In January, I'll finally release a non-fiction book I've been working on for three years. Titled 101 Writing Fears And How To Deal With Them, it aims to erase unhelpful fear from your writing life.
Around 2012, I asked Twitter folk for their biggest writing-related fears. Even given that writers are famously prone to a dose of the terrors, I was still taken back by how many fears people shared with me, publicly or otherwise. As you might have gathered, there were about 101 of them, and I set out to address each in the book. When it came to areas where I didn't personally have enough experience or knowledge, I quizzed other people who did.
So here's Fear # 10 from the book...
“I’m dyslexic and several people have told me that means I can’t write.”
Obviously, I have no idea who these people are, but can assure you that they’re far more idiotic than they believe dyslexic folk to be. Wow. What a stupid thing to say.
Now, it would be ideal to start off by defining dyslexia, but it turns out that dyslexics are dyslexic in different ways. There is no single, accepted definition of dyslexia. Researchers use different definitions, as do the people who design the tests to screen for and diagnose dyslexia, although most agree there’s a phonological element: in other words, people’s awareness of the ‘sound structure’ of spoken words.
So dyslexia is basically an ‘umbrella’ term. There isn't even field-wide agreement on what the key areas of ‘dyslexic deficit’ are. Some people have short term memory issues, some have visual deficits (e.g. seeing words moving around or the letters in the wrong order), but equally some people describe this ‘letters in the wrong order’ business as part of a sequencing, rather than visual, deficit. In other words, even the professionals don't agree at a fundamental level about what dyslexia is. As the British Dyslexia Association says, “Dyslexia is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points”.
Here are just some of the many successful writers who I believe are or were dyslexic: Agatha Christie, Hans Christian Andersen, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, A-Team creator Stephen Cannell, F Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, novelist John Corrigan, fantasy author Terry Goodkind, award-winning poet Philip Schultz, mystery novelist Elizabeth Daniels Squire, poet William Butler Yeats... the list could take up this whole page, just like the lists of successful autistic writers and those with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Writer Clive Frayne has worked as an award-winning copywriter, as a movie/TV scriptwriter, freelance journalist and Scriptmag.com columnist. “Not bad for a lad who can't spell ‘rhythm’, no matter how many times he tries to learn it!” he says. “I only really figured out that I was dyslexic after I'd been working as a writer for 15 years. It should have been more obvious, really, because my brother, my mother and my niece are all profoundly dyslexic. Me, I've got a much milder version of it, which means that despite writing everyday for more years than I care to mention, I still can't spell ‘desperately’ without having at least three or four runs at it. I also have the annoying habit of substituting one word for another.
All of which wouldn't be so bad if my dyslexia didn't make proof reading for errors a nightmare. In all of the time that I've been a writer, I don't think I've ever managed to submit a document without at least a couple of typos in it. Darn it.”
Author David Southwell has written many popular books on conspiracy theories and organised crime, as well as scripting various comics. He pulls no punches when outlining his thoughts on dyslexia: “The condition is a problem whether you choose to write or not. It is neurological and until we reach a sci-fi future where alongside the jet packs, there’s also a nanite pill to tackle it, it going to be part of your life. You never overcome dyslexia. You outsmart it, outmanoeuvre it, but it is always there. As an author, words are my life and my living, but my dyslexia also makes them my battleground.
“The really good news,” he adds, “is that dyslexia has no impact on the strength of your imagination. On your ability to think of stories, create characters. To build whole worlds in your mind. Dyslexia does not rob you of core qualities that make you a writer such as a passion to tell stories, to use them to connect the amazing creations of your mind’s eye with others.”
“Your abilities to tell a story, understand a narrative, create relatable characters, and your abilities to format a sentence or be a great speller are completely unrelated,” asserts Mike Garley, the comics writer and editor behind the likes of Dead Roots and The Kill Screen. “You just need a bit of self-awareness. I’ve never actually had any negativity about dyslexia. I think dyslexia is surprisingly common - including undiagnosed - and it’s not really a thing anymore. You and your ability to tell a story is what people are interested in.”
