John Irving: Great Canadian Dyslexic

John Irving


John Irving

Photo by © Elke Wetzig/CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0,


US-Canadian novelist; titles include The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules (1985) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). He won an Oscar for Best Screenplay “Based on Material Previously Published,” for The Cider House Rules at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 26, 2000.


John Irving attended Philips Exeter Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he was labeled as “stupid” and “lazy.”

“I simply accepted the conventional wisdom of the day—I was a struggling student; therefore, I was stupid.” ~John Irving

He struggled in school, never knowing why and never getting help:

“I wasn’t diagnosed as dyslexic at Exeter; I was seen as just plain stupid. I failed a spelling test and was put in a remedial spelling class…I wish I’d known, when I was a student at Exeter, that there was a word for what made being a student so hard for me; I wish I could have said to my friends that I was dyslexic. Instead I kept quiet, or—to my closest friends—I mad bad jokes about how stupid I was.” (Source)

“I wish I’d known, when I was a student at Exeter, that there was a word for what made being a student so hard for me.”~ John Irving

He decided to study at the University of Pittsburgh because of its wrestling team, but left after one year to live in Vienna, Austria. He returned to the US to study at the University of New Hampshire, graduating in 1965. He earned a master of fine arts degree from the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, where his instructors included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He started his writing career at the age of 26. (source)

Life with dyslexia

He got his diagnosis later in life:

“At the time, they didn’t have the language for it that we have, perhaps in overabundance, today — dyslexia, learning disabilities, whatever they are. I had something of that nature and never knew I had it until one of my children was diagnosed as being slightly dyslexic. And when they showed me the results of how they determined that he had a learning disability, I realized that they were describing exactly what I had always done.”

How it helped him become a writer:

“I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do, and the reshaping of something, the restructuring of a story, the building of the architecture of a novel, the craft of it is something I never tire of. And maybe that comes from what homework always was to me, which was redoing, redoing, redoing, because I always made mistakes, and I always assumed I would. And that meant that my grades weren’t very good, and that meant that school was hard for me, but when I got out of school and my focus could go to the one thing I wanted to do — the novel, the screenplay of the moment — I knew how to work, you know. I knew how to concentrate because I had to.”

“I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special as that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” (source)

Dyslexia hacks

Know your weaknesses, and work with them (not against them!). Give yourself enough time to read, write and revise.

  • “If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words, and I kept the list with me; I had it handy even for unannounced quizzes. Most of all, I rewrote everything. First drafts were like the first time you tried a new takedown—you needed to drill it over and over again before you even dreamed of trying it in a match. I began to take my lack of talent seriously.” (Source)

Get into the habit of working twice as hard.

  • “To do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself,” Irving observes. “In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.” (Source)

Why this person is “great”

Irving is incredibly humble about his talents as a writer, focusing instead on the importance of hard work and perseverance as important dyslexic traits that can be harnessed to help you succeed in life.

He has been open and positive about his dyslexia, and has become a role model to others. The narrator of his novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is dyslexic.

His words of advice to a teen with dyslexia are featured in the book Looking for heroes–One boy, one year, 100 letters.

Great moment

On December 13, 2019, Irving became a Canadian citizen (after living here for many years). When he attended the Canadian citizenship ceremony in Toronto, he proudly waved his Canadian flag. His wife Janet Turnbull is Canadian, and he says “ending up here is a love story”, not a political one.

Welcome to Canada Mr. Irving!





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