Caroline McGraw has been fascinated with her brother Willie, who has autism, pretty much her own life. She’s written about him extensively, including in the lovely Think Piece Publishing digital single “I Was a Stranger to Beauty.” In 2011 she started writing her blog “A Wish Come Clear,” which she updates every Monday, and it’s become one of the most inspiring and influential forums for the special needs community. We caught up with Caroline recently to talk about life, Willie, and how writing feels a lot like running track.
TP: When did you first start writing about your brother, Willie?
CM: I wrote a book when I was 6 years old for school called My Brother and it was about life with Willie. It was a hard-cover, very thin white book. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an author.
TP: What was it about?
CM: It was that sense that my younger brother was so awesome and so cool but it was also that sense that my life was so different because Willie was my brother. I knew not a lot about autism but I did have a sense that Willie wasn’t like other kids and that I needed to understand that and make allowances for that. It’s very straightforward. It will say things like, My brother likes to be alone most of the time. But when we play we play with dinosaurs. Or my parents spend a lot of time helping him to learn. This is what he loves, this is what he hates, this is what it’s like living in the same house.
TP: How does Willie feel about being your subject so much of the time?
CM: I’ve definitely read him some stuff and shared some things with him. Of course I don’t always have a sense for how much is processing, how much is he grasping of all this? I do definitely have a sense that it matters to him when I spend time one-on-one with him, sit down and do a puzzle with him, sit down and watch a video with him. I feel like sharing my work with him matters to him in the same way that does, that my big sister is taking the time to sit with me and talk with me, as opposed to she’s writing about me so I must be special. It’s more that she cares enough for me to be with me in this moment.
TP: Is it difficult to write objectively about someone you love?
CM: When you write about someone you love it’s harder to be objective and see details as a writer, because you have this default loving image in your head. You see their spirit first before you see their body and everything.
TP: How much has your writing life informed your broader life?
CP: I do feel like it’s steered me places that I might not have had the courage to go otherwise. There are days where I’m writing but I feel like I’m skirting some issue and not really writing about what’s going on and that’s an indicator that, Oh, I’m avoiding something. It pushes me to go deeper. It can be scary because you may not be ready for where your writing is telling you you’re going. For instance I wasn’t sure I was ready to transition out of my job at L’arche, D.C. and be a writer full time, but whenever I sat down to write I wrote about how I wanted to do that. It forces you to look in the mirror, essentially. This is coming from somewhere and that somewhere is a part of you. Writing lets the truth come through you.
TP: How essential is writing to you?
CM: It’s everything. I mean, I have a choice about whether to write but I don’t have a choice about my nature, which is to write stories. Even at the worst when Willie is going crazy, everything is awful, there would be this really tiny part of me that would be like, How would I write about this? It’s a little piece of sanity. It’s good for my mental health.
TP: You had one of the most influential blogs in the special needs category with a “A Wish Made Clear.” When did you start it?
CM: January of 2011. I started publishing these short essays mainly about people I met while working at the special-needs community L’Arche, but also about my brother. It’s grown from there and taken on a life of its own. Every week you have to discipline yourself about what you can bring to the table and share something that encourages and brings value to people. It helps you get over yourself a little bit.
TP: What’s your mission with it?
CM: To write it from the angle of saying I’ve struggled with that, too, and here are the things that have helped me. But not in a pedantic way but in a storytelling way.
TP: You post something new every Monday, correct?
CM: I do.
TP: That takes a lot of discipline.
CM: It’s definitely work. There are some days you don’t feel like showing up. It’s sort of like when I used to run high school track but my strength is I would commit, I would go to practice, so I would have some training. I’d get into my line right before the 400-meter hurdles and right before the race is the worst, but once you get into the race you’re fine. Writing and speaking feels like that—you have to suffer through the tough moments but once you get into it it’s fine.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.