• February 2012

Is An Author With Dyslexia a Paradox?

By Dr. Jane Snider Founding Executive Director and
Dr. Joan A. Mele-McCarthy, Head of School
The Summit School

If you are reading this magazine, we’ll assume you enjoy accessing the written word. We’ll also assume that reading informs you and is pleasurable to you. It probably even makes you laugh sometimes.

But what if accessing the printed words was not easy? What if you confused words, read very slowly, or had difficulty putting your thoughts on paper? What if you didn’t spell well, and it frustrated you so much that you just gave up reading altogether?

This is the case for thousands of people who are diagnosed with dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that refers to a cluster of symptoms that result in difficulty reading.

Individuals with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life, according to the International Dyslexia Association..

The hallmark of dyslexia is not reading words backwards, but rather having difficulty understanding that words are made of sounds, sequenced in a specific way. It is this core difficulty that affects people’s ability to sound out words and to spell.

What many people do not know is that many of our most well-known and beloved authors struggled with reading and writing and spelling. Doesn’t that seem like a paradox? How can an author be “dys-fluent” as a reader or writer? Quite easily, it turns out.

Let us share some compelling examples with you.

Consider this descriptive phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby:” “The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”

It’s clear that he provides the reader with a clear image of the scene—its gloom, its meaning. Yet, Fitzgerald, with all his success, struggled in school, felt like a dummy, and never completed his studies at Princeton. His first challenges were seen as young as 12 years old. Yet, as he developed a love for the written word, he is quoted as saying, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

So often avant-garde people create their own paths when the traditional ones do not work. Indeed, wonderful lessons for us all.

Another case in point is the well-known screenwriter, novelist, and TV producer Stephen J. Cannell, who has struggled with dyslexia all through his life, from the time he first entered school, as he has openly proclaimed. Some of his best-known television scripts were for “The Rockford Files” and “The A-Team” series.

He states: “I wrote more than 450 episodes, but many I had to dictate to my assistant.” Ideas would flow, but remembering sequences and names was a burden. Cannell figured out that his abstract thinking and speaking were his strengths, along with his imagination, so he worked around the laborious task of spelling and writing. He realized his dyslexia was a gift, and strived to show his talents in different ways.

Award-winning science-fiction writer Octavia Butler (1947-2006), also suffered from dyslexia, but by the age of 10 she began writing short stories and read voraciously. Known as “the grande dame of science fiction,” it has been said that she wrote in order to grapple with her difficulty in understanding the world.

Children’s book author Patricia Polacco wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until age 14. Yet, she pursued a degree in Fine Arts and eventually earned a PhD in Art History because drawing and painting were always a part of her life. Her writing career did not begin until age 41. She recalled how she was raised hearing stories, not seeing them, and began to tell stories herself, and soon began writing and illustrating them.

So what motivates these talented individuals to pursue a career in writing when the very essence of writing, knowledge and facility with the alphabetic code, is difficult?

We believe that it is as celebrated sociologist Erving Goffman says: “You have to journey in the direction of your fears.”

Often, children who struggle in school feel isolated and talk about a voice inside them that can’t find its way out. Perhaps it is this sense of isolation and a desire to communicate that motivates some authors.

Consider mystery writer Agatha Christie, who struggled with spelling and writing. She said, “Writing is a great comfort to people like me, who are unsure of themselves and have trouble expressing themselves properly.”

Others tell us that it was someone special in their life who inspired and encouraged them.

Such is definitely the case for Rick Riordan, acclaimed author of the “Percy Jackson” series, which is enjoyed nationwide by middle-school students. If you aren’t familiar with these Greek mythology young adult hits, the series is about a demigod who is diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia—and because of it is successfully able to fight evil.

Riordan started telling bedtime stories about Percy Jackson to his son, Haley, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, to help him cope with his difficulties in school. Eventually, these bedtime stories became novels and the impetus that motivated Haley, age 17, to write his own, newly published short story, “The Demigod Diaries.”

People who are dyslexic and who are successful understand that while dyslexia may define them, it doesn’t confine them. They understand the concepts of “work smarter,” “think differently,” and “I can.”

While we may laud these talented writers for rising above the challenges of dyslexia, Sally Gardner, a children’s novelist, noted, “Why are we so keen on this circus trick of being able to read and write. There is nothing wrong with being dyslexic, except to the non-dyslexic.”


About the Authors

Dr. Joan A. Mele-McCarthy, Head of School (far right in adjacent photo), and Dr. Jane R. Snider, Founding Executive Director, at The Summit School, oversee a school program designed to meet the needs of bright students who have dyslexia and other learning differences. The school program employs hands on, sequential, and explicit methodology and strategies to teach reading, spelling, written language, and math.

All methods used by Summit’s highly credentialed faculty are scientifically proven to be effective for students who have learning differences. Services provided by The Summit School also include comprehensive evaluations and tutoring for students who struggle in school through the Summit Outreach Center. Professional development is also offered to schools locally, regionally, and nationally.

Additionally, The Summit School offers a month-long summer camp program for students in the community. This full-day program offers a rigorous academic program in the morning to help students maintain or boost academic skills in a fun, stress-free environment, as well as recreational activities in the afternoon. The Summit School prides itself on providing services along a continuum for students who struggle in school, the families who support them, and the professionals who serve them.

For more information, visit www.thesummitschool.org.

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