Today, after being in operation for over 4 years, AWS.com is proud to post, below, the first email to Dr. James Krasner, a physician/editor with American Psychological Press, of Washington, DC, publishers of the DSM. In this email, I open the campaign for the inclusion of AWS in its manual. This was the first in a series of letters sent beginning in March of 2020.
American Psychiatric Press, Inc.
1400 K Street N.W., Suite 1101
Washington DC 20005
Dear Dr. Krasner:
Please find enclosed a submission of a proposed entry into your publication, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The entry is for a previously unrecognized, but widely prevalent condition: Aspiring Writer Syndrome.
As a matter of record, let me state clearly and affirmatively that the entry is authored by me, Mr. Benjamin Obler of Olivebridge, NY. Just as you would expect entries on other conditions to be authored by experts, so too am I an expert in this condition. I am a writer myself, and have been for more than 30 years. I don’t wish to presume anything of you or be unnecessarily defensive, but I’m also sympathetic to the necessary rigors and “red tape” of your position; and to that end, let me be the first to point out that this condition has not been observed in a clinical setting. That is not, however, a detriment or deterrent to our cause, which I do by the way consider a shared cause. I’ve observed AWS in the workshops of New York City, which we can think of as the hospital ward, or ad-hoc refugee medical tent, of the literary world.
I will let the entry speak for itself and now remark on classification, which I trust will be among your chief concerns.
I’m at your discretion as to the classification and placement of AWS within the current system and forthcoming edition. I could see AWS being placed adjacent to 315.31, Expressive Language Disorder. There is certainly a kinship. Whereas the essential feature of ELD is “an impairment in expressive language development,” AWS would have an essential feature as … well, what’s the opposite of impairment? Hyper-development, perhaps? Hyper-development of expressive language. And whereas ELD results in measures “below” standard in receptive language development, AWS would, naturally, result in scores “above” in said same measures.
One reason for not placing AWS alongside this condition, however, is that section 300 is devoted to conditions “Usually Diagnosed in Infancy, Childhood, or Adolescence,” and though AWS often has roots in childhood experience, it is most often manifest more severely and most classically in adults, who have the capacity to ascertain and experience firsthand the societal function of the writer, and whose experience in the workplace has driven them, for the protection of their sanity, to greater commitment to the practice of writing, a commitment which is a chief symptom of the condition.
Of course, if AWS were as simple as a mere opposite of an existing deficit condition, then the obvious choice would be to contrast it against 315.2 – Disorder of Written Expression. However, I’m opposed to this doxology, as it overlooks a frequent feature of the AWS patient, which is that they are often labelled deficient in writing skills in childhood, by educators and other adult figureheads. In this I cite as an example a writing student of mine, Mr. Harris (name fictionalized) of Little Rock, Arkansas, who I tutored privately. Mr. Harris, who had sold an IT business for a substantial sum and also owned a deer farm in Oklahoma, had been told by his fourth grade teacher that the essay he turned in could not be his because it was “too well-written.” It was well-written and deserved an A, therefore he must have plagiarized it, the teacher asserted, giving him a grade of D. This harsh and unfair judgement was not quickly forgotten by Mr. Harris, as the anecdote was offered on the first day of our tutoring relationship, when I asked Mr. Harris why he was studying Fiction now at the age 55. (Not that I, or any instructor at the institution where I teach, is at all ageist.) Mr. Harris had always, he answered, wanted to be a writer, but that damn teacher put him off his wish for some four decades.
From a clinical and diagnostic perspective, I think it is self-evident that a condition cannot, therefore, be defined as the opposite of a condition which the patient has presented with previously, whether accurately or inaccurately. This would be like defining narcolepsy as the opposite of sleeplessness; though a patient may have had one and then the other, or may possibly experience both, intermittently, at times, they operate independent of one another.
Delirium, Dementia, and Other Cognitive Disorders is the next classification which I think offers a possible home for AWS, as the belief systems inherent to AWS are chiefly cognitive. The writer believes that his or her output will result in wellness; though there is no guarantee of this, and in fact real-world examples often disprove such a premise.
But mentioning the false belief aspect of AWS brings up cultural conditions, which I’m keen to hear your opinion on—and the opinions of other contributors and advisors of course. Here I refer to the DSM’s Appendix I, Outline for Cultural Formation and Glossary of Cultural-Bound Syndromes; it reminds us that to the Caribbean Latino ataque de nervios is real and actual “idiom of distress,” and that a boufee delierante identifies a bout of aggression, confusion and psychomotor excitement to the Haitian or West African person. So too is AWS made painfully real by the exigencies of a specifically American culture, in which the writer is romanticized, pitied, and yet sometimes depicted as an especially gifted and differentiated member of a culture, a culture which is dominated by money-minding, war-mongering capitalists who’ve lost their humanity, morals, and historical perspective. So whatever weight culture bears upon the classification of AWS, I am receptive to that being considered strongly.
Lastly on the issue of classification, I will mention briefly the sections on Substance-Related Disorders (303.90 to 292.50), Mood Disorders (317), and Anxiety Disorders (393). Here I think that the lay perspective offers valuable guidance, in that anyone can observe—as many hack screenplay writers have failed to observe—that though AWS may be paired, or concomitant, with conditions like alcohol abuse, caffeine dependence, and nicotine dependence, it is just as often observed absent of these conditions. Also, we can observe that as the Substance-Related section moves towards its closing entries, into Phencylclideine Disorders and Anxiolytic-Related Disorders, for example, this classification lies far afield of AWS, as the average writer doesn’t even know what these substances are. Meanwhile anxiety and changing moods may very well be symptoms experienced with AWS, but totally absent from these entries are the so-called “plus sides”: the elation that can result from the creative act, the real pleasures of one’s works appearing in print, the satisfaction of forgetting grim reality while writing, etc.
Finally, I will only add that I am equally open to AWS being placed, taxonomically, in the category of Impulse-Control Disorders or Personality Disorders. On this matter I am at the discretion of your expertise; and if you would only ask, I would gladly narrativize any or all of the written feedback I’ve delivered to my hundreds of writing students and clients over the past 13 years. I think you would find it very insightful if I would provide descriptions of their particular symptoms as described to me in workshops, private calls, emails, and as expressed in the stories and novels themselves written by these severely afflicted individuals. Their symptoms included writing while in work Zooms, writing on the bus, writing in the park, and spending sleepless nights just… you guess it—writing. In other instances, these AWS patients exhibited strongly pre-possessive beliefs about one’s certain inferiority as a writer. Here, in this super-abundance of available data-driven material, I think you’ll find, lies the full assessment, the full truth if you will, behind all that Aspiring Writer Syndrome is.
Kind regards, and I eagerly await your reply.