August 30, 2018 | Blog
To Think like the Animals: A Review of Andrew Blitman’s Work and Mini-Interview
Author: Merrick Egber (August 2018) Being a representative of the autism community for a well-regarded Foundation means to put on the best face possible to showcase the talents within the community. Last month meant an article on one of the more common phenomena within the community, the gifted autistic pianist, but this month I want to show a different side of autism, an autistic individual’s interest in expression and interpreting the world around them through creative writing. While any of you may know that I’m a creative writer, myself, I will have to give the spotlight to someone who, may be regarded as a more interesting poet, let me introduce you to Andrew Blitman!
Andrew Blitman has a history within the Foundation, working for us, and being a part of our adults with autism social group. Andrew’s father has also volunteered for the Foundation in the past. A few months ago, he approached me with the need to get more exposure for his web site, https://andrewblitman.com/, and to have a book of his reviewed, a daunting task given how much he has written over the years. When I, instead, asked if I could review his book and give a mini-interview to him for a soon-to-be blog article, he was delighted. A chance to get a multitude of readers interested in the autistic brain to be interested in a talented member of the community.
Mr. Blitman has written a number of books, about his religious heritage, multitopical books culled from his blog writings, but he is especially proud of his Wild Writers series, the third entry just arrived in late July. In these two books, the second volume being one of his most recent published works, he has made it his mission to write poetry from the eyes of as many members of the animal kingdom as possible, with self-drawn illustrations. When I asked him about reviewing both books, he agreed, and so goes the reviews.
Book 1 (Wild Writers: The Animal World’s Greatest Poets) and Book 2 (Wild Writers, Volume 2: Portraits and Poems of the Animal Kingdom) are very similar to each other than Book 2 seems more like an expansion than a thorough remodeling of the creative processes for Book 1. A book of such good quality, as Wild Writers Volume 1, doesn’t need a makeover to make the content inside any better…..but you’re probably wondering what these books are about.
The books follow a diverse variety of poems, with each animal highlighted and illustrated by Andrew, himself, from the perspectives of various animals, some known and some more obscure. He delves into the education, entertainment, personality-based and an overall fun read when going through each poem. While much of it could be read by younger children, there may be concepts and ideas more suitable for older ones to understand, which is not a knock on the book series. I’m not sure if it was intended for younger children, a question that will be answered in the interview coming up.
My favorites from Book 1:
- An illustration of a basilisk lizard in the southwestern evening that is so evocative and atmospheric, nothing else compares
- Its best poem, “Man’s Best Friend” a poem recited by a traditional dog that is so uninhibited and delivers the message that dogs don’t just see themselves as a friend for humanity, but as partners for whenever man has to make any massive treks forward, auguring the mystique of canines everywhere.
My favorites from Book 2:
- Best illustration and poem come from the same spot, the poem “Holy Tiger”, which is a slightly epic take on the mystique of tigerdom and their tense relationships with humans, featuring an illustration almost inspired by old cave paintings, showing two tigers locked in endless combat against each other.
Having given my praises, though, I should mention a few criticisms….
While, I’ve taken all this time talking on my own behalf, this is a two part blog, and the second part is my mini interview with Mr. Andrew Blitman who I’m grateful is able to answer a few questions about his life and the “Wild Writers” series:
Q1: Merrick: What made you decide to write these books? Who is the intended audience?
A1: Andrew Blitman: The inspiration for these books came to me while I was volunteering at the Museum of Discovery and Science in April 2017. One of my cousins told me that I should write a book that features the animals that live in the museum exhibits, and I ultimately followed her advice. At the time, I had already published a memoir (“Birthright 2012: A Voyage into the Heart and Soul of Israel”) and a 78-page Masters Project/Thesis on billfish conservation policies that involved digital cartography/mapmaking software. I had also been blogging for about 6 years and had been eager for a challenge to motivate me out of my creative lull. My cousin’s request really excited me out of this hiatus, and I got straight to work on the “Wild Writers” series.
Although my cousin encouraged me to write and draw whimsically, my pens, pencils, and markers guided me toward my natural creative style — quick meaningful poems and bright, hand-drawn illustrations that embellished reality. By July 2017, I had fully completed the “Wild Writers” series – illustrations and poems in their final versions, in all of their entirety. There were more than 200 poems and illustrations between the 3 “Wild Writers” books, comprising over 100 unique species.
