Jeanette Bennett

The Blog of JEANETTE M. BENNETT - Indie Author from the Scablands of Eastern Washington

Friday, August 9, 2013

Making the Stinkers Dance: Writing with Dyslexia

Words are those things that get stuck on my tongue and make me stammer. Or they jump out of my head when I need them, making me look stupid. Or they bounce around on the page and I feel like I am stabbing them with a toad sticker so I can pin them down to read them. For me words are not magic fairies--they are nasty gremlins. And that is why I love making the little fiends jump through hoops for me.

No, I’m not dyslexic because “b” and “d” don’t flip on me. Okay so letters can jump around a bit and trick me into thinking they are another word. Dyslexics do terrible in school, and I did well. All right, I am a slow reader. I discovered that in sixth grade when it turned out that I and the kid with the really thick glasses were the slowest readers in the class. If the teacher had given us books we could take home instead of those silly cards in those boxes, no one would have been the wiser. Still I knew I wasn’t stupid because my mom kept telling me I just read slow so I could retain more.

Guess what. All that stuff in the first paragraph are signs of dyslexia. It’s far more common than you might think. It's estimated 10-20% of the population is dyslexic. Most people, except those who have very severe dyslexia, go undiagnosed. They just assume they are a little dim-witted and get jobs at Burger King. Others realize they just think differently and become engineers or scientists.

I am just mildly dyslexic, which makes it more of an annoyance than a real handicap--a speed bump rather than a barrier. Still I hate to tell people that I’m even mildly dyslexic because they assume I can’t read. I can read. I can read just fine--I just take longer.

According to studies all students start out a little dyslexic, which is why so many kids write letters backwards occasionally, but soon grow out of it. Children at first read with both sides of their brain, both the left side that thinks in words and the right side that thinks in images. As they get older most people have their verbal left side shove the non-verbal right side out of the way, allowing them to read faster. With dyslexics the right side is just too strong to be shoved aside, and sometimes shoves back. Unfortunately Western education is geared toward left-brained people. (At least I had the advantage of a brain where the left-side got to participate even if the right side had the stronger personality.)

I discovered I was predominantly right brained in eighth grade. For several days we all had to take a battery of timed tests covering various subjects. I did okay. Then we got to the spatial rotation test. No words, just drawings of funny shaped boxes. In each question we had to guess which of the four drawings was the first box from a different angle. When I finished, I carefully reviewed my answers, then I drummed my fingers. Impatient, I just handed it in early. Turns out I not only got every answer right, but finished the test faster than anyone else. Right brained people think three dimensionally. (Maybe if I wasn’t a slow reader I might have done a little better on those other tests.)

So why would a person with poor verbal skills want to be a writer? If you are dyslexic, you might have trouble finding the words but you still have an unfair advantage over other writers. I have read so many blogs by left-brained articulate authors bemoaning the fact that they can write anything--except fiction. Imagination is in the right side of your brain.

I gave up writing at one point because I couldn’t follow the rules of outlining. I read about character development and how you are supposed to carefully craft a person, jury-rigging him together from several people you know in real life, figuring out how you want him to look, plotting out his life before you ever begin writing about him. Me, I prefer to go on blind dates with my characters. They show up in my head and I just watch and listen, getting to know them. The real fun comes with the surprises, finding out something about them I never would have guessed. I wind up with characters more real than something I could have planned. I don’t think I’m really that clever or unique. I think it might just be right-brained thing. We think three-dimensionally in images and sounds more than words.

Even though I am tongue-tied in real life, writing dialogue is easy for me. I just write down what the characters are saying. Like a good interviewer, I will go back and cut out irrelevant bits of the conversation so I don’t bore the reader. For me the hard part is descriptions. I can see things vividly, but I have to find the right words to describe a scene and also decide what needs to be mentioned. Does the reader really want to see every little detail? If I was left-brained, I could just look at a photo or a scene outside my window and wax eloquently. (There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides.)

As I said I am only mildly dyslexic, but there are still big disadvantages even for me. Reading a page out loud to catch typos may work for someone who can gulp prose, sentences at a time, but I will often read aloud what isn’t there. Sever dyslexics can stand in front of a class and read wonderful essays they have written, but when they hand it in, the teacher finds it’s gibberish. I am so paranoid of leaving in or out a word I will have someone proofread even my smallest changes. I live in fear of that typo staring me in the face, laughing at me because I can’t see it, so some Grammar Nazi can call me lazy or stupid. Rule number one for dyslexics: Get an editor and a proofreader, as many as you need.

Another thing that helps is a computer. Most dyslexics have lousy cursive handwriting and actually do better with a keyboard. (Amen!) Added bonus is most word processor software has spellcheck to catch your transposed letters and misspelled words (huge problem for dyslexics.) Forget the journal. What I found really useful is a netbook. Mine may only have a ten-inch screen, and I have to plug in an external DVD drive, but it’s only three pounds, has a six-hour battery, can fit in a large purse and I can carry it anywhere. Netbooks are also one of the cheapest computers out there. Okay not so good for graphic programs and fancy games but I’ve had mine more than three and a half years and I’m rubbing the paint off the keys writing my little heart out.

