Note: I know there are a few errors in this post. I spent quite a while editing before I posted and these are the ones that I missed. I’ve decided not to go back and fix them as I normally would.
This barely contained wild child is me in 4th grade. This post is about what I wish someone had said to dyslexic little me.
I haven’t posted here for a while, life got busy. Another short story was accepted for publication (YAY!) and I started editing a completed novel that my literal “dream agent” has enthusiastically requested (an editing pass that has instead turned into a massive rewrite of the entire second half, damn you smart beta readers noticing terrible plot holes).
As I increasingly allow myself to actually think of myself as a Writer, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how being dyslexic has impacted my writing. I’m what special education people would call “moderately dyslexic” – I didn’t fully learn to read until 3rd or 4th grade and my handwriting looks like someone gave a chipmunk a pen. I also have a lot of other language processing issues. If you spell a word out loud to me, I have no idea what you’ve spelled..and I mean you could spell COFFEE or PUPPY (my favorite words in the world) and I’d still have to pause to imagine writing it down. I have no ability to learn new languages – gods know I’ve tried. I have taken 4 years of French, 2 years of Latin, and 5 years of Spanish (and I worked in Belize with all Spanish speaking crews for 9 years and spent a summer in Mexico in a Spanish emersion program). I cannot understand a single spoken word of any of those languages. I passed those classes with a great short term memory and nothing more. I always failed the auditory comprehension section on tests.
Being unable to spell or write sucked royally as a kid. My first few years of school were kind of nightmarish and I caused a hell of a lot of trouble to counteract how shitty school made me feel (sorry Mrs. Childers). I acted out and was terrible to be around because I felt hella stupid and covered it up by being boisterous and silly. I remember feeling humiliated and so I decided to make people laugh rather than let them see how afraid I was (see image above…).
I’m lucky that I’ve been able to compensate for most of the issues being dyslexic can cause. I taught myself to speed read in 4th grade because that phonics shit was NOT happening for me. Now I read sentences and sometimes paragraphs at once as a chunk. I taught myself a million nemonic devices to remember which direction letters and numbers should be written. You should definitely never rely on me to give you directions using left and right because I will get them backward more than half the time. I also managed to figure out ways to quiet my mind (that is like a wandering butterfly) to the point where I could at least complete school tasks.
But one thing I didn’t get beyond for a very long time was the conviction that I could never be a writer. In high school I quickly realized that I could write stories just fine. What I couldn’t do was edit. This was before anyone wrote anything on computers (hey you kids, get off my lawn/shakes fist!) and there was no spell check or grammar check. I took exactly one creative writing class in college and the professor sent back red soaked stories with questions about my general intelligence. And so I walked away from writing.
Speed reading and my flitty mind actually helped me immensely in grad school since I could read and comprehend huge text books very quickly. My ability to shift between really different kinds of information helped me come up with new theories and unique approaches to academic problems. I also found (thankfully) that becoming a professor suddenly allows you to be a terrible speller again! Now that I’m a doctor, I can scrawl any kind of bullshit, misspell every other word, and people will assume I’m some kind of brilliant mind who can’t be bothered with mundane aspects of grammar and spelling.
Not that being dyslexic is a walk in the park or some kind of inherent advantage. I cringe when I see people touting dyslexia as some wonderful advantage. For example, there is nothing I dread more than writing on the blackboard in front of one of the university classes that I teach. If I know I will need to write something for a lecture, I ALWAYS type it up first so I can use spell check, then bring the paper to class to crib off of so the class thinks I’m just writing it on the board off the top of my head but really I’m copying my cheat sheet word for word. I can’t keep basic information straight in my head. I can’t keep things organized to save my life. I have to write secret little notes to myself on my phone to make sure I remember things like the name of someone I’ve known 6 years and am fairly close friends with.
Still, overall my mind has served me well despite is quirks.
But four years ago when I left my tenure track job as a professor to become a stay at home parent, I turned to writing to keep me sane. What I didn’t really acknowledge was how terrified I was. I know all writers suspect they are writing pablum-filled tripe balls, but I also had to convince myself that I wasn’t just embarrassing myself over and over (just like 3rd grade, that emotional baggage stays with you, man). Obviously word processing helps me a lot, but I know I still send out things that are riddled with errors. To avoid that I would have to enlist someone to edit every thing I write and, if I’ve learned anything, quantity and persistence is part of being a writer. Which means I’m churning out stories and there is no way I can ask people to edit all that shit. It would be hundreds of thousands of words, and no one has that kind of time.
Which means that I’ve just had to bite the bullet. I edit a million times. I have the computer read everything out loud to me. I re-read and edit again. And I STILL miss a lot. Every piece of feedback I’ve gotten has commented on spelling and general errors. One editor implied that I clearly wasn’t serious about my writing if I couldn’t even be bothered to edit the pieces I sent them. At first I was mortified, but I’m trying really hard not to care. I tell myself that no one is going to reject a great story because of a few spelling errors (I hope!) and (like all writers) I put myself out there again and again.
Interestingly, over time, I actually think my embarrassment is allowing me to write more risky stuff. If I’m already going to look like an idiot, then I might as well go for it and write whatever the hell I want. It’s given me a strange freedom to not really worry about what editors think and that is one of the best gifts being dyslexic has given me.
I am actually grateful that I gave up on writing so long ago, only because my life lead to a to career that has allowed me to travel the world and experience things waaaaay outside of my comfort zone. But I do wish someone had taken me aside when I was that wild, secretly terrified, regularly humiliated little kid and told me three things: 1) school isn’t the real world, 2) many successful people had issues similar to (or even more challenging than) mine, and 3) to know that it will get better. I so wish we could change the way that schools evaluate and judge tiny little kids based on some standard that so many kids can’t live up to. Also, FUCK YEAH TECHNOLOGY…but that seems like another post entirely.