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Confessions of a A Dyslexic Writer

I love how Google cues up questions and answers, making research so simple! For example:

“Do dyslexics make good writers?”

Here’s the official answer, quoted from a National Institutes of Health website:

“High-quality writing depends on good transcription skills, working memory, and executive function—all of which can be difficult for children with dyslexia and result in poor spelling and low overall writing quality.”

In other words, we dyslexics can’t write…

But tell that to some of the famous authors whose bios say they are dyslexic. Octavia Butler and Agatha Christie are my favorite examples, along with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gustav Flaubert, and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. But I don’t think they wrote any dyslexic protagonists into their works. They regarded their disabilities as a private matter—not surprising considering the prevailing prejudice, as expressed so thoroughly in that Google answer.

I don’t generally talk about my disability. Why bring it up if people haven’t noticed? But I’m wondering if it’s right to keep concealing my dyslexia when I’m writing books for students who deserve stories they can identify with–increasingly difficult as a veil of censorship drops down on so many classrooms and libraries.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, Dyslexics of the world, UNTIE! But usually we dyslexics don’t advertise, let alone unite. Quite the opposite. And dyslexic writers? Sounds like the ultimate oxymoron. Who’d want to read a book by someone who has difficulty reading and writing?

I’ve learned to accommodate in ways that conceal my challenges. Although my elementary school principal would be very surprised to hear it, I’ve authored dozens of books, taught thousands of students, and traveled extensively for author talks despite finding it difficult to find my way in unfamiliar environments. (Dyspraxia, spatial and left-right confusion, often accompanies dyslexia and makes simple things like getting from the airport to your hotel…interesting.)

Conventional wisdom holds that dyslexics compensate by being highly creative, but I just came across a research paper purporting to prove that we aren’t.

Was I (along with Agatha Christie and Octavia Butler) just imagining my imagination was special? But those scientists administered a test of creativity on which dyslexics performed barely better than their so-called normal counterparts. I’m more than happy to brainstorm 500 new ideas for cereals (which I once did while co-facilitating a workshop at Kellogg’s), but take a test?

The real test of creativity is the second hour. The first round of idea generation is fun, but it’s hard for most people to keep producing ideas all day. (Let alone every day—which is the author’s challenge.)

Most of us dyslexics have plenty of creative stamina. I think it’s how we’re wired. We’re more wide open to inputs and can make non-obvious connections with relative ease–which helps our writing, regardless of what N.I.H. might say. We don’t code things into memory as rigidly as others, which I suspect makes linear retrieval harder while facilitating creative associations instead.

When I was diagnosed, the prescription was to hold you back and tell your parents you weren’t college material, yet I eventually graduated from Harvard and U.C. Berkeley. Could modern science give me a more informative diagnosis? I decided to go to the psychology department at UMass and let the doctoral students practice on me. They enjoyed running me through a vast range of tests, and I distinctly recall the day a post-doc said, “I’ve got good news! You’re not a psychopath.” No kidding, but what about my disability? Even at a major center of research and learning, they seemed puzzled that a dyslexic could ace tests of reading and reasoning skills—discounting the long and challenging path I’d followed to acquire abilities that came more easily to others.

Their conclusion reflects the unconscious bias that you can’t really be dyslexic if you’re doing something challenging like writing books because dyslexics simply can’t do those things. (Just ask the National Institutes of Health, right?)

No wiser, I returned to my writing, and my question: Why am I not writing about characters with dyslexia? I guess I’ve spent so much of my life trying to keep people from noticing my disability that I’ve unconsciously put it on my taboo list.

As an author of novels for tweens and teens, I’m struck by how able, in a conventional way, most protagonists are. Harry Potter had a lightning-bolt scar, but I don’t think that counts as a disability.

I recently wrote about a character who doesn’t see very much (Raahi in the Silent Lee stories). His eyesight is a factor, but it’s not his main defining quality as he helps move the adventure ahead. I wish I’d had stories with characters more like him when I was young. Silent Lee herself, as a biracial adoptee, also checks boxes for my family. But what I haven’t done is write a leading character with my own disabilities. Maybe I secretly dread the idea of ‘outing’ myself that thoroughly.

A quick online search reveals some big numbers in the U.S.: More than two million students have IEPs for a learning disability. As someone who’s learned to manage my own disability, I think I know what my next writing challenge should be. It’s time for a dyslexic protagonist to step forward. Maybe they will be a sort of Encyclopedia Brown opposite—the kid no one thinks is smart but who by virtue of their unique perspective always solves the mystery? I’ll have to work on my characters and plot of course—but that’s the creative part N.I.H. overlooks, and we dyslexics love.

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Reading Suggestions:

Here are some YA novels featuring protagonists with various disabilities, written by authors from their own personal experience:

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is about an autistic 16-year-old whose routines help her act normal —and the challenges she faces maintaining that hard-won normalcy when she falls in love.

The Silence Between Us follows Maya as she attends a hearing school for the first time in her life.

Run follows legally blind Agnes and her new friend Bo on a wild adventure.

For a Muse of Fire tells a fantastical story about Jetta who among other challenges is coping with being bipolar.

All of these books are hashtagged #ownvoices to indicate that the author shares a disability with the protagonist. I’m so pleased that more authors are stepping forward to bring alternative characters to the page and to give diverse readers some genuinely inspiring stories. Such authors face an uphill climb getting the support of publishers, so it’s great to see recent progress on this front.

I can also report that the well-crafted young-adult novel Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson features the character Claudia, who has academic challenges that will feel familiar to many dyslexics.

However, there are very few teen and preteen stories about dyslexics. As librarian Karen Jackson wrote for School Library Journal, “I went looking for…fiction that featured teens with dyslexia, and to be honest, I didn’t find a lot.”

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure (available on Amazon).

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