How the process of writing a book changed me

I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear me say that writing Look Me in the Eye increased my self-awareness. I’d like to tell you how some of that came about.

First, the process of book editing has given me many valuable insights into myself and Aspergian thinking. When we edited the book, Rachel Klayman, my editor – who is not Aspergian - read every word and sent me careful notes about every little detail.

Rachel’s notes covered a wide range of things:

“I don’t think a person would actually say that” . . . and yet, I did and do say it that way. The fact that she picked it up, though, gave me pause to think . . . what do other people make of me when I say things like that in the course of conversation?

“Why do you say this” . . . To me, the answer was obvious. Once again, I realized that she had pointed out a conversational “error of omission” that I make all the time, without even noticing. And she pointed out MANY such examples.

In many cases, she changed the order of whole paragraphs, and I saw that the revised order seemed more correct, and yet, the original order seemed right when I wrote it. Do I think in a different order from her? Maybe so. Her detailed comments showed me how different my mind is in some ways, and how very much alike it is in others.

She also picked up countless repetitions, and I feel sure I do the same thing when speaking, without even knowing.

She’d circle lines with little notes . . . “this is really funny” . . . “this is poignant” . . . “I like this a lot.” I would look at those little comments and think, Hmmmmmmmm . . . it is?

You see, I never knew exactly what was what with my stories. I’ve always known people like to hear me tell stories, but I never got a word-by-word explanation of why. When I read my words, they are flat to me. I don’t read something in my book and say, that’s funny! But now that I know what she sees as funny – and she’s a professional with years of evaluating such things for the public eye – I can analyze her comments and make my new writing funnier, sad, or whatever I want.

Of course, I’m still Aspergian, so we’re talking subtle adjustment here . . . maybe 11-14% funnier, not “rolling in the aisles laughing and kicking the guy next to you” kind of funny. Same for sadder or more poignant.

Prior to writing and then editing Look Me in the Eye, all my interaction with people (like 99.9% of society) was through normal conversation or letters. Like everyone, I made many mistakes when choosing and forming my words. Listeners and readers thought I was rude, a jerk, inconsiderate, and a whole host of other nasty things. And I never really knew why. Once I knew about Asperger’s, I knew WHY in a general sense, but I still made mistakes. The process of book editing has been like a concentrated course in how to talk and write so that won’t happen.

Rachel’s back and forth notes and word by word highlighting of my writing has given me a unique window into my thought process, one that's written and I can now refer back to.

Temple Grandin has written about becoming normal, and I can see why. If it write five more books, you might not even recognize me as an Aspergian at all. And if I can “normalize and train” myself at this age, what about the possibilities for younger people?

I do not know exactly how I will use that newfound knowledge but I am sure it will appear in some form in a next book. Is there a process like book editing that a young Aspergian could be exposed to for purpose of self discovery? I don't know . . . perhaps the idea leads to a new concept in special ed teaching.

I learned something else from my performance signing books at the BEA. Overall, I thought that went well. I signed box after box of books. There was quite a considerable demand for them, and most folks I signed books for had something to say connecting themselves to the story. I felt really good about that.

When I went back to the motel and looked at photos of myself signing books, though, I was surprised. To me, I looked mad. But I knew I wasn’t mad. I was excited and happy. Well, I sure didn’t look that way! I do not seem to display any expression at all in most of the photos. My ex-wife says, "you never moved the muscles in your face." Perhaps she's right – how do “normal” kids learn that?.

Just as I have taught myself to look at other people, I need to teach myself to show expressions that are appropriate to how I feel. It's an obvious thing, now that I type it. I do it sometimes – I do smile, but people often say it’s rare.

Now that I see this, I think of what people say about me. I often hear comments like, “Nothing bothers you! You’re always the same!” And now I wonder . . . is that really true, or is it just that they can’t see it? Perhaps it’s both . . . I think more logically than most people, and I don’t show what I’m feeling most of the time.

Should I work to change that? Can I? I don’t know.

I think the lack of expression in my book signing photos may be related to what I wrote about looking people in the eye in my book. Maybe I can smile and nod as standalone tasks, but talking, looking at faces, listening to folks, and writing all at the same time are too much. That may be, but I am sure it's a limitation I can quickly overcome now that I see it in the record of the show.

All in all, I'm very proud of what Rachel and I accomplished. I know my family is impressed, too. It's a shame my father and grandparents are not here to see us, too.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


jan said…
you truly have learned a lot about yourself. It's interesting that seeing the pictures has pointed out something that you couldn't see before - you are usually on the other side of the camera. This trait is common to aspergians and you know that. Only through careful examination can you grasp that and see what others have seen. I also feel that, at this time in your life and with the exposure in the public you are now getting, it is more important to you to address this outward appearance issue. You yourself are ready for this change - not because someone told you, but because you see the importance of it. Congratulations again on your wonderful self study, that has application to all of us.
Michelle O'Neil said…

Your ever expanding openness amazes me.

