Yellow Band

A diagnosis alters a writer's relationship to his work

Steve Edwards
"Apricot Tree" by Ivan Radic licensed and adapted under CC BY 2.0

The first few years we lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, my wife and I didn’t pay much attention to the big tree behind our garage. Beyond it stood the row houses on Lincoln’s main drag and the quiet oak-filled expanse of Wyuka Cemetery. The tree was tall, leafy, forgettable. Then one March, to our astonishment, it broke into blossom. Rafts of pale petals mobbed its branches. Soon after, the first hard green apricots appeared.

The tree, we knew, had been planted by the house’s original owner, a botanist at the university. Everywhere was evidence of his garden’s former glory. Grapevines choked a half-collapsed arbor off the porch. Stray patches of rhubarb and asparagus sprouted in the grass. Our neighbor Linda told us the botanist and his wife had three daughters. “His wife planted those trees for the twins,” Linda said, motioning to a crab apple in the corner. It wasn’t until she pointed it out that I noticed: there were two trees, not one, a crab apple and an apple. They had been planted together. They had fused at the root.

The eldest daughter, Linda explained, had gone to college, gotten married, and moved away. The twins were both autistic and had lived at home until their parents, in short succession, both died of cancer. For a time, the twins managed independently with Linda and a few neighbors helping out with grocery runs and rides to jobs downtown. When that stopped working, the sisters relocated to a group home, and the house was sold to a slumlord who rented it out to undergrads whose keg parties clogged the street with cars. A decade passed like that before my wife and I arrived from back east with our little dog and our boxes of books, eager to make the place our own. In that decade of benign neglect, the story the botanist and his wife had written on the land never stopped telling itself. It was a tale of endless transformation. Hard Nebraska clay turned into blossoms and fruit. Blossoms and fruit turned into insects and grass and little brown rabbits. Out gardening in our meager beds, I thought often about the family, my imagination filling in the details. I thought of how the wife, in her last years, would have known she wouldn’t be able to look after the twins forever. There would have been things she wanted to say but couldn’t. The trees would have to say them by blossoming.

We had moved to Lincoln so I could pursue a PhD in creative writing. I was in my early thirties, toiling away on a sprawling, multigenerational novel. I worked seven days a week, the routine always the same: breakfast, writing, lunch. Whatever the world wanted from me after lunch, it could have. The writing itself—the act of it—was a prayer I prayed. I read paragraphs aloud, listening intently to the rhythms of the sentences. When my characters encountered the natural world—when a deer darted in front of a car or a breeze turned the surface of a lake into a glittering mirror—I felt the moment in my body as though I were there. It was a kind of deliverance: I was myself and also someone else. After a few hours, I would look up from my writing desk and realize that sunlight had crossed the floor.

Had I thought about my novel objectively, I might have known even then that it was unpublishable, a mishmash of moments, inscrutable to the point of incoherence. But I loved how it felt to lose myself inside my own mind.

If one paragraph had seven lines, the following paragraph had to have three or four. The one after that had to have ten. Or one. Or be a single word.

In the summers, my wife had work that took her to Connecticut, and for weeks at a time I talked to no one. For company, I had the morning light in the trees out the window, the birds that perched there. After lunch, I would brave the July heat, hauling buckets of water to our sunflower patch and sprinkling their gnarled roots with gurgles and glugs. When I felt lonely, I’d let the breeze knock their bodies into mine.

Beyond the page and the little universe of my solitude in the garden, anxiety ruled my days. Without quite realizing it, I had begun systematizing my life to avoid anything that made me too nervous. I didn’t drive in rush hour traffic for fear of dying in a fiery crash. During the lunch surge at a deli, when it wasn’t clear whose turn it was to order, I got so self-conscious of slowing down the process—or accidentally cutting in line or dropping a plate and breaking it—that I stopped going. Once at a fancy restaurant with friends, a wrinkle on my shirt pocket so preoccupied me—made me so sure people were judging me for it—I completely shut down and went mute the entire night. Even if I wanted to meet a fellow writer to grab a coffee, it hardly seemed worth the price of having to deal with myself.

Writing was a refuge from all that. Writing was rest. The page was a place of order and controlled outcomes, and I worked from a firm set of rules. These weren’t the kind of craft suggestions I taught the students in my writing classes; they were of a different order and entirely arbitrary, and yet I adhered to them strictly. If one paragraph had seven lines, the following paragraph had to have three or four. The one after that had to have ten. Or one. Or be a single word. In the middle of a scene, I would stop everything and count. If the math didn’t add up, I made myself start over.

