, activities, or even just brain space and thought experiments that I considered core parts of my identity. I could not put together an essay, craft a story, or hone critical theory like I once did. I’d finally gotten to a place of being able to claim writing as my life’s work, as part of who I am, then I could no longer do it. My frustration with that made me start to loathe writing and creativity, and wish I could just give it up and not look back. I despised that I still wanted to do it. I despised my friends who could still do it, and who articulated and created things on subjects I’d thought about. I despised knowing that there was a lost version of me somewhere who was capable of doing all these things, who could’ve done them all and maybe more, whose talent could’ve been nurtured and matured into something beautiful that could’ve touched and helped people if not for drawing a random bullshit lot in life. There was so much I wanted to do and be. I mourned and resented the person I could’ve been. The ideas I had for myself. That person could’ve been great. Done so much. It wasn’t fair.
I remember talking with a group of about eight people at a friend’s party, when someone asked me the question again — “What do you do?” All the heads in the room turned to face me, and the room was silent a moment as I considered how to respond. Some knew what I’d been going through — fired after coming out as genderqueer a year prior, endless drug trials, in and out of mental hospitals. Some did not. My bitterness, frustration, and sense of deep personal failure were as acute as they’d ever be, and I was mad at the etiquette of pretending otherwise.
I simply answered, “Nothing. I do nothing.”
Despite my and everyone’s familiarity with the principles of anti-capitalism and disability justice, the discomfort in the room was palpable. A friend, also living with disability, began to defend my ability to produce. “Drew is a writer. They write things about …” But I stopped him. “No. I’m not writing. And I don’t want to.” There was another awkward pause before the topic changed. My lack of a work identity brought a social space of politically radical peers to a grinding halt. My tailspinning brain found some twisted joy in it. Confronting supposed radicals with my complete failure to be a contributing member of a society whose standards we supposedly didn’t put much stock into, and daring them to still consider my humanity as interesting, legitimate, and worthwhile as our glorified artists and leaders. They were as bad as I was. Just as brainwashed. A little discomfort served them right.
It is not my proudest moment.
As much as I struggle with identity and self-worth when not producing, the conflict does not simply disappear when I do manage to create something. Most of the writing I do never sees the light of day. Much of it I never finish. The majority of my past and present projects, even completed ones, fail to meet my standards and are only ever read by my own hypercritical and dispirited eyes. Some pieces are only seen by a few friends and lovers.
Those few pieces that successfully evolve to a point where I do wish to share them with the people I know, and perhaps some people I don’t know, face the issue of distribution. Some methods of getting my work viewed validate it as important and legitimize me as a writer, as a creator. Other methods do not. The methods that do tend to be capitalist, classist, and/or ableist in accessibility and approach — perpetuating the consolidation of wealth and/or authority in those who are lucky enough to participate in them. And yes, there are other factors, but luck is indeed the primary force at work there.
Many publishers of books and journals cultivate an air of authority and measured expertise in their content and approach, often to a capitalist degree. However, this writing was created because of, not in spite of, long periods of inactivity, extreme swings in mood, and extreme swings in my opinion of it from failed garbage rantings produced by a failed garbage person, to it being the most crucial, beautiful, and fame-destined thing I’ll ever write. I want these swings to be evident in its composition, because this is what writing and work looks like for me. This is what my neurodivergence does. It’s different than just a lack of objectivity; it’s radical swings in engrossing subjectivities. Some days, the work really is exciting, rewarding, and meaningful. A few days later, the work really is completely meaningless, silly, whiny, poorly done, uninteresting, an embarrassment. Other days still, work isn’t even possible. And then back again. And then over again.
To function the way I do means holding all of these as true. Because they are.
Even in its finished form, I will never stop seeing this very piece as both important and meaningful, as well as utterly stupid and humiliating. And this is true of everything else I have done, as well.
