“Based on the results of your test, you have mild-to-moderate dyslexia.”
At twenty-nine, that was a mild-to-moderate shock for me.
My mother’s dyslexic. I learned all about how awful the school system was to people like her in the 70s and 80s. She was thrown out of classrooms. Humiliated by teachers in front of her friends. One teacher gave her difficult assignments just to point out her inevitable failure to complete them. School was miserable for her.
I had a very different experience in school, and that was part of my shock. Aside from problems with math, memorization, and being told my development was “a concern” for some teachers, school was just tedious and largely unengaging. The moment I failed a math class, I went full steam to balance that weakness.
The other part was that from the time I was six, all I wanted to do was write fiction. And I have. I devoured creative writing assignments. I raided my library’s sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve even won a couple local and online awards for my short stories before I turned 18.
Now I’m a full-time writer and editor. I’m married to a writer who also has dyslexia (and who encouraged me to get tested). I completed one manuscript, and I’m currently editing my second. My life revolves around my desire to tell stories, make up characters, build entire worlds, and play with words.
So, why didn’t my diagnosis make me reconsider my career? I mean, who wants to publish a dyslexic author? Or hire a writer/editor who has problems with reading, spelling, or understanding the concepts of their language?
It turns out, a lot of people.
Right away, you know that these five people don’t share much aside from being great authors and breathing oxygen. Except maybe Anne Rice – no one writes that much about vampires without some dark secrets. What they do have in common, however, is that they’re all writers with dyslexia.
After learning about my dyslexia, I decided to better educate myself and found a book called “The Dyslexic Advantage” by Brock and Fernette Eide. The pair dive into their studies with the disorder and discuss their findings suggesting that dyslexia has significant advantages rather than being strictly a learning disorder.
During their work, they discovered four distinct ways a person with dyslexia reasons and learns – Material Reasoning. Interconnected Reasoning. Narrative Reasoning. Dynamic Reasoning.
M.I.N.D. for short.
Most people with dyslexia will identify with all four areas. But there will be one area that pins down the challenges they faced growing up, and the hidden strengths that they likely weren’t aware of.
Let’s look at Richard Ford. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, yet he didn’t learn about his dyslexia until he was an adult. For him, reading slow was normal, and it helped him develop a certain reflectiveness for what he read. He’s said dyslexia made him a better writer. But slow reading isn’t all there is to becoming a great writer with dyslexia.
Despite their struggles – Anne Rice still has difficulty spelling, and Avi needed a tutor all through high school – these writers owned their dyslexia and became masters of their craft. It’d be hard to argue that dyslexia is just a learning disorder by looking at their success.
Narrative Reasoning – A Dyslexic Writer’s Superpower
If you fancy yourself a writer, I bet it’s because you love telling stories. I do it all the time. I’ll make up personalities for the squirrels in my tree. I’ll give people hypothetical situations all day. My dog looks at me like a moody teenager because she can’t go one day without me narrating her life.
I’m such a storyteller that I like to believe that the characters in the books, movies, and shows that I love have more life than I get to see or read.
I’ll bet if you don’t feel the same way, you have friends who do. Or even better, I’ll wager you like coming up with ideas of how things will turn out in a story, constructing scenes from what you’ve gathered to create your own narrative.
Now, what if I told you that most readers don’t do that?
What about your memory? Do you relive your past with all five senses? Where you were during a thunderstorm. What the grass smelled like after. How the thunder rumbled through your chest if you were close to a window.
That’s called episodic simulation and episodic memory. Both mean that your brain can pull your senses together to form a complete scene, almost like pulling out the props for an episode of your personal show. You can recall the events around learning a piece of information, or you can use information and experience to create a purely imaginary scene.
These abilities are off-set by the frustrating inability to remember anything abstract or purely informational. Equations. Historical facts. The Periodic Table of Elements. World countries. State capitols. They’re impersonal pieces of information floating in a nebulous, intangible void of context.
At least until someone tells you a story about the Table of Elements to make it easier to remember. Or you watch the Animaniacs’ “Nations of the World,” “Capitols of the United States,” or “The Presidents of the United States.” Once it’s done in a narrative setting or something you can experience yourself, it’s there for life. (Even now Yakko’s voice haunts me, but how many countries can you name to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance?)
For me, I’ve always read slowly. So slow that sometimes, my library wouldn’t let me finish a book because they’d let me check it out longer than other people. I once stole a book from them because it was too big for me to finish on my extra time. I also balk at math, especially showing my work. And if you explain something to me, chances are I’ll have to ask you to repeat it, and not just because I had a very loud metal phase growing up, but because I remember things best with a little extra repetition.
But if I couldn’t sit down and imagine breezes, the feel of the sun, what motivates my character like it motivates me, or how an interdimensional being might react to watching an episode of Ancient Aliens, I wouldn’t be the storyteller I am.
At the end of the day, I find it pretty cool that what most people consider a disorder is more like my gift than a curse.