I was recently a guest on the Dave Pickering‘s podcast, Getting Better Acquainted. Have a listen as Dave and I discuss many things including story telling, dyslexia, tough times at school, depression and writing.
Two brothers fall into murky water
two young boys sink to deep soft silt.
A hand delves deep and saves young Harry.
God bless Harry Sisley.
But a brother’s love is a force too strong
and instinct sends young Harry back
down through the foul brown murky water
low towards the deep soft silt.
God bless Harry Sisley.
Salvation strikes just once this day,
no hand no rope no rescue comes.
Two young souls sink to deep soft silt.
God bless Harry Sisley.
None remains of the brothers’ form,
no skin no shell no human husk,
just a plaque upon a wall in Postman’s Park.
God bless Harry Sisley.
Dyslexia is a gift, or so I keep hearing. It’s to be unlocked and embraced. I can’t really argue with that. Although I think addressed would be a more appropriate term. You see I’m someone who has been diagnosed as mildly dyslexic as both child and adult. And I find the whole gift thing a bit hard to swallow.
I’ve always felt embarrassed to say I’m dyslexic. Not incase people think I’m thick but because I feel like I’m making an excuse. As if I’m not dyslexic enough because I don’t really fit into the most obvious category. I’m a voracious reader and have been since my teens. It’s tiring and I can sometimes I drift off, read page after page without taking in a word but that often depends on the writing. If I’m reading black text on pure white the noise can be a bit overwhelming and sometimes it looks like a 3D image. But it’s never really been too much of a problem. It’s everything else that’s the real nightmare.
I was about eight years old when I was first diagnosed. I was falling far behind at school, suffering from frequent and debilitating migraines and depression. A child psychologist came to the school to see me and diagnosed me as mildly dyslexic. A term I still don’t completely understand. He sent letters to my parents who sent them to the school head, Mr Hall, who denied receiving them. So they sent them again. He denied all knowledge once more. Around this time my parents split up. I moved into a new house with my Mum and little brother. Mum and Dad had a lot going on with five kids and a divorce, so I guess my problems just got a little lost in the move. I stayed at the same school where I continued to receive no support. I told my form teacher, an old battle-axe called Mrs Orm who was on the verge of retirement. “You’re not dyslexic,” she said, “you’re stupid.” It was the mid 80’s and these teachers were old. I didn’t tell my parents about that, I wasn’t the sort of kid to go home and talk about what was going on at school, whether it was good or bad. I just shrugged my shoulders and bottled it all up. I never brought dyslexia up with another teacher again.
When I got to secondary school I could read okay but quite slowly. I struggled to keep up in English and standing up to read in class was humiliating. Although my biggest problems were writing and spelling. I’m left-handed as well so the way I’d learned to write with my wrist arched round above the page would become quite painful after a short while. Field trips were the worst, I dreaded them. The clipboards we had to write on were impossible for me to use. If someone had shown me what a difference turning the page and writing upwards makes it would have helped a lot. That’s what I do now by the way.
My handwriting was, and often still is a source of embarrassment. My hand just doesn’t seem to do what my brain is trying to tell it to do sometimes. There’s no rhythm or fluidity, it’ll change direction mid-word, then I’ll begin to get frustrated, especially under pressure and start randomly placing capital letters in the middle of a word or writing things backwards. It caused me to avoid any job, study or activity that involved writing for years. That doesn’t happen so much now. I look at my notes from a recent writing trip to Morocco and they look like a scratchy, barely eligible mess. Some letters are really big where as others are tiny and they often point in different directions. Like I’ve invented some sort of bizarre shorthand only I can barely understand.
I once wrote an essay on Gandhi in school. I don’t remember what I wrote, It probably wasn’t very good. But I’ll never forget just how much getting the words down hurt. Mr Pace, the history teacher, said it was “a load of shit” when he had me alone in his office. I’m sure he had a point, expressing it constructively and with a touch of empathy might have helped.
I wrote another essay for English on Romeo & Juliette. The teacher, Miss Vivian, returned it graded E. It was only after Mum had contacted the school to ask why it scored so low despite having a private English teacher help me with it that she reluctantly re-graded it (actually read it that is) with a C. That was the best grade I ever got for piece of written work at that school. It was pretty clear my teachers didn’t expect great things from me.
Giving up was easy. I’d pick and choose the lessons to go to and probably only attended around 50% of my last 6 months. My absence was rarely reported. I couldn’t concentrate in class and had little clue of what was going on half the time so I’d only get myself into trouble when I did turn up. I sat my exams and failed every one. The grade that really stung was the D I got for expressive arts. It still bothers me that the A’s and B’s I got for my drama performances were wasted because I didn’t do the accompanying written work the curriculum required.
