I have written an article on the rewards and challenges of writing with dyslexia for the wonderful ‘Writing Magazine’ February 2022 edition.
Writing with dyslexia is as rewarding as it is challenging, says Alice Dunn.
When you picture students doing exams (pre-pandemic), you might imagine an enormous school hall full of pupils sitting at separate desks spaced evenly apart.
My experience was different. I remember doing my GCSEs and A Levels in a small side-room along with a few other students in my year. We had extra time for exams because of various learning difficulties. As my dyslexia (and dyspraxia) impacts the way I get words onto the page, I was offered a scribe, but I couldn’t bear the thought of dictating my answers for someone to write down, however kind or patient they were. So I used a laptop instead. Without the extra time and use of a typewriting device, I know I would probably not have managed to finish a single paper.
As a writer and journalist, I’ve thought more and more about what it means to be dyslexic. For a start, I’d be embarrassed if anyone saw the convoluted route each sentence takes before I finally leave it alone. Here, a line by Thomas Mann rushes forth: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Reassuring as those words are, a quick glance at my handwritten prose hammers home the colourful process that writing with dyslexia can be. Pages are either covered in carets (those little inverted ‘v’ shapes you put between two words to show another word needs to be squeezed in) or numerous asterisks signalling chunks of text waiting at the bottom of the page and needing to be read in that moment for cohesion. It is a picture of chaos: impossible to decipher, and quite a mission to bring about. Writing by hand for rough notes is alright (although my handwriting itself resembles that of a high-achieving 12-year-old) but, still now, some ideas never come to fruition because my hand cannot keep up with my brain. This was a particular hinderance in the classroom, although despite those challenges, I was determined to study English Literature for my undergraduate degree at university.
Books, reading, writing… you can’t help what you love. I knew I wanted to be a writer so I wasn’t going to let something like dyslexia stand in my way.
And I haven’t. Instead, on a good writing day, I try to think positively about the way my dyslexia manifests itself. I admire the way it helps me to see things differently. In my own work, I’ll identify a pleasing word pattern that I can play-up to make my writing more interesting. Other times, I can spot a bit of funny grammar that’s completely unconventional, and therefore unique. It’s not a case of awkward phrasing, but of me being a master of unusual syntax. Or so I tell myself.
It’s not always easy. By that, I mean it’s frequently incredibly mind-wrenchingly infuriating! My patience wears thin when I begin to write a word with the second letter, not the first. Or sometimes, when I attempt to pull together a simple sentence, I’ll suddenly feel like I’m grappling with a second language. Basic logic will play hide and seek and I can’t remember the rules.
When I’m reminded of what a slow reader I am, I’ll persuade myself that it is a mixed blessing. How anyone can get through a book in one day is beyond me. They must be missing so much colour and texture, surely? Cautious care goes into my reading. I feel the weight of every word, and pause to examine it as though it were a rare jewel, before allowing it to travel up through my eyes and into my head.
If reading quietly to myself is a loving and gentle process, then reading out loud is the polar opposite. Words pop out at random. Reading aloud is as much an exercise in creative writing as is voicing what is on the page. Who knows what will come out of my mouth? Something from three paragraphs away? An antonym of the word I am looking at? It feels like a lucky dip, vocabulary edition. If I manage to read even half a paragraph out loud without faltering then I know I’ll soon stumble. At university I once pretended to have forgotten my glasses to explain why I was struggling to read out a stanza of poetry from the book in front of me.
I know I am not alone. The British Dyslexia Association estimates that ten per cent of the population are dyslexic. Recognising dyslexia can be difficult, however. ‘Dyslexia is often identified in primary school, however some people’s coping strategies are so good that the dyslexic difficulties don’t become apparent until much later,’ the British Dyslexia Association states. At primary school, common signs to look out for include difficulty in holding pencils and pens, and trouble following instructions. For me, the writing was on the wall, and all over my exercise book, in the margins or favouring one side or corner of the page, as well as in my trouble forming letters and shapes.
Agatha Christie is famously said to have had dyslexia. She shared her stressful experience of writing in her autobiography. Reading was fine, she said, but ‘Writing and spelling were always very difficult for me.’ She adds: ‘My father said that, as I could read, I had better learn to write. This was not nearly so pleasant. Shaky copybooks full of pothooks and hangers still turn up in old drawers, or lines of shaky B’s and R’s, which I seem to have had great difficulty in distinguishing since I learned to read by the look of words and not their letters.’ Sounds comfortingly familiar.
It is thought that F. Scott Fitzgerald was also dyslexic. In his introduction to the book ‘The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’, editor Andrew Turnbull observes: ‘Fitzgerald was a lamentable speller. Following his ear, he habitually made such slips as “definate” and “critisism,” and proper names were his downfall. He always reversed the “ei” in “Dreiser,” “Stein,” and “Hergesheimer,” and, despite the hundreds of times he had seen “Hemingway” in print, he wrote it either “Hemmingway” or “Hemminway” and was capable of “Earnest” for “Ernest.”’
Fortunately for people with dyslexia today there is help available. When the Equality Act 2010 was passed, The Dyslexia Association summarised its impact for dyslexics: ‘Under the terms of this legislation, employers are under a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for persons suffering from disability. Dyslexia is recognised as a disability within the meaning of the legislation because individuals with the condition are considered to be at a substantial disadvantage within the workplace when compared to those who do not suffer from the condition.’ They suggest some reasonable adjustments for employers to implement which include: adjusting deadlines to allow more time for completion or issuing documents earlier; providing text-to-speech software; giving verbal rather than written instructions.
But what about us writers? I’d hate for any of my work to be read or treated differently just because I have learning difficulties. That said, notes in the margin consistent with my particular weaknesses can enforce my persistent insecurity about daring to make writing and handling words my occupation. Are my struggles leaving an indelible mark on the page? Can anyone see how far my mind has leapfrogged during paragraph before having to reel its way back?
My writing-based worries are countered by some practical steps collected over the years, for both dyslexia and dyspraxia (I can’t detect a divide between the two, though I’m sure others with both can). These include: writing on yellow or buff-toned paper; keeping a voice-recorder close by; enlarging font sizes when reading online; using a week-to-view diary to help plan projects and deadlines; mind mapping; gathering coloured pens and pencils to help highlight key points in reading and writing. Most of all, try to be kind to yourself. A helpful reminder for all writers. Something that I had on repeat in my mind while writing my first novel during our first lockdown.