The poems came from many different places – from the legends and literary/cultural symbolism of certain animals and plants, to biology and ecology and paleontology, to the difficult natures of life and love and companionship and death, and the topics of extinction, responsibility, and stewardship of our communities and natural resources. I was also highly influenced by my Jewish roots and my Christian faith, which inspired me to include animals like lions and doves and plants like the Joshua tree in their Biblical contexts.
I intended to write my book for children, but the realism and depth of “Wild Writers” pushed me more toward middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students. However, I believe that it is a good read for anyone who loves nature and poetry in general. This work is meant to be read many times, because it was designed to challenge the perceptions of the reader toward the world around us.
Q2: Merrick: How has your autism influenced you? What would be the most important thing for people to understand about your condition?
A2: Andrew Blitman: Autism has profoundly affected me in many ways. For the majority of my life, I hated myself for having autism and the depression that followed it. Because I saw myself as different in a bad way and oftentimes hid my true feelings toward myself and others by masking my emotions in public (by imitating improvisational comedy techniques that I learned from watching “Saturday Night Live” and “I Love Lucy”), I saw myself as – and treated myself like – an abomination, someone or something that was infinitely less-than-human. Repeated bad experiences with medication and therapy led to fights with family and friends that almost destroyed my life. They did everything they could to make my life easier and I still could not cope with their love because I hated myself so much back then. I disliked my lot in life so much ten years ago that I almost attempted suicide twice. I did not know God or appreciate him, nor did I appreciate the supports that my family, friends, and therapists had set in place.
I struggled with self-image and self-hatred for most of my life. That curdled over into my writing, a talent whose capacity I did not actualize until about 8 years ago. I felt like my spoken words – my perspective, my point of view, my voice, my life, my identity – had no value, and that search for meaning out of perceived learned helplessness/worthlessness became the fuel that kickstarted my writing career (so to speak).
I felt isolated – even around people – and for the longest time I had little motivation to live. My writing came out of the anger and pain of being lovelorn and lonely, of being misunderstood and misunderstanding others, and from my inability to escape it all. For 10 years, I lived just to defy death itself. That was where my earliest works came from; I have detached myself from them because they no longer reflect where I am today.
My writing also emerged from the need to build long-lasting friendships and relationships. It is especially hard when deficits are present – and there were a lot of them when I started making friends 12 years ago. That was when my condition improved in many ways; however, I also envied all of the people who lacked autism because they had life easier than I did – at least, that appeared to be the case.
While I firmly believe that I have overcome the majority of the depression/envy pieces of my life, there are times when I still feel trapped in my own world, that I am an oddball that belongs nowhere. I like to escape from isolation by telling jokes to people (mostly puns). I sometimes get carried away, when I feel like I’m walking on eggshells or when I feel like the more profound aspects of my life are useless – like my voice, my writing, or my opinions. The most important thing that I can say about my condition is that it is based a lot on my perception of myself and others, and the often-complex way I interact with others. I often get lost in metacognition – or the way I try to predict the way my words and I are perceived by others beforehand. These days, I try to be so sensitive with others that I carefully curate my words in my head before speaking or writing. I guess that is how my communication skills improved – through vocabulary and word choice.
I think that my autism is a difference – sometimes a hindrance, but mostly a gift (read this poem, “The Autistic Voice” – https://andrewblitman.com/2018/07/02/the-autistic-voice/ ). If it was not for my belief in Christ, and for the unwavering support of my family – especially my parents, grandparents, and brother – and my friends (really, everybody I have ever encountered in my life), I would not be alive today. I owe my life – my existence, my soul, my everything – to Them, for they have given me the will to live and reinforced my belief that every trial ends up good in the end.
Q3: Merrick: Says in biographic depictions of yourself that you were bitten by the science bug, especially marine biology. What especially attracted you to the marine part of science?
A3: Andrew Blitman: My science journey began as a child when I was interested in bugs and fish. I started to collect bugs and fish from lakes and keep them for short periods of time. That introduced me to biology and then to dinosaurs and paleontology, then to astronomy and shipwrecks, and then to Erector sets and other engineering puzzles. I originally wanted to be an engineer; then I wanted to be a doctor instead. I took pre-medicine classes and AP Biology in high school, where I achieved great success academically.
Then I went to college, where I actually put my medical desires to the test. I did not succeed at Organic Chemistry or Physics, though I excelled in math up to Calculus. I then discovered that there was a Marine Biology program for undergrads at UM; I was inspired by my friends who went on field trips to follow in their footsteps instead of medicine. After switching majors various times – geology, paleontology, environmental science, and psychology – I found a mentor in the Marine Policy department. She was like a mother to me, and she saved me on numerous occasions when my mental health nearly forced me out of college. I owe her everything.
