Autism Interview #59 Part 1: Daniel Bowman Jr. on Teaching and Poetry

Daniel Bowman Jr. is an autistic writer, poet, and Associate Professor of English at Taylor University. He’s the author of a collection of poems titled A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country, a blog contributor for Ruminate, and has written articles and poems featured in a variety of other publications. In part one of this interview, Daniel Bowman discusses his decision to write about autism, as well as his daily routine as a professor, husband, and father.

You begin an article for Ruminate article with, “I am autistic. And I am ready to write about it.” How did you become ready? What inspired you to share your experiences with the world in this way?

I definitely wasn’t ready in the sense that I knew what I was about and how to tell that story. The story itself was barely taking shape. I was still new to it, and it scared me badly. So I willed myself to claim it, and I started writing about it not because I was actually, truly ready, but so that—in the act of writing—I could become better ready. I could explore and examine and learn and grow in it. Those are functions of writing, at least for people who write from places of vulnerability.

Also, I wanted to add another image to what R.P. Blackmur called “the stock of available reality.” I had only seen autism associated with computer hackers, Rain Man, and scientists like Temple Grandin. (I wrote about that here.) I wanted to show people that you can be autistic and be a creative writer, an artist, too. The popular imagination has made little or no room for that yet. It’s the old idea of representation: “If you can see it, you can be it.” I want autistic kids who wish to paint or make movies or write novels or do anything to see that it’s possible. The ways we do it will be different, but it is possible.

Describe your typical teaching day. What are the most stressful and most exciting/fulfilling parts of your work?

I teach between one and three classes a day, almost all creative writing. I also teach a class on Literary Editing and Publishing, where we make Relief Journal, a national literary magazine that comes out every spring. I like to prep as close to class time as possible (usually early morning). I’m often reading or rereading stories, poems, essays, and craft advice, gaining new insights. Other times, we’re workshopping student writing. In that case I like to read the work as soon as I get it, then also reread it as close to class time as possible, taking notes toward their revisions.

Aside from the teaching, I have meetings with students; serve on a few committees that conduct the business of the university; and I sometimes work on my own writing projects, although that’s rare between 8am and 5pm.

The most satisfying parts of my work? Number one is the privilege of coming alongside talented students who are learning a love for books and writing at a new, higher level. Since I began teaching at Taylor, not a semester goes by when I don’t get to work with very bright, earnest students who are also wonderful people. Since we’re in an isolated rural location, we tend to build a strong, supportive community together, based on our faith, our mutual love for the arts, and a sense of what we often call “flourishing.”

Aside from working with great students, I also have some wonderful colleagues with whom I’ve become very close since we moved here. Again, the idea of community comes to mind. We have dinners together on weekends; we talk about what we’re reading and watching and listening to; our kids run around together. It’s a rare gift. For me, teaching at Taylor is not so much a job as a lifestyle.

In terms of challenges: my number one stressor on the job, common with autism, is executive dysfunction. Much of college (both from the student and professor sides) is wrapped up in managing dozens of small tasks every day, juggling emails and meeting invites and grading and class prep and much more, all of which is constantly fluctuating. The people who juggle these things the best win the game.

I struggle with this juggling every single day, and miss something at least a few times a month. Sometimes failing is enough to throw me into a spiral of frustration and depression. My brain will just never work that way, will never smoothly navigate time management, planning, monitoring many tasks, attention/focus, problem solving, and these other factors we call executive functioning. So people will sometimes mistake me for being lazy, disorganized, or maybe just not that smart. It hurts.

What do you do to relax at home?

I have routines for alone time that I adhere to rather strictly. When I get home from campus, I absolutely need to relax alone for a bit, to recharge. I like to watch a certain sports talk show, at 5pm if I can be home by then, at which time I also eat a snack (I’m trying to cut down on potato chips and do carrot sticks/other healthy foods instead). Sports are an old passion, and although I spend only a fraction of the time I once did with sports, I still watch the occasional game, especially baseball, and like to keep up. Other times, though, I watch the Food Network or the Travel Channel. Something light overall, nothing too challenging until I’ve recovered from the day.

I try to jog on the treadmill, or take walks outdoors when the weather is good, three or four times a week, but that falls by the wayside when I start getting buried in the daily busyness of the semester. I read a little each evening (normally literary fiction) and listen to audiobooks (also literary fiction) on my short commutes to work or on my headphones when I’m doing dishes.

Once I’ve gotten some alone time: I spend time with Beth and the kids, especially on weekends and especially when we can be outdoors. My family likes to hike and be in nature. On school nights, we’ll usually all watch part of a movie for a few minutes before we get the kids to bed. Other times, my daughter will have a concert or recital or my son will have a game, or we’ll all go to a play together. My family likes the theatre, especially musical theatre. Often on weekends, though, we’ll have an evening with friends.

What has drawn you to poetry?

I wrote a short piece a few years ago on that very topic, which can be found at TS Poetry. I’ll quote an excerpt, and then readers can check out the original piece if they’re interested (it’s pretty short). This is from “Journey into Poetry”:

As I began writing [in college], poetry seemed a natural choice. I felt overwhelmed with the sustained richness of novels I read, magnificent books like Jane Eyre and One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fathers and Sons. The long form intimidated me; I felt that if I would ever successfully leverage my pitiful reserve of talent in the service of creation, it would need to be on a much smaller scale…like a poem.

Along with economy of form came the knowledge that poetry has been considered the highest art of language, “the best words in their best order,” as Coleridge put it. I liked that poetry gave me achievable goals and a case to be made that I worked at the pinnacle of what language could do.

I started reading an absolute ton of poetry my last few years of college, then writing it. I learned that making a poem was, for me, about the most deeply satisfying work I could undertake. I felt it akin to prayer, and saw how it shaped my spiritual imagination. Although I’ve since written a lot of fiction and nonfiction, I still feel this way about poetry.


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