Tempering these facts in tone and approach for the comfortable comprehension of able, neurotypical, financially secure people under the guise of objectivity, respectability, and professionalism no longer interests me. This writing is not for cis, able, neurotypical people. Though they are welcome to it. Because of this approach, it may not be fit for many publications or distribution methods, nor received as legitimate by many readers.
As writing and the identity of “writer” exist within capitalist culture, the market also dictates the viability of one’s writing. The broader the appeal, the greater the opportunity to capitalize/monetize the product, the greater the chances of one’s message being distributed and communicated. As this piece addresses extremely niche experiences of disability, transness, and anti-capitalism, often criticizing the very process that would distribute it in the first place, it’s safe to say its viability is low.
There are alternatives. There is self-publishing, creating websites, blogs, and zines as possible means of distribution. However, some of these approaches can be just as prohibitive to those with disabilities, limited time, or limited income. Additionally, finding an audience for one’s work becomes more difficult without the publicity a third party can provide. Not everyone can take on that work of promotion themselves, even with social media. And regardless of distribution method, be it authoritative or DIY, the oppressive psychic weight of one’s legitimacy hanging on the outcome remains. The question of having to create material conditions to affirm one’s identity, one’s sense of self.
So what does it mean to call oneself a writer? To call myself a writer, if I feel like doing that again? If I’m capable of doing that again. If I’m attempting to be capable here? To know I might go through future periods where writing will again be unthinkable, even repulsive to consider. To know that the countless projects I start will be abandoned at the demand of the voice telling me it’s too much to manage, that the idea was stupid, that I’m not good enough to execute it, that the pain of a rejection or failure would be far greater than never applying myself, that none of it matters any way. To know that maybe my writing might only ever be for me, despite dreams of sharing and connecting with others. Would it still count?
What would it mean to call these words writing, to call them an essay? In my kinder moments I would affirm myself as doing work if this writing was never monetized or distributed via some traditional authority. But if it’s never seen, never distributed at all, what then? It might not be. What if it’s only ever just for me? As the writing and art of so many people often is, both able and disabled. Do we recognize self-work as work?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, but what is clear to me is that we should recognize and value this self-work, these private/phantom arts more than we do currently. Because capitalist systems of exchange, both monetized and discursive, are authoritarian in nature and create real consequences regarding whose voices are heard, whose bodies are included, whose well-being is prioritized, and who is left behind to scrape by in the shadows. Private art is revolutionary and anti-authoritarian precisely because it does not participate in these systems. And the work it does to deconstruct authoritarian capitalist ideals of work and personhood is not done with the master’s tools. It is not granted from the top via some false trickle-down model of legitimizing social equity. It is done at the grassroots, through self-work, personal relationships, and community investment that grows into communal then cultural sea change. Where else does this begin but by working out our own personal struggles and visions? How else do we do that than with our creativity? Than with our friends and communities?
Private/phantom art requires no less critical engagement on our part than that which is finished and distributed. The creator/worker is just as changed by it. And from that point, who’s to say what the effect of the work can become? I may give up writing or trying to publish a book on a topic I consider crucial (more than once I have), but I can still carry its message with me in how I engage with the world and the people in my life (I do). I can choose to bring this message into conversations with friends, family, community.
Who’s to say that a message growing in this manner is less legitimate than by traditional production, distribution, or purchase? Who’s to say which method will spread the message further or more effectively?
This is not to say that work within traditionally legitimizing and monetizing systems of discourse, production, and distribution are categorically incapable of sparking similar degrees of connection and liberation. Rather, that it is not the only way, and often not even the best way. Some of the most revolutionary ideas, movements, and cultural legacies were not born of publicly produced print or art. Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy, critical theory, the study of language and countless other fields. In his lifetime he published one small book, the content of which he denounced as completely wrong as he took his work in a radically different direction in his later years. Socrates as well, famously never recorded his own work. For a more recent example, the contemporary queer/trans justice movement was ignited by trans women of color, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, and more, none of whom produced writing or art via conventional channels to spread their thought2. They revolutionized the culture by nurturing relationships and communities and public action, and millions of non-normative people became more connected and less afraid because of them. Do they not deserve recognition as great thinkers? Are they not authors of a radical liberation framework that endures to this day? Are their lives not profound works of art? Is this not work? Not production?
