Snow is falling. So I look up.
The world mystifies when you stare up through falling snow. Even standing still, you can soar. Even alone, you are surrounded. Even mundane, you find magic. I’ve spent my life chasing the fantastical, yet everything I’ve ever imagined can be casually matched by someone tilting their head up so they can experience it. The soft. Settling. Aspiration.
Of snow on an otherwise ordinary day.
When I was eighteen, I moved from Nebraska to Utah. Here, snow is fleeting, embarrassed to be an obstruction. But in Nebraska, snow squats. It claims land, builds empires. You fight it all winter, carving pathways, reconquering your sidewalks. The cold digs inside, frosting your bones with a chill that lingers, even after you return to warmth.
I often think of those snowy days, now that I live in a desert. But each year my memories are a little less fresh. We build our lives with layer upon layers of years, like falling snow. And like the new snow, most experiences melt away. In interviews, I’ve been asked to recount my most frightening experience. I struggle to answer because it’s the lost memories that scare me—the unnerving knowledge that I’ve forgotten the majority of moments that made me who I am. Those dribbled away when I wasn’t looking and joined the spring runoff of life.
Fortunately, some experiences do remain. In one, I’m fourteen, and it’s a cold night in Nebraska. My best friend at the time was a boy we’ll call John. Though we went to different schools, he was one of the only other Mormon kids around, so our parents often had us play together. When you’re very young, it’s proximity—not shared interests—that makes friends. This often changes as you age. By fourteen, John had found his way to basketball, parties, and popularity. I had not.
On that day, after a youth activity, another friend suggested we leave to go have some fun. I don’t remember where. Strange, that I’ve lost what this was about, though the rest of the scene is etched into the glacial part of my brain. One of us was old enough to drive, so we headed out to their car.
Five seats. Six teens. They’d already counted.
Without a word to me, the others climbed in. John gave me one hesitant look, then settled into the front passenger seat and closed the door. They left me on the curb. The car vanished, taillights flaring in the night like lit cigarettes.
The memory settled in for the long winter. That night. Watching. Remembering John’s face, which was so strikingly conflicted. Half ashamed. Half resigned.
I was no stranger to being outside. It happens when you’re one of three Mormon kids in a large school. You’ll be at a birthday party, and the wine coolers will come out. Everyone stands there worrying you’ll judge them—while you just want them to stop staring. But you leave anyway, because you know they’ll enjoy themselves more if you and your unusual morals aren’t there to loom.
It should have been different that night though, watching John and the others drive away. They were in my church group—ostensibly, my tribe. They’d still left me outside.
This event shocked me in how dramatic it was, as I wasn’t generally bullied. I tended to be adept at social settings. People generally liked me. At the same time, there was something I’d begun to notice. Something distancing about me.
It happens still. It isn’t that people shun me or don’t want me around; indeed, they seem to appreciate me. When I join a group, I generally end up leading it in some way, and I never sense resentment to this fact. But I also have an air around me. Some writer friends call me the “adult in the room.” I tend to attack projects too aggressively, tend to be the one who steps in and gets things done—even when they don’t need to be done immediately, and when everyone else would rather relax.
This comes, in part, from a certain…oddity about me that started in my young teens, around the time that John drove off. As my friends grew hit puberty, they became more emotional. The opposite happened to me. Instead of experiencing the wild mood swings of adolescence, my emotions calcified. I started waking up each day feeling roughly the same as the day before. Without variation.
Around me, people felt passion, and agony, and hatred, and ecstasy. They loved, and hated, and argued, and screamed, and kissed, and seemed to explode every day with a pressurized confetti of unsettling emotions.
While I was just me. Not euphoric, not miserable. Just…normal. All the time.
Often, it genuinely seems like I exist outside of human experience. It’s not sociopathy. I’m quite empathetic—in fact, empathy is one of the ways that I can feel stronger emotions. I’m not autistic. I don’t have a single hallmark of that notable brand of neurodivergence. It’s also not what is called alexithymia, which is a condition where someone doesn’t feel emotions (or can’t describe them).
