Friday, February 09, 2007

Fun with learning disabilities

I'm currently reviewing the line-edits for my book that will be out this fall. It's slow going because proofreading is difficult for me. I have ADD, so it can be difficult to focus, and I'm dyslexic, which means letters and words get tangled in my mind. I can read a phrase like, "wrods get tangled my mind" two or three times and not see anything wrong with it.

If you're dyslexic, or if you have a dyslexic kid or spouse, you've probably noticed that there are certain things we get wrong when we're tired or stressed, and then there are certain things we always get wrong. Even on a good day when I'm perfectly relaxed, I can't see any difference between words like quilt and guilt. Typing requires tremendous concentration because I know that if I make a mistake, I will probably never see it. In my last manuscript, which I had gone over and over and over, my editors found two places where I had typed "quilt" instead of "guilt." (I fully understand why I have trouble reading those two words, but my fingers know the difference between Q and G on the keyboard, so why do I keep making that mistake when typing? I have no idea.)

I'm actually an excellent typist (or keyboardist, or whatever they're calling it these days). I rarely make a mistake, and that's good, because it's extremely difficult for me to spot a typo. ("Typo" is a word that seriously annoys me, because when I type it correctly, it looks wrong. "Type" is almost as bad.) I frequently type with my eyes closed (right now I'm looking over my computer and out my office window) so I won't be distracted by the words on my screen.

A group of my author friends is toying with the idea of writing a book about dyslexia. When they asked if I wanted to participate, I declined, because they seemed to assume that I shared their childhood experiences of deep shame and the struggle to keep their "differentness" a secret. I'll own to a certain amount of confusion and frustration in my younger years, but I guess I was too feisty to feel any shame about being different.

I have always dealt with my dyslexia and ADD by adamantly refusing to take responsibility for them. This is nothing I've done to myself; it's the way God made me. Anybody who has a problem with that should take it up with Him. I did often feel stupid as a kid, but in my early twenties I was the secretary of an executive who praised my work and gave me a great deal of responsibility (he gave up dictating important letters and reports and just had me write them). He was always saying things like, "This should be easy for you." It took a couple of years for me to figure out that he wasn't just being nice, I really was smart. That idea was reinforced one day when I was playing Trivial Pursuit with my sister and she pretended frustration when I correctly answered a science question. "Of course you know that one," she said, and then made some comment about knowing she could never beat me.

That amazed me, because I had always known my sister was smart. Could I be smart, too? My husband always said I was, but I thought that was just love talking.

Once I began thinking of myself as fairly intelligent, my world expanded dramatically. I quit my job and started college at the age of 25. I made A's in tough classes like Physics and Astronomy. My Russian teacher, when asked whether I had done well on a final, gave me an amused look and asked, "What are you worried about?" Yep, I was smart. After a year and a half, I quit school to start a family, but I never stopped reading challenging books and learning interesting new things. Somewhere around 1985, I discovered the internet--and my world expanded yet again.

It was at the end of 2000 that I decided to try writing a novel. I kept that a secret for several months, but when I finally told my husband, he had no doubt that I could write something publishable. My sister had a similar reaction: of course I could do it. But nobody else--not family, not friends; not even when I told them a New York publisher was actually interested in my manuscript--gave the slightest indication that they believed I was smart enough to write a publishable novel.

If you think you're dumb, you're probably not. Who but a smart person would spend time wondering about her intelligence? Before it's too late, start acting smart, and you'll begin to realize just how clever you really are. And by the way, please tell your kids that they're smart, too. They might not know it yet, and not knowing will keep them from accomplishing many of the wonderful things they're capable of.

Technorati Tags: , ,


Anonymous said... certainly were, uh, feisty.

Smart, too.

I always knew that...but I did not realize (until several years ago when you wrote the life story of a certain special person) how creative you are as well.

Those are two very different things.

And blessed are those who have been given a good measure of both!


Animom said...

Wow! I really love your story. You should use it in one of your novels. I identify somewhat. I found out late in life that I have ADD. I use to scoff at all these labels, but I don't now because it explains alot of things to me - past & present. THANKS for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

I really needed to hear the first part of the last paragraph today. Thank you :) Brittanie

Shelley said...

I used to feel smart/intelligent. I was going out with this guy (on again/off again for 5 years, plus being friends) and he used to always get mad at me for answering the Jeopardy questions/answers correctly more often than he could. He'd get angry and tell me to wait til the answer was read all the way through before giving my answer. Anyway, he would tell me I was smart and then most of the time treat me like I didn't have a clue about anything. That eventually left me feeling like I was dumb...even to this day (it's been about 7 years since he moved away) I still feel like I am somewhat dumb...feel as thought I'm not as smart as I used to be...

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I knw several people that are dyslexic and they all manifest in different ways, and have different levels of coping skills.

I'm glad that you have been so blessed, or I would be missing a very cool writer!

Shauna said...

What a wonderful story! My father-in-law has dyslexia and he's a pastor. He's made some very funny mistakes from the pulpit! LOL! Thanks for sharing your story. Blessings!

P.S. I just happen to have three brilliant boys and I tell them on a daily basis! I also tell them that they are the MOST CUTEST BOYS IN THE WORLD! I plan to have their self-esteem sooo boosted before they go to school! I want them to KNOW they are something special! :-)

Hope Chastain said...

When I was growing up, nobody had heard of the term dyslexia! Fortunately for me, my grandmother (a schoolteacher) finally gave in to my begging and taught me to read before I reached kindergarten, or only the Lord knows what would have happened! Since nobody knew, not even me, the principal of the school called my mother in and told her that I was "exceptionally brilliant." I still remember some of the things I got wrong on my kindergarten tests. They were those items that look similar but are just slightly different, and you're supposed to match the two that are exactly alike. I chose the one that was the mirror image of the other one! Mom could never figure out why, since I was so smart, why I couldn't tell time, or would consistently turn in the wrong direction when she said left or right!