My daughter and I are reading a book called The Social Skills Picture Book by Jed Baker. It is for children, and it shows in pictures, two scenes unfolding. The first is the "wrong" way. The second is the "right" way. It has little bubbles over the participants heads, which tell the reader what all the people in the scene are thinking.

So, for example, if a child bursts in and interrupts, he can see what the other people are thinking. "He's being rude," etc.

I think it will be a great resource for her.

Your editor sounds like a gem.
Gordon said…
John this is really interesting -- you are articulating what many authors feel at periods in their writing. I think we all are on a spectrum emotionally and many times we all second guess ourselves.
I would surmiss that you have "self taught" yourself how to navigate society and will continue to do so. It makes for a facinating read and a very compelling dialog. As a teacher I am sure I have had students in my class that were affected by Aspergers and had no clue.
ORION said…
I'm an idiot I accidentally used my husband's blogging name!!!
Polly said…
I understand what you mean about Aspergians not knowing how they look to others because my brother is the same way. I have learned to give him immediate feedback during conversations so that he can alter (add, actually) his facial expressions or verbalize what is happening for him in the moment. It can be very off-putting to converse with someone and not have facial, body language and verbal cues that we usually depend upon to tell us what is happening with the person we are trying to communicate with. I am sure you will not remember this, but you and I actually had a telephone conversation about four years ago, when I called the car dealership to ask a question about your brother's reading appearances. This was after RWS but before MT was published. It was a rather off-putting conversation, but I got the feeling that it was not intentional on your part and I could tell you were a good person inside. Then when MT came out and I read the chapter about Ass Burger, and finally learned that this was what was "wrong" with my brother all these years, it all came together perfectly. I'll tell you about the phone conversation some time if we get to meet in person.

Anyhoo, to me the great thing about learning that you are Aspergian is that you can use the knowledge to enhance your communications and relationships with others, yet you don't have to lose any of the essential You. Because you would not want to change your personality or lose that. It's so cool!
Therese said…
Hi John,

Thought this was a good time to connect--have been following your story via Pat Wood's blog and meant to do this much sooner!

Your story fascinates me on its own merits, but also because a close friend of mine is Aspergian and he and I have had many discussions on issues like the ones you raise here.

Thanks for sharing all the RH audio info. My debut novel is being published by Ballantine (an RH imprint) next spring; RH audio bought the audio rights, which I knew was cool but now I see better how cool it is!

Many congrats on your book and audio book!
Cindy said…
I just love the way you write, John.
Kim Stagliano said…
John, the possibilities for young people affected by all sorts of Autism and it's separate cousin Asperger's are limitless, despite what we are told by doctors, therapists and parental naysayers. Limitless. It takes work, sweat, tears and perseverance. No one has to change "who they are", but everyone deserves to develop their full potential. You are a fantastic role model.
Kanani said…
Hi John,
Well, that's what happens when we write. We figure out more about ourselves and also about the world we live in.

See ya around.
Keep going, friend, keep going.
kario said…
What a tremendous way to learn about yourself! Just when we thought we knew ourselves best, we get new insights...

Thanks for sharing this. It was educational and entertaining like all of your posts.
Chumplet said…
It's interesting to hear how others interpret your writing -- how you mean to say one thing, but they may think you're saying something else. Minor adjustments are made, and the message is then clearer.

I have no trouble interpreting your words in your blog and forum entries. Perhaps at this point you've already taken a great step towards the level of communication you're hoping for.
Trish Ryan said…
That's really cool. It's amazing how writing a memoir opens up a new perspective on our responses to editor has said a couple of times to me, "Did you really say/do that" when she's read my pages, and the answer is yes. But seeing through her eyes I can see why some of my choices come across as odd.

Add Aspergers into the mix, and it seems like this might be a breakthrough realization for you and others who are struggling with questions of why they don't quite "work" in social situations. Good stuff! And here's to great success for your book so you have many opportunites to practice all those happy facial expressions!
irene said…
wow! a brilliant blog. i can't wait to share it with my husband and to read your book. i'm so glad you had a wonderful time at bea.
It's really amazing how much the writing and revision process can teach you so much about yourself that you never realized was there. It's like peeling away layers of onion---the deeper you dig, the more pungent the smell---for good or ill. I know that when writing the several (so far) drafts of my memoir, I discovered more and more insights and memories that had grown buried by defense mechanisms over the years. Writing is a never-ending process of self-discovery---and that process is hard, but can also be a hell of a lot of fun.
Holly Kennedy said…
John, I loved this post.

It sounds like you've learned a lot about yourself through the writing & editing of LMITE, and now sharing it with everyone so openly will hopefully teach others to reconsider stereotyping and/or judging people so quickly.

