Aro-Spec Artist Profile: Shell

Handdrawn watercolour-style image of a sparse forest of redwood trees growing among grassy hills, with a white and orange fox sitting in the grass at the base of a tree on the viewer's right-hand side of the image. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Artist Profiles sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Our next aro-spec creator is Shell, already known to the aro-spec community as @arosnowflake and the author of the awesome short story Seducing Trouble!

Shell is an autistic, ADHD, non-binary aro-ace person who writes short stories, original fiction, fanfiction and essays. You can find eir fanworks on AO3 under the username spitecentral, writing for the Voltron: Legendary Defender, Fullmetal Alchemist, DC Universe, Batman and Batgirl fandoms, and we’ll hope ey posts more pieces from eir original Coffeeshop Project!

With us Shell talks about how ey writes romance as an aro-ace, depicting relationships in fiction, the impact of amatonormativity on creativity and eir alienation from current aro-spec community conversations. Eir words bound with enthusiasm on authentic creativity and the growth of the aro-spec community, so please let’s give em all our love, encouragement, gratitude, kudos and follows for taking the time to explore what it is to be aromantic and creative.

Can you share with us your story in being aro-spec?

I never thought I was anything other than straight, although I did start noticing that I was different from other people when I was as young as twelve (for example, I remember being asked to pick the handsomest guy in a boy band, but to me, they all looked the same). However, I simply put this down to my autism, and since I was already desensitized to differences with peers, I pretty much ignored it. That is, until I repeatedly saw the word ‘asexual’ used online, and I began to wonder what it was, so I googled it. After reading the first paragraph on the Wikipedia page, I basically slammed my computer shut and did my very best to convince myself that no, I was overreacting, and also straight; after all, I was already autistic and ADHD, so any more diversity would be implausible.

Past me was so naive.

Anyway, I came to terms with being asexual at sixteen, and openly started identifying with it without adding ‘I think’ when I was seventeen. When I learned about the SAM, I initially dismissed the idea of being aro because I had a couple of crushes when I was a kid. However, after learning more about aromanticism and after some conversations with aromantic people, I decided to adopt the label since it really fit me. I mean, I was like nine when I had those crushes, and I don’t feel like they counted. I’m fairly sure now that I was just having them because it seemed like the Thing To Do, and, even then, all of my fantasies involved a more platonic ‘best friends forever but with shared pets’ lifestyle than a romantic thing. So while I may or may not have had crushes before, I don’t think I ever will again, and I don’t want to either, so I’ve adopted the aromantic label. I know it sounds weird, but oh well!

Can you share with us the story behind your creativity?

I don’t remember exactly why or when I began to write. I know it happened when I was around twelve, but that’s kind of it? It’s not really a spectacular story. As for how I began to create the things I do now, that’s slightly more interesting. Really, everything centers around one thing: spite. No one writes autistic characters, and no one writes stories with no romantic plotlines, so I guess I’ll have to do it myself! That’s my literal thought process behind my writing at any given moment, honestly. Even when I’m not writing about autism or other marginalized identities, I write obscure and sometimes absurdist fantasy with magic types or settings that I haven’t seen used before, because I find writing that fascinating, or because I’m annoyed that no one else has used that particular idea. I’m fairly sure that was the reason I began writing originally, too: I had stories I wanted to read, and no one was writing them, so I guess I’ll have to do it.

Are there any particular ways your aro-spec experience is expressed in your art?

Well, first and foremost, I never focus on romantic relationships. Even when they appear in the story, they are not the focus. I’m so sick and tired of reading romantic plotlines, and I am not planning on ever contributing to that trend, thank you very much. So platonic relationships, worldbuilding or character development are often central to the story, instead of romance.

Second, I have this habit of interpreting tropes differently than allos because of my aromanticism. Name soulmates, for example. I know they aren’t a very popular trope in the aro community, but I love them. However, I have a different definition of them than most: I’ve always interpreted a ‘soulmate’ as someone who changes your life (for better or for worse), not your ‘other half’ or whatever nonsense we’re on today. I didn’t even realize that wasn’t a widespread thing until I heard aros complain about soulmate tropes! Stuff like that happens on a fairly regular basis, so I think my aromanticism definitely affects how I write certain settings/tropes, too.

Third, if I do write romance, I feel like I do it in a different way than allo creators. First, I suck at it. Badly. I used to try and write it in the same way that I always heard about it, bold and dramatic and mushy, and my mom (my loyal proofreader when I was a kid), always looked at me awkwardly and was like, ‘No, that’s not how it’s done.’ Since I don’t experience it, I honest to god don’t get why people insist that it’s the best or most important feeling in the world. The way characters in fiction always put their friendships or anything else on hold when that person walks by just … baffles me. I can’t write romance that way. I just can’t.

