How the process of writing a book changed me
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.