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Write Down What Makes You Laugh: Authorship and ALS, Rob Brownell’s Story

This inspirational story of a life well designed comes to us from Ray, an author and community member in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After working for thirty years as a product design engineer, I recently completed my first novel, Invention Is a Mother, which loosely follows the development trajectory of an absurd product. When I approached Bill to get his thoughts on my manuscript, he invited me to share the story behind my transition into writing.

Writing has been a long-standing interest, and for many years I held on to the dream of authoring a fantastically well-received novel in my retirement. With that in mind, I had dabbled with writing. I read, intermittently kept journals, took classes, and took note of the madness of engineering projects. Mostly I thought about writing but lacked the commitment to actually write.

In 2017 I was diagnosed with ALS—which began by paralyzing my arms. The doctors explained that weakness would continue apace through my body for the next three to five years. There is no cure for ALS, and there is little understanding of its causes. It’s a “gravity problem,” impossible for me to solve, but unlike the Designing Your Life examples, it stubbornly defies reframing. You might call it a grave problem.

My engineer’s response, despite knowing nothing about neurology, was to briefly consider finding a cure for ALS by myself, since it looked like no one else was going to do it for me.

Also, I felt compelled to buy a new laptop.

For months my predicament neither inspired me nor spurred me to action; getting my affairs in order proved to be a phenomenally depressing undertaking. What little creative energy I could muster I squandered on creating a progressively mournful playlist that represented my entire life. (In a nod to Stephen Hawking, I named the playlist My Time, a Brief History.)

I made stabs at living life to the fullest, which came highly recommended, but it’s a fickle business, and even on the best days, it isn’t a full-time commitment. In my spare time I learned to control my new laptop—and to write!—by voice.

After the first of my three to five years, I regained enough focus to see that writing a novel was important to me. I wanted to know that I was capable of doing it. I was confident the novel would never see publication, even if I did complete it.

I revisited the familiar lows as well as the highs of the design process: complete collapses of confidence and manic moments believing that my work would win the Nobel Prize in the newly created Literature/Physics/World Peace combo category—eat your heart out, Stephen Hawking.

My guiding principle was to write down what made me laugh. Thankfully, my appreciation for humor did not diminish as my dexterity, then my mobility ebbed away. While writing, I easily forgot about my physical limitations and lost myself in my imagination.

Now, five years after diagnosis, I surprisingly find myself self-publishing Invention Is a Mother. I hope that even with its imperfections, the story will bring humor—and maybe a little inspiration—to its readers.

Rob Brownell, former VP at a Silicon Valley design firm, will launch his fantastically well-received debut novel, Invention Is a Mother, in summer 2022. Get on the list to preorder at www.syllaballistics.com.