It was important to me that the last word of the longer paragraphs was farther to the righthand side of the page than the last word of the shorter paragraphs, but not so far as to crowd the edge. Flip any printed draft on its side and ideally what you would see was a kind of wave—like the graphic display of an audio file—that rose and dipped with changes in the story’s tempo and dynamic. I knew these rules didn’t actually matter. I knew if whatever I was working on got published, the formatting would change anyway. But it was a puzzle to solve. I imagined myself a wild quilter cutting up different-sized strips of fabric, laying out sentences in increasingly complex sequences and patterns, stitching them together, standing back, assessing and reassessing the whole. I got so good at counting lines it became second nature. It was meticulous and painstaking work. It left no room in my head for shame.

Despite my anxieties, I never saw myself as someone with problems. When, in my third year of grad school, I made an appointment at the university’s counseling services office, it was because I thought it might benefit my writing. An officemate of mine had spoken enthusiastically about how his therapist had helped him think through story ideas. I’d also recently seen a documentary about the architect Frank Gehry, whose conversations with a therapist over thirty-five years had been instrumental to his process of manifesting his visions.

The day of my appointment, I arrived at the health center early. New places—especially crowded ones—could easily disorient me. In a kiosk in the middle of the lobby, an elderly man in a red vest checked people in. I gave him my name and told him the time of my appointment. He made a quick mark in his ledger.

“And what is this in regards to?” he asked, looking up. The question confused me. I said again that I had made an appointment.

“In regards to?”

I just looked at him.

“Why are you here?” he said.

Around me the room got louder—a nurse calling a name in the background, a sorority girl laughing into her cell phone. The man looked at me, awaiting an answer, but I’d already given him one. I had an appointment. I was here to check in.

“I’m not telling you that,” I said.


“You’re not my doctor.”

His face went red, and he grabbed the phone on his desk and began punching numbers into it. “You’re very rude,” he said.

Then he said something into the phone I didn’t catch. A moment later, his manager appeared, a middle-aged woman in a taupe pantsuit. She invited me to her office and asked what seemed to be the problem. When she realized I was there for a mental health visit, she softened and said she understood.

“I’m not rude,” I said.

“No,” she said.

By the time I got upstairs to the therapist’s office, I was ten minutes late. I sat on a couch facing a window that looked out on the building where I taught. The therapist wore a turtleneck and wire-frame glasses, and her short dark hair was spiked with gel. She poured green tea from a thermos into its lid. “So,” she said, settling in.

“So,” I said.

She smiled at me.

I hated this already.

Over the course of the semester, however, I dutifully came in every other week. The therapist was kind enough, attentive, an active listener. When I told her stories from childhood or from my week or about some scene in my novel, she asked thoughtful questions. But she always wanted to know how things made me feel. You’re a writer, she’d say when I balked. Describe it. I failed to see the point. I would repeat my stories, sometimes word for word. I already knew how I felt. If she wanted to know, it was all right there.

No two of us were exactly alike. To meet one autistic person was to have met one autistic person.

I wasn’t trying to be rude with the therapist, any more than I was trying to be rude with the man who had checked me in. It was a missed connection, one of many in my life. I didn’t know how to explain that, even though I was a writer, asking me to describe my feelings was a little like asking me to describe a grassy field teeming with life by catching crickets and pinning them to corkboard. Even now, I don’t know how to explain it. I didn’t want to make a specimen of myself. I had come to therapy because I thought it might be nice to have someone to talk to about my writing. I wanted to feel seen and understood. But somehow, the more we talked, the more alone and different I felt. Therapy took on the dimensions of one-sided conversation. I already had that in my novel. I didn’t see the point of another.

It took meeting Dr. Wilson two years later to show me a different way. Dr. Wilson’s practice was located in an office park behind an Applebee’s. Most of her patients were children, and her office—littered with puzzle pieces and toys and grubby dolls countless kids had disassembled over the years—resembled a kindergarten classroom.

In our first session, she shared with me that she was autistic. By our third, she said she felt certain that I was, too.

By that time she had had me take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which ruled out psychopathy, hypochondria, paranoia. She interviewed my wife, listening to stories about my anxiety, my literalness, my hours-long writing jags, the strict routines I lived by. In that third session, I sat in an armchair in the corner by an end table with a cheap glass lamp on it. “You really think this is me?” I asked. “Autism?”

Sunlight slanted through the blinds and onto her face, illuminating the blue window glass of her eyes. “I do,” she said.

She explained to me the basics—that autistic people existed on a spectrum, and that no two of us were exactly alike. To meet one autistic person was to have met one autistic person. But there were some commonalities. Autistics could get easily overwhelmed by sensory input, for example. Autistics often leaned on stims—repetitive motions and behaviors—to stay grounded. It was a kind of mindedness, she said, a different way of being in the world. Nothing I had to change. But we could, she thought, do something to help me with my anxiety. She went to the dry-erase board and drew two lines. The first was a gradual sloping incline. The second spiked like a heartbeat on a monitor.

