Notes from a dyslexic writer: How to let go of your fear of writing and become a tortured artist

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Many people seem surprised when I tell them I’m a writer. Yes, I actually make a pretty decent living as a writer, and have done so for the past twenty years. Before that, I did a lot of writing as a university student and before that as an angst ridden teen with a diary.

John Irving, Dav Pilkey, Linda La Plante, Jackie French — all writers with dyslexia. Writing is something many dyslexics excel at.

Does writing come easy to me? No!

Does it take me 10 times longer than a non-dyslexic person to writing something coherently? Yes!

Does it sometimes feel like torture trying to get the words out of my head? You bet!

But I believe this actually makes me a better writer.

The truth is: I write because of my dyslexia, not despite it.

Why do I write? Four things:

1. Words have power, but they have no power over me
Because reading did not come easy to me, I have spent my life wrestling words down on a page. Akin to Van Gogh’s quote above — I am not afraid of words or putting them together to create ideas. I never think “I can’t” when I try to write something. I know from experience that I can. Even if it almost sucks the life out of me some days.

2. I need to communicate
Being an undiagnosed and unsupported dyslexic for most of my life meant that I didn’t have a voice for a long time. Slow processing speed makes it harder for me to communicated verbally. You know those people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time? That’s me. But writing is something I can take my time with; and gives me control over how I communicate the thoughts in my head. Writing gives me a voice. It’s allowed me to tell my own story and stories I care about.

3. I want you to understand
I write communications products, such as websites, articles, reports. I get to communicate with Canadians on many things, important things, like new laws and programs that will affect their lives. It’s important to communicate complicated information clearly so that everyone reading it will understand — not just the lucky few. As a dyslexic writer, I’ve learned how to take complex information apart and put it back together. So I can understand it. So you can too. I guess it’s a calling of sorts.

4. It’s how my brain works
Writers and dyslexics have something in common: imagination and tenacity. I am crazy creative in my head. And I need to get it out. Writing is my outlet. I also work harder (and take longer) than most to get anything done — I know what it takes to get something done…revise, rewrite, repeat. Says John Irving of his dyslexia and writing: “It’s become an advantage. In writing a novel, it doesn’t hurt anybody to have to go slowly. It doesn’t hurt anyone as a writer to have to go over something again and again.”

Of course, I don’t do it alone. My best friend is the Canadian Oxford dictionary, a style guide, online spell check and Grammarly. I rely on professional editors and proofreaders to fix up my mistakes, make my work shine.

If writing scares you (dyslexic or not), my advice is to treat a blank page like Vincent van Gogh treated a blank canvas — with irreverence:

“Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.”

 

Stop thinking of words as your master. They are your tool.

Let’s get started: Write a few lines, then a few paragraphs. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling at this stage. That comes later. Once you’ve got a first draft, reread and revise. Get a trusted friend to proofread it. Read and revise again. And again.

Congratulations! You are now a tortured artist. Welcome to the club.

Check my writing tips and resources for dyslexic writers, or anyone who needs help getting words on paper. C’mon. You can do it!

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You can buy this poster by zen pencils.
Read Vincent van Gogh on Fear, Taking Risks, and How Making Inspired Mistakes Moves Us Forward @brainpicker.

5 things a 12-year-old wants you to know about dyslexia

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My 12-year-old daughter has a pretty kick-ass attitude about dyslexia. It’s more of a footnote¹ to her life, rather than something that defines or limits her.

Her success is a testament to her hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity–not caused by her learning differences, but by the lack of understanding and support she experienced early on at school. In particular, how the “wait and see” approach (also known as the “failure model“) made school harder than it needed to be for her in the long run.

Given her experience with the education system, what would she like you to know?


5 things a 12-year-old wants you to know about dyslexia:

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Ask an expert: Q&A with Nancy Young (part 2 of 2)

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In our new series, “Ask an expert,” we talk to the professionals who devote their lives to making the world a better place for children and adults with dyslexia: the educators, tutors, occupational therapists, psychologists, academics, writers, scientists and more, who inform, educate and advocate.

Our first expert is Nancy Young, a Canadian author and educator who specializes in reading, writing and spelling.

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Break the code with reading expert Nancy Young (Part 1)

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“…the alphabetic code is a secret to many people (including many educators), and … not knowing this code prevents many children from learning to read and spell proficiently.” ~Nancy Young, educator and author

I have spent most of my life wondering how to break the code.

I learned to read and spell by memorizing words and just plain old guessing. It was hit and miss, try and try again. Today I’m a good reader, and I work with words for a living, but I still don’t come by it naturally.

Two years ago, my daughter started a structured literacy reading program (Orton Gillingham-based). I heard words like “phenomes” and “sounds and symbols.” I saw her learn how to decode words in a systematic way — not by guessing.

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