I care about people, and I feel. I’m not empty or apathetic. My emotions are simply muted and hover in a narrow band. If human experience ranges between a morose one and an ecstatic ten, I’m almost always a seven. Every day. All day. My emotional “needle” tends to be very hard to budge—and when it does move, the change is not aggressive. When others would be livid or weeping, I feel a sense of discomfort and disquiet.
My emotions do go a little further than this on occasion, maybe once a year. It takes something incredible—such as being deeply betrayed by someone I trusted.
I’m not looking for sympathy; I don’t want to be fixed. I appreciate this aspect of my makeup—and it’s part of what makes me so consistent at writing. When everyone else is in crisis, I’ll just steam along. At the same time, when everyone else is elated by some good news…I’ll just steam along, unable to feel the heights of the joy they feel.
It makes people uncomfortable sometimes. Makes them think I’m judging them. While I’m absolutely not, I do try to be careful how I talk about my condition. Not as something to fear. Something, instead, I’m proud of—not because it makes me better than anyone else, but because it’s me. I like being me.
My neurodivergence came up in a recent interview I did. The interviewer latched onto the fact that I don’t feel pain like others do. (More accurately, some mild pains don’t cause in me the same response they do others.) I asked the interviewer not to mention it in his article, as I felt the tone to our discussion was wrong. I worry about my oddity changing the way people think of me, as I don’t want to be seen as an emotionless zombie. So I try to speak of it with nuance.
As the interviewer ignored my request, I thought I’d talk about it here. Profile myself for you—because this aspect of who I am has deep ties to another happening from my teenage years. In this, I want to answer a big question for you, the one everyone wonders about. The key to understanding Brandon Sanderson.
Why do I write?
Why do I write so much?
Why do I write so much fantasy?
Let me tell you about the first day, that beautiful day, when I found myself inside.
It was when I opened a fantasy novel. I was an isolated kid whose emotions were doing something bizarre. Even John leaving had left me feeling…disturbed more than angry. Alone, and outside. Then I opened a book where I found emotion.
In that story about dragons, and wonder, and people trying impossible things, I found myself. I felt a variety of powerful emotions through the characters—emotions that I remembered from when I’d been younger.
I hadn’t tried reading fiction in a long while, so I was blindsided by this perfect book. The experience transformed me, quick as a boy tilting his head back, looking up, and finding a new world.
When I read or write from the eyes of other people, I legitimately feel what they do. There’s magic to any kind of story, yes—but for me, it is transformative. I live those lives. For a brief time, I remember exactly what passion, and agony, and hatred, and ecstasy feel like. My emotions mold to the story, and I cry sometimes. I legitimately cry. I haven’t done that outside of a story in three decades.
Stories bring me inside.
My second published novel is called Mistborn. It’s about a world where ash falls like snow, and I can linger, looking up through it via a character’s eyes. Near the beginning of Mistborn, the teenage protagonist finds herself standing outside a room. It is full of light and laughter and warmth. But she knows, she knows she doesn’t belong inside that room.
Nearer the end of the book, I linger on as similar scene—only now, she’s sitting with the others. Light and laughter. Warmth. Mistborn was the first novel I wrote after getting the call offering me a book deal. Finally—after slaving over a dozen unpublished manuscripts—I knew I was going to be a professional writer. With that knowledge, I wrote Mistborn, the book about a girl who learns to come inside.
While writing Mistborn, I changed. Now that I’d made it inside of publishing—now that I’d joined those authors I’d loved for so long—why would I keep writing? I needed a new goal, and I discovered it that year.
So let me tell you why I write. It isn’t about worldbuilding; that’s a mistake everyone makes about me. Assuming I write because of worldbuilding is like assuming someone makes cars because they love cup holders. It’s also not because I’m Mormon, as some profiles bizarrely conclude. My faith and cultural heritage are both important to me, but if I were any other religion, that aspect of me would rightly be a footnote—not a headline.
I don’t write for plot twists, or dragons, or clever turns of phrase—though I enjoy all of these. I write because stories bring people inside. And I sincerely, genuinely believe that is what the world needs.
Lately, I’ve seen a resurgence of something that genuinely disquiets me: an attempt by some members of our community to hold others outside. Science fiction and fantasy is forever gatekeeping what constitutes good or worthy stories. Like my old friend John, who sought cooler friends, we renounce anything accessible—part of our perpetual (and largely fruitless) plea for legitimacy with the literary establishment.
