Oops, that title should have read How to cope with Dyslexia, but it got you here, and I promise I will get back to the point of it shortly.
I have spent several days looking at writing from the perspective of authors or poets with a mental or physical disability and was both amazed and inspired at what I found.
When we think of writing with a disability, our minds will immediately turn to people like Stephen Hawkins, Helen Keller, or perhaps Christy Brown, each with an impairment which would prevent many from writing, but also with a burning passion to tell their stories. The stories of each is inspirational and a kick in the arse for those of us who think our own difficulty is harsh.
Keller was rendered both blind and deaf because of scarlet fever at just 19months old, but despite her disabilities, she learned to read not only in her own language but in several others. Keller was a tough individual with a gut load of determination. However, despite graduating from college, her life might have been markedly different if she hadn’t met Anne Sullivan. It was Sullivan who helped Keller overcome her disability and make remarkable progress in her ability to communicate.
Keller and Sullivan spent 49-years as student and teacher, but without Keller’s own drive and determination, the intervention of Sullivan would have been pointless. The relationship between the two changed the course of Keller’s life and led to her becoming an inspirational figure.
If you thought writing Crime and Punishment was an accomplishment for a writer, then consider this. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote the masterpiece while suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. He used his experience during seizures to create characters who also suffered from epilepsy. He also produced some of the finest literature the world has ever known, all while suffering from an illness that would leave many incapacitated.
Octavia E. Butler is one of my favourite Sci-Fi authors and considered by many as one of the greatest authors in the genre. Yet Butler struggled with dyslexia.
Bullied as a child, she used her vivid imagination to escape from both the physical and mental abuse, and what for her was first a coping mechanism became the impetus for an incredible writing career.
Octavia E. Butler wrote from as early as ten years of age and continued throughout her life with her final collection published shortly before her death in 2006. Her prolific writing career spanned three series, two standalone novels, and a wonderful collection of short stories.
If you’ve seen the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you already know Jean-Dominique Bauby’s incredible story. (If you haven’t, you need to reevaluate your priorities.) Bauby was the editor of French ELLE, and a prominent French journalist. At age 43, he suffered a massive stroke. He woke from a coma after three weeks speechless, and able to blink his left eyelid only. He was suffering from the nightmare that is “locked-in syndrome.” The stroke had left his brilliant mind intact, but his body paralyzed.
Despite all of this, Bauby wrote the memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and completed it in the only way he could, by having a reader recite the alphabet and blinking whenever the letter he was looking for was reached. Sadly, the book was published in 1997, just three days before Bauby’s death.
As an Irish man, it would be impossible for me to write this article without mentioning the raw and rich talent of Christy Brown, who suffered from grade five cerebral palsy. Brown could only write or type with the toes of his left foot. His memoir My Left Foot, which was made into the film of the same name, told the story of Brown’s life.
The book became something of a literary sensation when first published and is a wonderful example of overcoming preconceived notions about disabilities. Brown’s life would have been different but for the single-mindedness of his parents, particularly his mother who refused to believe her son would never talk or make his way in the world. The decision to raise Christy at home rather than commit him to an institution, coupled with the support of his family in his formative years and from others in later life, led to Brown becoming the writer and artist who achieved so much.
Patricia Polacco’s children’s book, Thank You Mr Falker is largely autobiographical and tells the story of a young girl with dyslexia and the teacher who took the time to give her the help and support she needed and to succeed in a time when children with dyslexia were considered dull and/or lazy.
There are many other writers I could mention. Truman Capote struggled with epilepsy. Jorge Luis Borges, who overcame hereditary blindness and dictated some of his finest work. And John Milton who, despite being blind, wrote the seminal work Paradise Lost which still inspires and informs the writing of many today. The common thread linking all the above writers is determination and the desire to tell their stories. One of the many wonderful things about writing, either poetry, a short story or a novel, is the accessibility of the medium. The men and women I have referenced above prove this and also prove that no matter what your disability or your handicap, if you want to write you will find a way.
Now, about that sex daily.
Confession time… among my many other imperfections, I am dyslexic. Those who edit my work will tell you that I am not severely so, but what they see is work that has been read and reread by me, that I have listened to using NaturalReader or similar software, and that has been spell checked with attention to many keywords. Yet it is not unusual to find my work still riddled with errors. Dyslexia not only causes those regular typos that litter my first & second drafts (And Facebook posts), it also means that ideas spill onto the page in a rather disorganised fashion, and require the slow and tedious task of reshuffling, rearranging and editing. It also means that is difficult for me to spot errors I have made in early drafts.
I am long past the stage where I apologise for misspellings or grammatical faux pas. I do what I can to make each piece as perfect as I can make it. After that I rely on my line editor (for line editor, read wife) and a few others who are good enough to read my work. The point of all of this is that if I had listened to the educators of the 1970s who knew little about Dyslexia, I would never have taken a pen in hand. I didn’t listen, and I write every day and have had some small success as a writer.
It would be crass to say that talent as a writer will get you far, it may not. But what I will say is this, no matter what your disability, or no matter what is holding you back, if you have the desire to write, just do it any way you can.
Thank you for reading and have a great writing weekend.