In the end, I majored in Marine Policy and minored in Biology, Geology, and Psychology. I look forward to becoming the world’s first and only Marine Biogeopsychologist & Policymaker in the distant future. My ultimate goal was to do science out in the field; I preferred fieldwork to cubicle work. That was what led me to marine science. However, I couldn’t find the best avenue for my science career after college. So, I decided to pursue my writing and art instead.
Q4: Merrick: What do you hope to accomplish through the written word?
A4: Andrew Blitman: Frankly, I write because I am a writer. I write to express my voice, which is mostly clearly received when it is on paper. I also write to encourage others to learn about abstract concepts, to appreciate the beauty of the universe and of God and nature around them. I write to make abstract and unpalatable topics like love and war and forgiveness accessible using simple words from a large vocabulary. I write because I both love it and hate it – it is a relationship, after all, and every author has good days and bad days.
I write to overcome and subvert the deeply-held stigmas and stereotypes of autism, the very things that nearly killed me when I internalized them 20 years ago. Autism is a difference – at least for me – but the label should not define me unless I say it does. I write to empower those with autism to do the same, to take full control of their identity as they see fit. This is especially necessary now — when all you need to have a disability is be perceived by others as having one; when there are people shaming their own children with autism on the internet for personal gain; when many parents are giving up all hope for their children just because they have special needs; when so many people with autism are struggling with depression and other secondary illnesses because they have to mask their true selves in public; etc.
Writing is my gift and I follow it wherever it takes me.
Q5: Merrick: What should we expect from you next?
A5: Andrew Blitman: I have published 7 books in the past 13 months. You can expect me to take a break until the next inspiration strikes. I will continue to blog on my website and promote my books. I also expect to read my poetry out loud at Open Mic Nights throughout South Florida. Here is the list of my books – all 8 of them:
- “Birthright 2012: A Voyage into the Heart and Soul of Israel” (2013)
- “Wild Writers: The Animal World’s Greatest Poets” (2017)
- “Wild Writers, Volume 2” (2018)
- “Wild Writers, Volume 3” (2018)
- “The Big Book of Pun-ishment: A Diverse Collection of Original Jokes, One-Liners, and Punchlines” (2018)
- “The Bridge of Destiny: A Biblical Poetry and Art Collection” (2018)
- “Fated Lines: Poetry Meant to Be” (2018)
- “One Last Book for Now” (2018)
I hope that you read them. You can find them all on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle editions.
Q6: Merrick: What words of inspiration would you give to others who have autism?
A6: Andrew Blitman: As far as words of inspiration go, all I can tell you is to be persistent in everything that you do (especially creatively) and to walk humbly with the faith that all things work out to your good in the end. That is one of the promises of God that I cling to, especially when I look back at my previous trials (see here). If you pray to Him and fully believe that you have received what you prayed for, then you will realize that you have already received it. Aside from the religious stuff, it is important to know yourself (although you will never know yourself completely) and to follow your intuition. You also have to test your feelings before you act on them, and also act and think mindfully of others. We all must understand that there is nothing that makes us any more or less valuable than other human beings. We are created in God’s image, and that is the way in which we should perceive ourselves and others. Everybody has inherent dignity, and that should be the attitude we take when dealing with those who disagree with us.
I also speak from experience when I say this: do not sacrifice yourself needlessly for others. That only leads to exploitation. Also, don’t exploit others. Take care of yourselves and reach out to people you trust when you’re suffering. Pray to God. Call a friend or family member. If necessary, send yourself to the hospital if you feel suicidal (I’ve done that twice). However, do reach out to others that need help. Be there for people without expecting anything in return. The greatest things happen without expectations – even freedom – once we stop victimizing ourselves. And, finally, don’t give up on yourself – even if the whole world does first. You can’t please everyone. You can’t conform to everyone or everything. Just be true to yourself, and admit fault when you go against your principles. And, most of all, accept yourself for who you are. You don’t need to love everything about yourself; the heart is the source of all deceit, anyways. Just resist your fears and all things evil, and they will flee from you.
“Thank you, Merrick, for your time!”
You can get Andrew Blitman’s books through Amazon.com (Digital and physical), Booktopia, Fishpond.co.nz, and many other online sources, along with through the University of Miami.