Clive Frayne even believes dyslexia has proven to be a distinct advantage when it comes to his written dialogue. “When I was in school, I always struggled with written work. I was bright, though, so I learned to pay much more attention to what people were saying. This has really worked for me as a writer. The fact that I had to learn language largely by listening to people, has meant that I developed a really good ear for the way people speak, as opposed to formal grammatical structures, which I have always struggled with. My writing has always had a conversational style and I've always felt that sensibility came from my odd relationship with language. Funnily enough, it’s a really useful trait if you want to write for radio or film. Actually, I'd argue that writing with its own unique voice is pretty much always a more interesting read than a dry, grammatically correct piece of prose.”
Technology is also at hand to help writers. “I use Final Draft,” says Mike, “which ‘speaks’ your script to you, which is great for spotting mistakes. I also have some trusted colleagues who kindly look over bits and pieces for me.”
“About seven years ago,” says Clive, “when I finally figured out what was happening, that I was dyslexic, I made a real effort to iron out the worst excesses of it, and discovered that I'd learnt how to spell specific words by the shape they make on the keyboard. I’m so glad I learnt to touch type! This means that on a keyboard my spelling is about 90% better than when I pick up a pen. If I use a word often enough the shape and rhythm it makes on the keyboard is how I know how to write it. Ask me to spell the same word and I'm lost, ask me to type it and I'm fine.
“The truth of the matter,” he goes on, “is I don't find writing that difficult. Yes, I substitute words, yes, I often have to have five or six goes at spelling quite basic words... but I'm used to that. And, I compensate by being able to type pretty quickly. The real struggle for me is proof reading documents. Proof reading is a bitch. I don't think I've ever sent out a document without typos in it, and I obsessively read and re-read documents over and over again. What I have discovered is that I can spot errors when a page is printed out, that I miss when I'm reading from the screen. But even reading and correcting stuff six or seven times, then printing it out, re-reading it another six or seven times, still won't let me catch all the errors... maddening.”
The consensus, then, is that dyslexia will provide additional challenges for you as a writer, but is categorically not an impassable barrier between you and a career.
“Dyslexia will make writing professionally harder because it makes reading harder and to be a good a writer you need to read a lot,” says David Southwell. “Dyslexia will also make the actual translating of your imagination into text harder as it makes writing harder. Words mean very specific things and 'hard' in this case does not mean 'impossible'. There are a range of strategies to adopt to tackle the problems it causes, from collaboration to the medium you choose to work in, but dyslexia should not stop you from being a writer.”
“Basically,” concludes Clive, “I don't think that dyslexia is the worst condition a creative writer can suffer from. It may seriously hinder your chances of being either an English Teacher or a pedant, but it shouldn't get in the way of creative writing. That's because, in my opinion, great writing is really about expressing interesting ideas and a fascination with telling stories. The skills you need to do that have very little to do with either spelling or the niceties ― a bugger of a word to spell ― of grammar. That's not to say that you don't need a feel for language, or even a love of writing. But, those aren't dyslexic issues.”
So. The next time someone insists that you can’t be a writer with dyslexia, ask them to read this. Provided they can read, of course...
Thanks very much indeed to Clive Frayne, David Southwell and Mike Garley, for their tremendous help with this segment of the book.
As well as addressing every dread under the sun, 101 Writing Fears And How To Deal With Them features Q&As about fear with various writers, including Graham Linehan, Lisa Jewell, Toby Whithouse, Sarah Pinborough and Neil Cross. All things considered, this thing will tie in very nicely with any writer's New Year's resolutions.
If you'd like to pre-order the ebook, you can do so for £2.99, which is half the planned price, for a limited time. Order easily via PayPal and when the book is released I'll whisk it to your PayPal-registered email address in a handy triple-pack of ePub, Kindle and PDF formats. If you're a book blogger and would like a review copy, drop me a line. Good day to YOU.