Years later, on a Latin test, I didn't look closely enough at the multiple choice for sacer and put scared instead of sacred. (Same amount of letters, and to a dyslexic in a hurry, they look exactly the same!)

The consensus nowadays is that only brilliant people have dyslexia. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have had it (witness his mirror writing). Stephen J. Cannell has it. So, we're in good company! ;-)

Hope Chastain said...

(Now I can't figure out why, if I'm so smart, I put why in the same sentence twice! *blush*)

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone.

The first time I saw the slogan, "Dyslexics of the world, untie!" on a T-shirt, I didn't get the joke. Seriously.

Shauna said...

I saw a shirt once that read "Dyslexics have more fnu". About peed my pants!

Marianne McA said...

Are you a dyslexic reader as well, Brenda? And, if so, at what age did you start to read fluently? My eleven year old is still not there, but my dad and brother, who are also dyslexic, both reckoned they started reading independently round 12 years old.
My oldest is a dyslexic speller - highest reading age in her year, highest marks in English in her year in her key stage threes (exams at 14), but can't spell for toffee. Especially under stress. She told me that she thinks of a word like 'feel' and has no clue how to spell it. She can work out logically that it's probably 'feel' or 'feal' or 'fiel' but her brain just goes blank, and she can't tell which is right. [In the end she wrote 'fell']

I read somewhere that Agatha Christie was a dyslexic too, so you're in best-selling company.

Brenda Coulter said...

I don't recall ever enjoying a book until I was 12 and began devouring Nancy Drew mysteries. That must mean I was struggling to read until that time.

I clearly recall the day I realized I wasn't seeing words the way other people do. I was 10 or 11, and had asked my mother to explain a sentence to me. When she pointed out that I was reading the word "bar" as "bra," I looked straight at the word and still couldn't see it. And I wondered why the sentence didn't make any sense!

When I was 12, I was taken out of my regular English class and sent to a speech class. I had a normal vocabulary and didn't lisp or have any other speech impediment, so I didn't understand why I had been singled out. I realize now that it was my stuttering when reading aloud that made the teachers think I had a speech problem. (No teacher ever identified or tried to help with my reading problem. It wasn't until I had kids of my own that I learned I had dyslexia.)

Isn't the brain a weird and wonderful thing?

Marianne McA said...

Thanks, Brenda. I'll cross my fingers and hope for twelve.

[My daughter's been lucky, she's had wonderful support from her school. When she was little - six or so - she was in a reading group by herself, and the teacher had her convinced this was a Great Thing.]

Carla Gade said...


I appreciate your openness about your learning disabilities. I am a woman with ADHD and also a writer. This is very frustrating for me because I think so globally - it's such a challenge to organize my thoughts and rope them all in to my story format. However, it gives me the advantage of having the big picture and the ability to focus on many details at once, I don't have to discover them all as I am going along. But the plethora of my thoughts can be overwhelming. I feel like I'm always taking the long way around as I try to organize my thoughts.

One of the great misunderstandings about ADHD, as you know I'm sure, is the attention part of it. I feel like I am looking at every chapter all at the same time (even stories), the same way I can have my attention fully on many things at once. In some ways this is frustrating, but I think it is also a gift. Although, I have the classic "inability to sustain attention", meaning that I can shift from one thing to another at a whim, I also have a major "hyper-focus" trait (which explains why kids with ADHD can play their video games for so long). I also consider this a gift in my writing.

In school I experienced many challenges mostly in the process of getting my work done, I would loose steam and confidence while I tried complete my project. Ah, but the power of perseverence,ADHDers do not give up easily,allowed me to finish with flying colors. I still never felt smart because I struggled so while I was trying to get it done. I have since realized, what I wish I knew then, that I was smart and that everyone is unique in their ability to convey what they know. I think that is why I like to write. Though the process remains frustrating for me, I enjoy it and thrive on it and hopefully one of my many "books" will get published some day!

I appreciate your encouragement!

Julie Dearyan said...

Hi Brenda,
So interesting to read about the Dyslexia stuff. My daughter was today diagnoised with Dyslexia and I think I have it moderately as well. Did you know there are programs that actually retrain the Dyslexic brain? That is a program we have here at the ministry I work at and it is incredible. You can find out more at . I am working on getting funding and scholarships for this incredible program and I'd love to be connected to your writing friends who are thinking about writing a book on Dyslexia.

Brenda Coulter said...

I have the classic "inability to sustain attention", meaning that I can shift from one thing to another at a whim, I also have a major "hyper-focus" trait....

Me too, Carla. Big time. But I've learned that accepting rather than struggling against that "differentness" actually makes me a better and happier writer. Sounds like you've learned that lesson, too.

Julie, I'm glad your daughter was diagnosed young. That'll save her a lot of frustration as she grows up. Yes, I'm aware that there are all sorts of programs for dyslexics, and I wish you every success in working with your daughter. As for my author friends, their book is in the proposal stage, so I really don't want to say anything more about it now.

tristan coulter said...

You know, changing the font is a great way to make it easier to catch errors. You spend pretty much all day long staring at the same font, so when you change it to something noticeably different, errors will pop off the page. I do that when I'm reviewing resumes for clients. It makes a world of difference.

Brenda Coulter said...

Yeah, I do that. It helps a lot.

john said...

Thanks for sharing that. It's amazing how you live your life as a dyslexic and a writer