The Interview — Part II

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Understanding your son’s autism informs how you understand being a writer and finding truth and joy in life. How do the vulnerabilities of being a father (to an autistic child) and the vulnerabilities of being a writer (and public figure) compare?

Let me begin by saying that I don’t really believe there is such a thing as autism. My son adopted some unusual behavior strategies early in life that got him that label/diagnosis. I don’t know that he’d get that diagnosis any more. And I think this is true of all kids we call autistic, even the ones who can’t really talk or care for themselves the way other people can. I think there are many ways to be human, many approaches, and all of them work in their own way. Who would you let define what your happiness should look like?

As a father, I could not help Sawyer if I believed he was broken. He looked broken to me sometimes, by which I mean I did not understand how he could succeed and be happy in life, but this perception was always inaccurate. Often the only way to see him as someone who wasn’t broken was if I first stopped seeing myself as broken, and the only way to do that was when I remembered that no one is broken.

This relates directly to writing. There is no such thing a broken person. There is no such thing as a writer who simply “doesn’t have what it takes.” Talent is nothing but curiosity; genius is curiosity indulged. Remembering this helps me get my eyes off of what other people are doing and back on what I want to do. Kids we call autistic, by the way, are often completely uninterested in what other people are doing, which usually makes them look a little weird to those of us who are used to caring.
You’ve written how perceiving something as a threat creates one behavior, and perceiving that same thing as NOT a threat creates a different behavior. Much of finding peace and joy in life has been learning to see things as non-threatening, where previously you would view danger. How have you managed to make that perceptual change? How has that impacted your writing and public life?
It was working with my son that really changed this. I couldn’t see his behavior as a problem, by which I mean a threat to my wellbeing. A child’s behavior can threaten a parent’s wellbeing if that parent believes he cannot be happy until that child stops doing this or starts doing that. I never liked the answers to the question, “What should I do now?” when I saw his behavior as a problem. The answers got far better when I saw what he was doing as the best available option to him at that moment.

This is like writing. An unwritten paragraph could be perceived as a problem. After all, if you never finish it, or if you don’t finish it well enough, the piece will be no good and maybe you’ll have reached the end of your writing road. Writers think stranger things. You cannot write under threat of failure. You can only write – which is nothing more than making many, many choices – when you forget about problems and start instead remembering what you’re curious about and letting that be enough.
What are you working on now?
I’m rewriting the memoir No One Is Broken. I got some very good feedback (I almost never ask for feedback) from a very good agent. That’s all I’ll say about that!
Final Words of Wisdom

Your confidence is your unconditional love for the story you are telling. Here’s a secret: You don’t care what anyone else thinks. Not really. When you enter that dream state you so love, when you’re in that flow following your story and losing track of time and not thinking at all what anyone else believes is good or bad only about the next great thing and the next great thing and the next great thing, you’ve remembered the truth of it. In fact, you’ve remembered what life is supposed to feel like.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.