Instead, I tend to write romance in a much quieter way. If two of my characters are in an established relationship (and it’s always established because I still can’t write ‘coming together’ stories for the life of me), they are casual and comfortable with each other. In any relationship I write, platonic or romantic, I find open communication and trust to be very important. I kind of give all my relationships that same base, and then I add little flavours that I think are unique to that type of relationship. For romance, this is soft love and PDA. PDA is usually quick kisses on the cheek, holding hands, etc. The love is the type of thing where they fondly smile whenever the other does anything, really. I think that more subtle way of writing romance works decently, although I have gotten a lot of people telling me that I often also write friendships as romance, which is weird because I don’t think I do? I add a louder sort of love to friends, generally, and when they do have a quiet moment, it’s usually more serious rather than fond, and I think that’s different. But maybe I do write friendships as romance but I haven’t noticed it? Or maybe it’s amatonormativity making people read it like that?

I don’t know. I have no clue what I’m doing. Save me.

What challenges do you face as an aro-spec artist?

I can only talk about what I face as a fanfic writer, as I don’t really post my original works because I lack the platform for them. (I sometimes post stuff when there are events going on over on larger blogs than lil’ old me, but that doesn’t happen consistently enough to really be talked about.)

As a fanfic writer, well. I’m sure you’ve all heard it before: no one reads gen fic. Although I tend to have a pretty high kudos-to-hits ratio, that means nothing if you get less than 100 hits. In my case especially, as I tend to write for niche audiences, usually picking unpopular characters or friendships to write for, or writing specifically about autistic experiences. Not having the added hook of romance really hurts me in my exposure. Almost always when a story becomes kind of popular (as in it has 40+ kudos), it’s because it’s been recommended by someone with a bigger platform than me, or when I write about popular characters.

(There’s other reasons my stories don’t get popular, of course, like not knowing how to self-advertise and the fact that I have the charisma of a rock, but that’s not what this section is about.)

How do you connect to the aro-spec and a-spec communities as an aro-spec person?

Not at all, honestly? I said before I talked to some aromantic people, but that was mostly by anon asks, and the few I did actually message, well, I remade my blog so now I don’t have any contact. On top of that, the aro community (to my knowledge) doesn’t really have a central tag? Like, the autistic community has the #actuallyautistic tag, but I think the closest we have is #safeforaro, which (to my understanding) is more a reaction to discourse than anything else.

Aside from that, the aro community is really small, and mostly focused on making younger aros accept their identity. While that’s great, as someone who already has accepted their identity, it distances me a bit. And the few blogs that don’t focus on this, while absolutely lovely, are always so … sad? A large part of the aro community is depressed and bitter, worrying about losing their friends, worrying about their future. While that’s absolutely valid, I’d already moved on from that when I was younger, when I accepted the fact that because I was autistic, I would have trouble connecting and staying connected to people. It’s disheartening, sure, but I’ve accepted it and moved past it, so seeing the aro community still hung up on it saddens me. I can’t really give advice because, well, their worries are legit and they just need to come to terms with it at their own pace, and I’m bad at comforting without advice, so I’m just kind of stuck listening to it. It drains me a lot, so I distance myself.

I feel like we, as a community, can do a lot to dismantle amatonormativity, but since we still haven’t figured out what it is exactly, and we’re still grieving over the way we’re impacted by it, we’re not getting anything done. I’m bad at connecting with communities when I don’t know how to contribute to them, so I don’t really interact with it. And outside of the internet, there seems to be no aro community at all (or at least I haven’t found it), so I feel very isolated.

Wow that got real dark real fast. Sorry for being such a downer, but I did feel like it needed to be said.

How do you connect to your creative community as an aro-spec person?

…speaking of being a downer.

It’s well known that fandom isn’t a safe space for aro/ace people. It’s a very ship-centric place, to the point where it’s almost impossible to escape romance, and I hate it. I’m here because I like expanding on stories and characters and playing with established narratives, not because I want to see two people kiss. Because my wants and needs are different from most of the fandom, I tend to be isolated and unpopular, and while that’s mostly fine with me (it creates less drama), I really wish I had people to talk to.

