When I was a boy, I perceived the world of adults as divided into two groups: adults with grey hair, and adults whose hair wasn’t grey. There was something impenetrably unknowable to me about the lives of all the adults without gray hair. They were all busy, whether they were teachers, or bus drivers, or housewives. I did not truly understand what they were all so busy with, except that it was more important than anything else.
This was not the case with adults with grey hair. Many of them were not busy any more, which meant they were free to play with me. I do not mean to suggest that those other adults, including my parents, never played with me. They often did. It’s just that it was hard for them to completely set aside their busy-ness. It could summon them away as quickly as a thought. But those adults with gray hair seemed to have cleared enough space in their minds to commit as fully as a child to the business of having fun.
This was my job as a child, and I took it seriously. My job was to find the games that were most fun for me to play. No one told me this was my job. I knew it as soon as I had a consciousness that could know something. So did all the other kids, it seemed. However, having fun was sometimes a noisy operation, which could bring children into conflict with a small sub-group of adults with grey hair: those who had no space in their mind for fun whatsoever.
I feared these men and women more than the violent boys I avoided on playgrounds, though I sensed they were kindred spirits of sorts. Some disappointment had calcified in their minds, as if whatever they had been so busy with before they had grey hair had never been completed, and now it was too late. If you got too close to these people, you were sure to be blamed for something. Fortunately, they were easy to spot from a distance.
Eventually, I became one of those adults without grey hair. I have my own children, and I know now what we are all so busy with. I am not going to name it because it doesn’t actually exist, and I am all too aware of my willingness to believe in it. I had not really thought about this until my boys started going to school and returning with homework. My boys hated homework. Getting them to do it was like trying to take my cat for a walk. When I visited a high school a few years ago and asked the kids what they would change about school, they all agreed, “No homework.”
My youngest so hated school and homework that he retreated into his imagination, where he spent so much time that he eventually received the diagnosis of autism. We were advised to give him medication so that he could go to school. If my wife and I had truly believed that school and homework was the only way to prepare him for adulthood, we’d have given him medication. We decided to homeschool him instead. This wasn’t always the easiest choice, but it did seem like the most practical one if our goal for him was a happy adulthood.
He’s seventeen now, and has begun to occasionally worry about his future. I know that if he were getting ready to graduate from a traditional high school, he might be worrying slightly less about that future, but I do not regret our choice to homeschool him. One way or the other he’s going to have to answer the same question that everyone must answer: Why am I here? Can the games I found in childhood lead me through adulthood, or must they end until I earn my happiness? It’s a question I ask every day as my hair grows steadily greyer.
I tell my writing students and clients that if I could give only one piece of writing advice it would be to pay attention to how you feel.
Because every story every writer wants to tell is as different as the life each writer is leading, there is no way to know if you are telling your right story in the right way, other than how you feel as you are telling it. I always feel better when I tell a story in the way I most want to tell it, and I always feel worse when I try to make myself tell a story I don’t want to tell in a way I don’t want to tell it. It is as dependable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
I did not know where the sun rose or set for many years. Growing up I didn’t understand about north, south, east, and west as it related to my everyday life. I knew street names and how to get to my school and my friends’ houses, and I knew the sun appeared in my window every morning and retired every night. I never noticed how the shadows moved through the course of the day. I did not look to the sun for any guidance beyond the light it provided.
It was about the time I had children that I began paying attention to the sun’s dependable station in the sky. I suppose I was looking for guidance anywhere I could find it. Books and articles and websites with instructions on How to Be a Good Parent are useful, but I had two sons and each one needed something different of me. What’s more, what was asked of me changed as they changed. Each one would require his own instruction manual that would have to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten.
I wanted to be a good parent, and I wanted my boys to thrive, but in reality I still wanted the exact same thing at 42 that I did at 12: to be happy. It turns out this is something my boys and I had in common. I would frequently forget this as I went about the business of trying to teach them the many rules humans made up before they were born. By the time I was done explaining about red lights and green lights, and inside voices and outside voices, and north and south and east and west, I could believe that but for the light of my knowledge they would stumble about in darkness all their lives.
It was particularly challenging with my younger son whose attention was so often directed inward that I wasn’t sure if he even noticed the sun in the sky, let alone an oncoming car. He would eventually receive a diagnosis for this habit, which only compounded my belief that I was somehow responsible for every step that he took. This belief left me exhausted and ripe for failure. I could no more tell him how to be happy than I could tell one of my students which words went where in their stories.
I could, however, remind him that he possessed the exact same unerring guidance system that I did. To do so I had to first remind myself every single day that he has this guidance system, and that, just like me, when he ignores it he feels crappy, and when he obeys it he feels good. It never fails. It’s always a relief when I remember this. At that moment, fatherhood and writing and life itself become far simpler. Gone is the need for the perfect map or guidebook; now I need only look toward the light to tell me where I am.
When I was thirty-five I sent a copy of my third novel to my father. He emailed two days later saying he was eager to talk to me about it. I called him immediately. “Well, I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” he said. “And I think you’ll never be a success as a literary writer.”
Stunned, I staggered my way through the rest of the conversation as if I had just found out I had cancer. I hung up and considered never talking to him again. I called right back instead, and told him – as a father of two sons myself now – that you never tell anyone, let alone your son, that he won’t be a success at something. You just don’t do it. We talked some about looking for other people’s approval, and I ended the conversation deciding I wasn’t done with him after all. But I was left with a question I had asked of him many times in my life: How could he not know never to say that?
It was ten years later and we were on the phone again and the conversation turned to my sister. “She was always smart,” he said. “But more importantly, she’s also psychic. I’m sure of it.”
And for the first time in my life, I thought, “So are you, Dad.”