When I think about, or am asked whose work had the biggest impact my own life, my automatic tendency is to go right to authors and artists whose works I accessed via traditional production models. Their works are indeed important and have had a huge influence on me and countless others. But when I resist the urge to kneejerk a more socially universal and relatable answer, when I really reflect on the people who had and have the biggest impact on me, it has been trans/queer/disabled friends and community members. They are the ones who most deeply shaped my sense of identity, who helped me learn to overcome shame, who helped me see my immutable worth, who helped me learn to love all the non-normative things that I am and be proud. And that is work. The most important work there is.
That is exactly what liberation work looks like. That’s the most any writing or art can hope to achieve.
So many of us aspire to validation via inclusion in traditional capitalist notions of work and success, because we’re deceived into believing its production and distribution standards are the only ways to convey a message, inspire, challenge, connect people. But we all do that for others already. It is not work that serves capitalist interests so we’re taught not to think of it as legitimate work, so we don’t often name our friends out loud as our personal heroes, great thinkers, favorite artists. But if we did, it would honor the work that everyone can do. It would reflect the rich and inspiring diversity of our communities, and it would make us all feel happy and appreciated, too, when someone lists our name.
So how do I do this liberation work I want to do so badly while constantly running into the roadblocks of neurodivergence and disability, as well as social and economic capital? I think that in order to do this work, or any work, it must begin and end with my body itself. Because if I am lucky enough to be able to give my body what it needs, I will never be wasting my time or energy. If my body needs to rest, if my body needs treatment, if it needs to not produce or do work in the conventional capitalist sense, that is OK. My body makes its needs known. And in obeying what it demands as much as I can, be it rest or activity, I am contributing to my own health and the health of society in the most effective way possible.
This is not to exonerate material conditions such as poverty, violence, discrimination, etc., that can and do cause divergence, illness, or disability. It is not shifting blame from those conditions to some oppressive personal-responsibility model of health and achievement — that one can simply overcome limitations via rest, treatment, resolution, or hard work. My body will betray my perceived propriety, entitlement, and capabilities at times. Bodies do that. Everybody’s. Just as the world betrays us, treats us as disposable, denies what we deserve. But regardless of the conditions, internal or external, my body requires kindness. Sick or not. Able to heal or not. Capitalist “worker” or not. This is what we’re actually fighting for when we resist capitalist culture. The work we should all be able to do, and the conditions we should all be able to do it under. And when we do it, more and more of us, with increasing devotion, we begin pulling bricks out of these capitalist structures of work, ability, identity. I insist that self-work is work. It is the work upon which everything else I do rests — be it human connection, abandoned projects, a rare finished piece I’m happy with, or even one that might acquire an audience.
In a world that so eagerly blurs the lines of creativity and art with capitalist standards of work and production, perhaps there is a creative and artistic liberation to be found in blurring the lines of imagination and work. Maybe I should stop clinging to the legitimacy of “writer” as a last gasp effort at a capitalist work identity and embrace a more liberatory, creative challenge. Maybe I should start insisting that for some of us, health and healing is our work, dreaming is our work, community is our work, connection is our work. And it’s work the world desperately needs.
- I believe more every day that the harmful aspects of my mental/emotional makeup are not the result of some isolated biology, but rather the result of existing as a nonbinary trans, feminine, differently minded person amid oppressive social standards. Standards that oppose such transgressive qualities with everything from physical violence to brainwashing culturally normative propaganda.
- Drag performance notwithstanding. Drag is certainly art. These days it is sometimes co-opted by capitalist interests, but in the days these pioneers were performing, drag was a subversive, if not explicitly illegal and dangerous act occurring in small clubs in a more underground economy. It could not become a respectable capitalist work identity.