Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Dyslexia

In 1979, as a fourth-grader, I failed mathematics. I was ten, and my parents took me to Children’s Hospital (Boston), where I was diagnosed as “learning disabled, presumed dyslexic.” Years later, one expert would call me a “poster boy” for the affliction.

“Dyslexia,” as defined on the International Dyslexia Association’s Web-site, “is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”

Of course, at ten, I knew none of that. Nor did I care. All I knew was that I was just about the worst student in every fourth-grade subject. As one can imagine, this level of academic confidence is hard to shed, and since dyslexia is an information-processing affliction, struggle followed me through most of my early academic years. When students were asked to read aloud, I would count the paragraphs, attempting to match each paragraph with a student so I could practice the one I would be asked to read. Of course, no matter how many times I quickly read the passage, I would stumble and hear the snickers. Later, in high school, I certainly did not see dyslexia as a positive. I attended a boarding school—trading my ability to stop a puck for an acceptance letter—where it took me two school years and one summer to muddle my way through Algebra II. I quickly fell into the jock stereotype, but I also fell into the hands of several inspiring and supportive English teachers and founded a work ethic that has served me well. I vividly recall evenings spent in the boiler room below the library, where I went in search of silence to concentrate. Those nights taught me more than the importance of hard work. I failed to realize it then, but they also taught me literary analysis. At the time, I only knew that I read virtually syllable by syllable, so a twenty-page assignment took two hours. Obviously, I am faster today. But those long nights, seated on the concrete floor, pouring, highlighter in hand, over assigned classics taught me to value literary analysis and close reading, skills I would use as a teacher and a novelist obsessed with revision.

I made two other discoveries during those high school years. I came to realize that the input of material—not the output—was my challenge. I excelled in creative writing and photography, and my best grades came on essay exams, never multiple choice. I was also given a few Robert B. Parker novels by my mother, and in one, Ceremony, I read the wonderful lines that were the epigraph to my first book, lines that, to me, sum up our genre, “It’s a way to live. The rest is just confusion.”

As a writer, dyslexia has become an asset. Dyslexics are typically driven, able to make connections associating both concrete and abstract concepts, and to relate seemingly unrelated things (think poet as CEO). Novels are interconnected webs of information, everything (obvious or not) is related in some way to everything else. The author must manage to keep his finger on all of it. Dyslexics are also typically auditory people. As I have said in previous blogs, most of what I do as a writer is instinctive; I write “by ear.”

Believe it or not, once I found fiction writing, everything changed. In the end, and unexpectedly, dyslexia, once my childhood enemy, has become my adult friend, an affliction become attribute.


Vicki Delany said...

John, have you heard of the Cdn crime writer Howard Engel? He is best known as the author of the Benny Cooperman series. Howard had a stroke a few years ago that left him unable to read. He could still write, but not read. Imagine that. He couldn't even read what he had just written. He wrote a book about it. Not the same condition as you have, of course, but I thought you might find it interesting. The name of the book escapes me for the moment.

Ray Ray said...

I'm a seventy-year-old dyslexic writer who never realized I was dyslexic until a few years ago. Unfortunately, instead of help during my school years, I received cracked knuckles, bops on the head with a ruler, scolding, ridicule and went ignored, passed from grade to grade simply to keep me moving through the system. To get out of school I ran away. I'm so glad that children now get the screening and help they need. But, there is still a lot of ignorance out there. I've met numerous teachers recently that still know little about dyslexia or how to help a dyslexic child. Ray Shoop

Rick Blechta said...

Pretty amazing post, John.

One of my sons is mildly dyslexic and it's been interesting to see that his experience mirrors yours in its outcome. He's not a writer, but he could be.

At least, though, he wasn't hassled in school as you were. Why couldn't your teachers have helped you out by letting you prepare readings the night before? Putting students on the spot so unfairly is something that's always made my blood boil when the solution is so simple. Glad you remained so positive (seemingly) about your educational experience.