I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.
The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.
The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile, neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.
I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.
I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.
But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.
I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”
I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office. There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.
A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program called Scrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.
Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.
Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!