My beloved netbook. You can see where I rubbed the paint off the keys.
Writers have to be prolific readers. I read a lot--I just don’t read a lot. I spend twice as long reading half as much. Remember audio books are not cheating. (You can find free audiobooks of the classics at LibriVox.) There is also software that reads text aloud. I also found bookmarks help keep words from jumping around so much, despite my third grade teacher telling me they are for babies. I’m a grown up, I can do what I want.

Despite the problems I have writing, for me it’s actually my best way to communicate. I am so tongue-tied that if I have something important to say, I will write a letter--even if I have to stand there and read it aloud. When I took up writing again my husband was shocked that I could be so articulate on paper. He says my words are in my fingers, not my tongue.

There is one big advantage dyslexic writers have. We aren’t afraid of hard work--just the thing you need to write a novel. Most would never tackle such a momentous task, but compared to the extra hours we had to put in to homework to keep up with the rest of the students--easy-squeezy.

Would I want to fix my “affliction?” Would I want to be left-brained and be able to make love to words instead of this constant fighting? There are days I would give anything to be able to breeze through a book and gobble up novels like popcorn the way some can. To see all those elusive typos that I can’t find no matter what I do. To be able to get into a web account without having to type my password three times because I keep transposing a letter. To be able to confidently sign a book without misspelling a word including my own name. To be able to give a book pitch without sounding like a stammering idiot. I live in fear that the Writing Police are going to show up and arrest me for impersonating an author.

On the other hand would the tradeoff would be worth it? I have a friend who has just the opposite problem--she is predominantly left-brained. Spatial tests completely baffle her. She can’t think in 3-D. That scares me. Being more articulate isn’t worth losing the world in my head. I think my readers would miss it, too. (You can download a preview of my book to the right and see if it's a world worth saving. End of plug.)

Even if you are more dyslexic than me, take heart. There are a lot of writers with a lot worse dyslexia and a lot more talent than me (see list below.) So if you want to be a writer don’t let those nasty fiends called words stop you. Get a whip and make the stinkers dance!

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Please feel free to leave comments below. Tell us of your own experiences and tricks you have used. Give any encouragements to other dyslexic writers to find the courage to thumb their nose at the “speed bump.” All mean comments will be deleted because while I was able to hide my problem, too many live with the stigma of being told they are stupid or lazy or inadequate.

Also be sure to visit Dyslexic Advantage: Unleashing the Power of the Dyslexic Mind website. It is far more than just an ad for their book, The Dyslexic Advantage.The book is worth the struggle to read it--also available in audiobook. Check out their videos on YouTube.

From the UK is Dyslexia Way of Thinking with suggestions of working around dyslexia. Also has videos on YouTube.

The Happy Dyslexic - Understanding dyslexia and how a dyslexic can reach his potential

Are you a Dyslexic? Here are a few online tests:
Adult Dyslexia Checklist - from the British Dyslexia Association website
Adult Self-Assessment Tool: Are You Dyslexic? - from the International Dyslexia Association website
37 Common Characteristics of Dyslexia - from Dyslexia the Gift website
Dyslexia Test - from Dyslexia Advantage website

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A partial list of famous dyslexic writers:
Scott Adams - Dilbert comic strip
Louise Arnold - children’s writer Grey Arthur series
Michael “Atters” Attree - satirist and comedy writer
Avi - historical fiction for middle school readers
Robert Benton - screenwriter and director
Jeanne Betancourt - children’s writer My Name is Brain Brian, the Pony Pals series
Roberto Bolano -novelist and poet
Octavia Estelle Butler - science fiction writer
Dame Agatha Christie - mystery writer
Stephen Cannell - TV writer Rockford Files, A-Team, 21-Jump Street
Lewis Carroll - Alice in Wonderland
Samuel R. Delany - science-fiction writer
Albert Einstein - Relativity: The Special and General Theory
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
Fannie Flagg - Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (also actress)
Gustave Flaubert - Madame Bovary
Vince Flynn - Mitch Rapp Series
Richard Ford - Pulitzer Prize winning author
Sally Gardner - Maggot Moon (winner of the Carnegie Medal)
Terry Goodkind - Sword of Truth series
Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time
John Irving - screen writer The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules
Sherrilyn Kenyon - Dark-Hunter vampire series
Lynda La Plante - TV writer Prime Suspects
J.F. Lawton - screen writer of Pretty Woman and Under Siege
John Lennon - song writer Paperback Writer
Don Mullan - Eyewitness Bloody Sunday
Dav Pilkey - writer and illustrator of Captain Underpants
Patricia Polacco - children’s author and illustrator
Anne Rice - Interview With a Vampire
Bernard Taylor - playwright and novelist of crime, horror, suspense and romance
Mark Twain - Huckleberry Finn, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Jules Verne - science fiction writer
Victor Villoasenor - Rain of Gold
Ben Way - Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots will Replace Them
Henry Winkler - Hank Zipzer series (also actor)
W.B. Yeats - poet and playwright
Benjamin Zephaniah - poet

You are in very good company!


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