Congrats on the growing buzz around LMITE. Your family should be proud of you. YOU should be proud of you!
mcewen said…
Sounds like you have a good pal in your editor, and I'm delighted to learn that you're still discovering new things about yourself.
Best wishes
Drama Mama said…
What a service you have done for us NT's.
Your self-awareness is inspiring to me. Thank you.

Michelle - MY daughter and I are reading the SAME book right now!
It's self-reflection and self-awareness all the time in Autieland!
Kanani said…
Conversation in novels is different from dialog in movies or plays or what you say in real life.

And it's a learned thing, so when Rachel did all this, she was teaching. I find the very best editors do this, and you're lucky to be working with a good one.

I found that learning how to take feedback was difficult, but even harder was learning how to give good feedback to someone on a rough draft. As a writer, I feel an enormous responsibility. I also gauge the level they're coming in at. If there's someone who I suspect might be Aspergian, or have other emotional issues, I try to be direct but positive and take extra time to explain things. It can take a lot of time.

But there are people who really can't help themselves. I've detailed the worst of the bunch over here.
One of them called some characters in book, "LIKE A BAD HOLLYWOOD MOVIE." Be glad you don't have to work with someone as flippant as him!
Tena said…
Hi John,
Thanks for stopping by my blog and offering your words of encouragement. I appreciate your kind thoughts.

I really admire Temple Grandin's work.I have a particular interest in autisim because my therapy dog and I work with autistic kids age 3 to 6. At some point I will post some of my experiences on my blog. I have become attached to several of these kids, who will be leaving the Academy soom for other schools. I will miss them, but I'm so proud of them.

My husband's grandson, who is now 10, is Aspergian. He's really smart. At a mere two years of age, he looked at the moon and could spell the word without hesitation. For fun, he does math problems. When he's at our house, he can't eat if there's a dog in the room. It makes him throw up.

A lot of what my dog and I do with the autistic kids is simply to reduce their fear of animals. One less thing to be afraid of is a beautiful thing.

I went to your brother's blog and was charmed by his unique voice. I'll go back and read from the beginning, as I will your blog.

Will you be coming to the Midwest on your promotional tour? Please post a schedule where you will be appearing.

Kim was right: You are a fantastic role model.

PS Go back to my blog and enjoy my homage to you. I would post a picture of the cover if I knew how to do it!

Laura said…
John, this line really struck me: "And if I can “normalize and train” myself at this age, what about the possibilities for younger people?" Really gives me a lot of hope for my 5 1/2 year old son with Autism, who is so amazing, and has so much potential. And I think of all the things I've learned as an adult that I just never understood as a child or teen, and I'm still learning! It's easy to forget that we can still learn and change so much as adults. Can't wait to read your book!
Several years ago I wrote an article for a local magazine about alternative treatments for ADD/ADHD (no-medication). One clinic used biofeedback techniques with tremendous success. Your explanation of the editing process and how it may have adapted your thought processes gave me wonder to think if you had been attached to a biofeedback monitor that you may have seen the process on screen.
Anonymous said…
I've had this experience when writing my memoir too. At one point, my editor summarized something that is fundamentally me that I had never realized about myself before. That night I was talking to my husband about this self-discovery, and my husband finished what I started to say before I could say it. He already knew.

It's very exciting to learn so much about yourself though writing and talking about your writing with other people.

Linda Sherwood
Anonymous said…
love this post. it is so inspiring and fascinating to me to read about your journey of self-discovery. your mention of looking at pictures of yourself at the signing and comparing what it looked like to what it felt like was so interesting. i'm working with my son right now on expressing differents mood using only our voices. it's something to see (hear). although he says he FEELS sad, tired, bored, etc., when he does a particular voice, and i believe him, it all sounds very much the same. we're using video camera with sound to record us playign this game and watching it together, keeping it fun so he doesnt' feel bad but tying to spotlight when i'm confused, ie, hey, i can't quite tell the difference between tired and sad! huh!
Vivi said…

I just finished reading your book Look me in the eye and I want to congratulate you for such a great writing and thank you for sharing. When I read a good book is like I experience a whole new life and I can even connect emotionaly in ways that I confess I have a hard time doing in real life.

I don't have Asperger's but I can relate a little to some traits and characteristics you described, especially concerning social skills and empathy. And it is great to read about it from your perspective. In my opinion, there's really no such a thing as a "normal" person, we are all at least slightly deviant in a way or another, and to read something that shows that it's ok to be a little strange, that our uniqueness doens't make us less human it's refreshing and quite nice.

Also, I work with autism (I'm a graduate studying genetics in autism) and for me no amound of papers and academic texts could make me more motivated to do my best in my line of study as your book did (and the inevitable parallels that I drew with my on life).

That's it and sorry about any spelling errors or if something is confusing, I'm brazilian and even tough I can read stuff in english as easily as I can read in portuguese, writing is always a little bit harder.

Thank you and congratulations again,


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