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Tuesday
Jan052016

Steve Silberman

How did you become a writer?

My father was an English teacher who used to read James Joyce's Ulysses aloud to me as he carried me on his shoulders. I was walking home from elementary school one day when I noticed that there was a sentence continuously unspooling in my head. Shortly after that, one of my teachers encouraged me to enter a New York City-wide poetry contest hosted by Fordham University. As I sat down to try to compose a poem, I quickly had the feeling that writing was something I might be good at doing; the field of words on paper felt "alive" to me -- charged -- in the same way that the virtual environment of an immersive video game might feel charged to a kid born 30 years later. I had always been completely inept at sports, but working with language felt native to me, and I already loved to read, particularly science fiction. The poem I wrote, "The Math Battle," ended up winning the contest and being displayed at an exhibit at Expo '67 in Montreal -- my first modest taste of literary fame.

Then in high school, I fell in love with poetry, particularly the poems of Allen Ginsberg, like "A Supermarket in California." The poet's loneliness, and his yearning for companionship and transcendence, spoke deeply to me, particularly since I was a gay kid always hopelessly falling in love with my best friends, as Allen had done. In college, I saw Allen read at Queens College, and it was such a profound experience that I immediately vowed that I would seek him out and do whatever I could to make his life better. I ended up becoming his student at Naropa Institute in Colorado, which immersed me in a community of writers that also included William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, and others. I got to see how writers really lived: what they thought about, how they worked, what they gossiped about, who they slept with, which drugs they took, their public stances in the world, and their private peccadillos. It was thrilling, frustrating, terrifying, and wonderful.

I once told poet Philip Whalen that my initial experience of working with Allen was disillusioning, because he was a crabby, horny, egomaniacal middle-aged rock star instead of the sweet, broken-hearted nerd in his poems, and Philip replied, "What's so great about illusions anyway?" Ten years later, I became Allen's teaching assistant at Naropa, and it was a much better experience, because I was no longer this painfully self-conscious teenager mooning around him. Those experiences made me a writer. I carried a pocket notebook wherever I went, because that's what writers did. I filled hundreds of those notebooks. I retrospect, though I continuously felt like a failure -- a third-rate Ginsberg clone who would never write "Howl" -- I was working really, really hard, nearly all the time.

I would eventually leave poetry behind, because I felt like I could never tell how good or bad I really was. Poetry didn't seem to have the same kind of leverage in the world that it had in the early days of the Beat Generation. So I went into journalism, where I felt like I could actually make things happen, do some good in the world. Eventually, I got a job at Wired, where I was able to merge my life-long interest in science with my literary aspirations. And my work on autism there led to my writing NeuroTribes.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

In addition to Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and other Beats, I was very influenced by the writings of Tom Wolfe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Annie Dillard, and, later on, Oliver Sacks. Oliver was one of the muses of NeuroTribes -- both his writing and his respect for his patients. He always treated autistic people as full human beings, even when he was a young doctor working in a state institution where the staff would call the patients "morons" to their faces, as if they were deaf or incapable of understanding. Instead, Oliver saw them as people trying to make the best of their situation -- trying to find ways to communicate, express themselves, and be creative, even given the barrenness of their environment and the brutal ways they were treated.

When and where do you write?

I do most of my writing at my desk at home in San Francisco. My days of scribbling in pocket notebooks on Greyhound buses riding coast to coast are over, though if I suddenly found myself on the Moon, I'd immediately start looking for a pen or a keyboard.

What are you working on now?

Mostly what I'm writing these days are interviews like this, because my book unexpectedly became a bestseller, and I feel like the messages in it are things that the world needs to hear in this brief period that I have the microphone. I frankly can't wait until I have a totally open space in my life to begin some new project, because reading, writing, and thinking about autism have totally consumed my life for about six years now.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

When I was a kid poet, I had writer's block all the time: "O Muse, why have you deserted me?" and so forth. Now that I make my living writing, I can't afford to indulge such feelings. I just have to get to work, every day.

What’s your advice to new writers?

A barista in a coffee shop once told me that he wanted to become a writer. I asked him to name three of his favorite books. "Well, I haven't read that much," he said. "I don't want to be influenced." Bzzzzzt -- wrong answer! Young writers should read as much as possible, in whatever genre really turns them on, because writers who came before you are offering you tools that will enable you to do the writing you were born to do. Read, read, read, steal, steal, steal -- and then just get as much writing done as possible, every day. Breathe words, in and out. Then put your writing out there -- as blog posts, as stories you show your friends, as news stories, whatever. The experience of subjecting yourself to public scrutiny, criticism, appreciation, and editing will make you a real writer, unless you were meant to do something else with your life. Not everyone was born to be a writer, but that's OK. The experience of investing yourself deeply in an activity will enrich you. Life is short, and writing -- along with the habits of precise observation and close attention to language it requires -- is one of the most meaningful and rewarding ways to spend your very brief time on this planet.

Steve Silberman is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in Wired, The New Yorker, the MIT Technology Review, Nature, Salon, Shambhala Sun, and many other publications. He is the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery, 2015), which Oliver Sacks called a “sweeping and penetrating history…presented with a rare sympathy and sensitivity.” The book has become a bestseller in the United States and the United Kingdom, and won the 2015 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Silberman’s TED talk, “The Forgotten History of Autism,” has been viewed more than a million times and translated into 25 languages. His Twitter account @stevesilberman made Time magazine’s list of the best Twitter feeds for the year 2011.

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