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.
I was having coffee the other day with a writer I’d recently met at a conference. We were having a great conversation, as often happens when two people who share so many interests and beliefs get to really know one another for the first time. I was feeling particularly bouncy that day, and I found I was talking quickly, trying to keep up with the ideas that came as fast as she or I finished the last one. In the middle of one particularly rapid back and forth she stopped me and asked, “Are you ADHD?”
“ADHD. You’re zipping from one idea to the next. I can keep up, but you move really fast. I was wondering if you have ADHD. I have ADHD.”
“Not that I know of.”
I am fifty years old, and this was the first time anyone had ever suggested I had something. I knew her question was more commiserative than diagnostic, but I found it disorienting. For a moment I began picturing myself not just as Bill, but as Bill plus this thing that, by no will of my own, could control my behavior. By this understanding, no matter how we parse it, to have this thing meant I was a little less free.
Which is why I have never said my son Sawyer is autistic. I sometimes find myself needing to quickly explain to someone why we homeschool him or the particular nature of his challenges, and I’ll say he was, “diagnosed on the autism spectrum,” but even this feels dishonest. It places him in a special category that I don’t believe exists, a category that doesn’t serve him or me or the person asking about him. If a special category exists for Sawyer, then such categories conceivably exist for us all.
Last year a young man approached me after I’d delivered a keynote speech that included a brief story about Sawyer. He wanted to ask me about writer’s block and his concerns over rejection. As we talked about the nature of thought, and how difficult it is to write while worrying what other people think of us, he mentioned that he had once been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Is that right?” I said.
“Yes. But I don’t deal with that any more.” He waved his hand as if dismissing it. “I’m done with that.”
This seemed exactly right to me. I know labels and diagnosis are supposed to be useful. Someone is doing something we don’t understand; sometimes that someone is us. We give that someone a label and now we can say they are doing this thing because of what of they have. Yet I decline any explanation for what I do other than the exercise of my own free will. That I am not always in command of those choices, that I am not even always aware that I have made a choice is irrelevant. What looks like dysfunction is only practice, another person learning how to live their life on purpose.
While he was in school, Sawyer was a part of “inclusion programs,” meaning he spent most of his time in traditional classrooms with support. That support was a special education teacher who would be available to help him with the class work if he did not understand the instructions or to intercede if his behavior got out of line.
For many years, I could not imagine Sawyer functioning in the world outside of our house without this kind of support. There were days after I had reminded him to brush his teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, come inside, put on his shoes, stay on the sidewalk, lower his voice that it seemed a wonder that he knew to breathe without me reminding him to. It can be a little exhausting sheepherding your son through life, but it also left me feeling needed and with the vague illusion that I was maintaining some control over a situation that frequently seemed teetering on the brink of chaos.
As a writing teacher and coach, students and clients come to me also looking for support. Facing a blank page and finding the story you most want to tell can feel like a lonely and frightening and chaotic journey. How does one know which is the right word or idea or character? Writing a story is a journey I have taken often enough now to know that I am never taking it alone. I may be the only one at my desk, but writing has always felt like a conversation, like a relationship, and as long as I remember to treat it as such, the answer to the question, “What should come next?” is always answered by and by.
This is the support I aim to offer my students and clients, to remind them that they already have everything they need to answer all their creative questions. I could never take the place of that friend we call our imagination, our muse, our guide. All I can do is remind them that such a friend exists.
So too with Sawyer. That friend to whom I turn in my creative life does not head home once I am done writing. He does not differentiate between the question, “How best should I describe this scene?” and, “What do I want for dinner?” It is all the same to him. It is easy to think that because Sawyer has appeared lost in the world that the same friend that has guided me through books and love affairs and careers has for some reason been mute in his life. It is easy to think I must be that friend.
But I cannot, and the friendliest thing I could do is to somehow remind him to listen to that which is already speaking to him, to remind him that he is fully equipped for is journey. Once he understands how supportive and loyal that friend is, he is going to leave. That is the direction of his life. A part of me can already feel how I will miss the unique intimacy this kind of parent-child relationship, but in truth he will not be taking with him on his journey anything I do not already possess. To believe otherwise is to believe we are all incomplete and unsupported, a lost herd of lonely sheep, set astray in a world in which freedom equals isolation.
No One Is Broken was begun from the same impulse with which most books by parents with children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum were written – a desire to help. And like so many parents, the one I wanted to help was my child, Sawyer, who, more than anyone I knew, seemed most out of place in the world, who seemed most confused by what the world was and wasn’t asking of him. His behavior and his struggles were a magnet for my and my wife’s attention, and there were days it seemed that all our troubles would be answered if only Sawyer would start behaving normally, whatever precisely that was.
