I was about three drafts into No One Is Broken and having one of those conversations with my then-agent about why the book was and wasn’t working. Stories, even true stories, are curious things that way. It’s very easy to tell when they aren’t working, and you can usually tell when they are, but why a story works and how to fix one that isn’t remains largely mysterious, even to the most experienced writers and editors.
So there we were talking about this story as if it were a bike missing a wheel – a wheel we weren’t sure was even needed because maybe the story was actually a unicycle – when I mentioned that No One Is Broken is really a meditation on happiness. There was a relationship-ending pause on the other end of the phone, a pause that said, “I thought it was a book about Autism.” I recognized this silence and quickly moved on, understanding that while it was true the book was ultimately about happiness, I didn’t know why, in much the same way I did not yet know how to tell my own story.
My attempts to fix that story were as futile as my attempts to fix Sawyer. In the case of the story, there was nothing to fix, there was only something to find. When you find a story it is very much like uncovering something that has been misplaced. What the story was meant to be is all at once as obvious as realizing your missing glasses are on your head. The only problem with the story is the author’s inability to perceive it.
Which is why No One Is Broken is really a story about happiness and not what we call autism. A broken person is someone for whom true happiness is impossible. If only I weren’t autistic, or fat, or stupid, or short, or sick, or poor I could be happy. So goes the story of our brokenness, a story that says we must accept a limited experience of happiness due to conditions beyond our control. Optimists that we ultimately are, we are unwilling to accept this limited happiness, and so set about trying to fix ourselves, with much the same results of a writer trying to fix his story when he should be trying to find it.
And how does a writer find his story? By freeing it from all the thoughts and characters and subplots that don’t belong to it in the same way Michelangelo said he freed David from the marble. So too with happiness. I cannot make happiness; I can only perceive it, both in myself and in other people. To perceive Sawyer’s wholeness, which was his capacity for happiness, I had to look beyond certain behaviors that were nothing more than an expression of his own confusion and fear, behaviors that were his own quirky attempts to find his own happiness.
Perceived in this way, there was nothing to fix, there was only the question of what is real and what is not. Unhappiness is not reality in the way happiness is reality. Unhappiness is only an expression of our desire to return to what we are. Stories are filled with characters lamenting their conditions. Mired in jungles and swamps through which their author led them, the characters cry out. They may no know why they’re here, or how to get out, but they do know this: these jungles and swamps are not home.
And they are right.
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.