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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Author David Edison (THE WAKING ENGINE) on the Power of Storytelling

David Edison divides his time between New York City and San Francisco. The Waking Engine is his first novel.

Stories Save Lives, but Only If They Get Told

by David Edison

Writing about special needs for the LGBTQ community feels a bit blasphemous for a few reasons.  It’s been 42 years since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM, but that stigma lingers.  On the more immediate side of things, the deaths of Tyler Clementi, Jadin Bell, Jamey Rodemeyer, Kenneth Weishuhn, Leelah Alcorn, Taja de Jesus, Islan Nettles and too many more highlight how dangerous it is not to speak out about the special needs of LGBTQ youth, who are still dying, some with greater visibility than others.  It’s my belief that all of them need to be seen to be understood, and need to be understood to be saved.  Thus the need for The Trevor Project, among others.  Stories save lives.

Still, David the dyed-in-the-wool LGBTQ activist bristles at mentioning sexuality anywhere near more traditionally-pathological needs, be they physical or cognitive ailments.  So let me be clear, even if it’s just to assuage my own hypersensitivities: Queer ain’t no ailment, and I’m only speaking for myself here.  If anyone from the LGBTQ community or beyond shares feelings and experiences that echo my own, then I’m happy to stand beside them, but the following words belong in no-one’s mouth but David’s.

There are other reasons I hesitate, all of them internal.  There’s David who lives with mental illness, and David who lives with sometimes-disabling chronic illness, and David who’s lost an inch of height to repeated spinal injuries that dog him every day, by bark or by bite.  Those Davids think their needs merit blog posts, and they have a point, but those other Davids don’t fully appreciate the power that Sarah Chorn possesses to draw truth-speakers: Geoff Matthews spoke of invisible disabilities far better than I could; J.T. Evans took on mental disorders and Douglas Wynne’s treatment of ‘sacred illness’ left me giddy with hope.  Sarah’s interview with Mercedes M. Yardley isn’t really tangential to any of my special Davids, but it’s one of the best author interviews I’ve read, and I’d be a jerk not to link it here.  Those other Davids need to be reminded, sometimes, that the answer to pain can be community.

Those other Davids don’t always remember being thirteen and desperate.  AOL was black and white in those days, and so were our choices. Putting myself at risk with strangers was the only way I was going to meet another person like myself.  Putting myself at risk with strangers online was the only thing I was brave enough to do, thank God and Mama.  It was 1991 – support groups for LGBTQ kids were a ways away, at least in Missouri, and Tori Amos had just released Little Earthquakes, which was one of the first things that stopped me from hurting myself.  Just twelve little stories on that record.  So much power.  Stories save lives.

Orson Scott Card stopped me from hurting myself, too. Imagine that, from the relative safety of 2015.

His Songmaster was the first book I ever read about gay people. I was way too young, and completely missed the part where the gay people in question were a series of boys and an old gentleman who ruled the known worlds.

I had already sublimated so many emotional and physical needs, but seeing myself reflected in the stories I read, that was a life line. Stories save lives.

Say what you will about Orson Scott Card—God knows, I said plenty upon realizing the man whose work helped keep me sane had declared himself my mortal enemy. Say what you will, and say it loud, but a world without Songmaster might well be a world without a living me.

A decade later when I read Mary Renault’s excellent The Persian Boy, I realized that, perhaps, my needs were not the first to be sublimated.  Stories save storytellers’ lives, too.

I kept the cover of Ender’s Game. I still have it, torn away like a thief —it taught me what the Hugo and Nebula awards were, and is a totem that reminds me why I became a writer.  What became of Songmaster? I kept the whole volume.  It reminds me of a whole lot more.

My editor at Tor, the endlessly caring and brilliant Claire Eddy, worked on Songmaster early in her career, and I’ve been able to look her in the eyes and thank her for her work, and that has meant everything. It Gets Better in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was sad and young and so bitterly alone. Stories? Stories save and make lives.

Next I read Card’s Wyrms and encountered a whole world governed by irrepressible sexual urges.  I like to think that it was that particular moment—the moment I read the penultimate chapter, if memory serves—that my future therapists all realized their future callings.  Stories save and make and complicate lives.

I found Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy in the late nineties.  Storm’s mostly-male andogynes helped to heal me of a lifetime’s traumas, too many of them self-inflicted, and taught me what I could be, if only I freed myself from the shackles of the “real” world, the world I knew to be so falsely constructed that to call it “real” wasn’t even a lie, but a nod of respect to the amount of hurtful bullshit that one world could hold.  Storm’s Wraeththu lived inside their bodies—and enjoyed those bodies—but also nurtured their minds.  So critically, they saw in themselves a fragment of the divine, and so they nurtured their spirits as well.  Stories save lives—and sometimes souls.

Find me one single place in the real world that a young gay man could have possibly nurtured his spirit and his body, safely, in the 1990s.  If you’ve got one, I’ll take a time machine and a suggestion box.  Me?  I found Storm.

Since then, I’ve realized that whole worlds awaited my inattentive, self-absorbed teenage self, if only I’d tried harder.  Should I have tried harder?  I was busy surviving.  I’m amazed I found Mercedes Lackey’s Magician’s Pawn at all, let alone found it in time.  Since then, I’ve built a whole library of mirror worlds, in which I can turn any page and see myself reflected.  Hell, I’ve contributed a book to the library myself.  Soon there will be two.  Geoff Ryman, Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Bowes, Mary Renault, Poppy Z. Brite, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, Jim Grimsley’s lovely Kirith Kirin, Clive Barker, Sarah Monette—my library is full to bursting of writers who helped save me, and still it’s useless if nobody reads it.  If nobody hands one single volume to a reader who needs it and says, like Galadriel, May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.


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