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 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.
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.
I had the pleasure of speaking at a writer’s conference this past weekend about how a writer finds his or her voice. I decided I would tell some stories about Sawyer because so many of our challenges as a father and son centered around whether what we were saying was being understood by the other. Though I didn’t intend this, I soon understood the audience was that much more interested in what I had to say because my stories involved the challenges of a young child.
There is something more compelling about a child’s struggles compared to an adult’s. The child appears innocent, and whatever challenges he must overcome are often interpreted to be the result of the hand he was unfairly dealt. An adult’s challenges, meanwhile, are more than likely the product of some poor choices – you reap what you sow.
Which is why so many people who approached me after the talk wanted to know one thing: How’s he doing? This weekend reminded me that at some point I am going to have to learn how to answer that question to my own satisfaction. For the record, I said he was doing fine, which is the truth. It is also not the truth because it suggested that he ever wasn’t doing fine.
It is very easy to sound politically correct when I write or talk about Sawyer in this way. I am his parent, after all, and it is my desire that he be all right, yet there he was once upon a time not talking, or talking to himself, or not doing any schoolwork, and so on and so on and so on. How is that doing fine? Yet the only way I was ever able to be of use to him – or to anyone for that matter, including me – was to never try to fix him, but only help him grow.
To be fair, if you were to ask me today how I am doing, I would tell you that I’ve never been better. I have never been happier, more prolific, or more content. This, by the way, is in comparison to how I used to feel about my life, when I wasn’t nearly so happy, prolific, or content. And yet nothing has actually changed in me other than learning how to use what I have always had so that I could do what I have always wanted to do. The equipment was always intact. It was always perfect and perfectly in service to whatever I wanted.
The worst question I have asked of myself in my life was: What is wrong with me? That the question was never answered should have been a relief, but it was the just the opposite. I took the “Nothing” my mind gave back to mean I would never be fixed, and so I would always be unhappy. And yet no matter how dark it got, I wasn’t always unhappy, and then I would look up and realize I had forgotten to ask what is wrong with me for a while and I couldn’t quite remember what needed fixing.
Life was as interesting as ever, and there was a friend coming my way. “How you doin’, Bill?” he’d ask.
“Fine,” I would answer, and it was always the truth.
Many of the adult writing clients I work with suffer from the same challenge both my sons encountered when they were first given schoolwork: It’s hard to do something when you think you don’t want to do it. It’s understandable. Human beings are built to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We want to feel good. If we make ourselves do something we don’t want to do, we won’t feel good, and so we usually find reasons not to do it. It’s almost mathematical.
It took me a while to understand what was happening with my clients. They had sought me out because they had a book they wanted to write. When I asked them about their book, they would become animated. This book had their attention. It was a bright, interesting, delicious idea they wanted to share with other people. And yet they couldn’t seem to bring themselves to write. They were lazy, they’d say. Not disciplined. Scattered.
None of this was true. These people are never broken; rather, they made writing the book a chore rather than a pleasure. They turned a new passion into something they should do or must do. My job as their coach was to help them understand that the pleasure in the doing is enough to motivate us to do it regularly. In fact, it won’t even be motivation; it’ll simply be what we want to do, the way we want to eat when we are hungry.
Adults often have trouble believing this. We’ve taught ourselves to work, to chop wood because we’re cold not because we feel like swinging an axe, and to do the dishes because we need something clean to eat off of not because we want to put our hands in soapy water. Indeed, the daily business of being a successful adult human can sometimes feel like a triumph of duty of desire. When we lay down on our deathbed we can look back with satisfaction knowing we spent our lives doing what we were supposed to, not what we wanted to.
In this way, I have to teach adults to think like children, who arrive on the planet knowing – as everyone once did – that the best reason in the world to do something is because it’s fun to do it. Unfortunately, schoolwork does not look like much fun to most kids, certainly not my boys when they were younger. And so they were being asked to do something against their best and most creative impulse, and they rightly rebelled.
As Sawyer’s father and now teacher my job has been to help him find the pleasure in what often appears pleasure-less. This was not easy for me at first because I too have long believed that certain things are fun and certain things simply aren’t. But, being a responsible adult, I made myself do those pleasure-less things because they needed doing. This was a meager and dishonest view of my life. Pleasure exists within me independent of what I am doing. I need only find how that pleasure expresses itself in whatever I am doing, and lo! I am enjoying it.
Teaching someone how to find pleasure in something that appears boring is a delicate business. No force can be applied; no carrot or stick should be insinuated. The pleasure must be allowed to appear effortlessly and naturally. Often, my best strategy is to do nothing at all, but instead to find the pleasure in watching Sawyer find his own way in to whatever he’s doing. The moment I stop enjoying this experience is the moment I cease to teach him anything; the moment I resume is when I learn again what he has come here to teach me.
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.