A Letter for Bear
by David Lucas
I've been asked about "heart art" - what gives something soul? Writing and drawing come from the same place for me - I love patterns - patterns of words and patterns of shapes and lines. And I look for resonant patterns, patterns that seem to have all sorts of echoes.
Picture books are many layered - and the hidden layers echo on frequencies I am hardly aware of. A common experience for me is reading one of my stories, long after it was published, and thinking: "That's what it's about!"
Even the simplest ideas keep their secrets.
A Letter for Bear is a simple tale of a lonely postman, doing his job, delivering letters but never getting any letters himself. Night after night he sits in his cave alone, with his cup of soup, staring at the dark.
My Dad never had any friends. Not one. He was a lonely obsessive, talented at drawing and making things, but fatally unable to reach out. The real miracle is that he had six kids. But then he met my Mum when she was very lonely, and they were both very young, both misfits in their way. (She had been an elective mute as a child.)
But although she really grew and now lives a full, wonderful, happy life, he had such severe emotional difficulties that he progressively alienated all of us.
Bears are solitary creatures, harmless in general, but dangerous and vicious when threatened. But why did my Dad feel so threatened?
I've just been reading 'The Autistic Brain' by Temple Grandin, and it confirms my view that Dad was autistic: good at a very narrow range of tasks, with an intense eye for detail, but bewildered by human interaction, forever misreading social cues.
The difficulty for autistic people is information overload. And emotion is particularly hard to deal with - it can't be systematized, pigeon-holed, it cuts you to the core.
Dad was intensely aware - but so intensely aware that what might seem a manageable situation to most people, was to him like bombs going off inside him.
His instinct was for self-preservation. So he did things like push my Mum out of the car - even though she herself was so upset. In fact, precisely because she was so upset.
Temple Grandin suggests at the end of her book all sorts of ways that autistic people might learn to reach out to others successfully (she is autistic herself).
As I grew up, I realized that one way to talk to people was simply to make a conscious effort to ask questions, to try not to talk about myself so much.
I might often fail, but that basic principle - of seeing human interaction as a patterned transaction of give and take - is just the sort of structured 'rule' that a high-functioning autistic person can really internalize, and visualize.
Being an author, in fact, is being professionally manipulative - trying to understand the various levers of the heart. What makes people respond - or not. And writing stories has certainly helped me govern my own emotions, and understand myself and others much better. I find writing much more difficult than drawing for these very reasons - and it has a dangerous fascination for me. I often focus on writing when I'd probably be better off just getting on with drawing.
Poor old Bear, in my story, does find an answer to his problem: in his job, in what he is good at - delivering letters. He writes to everyone on his round, inviting them to a party. His letters are like me learning to ask questions. He doesn't sit there forever waiting for the world to meet him on his terms, he reaches out.
And this being a children's picture book, everyone responds warmly.
In the final scene he realizes all the letters in his sack are to him: he has Christmas cards from everyone. Understanding my Dad's autism helps me feel more compassion for him. And I think of those little daily tragedies, like the time he gave me a completely blank birthday card, saying: "I haven't had time to sign it." Or the time, when I was older and I met him in town (typically we'd arrange to meet in a bookshop) and I suggested we go to the pub for a drink.
"I'm not thirsty," was his reply.
He was a funny old bear.