Thing is, I can’t really get mad when someone does this, because I’ve done it myself in the past. The unfortunate truth is that we all probably have at times. The moment a group finds cohesion—discovering the warmth and peace of being inside—we decide there aren’t enough seats, so we start muscling and pushing. Readers who came in because of the latest popular teen novel? Outside. Fans of the film version of a story, instead of the book version? Outside. People who don’t look the same as the supposedly conventional fan? I suspect they know this struggle far better than I do.
To use a thematic metaphor, it’s like we’re dragons on our hoard of gold, jealously keeping watch, worrying that if anyone new enters, their presence will somehow dilute our enjoyment. The irony is that there is infinite space inside, and if we open the way, we’ll find many of these newcomers are the very treasure we’re seeking.
Fantasy, out of all genres, should embrace the different, even if it doesn’t match our specific taste. This is the genre where anything can happen—and should, therefore, be the most open genre. Only fantasy offers me the full range of emotion. The wonder of exploration. The magnificent highs of epic scope and the miserable lows of cataclysmic terror. In writing it, I can learn. Monomaniacal, I hunt experiences of people different from myself, then explore them in prose until I feel—in some small part—what they do.
This is why I write. To understand. To make people feel seen. I type away, hoping some lonely reader out there, left on a curb, will pick up one of my books. And in so doing learn that even if there is no place for them elsewhere, I will make one for them between these pages.
Those who interview me seem to have trouble understanding this fundamental part of who I am: that writing for me isn’t so much about performance as it is about exploration and elevation. I love prose both literary and commercial. And I think I write great prose. I’ve slaved over my style, practicing for decades, honing it for crisp clarity. My prose is usually intended to convey ideas, theme, and character, then get out of the way—because this is how I strive to bring everyone inside.
That said, I know my goal is impossible. Occasional strolls through the outside are part of being human, and I can’t eliminate that. And even I have to admit that there are lessons to be learned on those lonely paths. For example, contrast is the only way to appraise growth. Emotional alien I may be, but that very alienation has motivated me to understand. I value the connections I’ve made so much more for that struggle.
Moreover, I find that occasionally looking in through a window at everyone else gives a person a more complete perspective. Inside, things can get messy, and a streak of color finds it hard to comprehend the painting. I’m a better writer because of my time spent looking in. I don’t know that I could have written Mistborn if I hadn’t been left on that curb.
This isn’t to discount the pain of those who have been forced outside. Nor is it an advocacy for extended periods spent in the cold. I also don’t know if I could have written Mistborn if the wonderful people of the science fiction and fantasy community (including many of the friends I now work with) hadn’t latched on to me in college and—at times—forcibly pulled me inside to be with them. Beyond that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found people like Emily, who love me in spite of (and partially because of) my quirks. Blessedly, because of this, my times outside have been increasingly brief.
My goal here is merely to point out (as I’ve had occasion to remember recently) that beautiful moments do accompany the isolation. You can only watch the snow fall when you’re outside. Only then can you look up and experience that mystifying world, where fragments of the sky drift past and lift you toward the heavens.
I’m forty-seven now, enjoying desert snowfalls in early April. The man I am is separated by distance and time from that boy who stood on the curb, and I’ve forgotten most of the steps that led between the two. I still don’t feel strong emotions outside of stories—but I did tell an interviewer lately that I sometimes cry when writing scenes in my books. They just aren’t the scenes that I thought he’d expect.
I don’t necessarily cry when characters die, or when they marry, or even when they find victory. I cry when it works. When it all comes together, and in a beautiful shimmering burst of humanity, I feel what it is to be that character. At those times, I remember what I learned twenty years ago writing Mistborn. That there’s a reason I do this. And even if I’ve lost more memories than I retain, each of them had a point, because they collectively brought me here.
So when you find yourself in the cold, know that sometimes, there’s a purpose to it. Trust me; I’ve been there. I might be there right now. Feeling the cold on my cheeks—but these days, no longer in my bones. Knowing that this will pass, and that it might be for my good. Most of all, looking up so I can appreciate it. The still. Solemn. Perspective.
Of one who stands outside.