Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bored Of Edukation

By Jay Stringer

After yesterdays great post from the Weddle, I was tempted to change my plan. I thought maybe I should make you all jealous of how I spent my weekend, but I realised that lying in bed and shouting at the passing seagulls is not a very glamorous existence.

So, back to plan A.

Over on my own site I've been running a few pieces on living with dyslexia. Being such a big comic book geek, I like the occasional crossover, so I'm finishing the series here at DSD. In the first two entries I talked about some of the every-day problems that I can encounter, as well as a few early indicators to look out for in a child. Today I want to look more about the positive side.

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

At the end of my last piece I said that the only job I've found so far that suits the way my brain works is to be a writer. First I want to expand that a little bit; it's being a story teller. When I was a film student there were a great many things I sucked at. I couldn't direct my way out of a paper bag, my acting was appalling, and my time-keeping was non-existent. The one thing I did really well was editing. I could sit in that booth and piece together a story from raw footage quicker -and at the time I liked to think- better than anyone else. Moving all of those pieces of the story around on the screen, cutting, stretching, stealing. Remembering two lines of dialogue that we had in one piece of footage that would fix the problem with had with a scene five minutes further on, editing the ending so that I knew what the beginning had to be like. These were all things that just felt natural to my 3-d brain. A story has a shape, a structure and a feel, and it felt very organic to me.

Back to the writing. It might sound crazy. How can someone who struggles so much with words say that writing is his best fit?

Something that gets overlooked -and often destructively so- is the big difference between writing and spelling.

Spelling is just a hang up. It's a set of rules and guidelines about how we should contain our ideas on the page. If we include grammar in that, then it becomes even more restrictive. At the risk of offending a few people, it becomes even more anal retentive. These rules are constantly changing. Spelling is as relative as Einstein's time. It varies from country to country, generation to generation. The rules that people try to enforce these days bares little in common with the writings of Chaucer, but the spoken word still has a lot in common with the old fella.

So these things change, and yet people get beaten into trying to conform to one thing or another. You know the surest way to make sure a dyslexic child doesn't progress? Try and force him into those rules. Hell, I still can't say the alphabet, and I couldn't explain grammar to you if my life depended on it.

But writing is different, just as with my extended example of video editing. It's taking a block of text, or a blank page, and arranging patterns around until it looks right, until those patterns click together in a way that is telling a story, and has an ebb and flow, a rhythm. It's 3D mapping; taking the structure and flipping it, spinning it, chopping it. Beating on it until it's the right shape.

Writing is about meaning, story, voices and memories. And these are all things that a dyslexic brain is naturally attuned to.

Back when I was being diagnosed, the psychologist showed me a painting of a tree-house. I was allowed to look at it for a short amount of time before it was taken away, then I was asked questions about it. Now short term memory can be a bit of a problem, because we access information in a different way. Many of the questions I was being asked were making me feel stupid, because I simply couldn't remember the answers. But then she asked me one that wasn't about remembering unimportant facts and details. Is there anybody in the tree-house? She asked. Yes, I said. How do you know? Because there was no ladder hanging down from the door. Someone must have already climbed up and pulled the ladder in after them.

Of course, straight after giving me the chance to feel clever like that, she then went and asked me to say the months of the year in reverse order. Secretly I think she only did it to laugh at me.

Einstein was dyslexic. A man who couldn't even find his way home managed to change the way we see the universe. The theory of relativity is so simple and so obvious that it takes someone with a different view of the world to come along and see it.

I think I'm a better story-teller because the written word is like a second language to me. My mother and grandfather filled my head with stories and songs when I was young, so I had an understanding of structure, pacing and character from a very early age. At an age when other kids might have been starting to fill their heads with the rules of the language game, I was pre-occupied with images and stories. Later I learned to read through comic books, I was getting to grips with narrative more than rules. And then like a novelist who won't let facts get in the way of a good story, I came to the written word unwilling to let English get in the way of what I wanted to say.