I started to write in my late twenties, while backpacking in Asia. I’d spend nights alone lying on a bed in some creaky hut or cheap hotel room, awkwardly scribbling in a journal. I was overwhelmed by my experiences on the road and felt a desire to record everything. I’d write till my wrist hurt like hell, then break before writing again until sleep took over. It led me to go more out-of-the-way, pick the trickier routes and venture off the beaten track on my own. I had some wild, wonderful and scary adventures. I also gained some self-esteem and learned to really believe in myself. I’d write long descriptive emails home and always get the same responses, thanking me for the vivid descriptions and encouraging me to write more.
The more I wrote the more I got out of it. Using a computer I could get more done and not be in pain. I could use a spell check to sort out my mistakes. It’s hard not notice your errors when there’s squiggly red lines all over your work. I learned more on my own at a computer than I did in years of being shouted at by teachers.
I took some writing classes and started a blog. I only did it for writing practice and motivation. Short 500 word max travel stories. The 3rd story I wrote won a competition in the Daily Telegraph. When I got the phone call telling me I’d won and asking where I wanted my prize money sent to I thought I was being duped by an elaborate identity theft scam. The idea of my writing being good enough to publish, let alone be worth some cash seemed more far-fetched to me than that of someone hacking my emails, then ringing me up to try to steal my information. Then I wrote one that won a national blogging competition for a major holiday company. I got sent to Thailand, Morocco and the Caribbean to write for their blog. 5 star VIP treatment, all expenses paid. These days I’m getting work commissioned, and I’m published regularly. It’s completely mental. Now all I want to be is a writer. The irony is quite staggering.
And then there’s dyslexia. I once wrote a piece for a writing workshop about my time at school. One or two of the older students seemed to take offence to it. “How dare you come here and suggest you’ve got learning difficulties,” was the attitude. “You’ll have to do better than that, you have to explain exactly what’s wrong with you and what makes you different.” I can’t even answer that question. If I could invite them into my head for a day or two I’d be happy to let them see for themselves. I was shocked and frustrated. Why should I have to justify myself to someone else’s ignorance? It was just the same old attitudes I had to deal with at school.
I cringe every time I see a spelling mistake or grammatical error in my work. Maybe I beat myself up too much over it. It’s usually just a misplaced apostrophe, the sort of thing that slips under the spell check radar. Then I see people I thought were intelligent posting smug memes on social media, grammar nazi bullshit like – “Grammar, the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” Really? That sort of thing may help someone who went to university and writes crisp packet copy for a living feel good about themselves, but for a dyslexic person with something to say, then they’re just going to feel like shit. So fuck off.
About 18 months ago I stumbled upon a few articles about dyslexic writers. Before long I’d discovered a whole world of them. I even met with a PhD student who was writing a thesis on dyslexic writing as a movement. The realisation of not being alone was extremely emotional. It suddenly felt like I didn’t have to feel angry and embarrassed anymore.
I learned that people with dyslexia have visual minds. We think in pictures not words. It made me think of the way I’d tricked my brain into remembering certain things I was struggling with in school. Like the Which? magazine logo on a classmate’s pen. Once I’d logged that image I never misspelt that word again. I still see the bright bubbly font of the logo in my mind’s eye every time it crops up. The big D of the Debenhams department store sign in town was how I remembered which way round that letter went.
When I start writing I find I’m describing images in my mind. As if putting them down on the page is like scattering Polaroids across a table. I then play around with them, arranging them in a way that looks right. It’s incredibly therapeutic. Like I’m de-fragging my brain. I used to get depressed a lot and often suffer with insomnia. Since I started writing seriously that stuff comes much less frequently.
Writing CV’s and job applications boggles my mind still. I can work at a CV for hours and achieve nothing but headaches and nausea. I’m lucky to have a friend who enjoys them. She writes me templates and all I have to do is fill in the gaps with the mashup of art college qualifications I scraped together in the many years after school, and my weird job history.
For years I’ve been working the seasons. Jobs I’ve found through word of mouth. Hard graft and no social life. Months on the road to pay for months on the road. I spent 8 years of my life without being in the same place for more than 3 months. But that can’t go on forever. Yet when I re-engage with society, live in a city and try to find a job, I find myself struggling again. In London, this career minded city, when I’m scouring the job pages or pestering agencies, I’ve a tendency to start feeling lost again, adrift in a mild vortex. Like I’m a tiny piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. But I’m in the wrong box and I don’t quite fit.