But No One Is Broken is a memoir, meaning it is largely concerned with the changes that occur within its narrator – me. The memoirist must accept that the only eyes through which he has ever understood life are his own, and that the landscape of friends and family, of lovers and antagonists, exists entirely within him. Storytellers are reporting back not what we have seen and heard, but what we feel and what we believe, because that is all we really know.
It is a good lesson for the parent of a child diagnosed on the spectrum. Parents of these children often forget about themselves. It is a habit to which parents of all kinds of children frequently succumb, but it is particularly acute when a child has what we call special needs. It is as if we live suspended in a moment of perpetual anxiety, as a parent whose child has just gone missing must live. Until that child returns safely, nothing else matters – not work, not sex, not books or sports or hobbies or passions – nothing. Until that child returns safely, life as we normally understand it has no meaning. It is a frightful way to live, and yet so many parents I know, including myself from time to time, live there anyway. We want to be happy, but what parent can be happy when his child is in peril?
Yet I can think of little that is more oppressive than having someone else believe that their happiness is dependant on my behavior. “Worry about yourself!” Sawyer frequently instructs us. There are days that seems impossible. There are days it seems that he holds the last piece in some puzzle of my wellbeing, and that I am waiting and hoping that he will at last understand what he has always possessed so that I can finally call my world complete.
Happiness is simply not happiness without freedom, and I will never be free as long as another person, even my son, appears to hold my happiness in his hands. In fact, that is the belief from which all hatred grows, which is why no one has ever driven me closer to the brink of rage than Sawyer. It is also telling that Sawyer’s greatest complaint about The World is that it is not free. One cannot be free in school, or in a job, or even sometimes in a simple conversation, what with other people cluttering it up with their own interests and desires.
Sawyer’s lifelong conversation with life appears to be about freedom, which is why I have learned more about it from him than anyone else. Every attempt to wring some behavior from him to satisfy my life has failed, and so I am left once again with myself. Here I am tempted to indulge my own autistic impulse, to retreat within myself to a silent kingdom where other people cannot wrest me from my throne of peace. I am all too familiar with this place. Yet it is actually a self-imposed prison term from which my freedom can only be gained by letting other people be.
One of the best parts of being human is that we are free. I am free to think absolutely anything I want. There is not one person on earth who can make me think anything or prevent me from thinking anything. What I think determines what I feel, and what I feel is what I live. I am free. Unfortunately, this also applies to all the other humans on earth. What we think and feel also determines what we do, and what other people do does not always meet with my approval.
I began learning some hard lessons about freewill when Sawyer’s older brother Max first arrived on the scene. My wife described five year-old Max as a C. E. O. without a company to run. He would occasionally say to me, “Dad: here’s what I need you to do,” with such authority that I had to remember who was the adult and who was the child. As a child boss, he would also throw tantrums when I was insubordinate, which, not recognizing my employee status, I frequently was. One such tantrum got so obnoxious I decided it was time to drop the hammer. “Max!” I bellowed. “Go to your room!”
Max stared back at me in confusion. “No,” he said matter-of-factly.
I darkened my voice and pointed in the direction of his bedroom door with as much menace as I could muster. “I said: Go. To. Your. Room.”
“But I don’t want to.”
There it was. Size and age, it turns out, do not determine how free one’s will is nor it’s role in the direction of our lives. It is easy to forget this when your child behaves in such a way that he eventually receives a diagnosis of autism, high-functioning or otherwise. A diagnosis suggests a medical problem, which suggests lack of choice. Yet to treat any person as if they do not have a choice, as if they do not have freewill, is to forget that they are human.
At my worst, I fluctuated between believing Sawyer had no freewill and believing he was abusing just how free his will was. Either way, he was often doing stuff I didn’t want him to do. But when he was eleven we began a practice that he would name Happy Fun Time. For an hour before bed he had to play with us. His rules, his games, but it had to involve us, not just himself. Sawyer’s social challenges had stemmed from an unwillingness that sometimes seemed like an inability to play with others. Thus Happy Fun Time.
As Happy Fun Time progressed it occurred to me that for the first time he was choosing to play with others, and that he was choosing it because he had come to understand that it was as fun as playing by himself. Why would someone choose something he considered unpleasant? In this way, freewill and pleasure and pain are inextricably linked. We are all free, and we all want to be happy.
Happy Fun Time was good for a season, and we eventually moved on to other things. But it became a model for me. The page of everyone’s life is blank, and we must all decide how we will fill it. There’s no avoiding this. The best I can do for another person, whether it is my child or a friend or a stranger, is remember that everyone has the same job – to choose what makes us happy.
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.