(Which didn't lead to good grades, but that's another story.)

I have another example of how dyslexia helps me as a writer, but you'll need to bear with me for another tangent.

I've picked up a reputation as an adult for having a good sense of direction. Generally I can find my way anywhere on foot, and I never get lost. That last part is not really true. I'm lost all the time but it's the way that I do it that counts. As a child I was known for having no sense of direction. I could get lost on the way from the living room to the bathroom. This is another trait quite common in dyslexics (I mentioned Einstein earlier. Google 'Einstein red door,' for a laugh.)

What I realised as I grew up was that I had a way around my problems with direction. It seemed to me that everyone else could handle sequences and facts. Their brains could work in MS DOS, and there was a logical progression to information that meant they could also find their way where they wanted to go. It was simple; turn here, then here, then turn left, then turn right. Job done.

I couldn't do that. I would lose track of the sequence by the second or third turn. My brain was a desktop window, it filed information differently, and the key was to use visual cheats. Now, this could be the way everybody does it, I don't know, but it didn't seem that way as a child. I couldn't think in terms of a flat map on a piece of paper, because that had no relevance to me finding where I wanted to go in the real world. So I started 3D mapping. Everywhere I go, every time I walk past a street, or into a room, or get off the bus, my mind is adding to my 3d map. Each street is added in and connected up to the last one that I saw. I'm always seeing not where i am, but where i am in relation to everything else, and so I can give the impression of never being lost. That's also why I found Manhattan so easy to navigate so quickly. Once you get your head around the fact that the centre is a grid, and then add in the bits around that off the grid, you always know where you are on the island. That's what I'm doing all the time.

Now, how the hell does that long winded crap relate to writing?

Okay, I did promise, so here goes.

I've said before that I'm one of the 'seat of the pants' writers. I don't plan things out and I don't use much in the way of notes. But the truth isn't really that simple. As with the video editing, as with arranging shapes on a page, and as with my sense of direction, my brain is always building the story. As I walk down each page and turn every chapter, the model of the story in my head expands. So I always know exactly where I am in the narrative, and have a pretty solid idea of what's behind the next door.

So across the 3 pieces -one today at DSD and two over on my site- I've tried to show a little of my side of things. I've probably not done it justice; I couldn't explain how my brain works anymore than anybody else could explain theres. It's like Elvis Costello dancing about architecture, it just don't work.

But one thing I hope I have gotten across is that you'll rarely hear me complaining about it. And that's because dyslexia rules. I wouldn't have it any other way.


Ian Ayris said...

Hi Jay. Brilliant post. After being diagnosed with epilepsy at eighteen, and the subsequent deterioration of my short term memory and exclusion from several career choices, I thought I was cursed. Not literally, obviously, but you know what I mean.

But I've found the immediacy each moment now has for me has been such an enormous benefit to my writing I, like yourself, wouldn't swap it for the world.

I can't remember a thing from moment to moment, but a consequence of that is a kind of being able to treat each thing, each experience, as if through the eyes of a child. See the world with wonder, if you know what I mean. And that, that has really helped step into the shoes of every character I write about - to feel what they feel, to their fears, their hopes, their frustrations.

Without 'suffering' from epilepsy, I wouldn't be able to do it. And, besides, I get a free bus pass, and I wouldn't swap that for the world either :)

Nigel Bird said...

That's a great post and Ian's comment is also well worth reading.
I have litracy issues, but the fact that I'm here means I get by. I can read great books and use the computer well. Can't follow two instructions to get from A to B neither. My main problem is that I have to do a lot of re-reading of sentences and some I must misread (if the grammar works I go with what my mind sees). I do believe that there are benefits to me as a writer, but who knows. I beleive I can write fairly well, but know that my editing (and I don't mean for spelling) sucks. You've put it so very well.
It's what I do for part of my job, support children with literacy difficulties. In these days of technological tsunamis, there is Word Talk, there are programmes to write up what you say, there are voice-recorders, mind-mapping software and all sorts to offer support.
I like a blog over at


Hilery put a lot of stuff up recently for Dyslexia Awareness week, including some great titles for children to help them come to an understanding of the problem.
I'm trying to keep it short. Thanks for this - flagging it up in a positive way is a treat for the kids I teach - I may even copy it and let them have a read.
Nice work and good on you.