Writing isn’t enough to live on, the fact I get paid for any of it feels like a minor miracle. So I temp. It saves the horror of job applications and no assignment carries the weight of forever. I’ve been in six different jobs since the turn of the year. I seem to have become a receptionist. I don’t quite know how that happened. Must be my welcoming smile and pleasant phone manner. When they sit me front of house I get visitors coming in and saying, “Hello, I’m So-and-So here to see Such-and-Such.” If I don’t write So-and-So’s name immediately then I’ll forget it. Instantly. But by the time I’ve written it down I’ve forgotten who Such-and-Such was. God forbid So-and-So spells his name out to me because by the time I’ve written the 2nd letter he’s already onto the 5th and I’m screwed. It’s like they go in my ear then fall through some trapdoor in my head. Like when we did dictation at school and I was lost within seconds. Or the times table cassettes we listened to in middle school maths. I’d put it down to being stupid, but I know that I’m not. I’m just wired differently.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like if I’d not been like this. Or if I’d have got the help from school that I needed. Or if I’d tried a bit harder and not given up so easily. Would I be more successful and have more money? More job prospects? Maybe. But then I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had instead. All those adventures I write about. And the people I’ve loved and been inspired by along the way. In one way or another it all stemmed from that shaky start. And I guess if I didn’t have dyslexia then I wouldn’t be me. And I like being me.
As for the gift of dyslexia, well I don’t buy it. Everyone I know is gifted in one way or another. Some of us are just a bit harder to unwrap.
Whenever I look for inspiration, advice or a flicker of light to guide towards the motivation to write, I find no better place than in the words of writers. Here’s a list of my favorite quotes.
1. “The first draft of anything is shit.” – Earnest Hemingway
2. “It is perfectly okay to write garbage, as long as you edit brilliantly” – C.J. Cherryh
3. “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” – Thomas Jefferson
4. “You can fix a bad page, you can’t fix a blank one.” – Nora Roberts
5. “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” – Anton Chekhov
6. “There’s a rule to writing: if everything is funny, nothing is funny, if everything is sad, nothing is sad. You want that contrast.” – J.Michael Straczynski
7. “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” – Mark Twain
8. “Adjectives, like adverbs, are lazy words, slowpokes, tranquilizers. Watch out for them.” – Jack M. Bickham
9. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” – Steven King
10. “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” – Kurt Vonnegut
11. “Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks for you if courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly.” – Robert McKee
12. “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
13. “You have to love writing, but more importantly, you have to love learning to write better.” – Jim Averback
14. “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” – Earnest Hemingway
15. “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” William Faulkner
16. “Three Rules for Literary Success: 1. Read a lot. 2. Write a lot. 3. Read a lot more, write a lot more.” – Robert Silverberg
17. “My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.” – Anaïs Nin
18. “Tears are words that need to be written.” – Paulo Coelho
19. “I find inspiration in many places. Sometimes music gives me the kernel of a story. Sometimes it’s dissatisfaction with the plot of a movie or book.” – Christopher Paolini
20. “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth
21. “All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” Henry Ward Beecher
22. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut
23. “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” – William Makepeace Thackeray
24. “When we are writing, or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions, and are open to a wider world, where colors are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.” – Madeleine L’Engle
25. “We write to embrace life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anaïs Nin
26. “Read to escape reality, write to embrace it.” – Stephanie Connolly
27. “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin
28. “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach
29. “The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self confidence, when the good ones tend to have self doubt.” – Charles Bukowski
30. “That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not is what’s known as The Artist’s Reward.” – Ernest Hemingway
31. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” – Henry David Thoreau
32. “The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.” – Sylvia Plath
33. “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” – Franz Kafka
34. “The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried wile you where saying it.” – Steven King
35. “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand.” – Chinese Proverb
36. “I’m writing an unauthorized autobiography.” – Steven Wright
37.”Keep writing, speak truth and never mind the bollocks.” – Cullen Thomas
38. “Spontaneous is what you get after the 17th draft.” – John Ciardi
“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” – Lawrence Kasdan
39. “My attitude to writing is like when you do wallpapering, you remember where all the little bits are that don’t meet. And then your friends say: it’s terrific!” – Harrison Birtwhistle
40. “He asked, ‘What makes a man a writer?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge’.” – Charles Bukowski
41. “Writing is the mine shaft to the soul.” – Peter Baird
42. “Dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you.” – Marsha Norman
43. “Writing is the only profession where nobody considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” – Thomas Mann
44. “Getting the words right.” – Earnest Hemingway (when asked what stumped him when re-writing the final page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times)