“That’s you,” she said, tapping the heartbeat line twice with her marker. “You’ve got a hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. Most people experience a gradual buildup of stress in the sympathetic nervous system. You spike.”

She invited me to imagine the implications of a hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. You’d never know what might set it off or why. You would walk through your days worried about every little thing, hypervigilant, trying to anticipate trouble before it arrived. And no matter how hard you tried, it still happened.

That was me.

In just a few minutes she had explained something I had always known but could never quite articulate or understand. In that moment, I felt the way I sometimes felt out driving, when an epic sunset descended over the plains: massive pink clouds, cornfields, railroad tracks to the horizon, the world suddenly a perfect vision of itself, everything, all at once, making sense. The lens she offered me sharpened and intensified how I thought about childhood, my family, the heartbreak and hurt of my twenties, which had left me feeling less than whole. Now I saw that I was more than who I thought I was—more than who I’d been told I was. There wasn’t anything the diagnosis didn’t touch. In time, even how I thought about being a writer changed. For years I had built a persona around imagining myself a novelist. I had worked to convince myself and others that, soon enough, I would emerge from my self-imposed exile transformed, with a literary masterpiece in hand. But one day, after an ordinary morning’s work, I saved the giant file containing my novel, hit close, and never opened it again.

I don’t know how many green apricots hung on the branches of our tree the year it bloomed—several hundred, easily. My wife and I imagined eating them at the peak of their sweetness. I looked forward to lying in bed with the windows open, listening for the little thump as they hit the ground. But one afternoon, a squirrel climbed across the telephone wires from the alley. It raced from apricot to apricot, nibbling them to test for ripeness, then tossing them aside. In a matter of days, it had discarded every last one.

I remember trying to console myself with the fact that in my imagination the apricots would remain perfect forever, that the real sweetness lay in the tree’s unexpected blooming. But I’d have liked at least a taste.

In that spirit, I’d have liked to have published the novel I worked on all those years in Lincoln, if only to have had something to show for the work I put in. But when I finally abandoned the project, I knew: it was never going to appeal to a broad audience. No amount of revision could turn it into something it was not, into what it would need to be for others to understand it as I did. For that to happen, I would have had to constrain my work in the way I had learned to constrain myself. And I was done constraining myself. It’s true I still get anxious, that it still takes time and effort for me to process feelings for which there are no easy words, but I no longer write to escape from life. Rather, I write the way I imagine the botanist’s wife planting trees for her daughters—out of equal parts futility and love, with no expectation of anything in return. The real understanding for me, years now in the making, is that a tree in blossom is more than the fruit it yields, more than its own fleeting beauty. It is a network, a living system of relationships. Like my writing and like me, it is a state of becoming.

One day, not long after Dr. Wilson’s clarifying diagnosis, I brought my first-year writing students to the Sheldon Museum of Art on campus. Their task for the session, I explained, was to look for a painting or photograph or sculpture that could somehow serve as a self-portrait and to write about it.

A tree in blossom is more than the fruit it yields, more than its own fleeting beauty.

Off they went with their notebooks, happy to have traded the dull fluorescent lights of the classroom for the Sheldon’s travertine marble. I followed them at a distance, watching as they stood before the works—the Hopper, the Brancusi, the Hartley, Noguchi, De Kooning. They stared hard. They bit at pencils. They scribbled ideas and crossed them out.

I found myself before Yellow Band by Mark Rothko. In the painting, which is massive—seven feet tall and six feet across—a glowing yellow rectangle floats inside a red square, which itself floats inside a slightly lighter red square.

The shapes in the painting are not marked by sharp or hard lines but rather are soft as torn paper, like a book’s deckled edges. Even when you get close, it’s impossible to tell where one color ends and another begins. I had seen Rothko’s paintings before, in passing. I had always dismissed them as odes to color, as examples of the artist’s cleverness rather than genius. But now I stood transfixed. The painting towered over me, casting a sunrise warmth onto my skin and clothes. Taken from one angle, the shapes inside seemed to expand outward and claim space. The yellow rectangle in the center blurred like the headlights of an oncoming truck, the last thing you might see before a collision. Taken from another angle, the shapes drew my eye inward, suggesting hazy and imponderable depths—like a landscape in miniature seen through mottled glass: a field, a flicker of trees to the horizon, a sky the color of light before a thunderstorm. The painting offered no apologies or explanations. Rather, it offered companionship, a kind of self-assured living-breathing presence. This is how I want to write, I remember thinking. Then I thought, No, this is who I want to be. No, I finally thought, this is who I am. A student drifted by and stood beside me a moment. The light spilled over us both in equal measure.

Steve Edwards is the author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon. His essays have most recently appeared in The Sun, Orion, Literary Hub, and Longreads. He lives outside Boston with his wife and son.
Originally published:
April 29, 2024


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