“Do Not Feel Ashamed of Who You Are”
An interview with Michael Baginski, a journalist with autism and labor advocate who is raising the profile of neurological disabilities.
Throughout high school and college, twenty-four year old gaming journalist Michael Baginski struggled with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While completing his English degree, he decided to start writing for publication about video games. He now covers the industry for various outlets and advocates for journalists with disabilities at the National Writers Union, where he is helping to develop the Freelance Solidarity Project, an initiative focused on organizing and supporting all freelance workers and staff in the media industry.
News-to-Table spoke with the New York-based Baginski via email about living with autism, writing with a disability, and fighting for the rights of all freelancers.
Can you talk a little about what it was like growing up with a neurological disability?
When I was younger, I was prone to getting angry at situations. I had a hard time paying attention to teachers at school. In class, I’d be scared to show eye contact. Usually, making eye contact with a teacher is a sign for them to call on you to answer a question. For me, that was not the reason why I was scared. The reason I had a hard time looking into someone’s eyes was because I would start freaking out and feeling anxious over it. So, I would stare at the ceiling, look out the window for five seconds, then try to return to focusing on my education. While I left some of these issues behind when I entered college, there were still some issues I had with regards to writing.
Was there a breakthrough moment with your writing where you began to feel more confident?
Essays were difficult in high school. But in college, five to twenty-page term papers were a completely different realm that I wasn’t ready for. One paper, required by one of my English seminars during my senior year, was one of the most challenging writing assignments I had ever received. The topic of the seminar was detective fiction, and I chose to focus on one comic book, Batman: Hush, and show how the general history of the Batman franchise goes back to the world of detectives. It was a project I was excited to do, but on receiving my grade on my first draft, I freaked out. I started to sweat. I got paranoid. I drowned myself in depressive thoughts. In the end, I succeeded in getting a passable grade, and I graduated. It was the most fulfilling moment of my life at the time. I’d come so far since the days of crying over the first paragraphs of my papers.
When did you first think that you might want to be a writer?
Ten years ago, while struggling to acclimate to a new high school setting, I got the idea while reading reviews of my favorite video games on sites I enjoyed visiting, such as IGN. Back then, I didn’t have much confidence in my writing abilities. I was only 14 and struggling with my disability. Writing took me longer than it should have, and if I didn’t come up with something to start with immediately, I would freak out.
Can you talk about your first article, and your journalism work generally?
My first article was for GameCritics.com, under my managing editor, Brad Gallaway. I wrote an op-ed about how video games have lacked neurodiverse protagonists for a very long time, with one exception. I then wrote for Molloy College’s newspaper on my time at New York Comic Con and Indiecade East. My journalism practice has evolved over the years. I genuinely love writing opinion pieces, but I’ve started gravitating towards writing news and learning how to write better feature stories. Brad was the first editor who made me feel comfortable in what I was doing. He gives me feedback and does not hide it when something I’ve written needs more work.
How does your disability manifest itself in the course of work?
There is no physical representation of my disability for people to identify, such as an oxygen tank or wheelchair. Manifestations of my autism and ADHD are [things like] repeated physical gesticulations and eye movements. In a situation where I am absolutely nervous, and my social anxiety is acting up, I begin to repeat certain actions in order to feel calmer. Instead of drinking one cup of water while listening to someone talk, I take another drink immediately. If I rub my face once, I’ll do it again, and again, in the fear of someone seeing something on me that would disgust them.
One of the main issues that comes up with neurological disability is the fact that, because it’s invisible, it is harder for people to grasp how difficult it is to get through life having it.
How are you raising awareness about autism and other types of disabilities through your work with the National Writers Union?
One day, I saw the esteemed writer Charlotte Shane on my Twitter feed making an open call for anyone interested in joining the movement to organize freelancers. I sent her a direct message, not expecting a response. I had doubts about myself directly messaging a person with so much credibility and respect in the industry. An hour or so later, she responded asking for my email. From there, I began going to meetings of the National Writers Union, held at the offices of the Writer’s Guild Of America East office in Manhattan. Writers and media workers of all different backgrounds were present, starting a group that has grown since talks began in June of last year.
At first, I was very worried about being there — I was anxious that I was being invasive of the space. However, as time went on, I became accustomed to everyone, and everyone made me feel like I belonged there. Now, we have our meetings in the National Writers Union office in Times Square, where I work on the Freelance Solidarity Project. The Project focuses on supporting and showing solidarity for freelance workers (as well as staff) who work in media. Not being exclusive to only writers, the project is aimed at giving rights to all those who are taken advantage of in a volatile industry. (To learn more about the project, visit here.)
How have you impacted the Union on the issue of people with disabilities?
This past June 9, I presented a proposal requiring the group be more accessible and accommodating to all people with physical and neurological disabilities. I also worked on a separate proposal with the writer Daisy Alioto that was accepted. It is a dream come true to work alongside fellow media workers, to know they see me as a peer, and that my actions will affect future generations.
What are your plans and goals for the future?
I’d like to continue working alongside my wonderful peers at the Freelance Solidarity Project, as well as continue looking for a staff job as a writer or video editor. I also would love to get more paid freelance work in writing and video editing. Like many freelancers, I have another and more steady source of income; since 2014 I’ve worked as a security guard at Citi Field.
What is your message to people with neurological disabilities who would like to pursue writing or a related field?
It’s hard, I’m not gonna lie. It’s not something that’ll pop into your life like a random man doing the robot in a Chappelle’s Show sketch. There are a lot of challenges ahead, both from where media currently is, and how competitive the industry is today. You also have to be careful to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of. Read your contracts. Know your rights. Freelance isn’t Free. But most of all, to all the folks out there struggling to feel seen: Whether you have autism or use a wheelchair, do not feel ashamed of who you are. Be honest, be empathetic, and continue to be you. Because being true to yourself, especially while working in media, is what helps you stand out from everyone else. But most of all, remember that Tim Curry is a damn good actor.
Michael Baginski is a writer, video editor, and host of the podcast, Bagatrocious! You can find him on Twitter talking about pop culture, politics, and Tim Curry @bagmanman
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: September 18, 2019
Author: Michael Baginski
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Art courtesy of @bagmanman via @kendrawcandraw