Though I didn’t mean psychic in that he could see ghosts or know what card I’d drawn. Instead, it was an intense sensitivity to the emotional quality of whatever was being thought nearby him. It could make hanging around with him a little unnerving. If I thought it, he would mention it somehow. Until that evening, I had always thought he was insensitive; but it was just the opposite. Some of what I had called rude was just him turning his back mentally on other people so as not to ride their emotional train.
Then, three years ago, my father, at the age of seventy-seven, made an announcement. “I’ve figured out the reason I am the way I am, Bill.”
“I have Asperger’s syndrome.”
He’d been doing some reading and the pieces all came together: the discomfort in social situations; the tendency to monologue rather than volley back and forth in conversation; the preference for facts over feelings; his love of numbers and his frustration with art; his discomfort with ambiguity and his love of rules. He wasn’t just Asperger’s, he was classic Asperger’s.
It was a great relief to him. “What is wrong with me?” was a question that had followed him most of his life – as it does most of us, I think. Now he had his answer. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. He was just Asperger’s. This is how people with Asperger’s behaved. He was behaving exactly the way an Asperger’s person should behave.
In my experience with my son, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum ten years ago, and all my life with my father (who has perhaps accurately self-diagnosed himself), I no longer believe these words – autism and Asperger’s – refer to something anyone can have. They are just words used to describe a collection of behaviors we once believed inhibited a person’s capacity to thrive.
I do believe, however, that no one – not my father with his psychic sensitivity, nor my sister, nor any medium or doctor or scientist – can know the future in its inevitable wholeness. I’ve tried my hand at this kind of prediction and I’ve been wrong every time. I was wrong when I predicted doom, and I was wrong with I predicted glory. The only time I’ve been right about life is when I’ve seen that there is never anything wrong with it or anyone.
I love the work I do, which is to write and talk to people about how to make something on purpose. These days I mostly talk to people who are writing or who want to write because a blank page will tell you all you need to know about how responsible we really are for the world we live in. And for writers, the single greatest obstacle to an effortless, pleasurable, profitable writing experience is this thought: What will other people think of it?
I know this because I spent about twenty years writing into the headwind of that unanswerable question. To write without that question is heaven and to write with it is hell. I was reminded of this the other day when I slipped and found myself asking it again. Soon I was feeling the hopeless, life-draining vertigo that comes every time I try to create something to meet other people’s expectations. I knew this feeling intimately. For twenty years, it was what I called normal.
On that day, I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to quit writing and let the feeling pass. As I began returning to myself and life seemed worth living again, it was easy to view my little slip as a narrow escape from Hell. But for my awareness I’d be there still, trapped in a world without happiness. One must be vigilant, tend the fires our heart, lest the world go dark again.
Except here’s the truth: though I would not want to go back to that Hellish place, I do not know how I would be able to do the work I’m doing now without the twenty years I spent there. The experience of trying and trying and trying to create something that will please other people has been invaluable as I write and talk about creating things without thinking about other people. It is the source of my authority.
It is easy for me to believe this same vigilance must be applied to my son Sawyer. But for my attention our world could become a science fiction dystopia, a hellish place where he never thrives because he never learns and changes. This vigilance is unnecessary for two reasons. First, everyone learns and grows. It doesn’t matter what label you have or haven’t received in your life, you will learn and grow. It’s what humans do, whether they want to or not.
Second, somewhere in the future a flower I cannot at the moment perceive will bloom for Sawyer, a flower whose roots were sown in all the turbulence and uncertainty of the present I can perceive. That I wish to see and hold that flower now has been the suffering of my life. Let me see the prize so that I might know the game was worth playing. The game is always worth playing once I allow myself to play it. All the prizes I’ve received in my life have been lost or forgotten, and the still the game goes on. The game does not recognize victory or defeat, it just goes on and on, with no boundaries, and no clock, just the field and all the equal players.
If your child is diagnosed with any sort of behavioral disorder, you will eventually find yourself sitting in the waiting room of a neurologist, or a speech pathologist, or an occupational therapist. These waiting rooms are not like those of a traditional pediatrician. For most parents, a trip to the pediatrician is little a more than a clinical celebration of their child’s growth and evolution. Sometimes there is a problem; but just as often there is not.
You would not be in the waiting room of a neurologist, speech pathologist, or occupational therapist unless you believed something was wrong. You are usually not alone in these waiting rooms. I rarely talked to the other parents while we waited. Like me, they had their own son or daughter to chase after, their own little fires to put out.
Sometimes I would play a game of picking out what about the child brought him here. Usually it was easy: the chirping noise, the repeated phrase, the blanket over the head, the outbursts. Sometimes all that spoke of the challenge was a weary concern on a mother’s face. I found I liked the variety. Plus, it was nice to be somewhere Sawyer didn’t stick out for his behavior. You really couldn’t stick out in these waiting rooms.
I don’t like doctors’ offices. The problems that bring us are so incredibly personal, and the office is necessarily impersonal. But these waiting rooms were like compassion terrariums. Gone were the ticky-tacky parental hand wringing over grades and batting averages and leads in school plays. Gone were talks of best piano teachers or advantages of private schools. All that was left us, it seemed, was this question: How will this turn out? For most of us, the model of life from which we’d grown could not be recognizably replicated in these children. So how will this turn out?
I have to admit that I liked the feeling of being around a bunch of people stripped to this essence. The rest was all bullshit anyway. I had dabbled plenty in bullshit for most of my life, and I knew from practical experience how easy it was to worry over questions whose answer would never meaningfully affect me one way or another. If you can let yourself be curious, and not merely worried, “How will this turn out?” is not such a bad question. As you wait for the answer, you inevitably find you are more open to what might come than you had previously believed. The path was not so narrow after all, as these children stray afield, leading us where we might not have otherwise gone.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.