As for being an original writer, I’ve already mentioned that I don’t post my work because I don’t have a platform. Now, granted, it’s rather difficult to create a platform as a writer, especially if you’re not that social and don’t know how to market yourself (hi), but I feel like being aro also helps to distance me. Romance is a rather large hook to any work of fiction in the publishing industry, to the point where some publishers will demand a romance subplot in your book. I write obscure things that I myself enjoy, and as a result, my stories aren’t very marketable. I doubt that I’ll ever get published, simply because I’m, well, weird.

I totally understand the publisher’s perspective of not wanting to pick up books or stories that simply won’t sell (and experience has told me that my stories will indeed never be popular), but it still saddens me. I could probably learn to write more popular stories, but I don’t want to do that, since writing for me really is about expressing myself (though I’m not judging anyone who writes popular stuff for money; we all need to eat).

So, to summarize, I’m not marketable or interesting either as a writer or as a fandom member to either communities, which isolates me, which sucks, but it also enables me to really stop giving a shit. Sounds weird, but once I figured out that I’m not gonna get published or be popular, I really felt free to do whatever I want. Because ultimately the only person that really likes my writing is me, I’ll make myself happy first and foremost. While this sounds kind of depressing, it’s actually motivated me to keep writing, and it stops me from getting too depressed or anxious when a story I post only gets a dozen or so kudos/notes, so I think that’s a positive thing. Because ultimately, to me, the most important thing about writing isn’t the community, it’s having fun and creating something new, and as long as I can do that, I’ll be happy.

How can the aro-spec community best help you as a creative?

The obvious answer is read my stories and reblog/leave kudos/comment, which is also true for every other writer, but I feel like that’s ignoring the underlying reason romance-free stuff just doesn’t get popular. The reason my stuff is unpopular isn’t because of the aro community, but because of the alloro people being more numerous and not caring.

Instead, I’m going to say that I would be helped if the aro community started focusing more on what it means to be aro, expanding on the meaning of amatonormativity, and spreading the word to allo communities. Amatonormativity is something that hurts all of us, especially fellow LGBT+ members, and I think that once more people start to realize what it is and how it’s harmful, they would try to examine their own biases and help us dismantle it. That way, gen stories will get more popular in fandom spaces, and stories without a focus on romance will have more chance of thriving in the publishing industry. It’s not a foolproof plan, and maybe I’m just too optimistic about my fellow humans, but it’s worth a shot and better than doing nothing.

Can you share with us something about your current project?

I have several current projects! My ADHD always makes me bounce dozens of ideas around in my head and start even more works, but very few of them ever get finished. However! One story I’m fairly sure I’m getting finished is an original piece about a universe in which everyone needs to buy a heart on a necklace in order to feel love. It’s an old story that I’m reworking to contain less aromisia, since I was still rather ignorant when I wrote the first draft, but I think it has a lot of potential to examine love in its entirety, and I’m super excited about it!

The only thing I don’t like about it is the incredibly melodramatic writing style I’m using; unfortunately, my writing always seems to be needlessly dramatic and I cry every time I read it because I just hate it so much. Since this is a fairly serious piece, it’s even worse than usual. I’m toying with the idea of starting a humorous and light piece to offset it, probably about an aromantic witch and her familiar who con people into buying fake love potions.

And of course, my Coffeeshop Project is always ongoing!

The Coffeeshop Project is a project I started when I badly needed to de-stress. It’s been my go-to comfort project ever since, meaning that I try not to put pressure on myself over the quality of it, and that I don’t do any research specifically for the project (although I often incorporate research that I did for other things).

The Coffeeshop Project is a series of stand-alone short stories in the same universe centred around the shenanigans of the crew of Café Nowhere, a café with a supernatural clientele. (I’m afraid I have a soft spot for supernatural shops.)

The story I wrote for the aro prompt on this blog was actually part of it! It was set a couple of years prior to the current ‘canon’, and introduces Ethan, who is now 22 and is infamous for taking down an intergalactic smuggling ring. There are more crew members, but listing them would take forever, so if anyone is interested, feel free to just ask!

Have you any forthcoming works we should look forward to?

I have several ideas about forthcoming works that may or may not get written, including the above, a role reversal AU for Fullmetal Alchemist (for which I have to research a lot about blindness, and since I hate research but don’t want to compromise on an accurate betrayal of disability, that might never get finished – I’m sorry y’all, but I’m doing this for free and only have so many spoons), an in-progress work for Batman about magic that I just cannot seem to pace correctly, a fic with a respectful portrayal of an autistic Black Manta as a passive-aggressive middle finger to DC comics, an analysis of FMA and/or Harry Potter from an aromantic perspective, etc. But with my ADHD and my gazillion ideas it’s always a 50/50 chance that something actually gets finished, so I don’t like to promise anything.

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