Sunday, January 15, 2012
Greetings to you all,
I apologize for the long gaps in my entries for this blog. However, I plan at least a brief flurry of activity in the next few weeks. There seems to be a significant shift in attention toward the talents of dyslexics -- the topic that has long interested me and many of you. So, as they say, "stay tuned." You may find the short piece below of some interest as well.
I was invited to prepare this "Foreword" for Forgotten Letters, an anthology of poems and prose by dyslexic writers. Edited by Naomi Folb, Aarhus, Denmark, the book was published by RASP, 11 Thameswalk, Hester Road, London SW11 3BG, England, in October 2011.
Included in the anthology is a prose excerpt from the second edition of In the Mind's Eye, “Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts,” and poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Philip Schultz. His book, My Dyslexia, W.W. Norton and Company, 120 pages, was also published in 2011. (Forgotten Letters is available from Amazon Books UK and http://www.indiegogo.com/Forgotten-Letters.)
All best wishes for the new year,
There are many puzzles and paradoxes linked to dyslexia. One of the most strange of these is that some of the best writers are dyslexic.
How can this be so? How can those who struggle so with words become such masters of words? Well, good writing is not spelling, reading aloud and rapid recall of memorized texts.
Good writing often requires an ear for the sound of language. Good writing often requires a strong visual imagination with powerful images and metaphors communicated through the words. Often the best writing is very plain, using well the most simple language. Also, good writing requires fresh language -- not the usual string of conventional terms and syntax. Good writing is thoughtful and sometimes surprising in its content and form.
Oddly, the difficulties experienced by dyslexics sometimes can lead directly to becoming advantages in the best writing.
Dyslexics are a heterogeneous group. They are unlike non-dyslexics. They are unlike each other. But there are many common elements.
They often, almost by definition, learn to read late and very slowly (often after a long and difficult struggle). This way they never lose the sound of language in their head – as happens with rapid and efficient readers.
They often have powerful visual imaginations -- seeing pictures in their minds as they read or speak. Some of the best storytellers say they never remember the words of a story. Rather, they have a movie running in their head and they simply talk about what they see. You don’t have to be dyslexic to do this. But dyslexics seem to do this naturally -- whether they want to or not. But as one can readily see, if you do not or cannot remember texts as texts -- but only see images -- then the words are likely to be different each time. Sometimes fresh. Sometimes shockingly apt.
In recent years, some researchers are discovering that the particular formation and wiring of dyslexic brains may lend itself to retaining information mainly in story form. These same wiring patterns may also create a tendency to make connections between distant and apparently unrelated things. These long-line connections in the brain can produce fresh and unexpected metaphors and similes (as well as entrepreneurial insights and scientific discoveries).
Often I have heard the phrase, “they see things that others don’t see or cannot see.” I have heard the phrase a thousand times, in a thousand different settings. It is not only having strong powers of observation. There is something going on in these larger than usual, slow moving, apparently overly connected brains that yields perceptions and insights often denied to non-dyslexics -- who may see the unexpected connection when shown. But they would never see it on their own.
Some say dyslexics are prone to ponder. Non-dyslexics may have a look, see what they have been taught to see, say the expected words and quickly move on -- scoring high on conventional tests. (This drives artists crazy. So many of the clever students learn the words to say about a painting and then they think they understand it. But they never learn to really see it.)
Dyslexics often have trouble learning to do anything automatically -- which can be a problem. It can be very slow. Whether training the movements of their body (in an Olympic sport) or observing nature (in a literary or scientific puzzle), they have to think and think hard. Big brains with many connections move slowly -- but they can do jobs fast brains cannot do.
They see the big picture. Those who ponder hold on to an idea or problem or puzzle for a long time, turning it over and over. In literature, sometimes they come up with a fresh and deep insight. (In science or technology, sometimes they come up with a remarkable and unexpected discovery.)
It is a commonplace that the best artist or writer is an outsider, observing human events at the edge. Again, many non-dyslexics can take on this role. But many dyslexics, because of their deep humiliations from the earliest days, naturally assume the role of distant observer. The truth-talking commentator who is not caught up in the race. They have felt the otherness from the start.
In my own research on talents among highly successful dyslexics, my literary friends were shocked and disbelieving when I told them that the most severely dyslexic person I came across was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It teaches us. Even in times unfriendly to formal poetry, his lines show up in songs and commentaries and book titles. He said that he often started with a rhythm, a pulse, and the sense then followed. He never lost the sound of the language.
And everywhere you look there are vivid metaphors and images. About his early life, Yeats said: “I was unfitted for school work. . . . My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind.” A few years before his death, he observed: “It was a curious experience . . . to have an infirm body and an intellect more alive than it had ever been, one poem leading to another as if . . . lighting one cigarette from another.”
I am honored to introduce this volume of the work of dyslexic writers -- sometimes harsh and angry, sometimes beautiful as a song, sometimes so short and powerful that you feel you have been punched with a boxer blow. But always fresh, truth telling, full of vivid and unexpected sounds and images.
Thomas G. West
Contacts, websites: E-mails, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. See also “Dyslexia: The Unwrapped Gift” (parts 1 and 2) on YouTube and “Thinking Like Einstein,” in the author series on the website “AT and T Tech Channel.”