Dana King said...

Great and educational post, and comments. Too many people get hung up on the spelling and grammar, forgetting they only exist to aid in clarity of expression.

We've probably all seen the email about the Harvard study where a sentence is presented with every word misspelled. All the right letter are there, just not in the proper order. It's still readable, though with a little more effort. (No offense, Jay, but i suspect this is much the way dyslexics read everything. Feel free to slap me around if I have presumed incorrectly.)

Grammar police are even worse. Grammar evolved to aid in clarity. period. That's it's only purpose. If the thought is clear and easily understandable, what difference does it make if the sentence ended with a preposition, split an infinitive, or incorrectly used a gerund? (I'm not even sure what a gerund is. It's either a part of speech, of a small rodent sometimes used inappropriately by people of certain unorthodox sexual tastes. I digress.)

In fact, rigid adherence to the rules of grammar can lead to a lack of clarity, as sentence become convoluted. As Churchill said, that is something up with which I shall not put.

Naomi Johnson said...

Didn't Stephen Cannell have dyslexia? Proof positive that dyslexia need not be a deterrent to a writer.

Anonymous said...

I liked your post. I admire dyslexics because I've been around a lot when they were trying to read aloud. What got me was that when they couldn't say a particular word, they would choose another word that meant the same thing! In other words, their minds were doing twice the work of non-dyslexics. Very cool.

I'm a writer too and I loved your description:

"It's taking a block of text, or a blank page, and arranging patterns around until it looks right, until those patterns click together in a way that is telling a story, and has an ebb and flow, a rhythm."

That is exactly what I feel when I write and edit my work. I like this site because you guys talk about the magic of writing. Good stuff.


writenow said...

Oops. Didn't mean to post anonymously.

Jay Stringer said...


Thanks for the comment, and great to hear your story too.


Interesting blog you linked to there. Your job sounds rewarding too, something to get your teeth into.


Yup, i agree totally on the grammar and spelling police. It shouldn't be the point.


Yes, Cannell was dyslexic, and quite vocal about it. I've never talked much about it, but i reckon maybe more of us should follow his example and talk more openly about it.


Thanks for the kind words, and for following DSD. You're right about the word swapping. That's probably something i should have included in my piece!
There's a far more detailed post in that subject, and in how our minds guess at certain words, so maybe i'll come back to the topic someday.

Mrs. Weddle said...

In education, the term for you would be "twice exceptional," referring to your dyslexia and your giftedness. I teach gifted high school students, and I commonly come across dyslexic kids who have been brow-beaten by the system and the insistence that they adhere to spelling and grammar rules that really have nothing to do with their gifted abilities. So it saddens me to see your parenthetical about not having gotten good grades. Today, there is no excuse for an educator to allow a dyslexic child to struggle. There are so many ways to tell stories--through podcasts, video, interactive media....the possiblities are endless, especially if we simply ask the student how he/she can best tell the story or express an understanding of the material.
I am glad to read your posts. You have taught me a great deal about how my own students work, and I think your posts can help validate my students' own struggles and allow them to see their dyslexia as another one of their gifts.

Mrs. Weddle said...

"Mrs. Weddle"? eeeww. Makes me sound like a teacher...or Steve in drag. It's Helen.

Stringer Belle said...

I'd urge anybody who's particularly interested in this topic to stop by www.jaystringer.com and read his other two posts in this series. Although this is easily my favourite of the three.

On a tangent though, this post is now fifth in Google's rankings for "Einstein red door".