I discovered the other day that Agatha Christie was dyslexic. She was also one of the best writers and literary stylists around in early twentieth century Britain.
That’s no paradox. ‘Dyslexic’ doesn’t mean ‘stupid’. Those who have it innately process certain things in a different way from how others do it, which often appears as problems with western reading, writing and spelling. The underlying issue can also manifest as problems with number order (dyscalculia), motor co-ordination (dyspraxia), or disentangling phonemes when someone speaks (dysaudia). Really these are aspects of the same thing, but western rationalism conditions us to divide concepts into little boxes that miss the connections.
Some dyslexics can read just fine, but have difficulty typing letters in the correct order. Usually ‘dyslexia’ is a combination of all these. It varies individually. The issue is also involved with short-term memory. The thing to understand is that western-style reading, spelling, number-order and hand-writing are not impossible for dyslexics, just slow and demanding of energy. This is because the processing of the detail has to be done in a different way.
A lot of dyslexics never get identified. Certainly when I was at school, they were usually chewed up by an intolerant and vicious education system that held them responsible for a difficulty not of their making, judged them stupid, lazy and worthless, taught in ways that didn’t work, and spat them out in ruin.
It’s often considered a ‘disorder’, though it should not be. The perception, including the medical definition and word ‘disorder’, comes from the problems dyslexics have with western constructs such as left-to-right writing and the culture-specific measure of ‘success’ that follows. Dyslexia doesn’t seem to affect Asian linguistic groups so much.
Also consider this. If people with dyslexia were the majority instead of 5-to-20 percent of the western population, dyslexia wouldn’t be a ‘disability’, it would be normal.
And what an amazing normal that would be.
Although dyslexics are often held to have the usual range of possible IQ’s, that isn’t actually a useful measure of intellect (I’ll explain why in the comments, if anybody asks…) and dyslexia is more often associated with creative thinking and an ability to concieve concepts, ideas and lateral connections. This is because thought is often in the form of pictures and inter-plays of shape, which many people with dyslexia do quickly, naturally, and easily – and in ways that those who don’t have it can’t.
The point being that this is where our civilisation has come from.
Famous dyslexics include Albert Einstein, who figured out how the universe worked. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Michael Faraday – among other scientists – are considered to have been so. My favourite is Nikolai Tesla, who gave us the modern world. All of it. Electric motors? Tesla. Neon lights? Tesla. Your household mains power supply? Tesla. X-rays? Tesla. Any electromagnetic broadcast – meaning all radio, TV, radar, Bluetooth, your microwave oven, your wireless connection – basically, everything we associate with today’s living? Nikolai Tesla. Need I go on?
I suspect this same ability to conceptualise is also why some dyslexics go into acting - Marlon Brando, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, Fred Astaire, Henry Winkler, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley and Susan Hampshire are listed among them. Acting is about creating and transferring an emotional response to an audience, which is inexpressible in words and better conceptualised as shapes and patterns. It’s worth remembering, too, that Daniel Radcliffe is reported to be dyspraxic – a related issue.
The thing is that despite being superficially about words, writing is about shapes and patterns - about expressing the inexpressible, the intangibles of emotion, through the terribly flawed and inadequate medium of words. All writers have to strive for these ends, but dealing with shapes, patterns and concepts is something people with dyslexia do naturally, easily and quickly. So from this perspective it’s not surprising that Agatha Christie was a great writer. So were (and are) F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. B. Yeats, Jules Verne, John Irving, Richard Ford and George Bernard Shaw, among many others.
What surprises me, in fact, is that writing hasn’t attracted more people who are dyslexic.
What are your thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: ’Write it now’, humour posts and – well, watch this space.