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Monday, January 9, 2012

A Dyslexic Writer

This is an article I was asked to write about what it's like to be a writer and be dyslexic. it was written back in 1997 and published in the directory, right in the middle, across the break, so if the directory were dropped, every time it would turn to my article.

Months after it was published, I contacted the organization, asking for a copy of my work. They were so glad to hear from me because apparently they had lost my contact information and they had a ton of people trying to reach me to ask me questions about the article. I hadn't thought it would be that big of a deal, but apparently, it was.

So, here it is, in its original format:

A Dyslexic Writer
Printed in

The Orton Dyslexia Society –

Southern California Consortium –

By Cassandra Robinson (now Cass Van Gelder)

I can remember driving in New York and hearing my brother-in-law’s voice, barking out directions in his gruff manner – left here, right there. I sneak peeks at his hands, gesturing where he means for me to turn, around the next corner, past the store on the left. The last turn, though, he makes no gesture, and I go straight because I am too rattled to make a choice. He makes me pull over and finally says the word and wonders have I ever labeled myself with it. I have not. I cannot think this word means anything I am because I am just tired, I am confused. I am just not trying hard enough. Let me do it again and I’ll get it right.
But somehow, somewhere, later it begins to make sense. Somehow, the word no longer means this distant technical medical hazy picture of them. Suddenly, it is me. And suddenly, everything makes sense. I am dyslexic.
They would have expected worse for me. My parents are too closely related. I should be grateful I came out whole and not with pieces of me left inside my mother’s body. And I am. Mother is, too. I am her wonder child who has survived it all.
I go to school and excel in every class, even math, which they say we girls cannot do. I do. And I’m good. But at English, I am even better. The spelling bee comes and I am one of the last two and my word comes. I smile and begin to spell “slow”, not understanding the titters of laughter when I am quickly done. I have spelled s-o-w, a pig, an ignorant animal which I am convinced I now am. I have been careless, Mother says, as I cry. I should be more careful, she tells me. It is not the last time she will say this to me.
I try to be more careful. I try to slow down. Still, even when I forget and hurry, I still test well. I have learned what they expect on these tests and I give them what they want. I have become very good at that. I change schools because I am considered bright, though still I sometimes am not careful. Mother and my teachers talk about this a lot during conferences. I could do better if I were careful, my teacher says. Mother nods.
Music becomes my savior. I love the sound of voices and instruments, the melding of timbres and the crash of dissonance. I am in love with all of it, and my throat, so close to my brain, feels more controllable than trusting my fingers to find the right keys. I memorize everything I am given. I teach myself to play piano so I can read music. I join every choir ad spend every moment being a part of sound.
I am older now, one semester away from college. I become part of the school band with all my friends who have been there for years. I am given sheet music and read it well at home and by myself, but when I am in class, I lose bars. I forget where I am. I am not careful. I ring my chime on the wrong note. My band director is frustrated with me and thinks I am being funny. It’s not funny. I am trying to be careful. I really am.
At the end of the year, the band plays a symphony piece I have written, and I win a music scholarship and two others to go to college. I am excited for the chance to study my music constantly. But I am nervous. I have not learned the same things as others and have to take extra courses. For a simple fifteen credits, I am taking nine classes. I feel like I am drowning. No one sees me.
My new piano teacher becomes frustrated and tells me I am not trying when I hit five wrong notes in a row. She tells me I should consider another career and my heart feels like the skin is being peeled back.
I begin to fall behind in classes. During sight singing, I read the wrong lines and mix the notes up. I claim I need glasses with a little laugh. My instructor does not laugh. He gives me a ‘D’, my first. It is not my last.
My teachers are convinced I am not trying. Mother is convinced I have become lazy. Even I am not convinced I have made my best effort. I am frustrated and alone and nothing makes sense anymore and I begin to hate music. I leave after two years. I have lost all my scholarships. But I still believe it’s because I have note been careful.
Seven years after hearing the word, I begin writing my stories down. I know this will be extremely difficult and I may need lots of help (which is hard for me to ask for) but I cannot not do it. The stories are important.
I make mistakes constantly. I spell-check every five minutes. I give my tiny pages to friends to read, hoping they will catch whatever I have missed. I make their changes and check again. And again. I edit constantly.
I amass 140 pages and am accepted into a week-long workshop with some of the best writers in the country. Agents will be there and so will editors. I am nervous and I know this means I need to slow down. I will have to slow down. I will have to be more careful, not Mother’s way, but mine. I will have to remember to breathe and be confident.
My reading is one of the last days. I am nervous. I am trying to breathe, but I go too fast at first and have to remind myself to slow down. I am nervous not just because I am reading aloud in front of people I don’t know, but I am reading my work. I am reading what I have written. I feel as if I have cut myself open and they are all staring at my insides.
I am almost in tears when I finish. I am convinced they will not like it. I have made too many mistakes. They have not understood me because I cannot make myself understandable. I have been wrong and I want to leave the room. I want to go home.
The people break up into groups to pick apart my piece, deciding what criticism they will give me, but I am not even listening because I am convinced I am horrible. But then the leader of the first group gets up and she say it is wonderful. She smiles and says she loves my reading and my accent and gives me the biggest compliment of the whole week, she wants to read more. I am thrilled. Each group leader stands, one by one, telling in their way the same, all saying they want more. I am nervous again, but good and warm and loved.
Word travels from this group out into the halls and amongst the ones who missed it. By dinner, I am being hugged and kissy-cheeked. Wonderful, I hear. No one says I should have been more careful. No one doesn’t smile.
A woman talks to me in line for diner. She tells me she has read my stories. She asks me to send her some more and I am happy to. She gives me her card and I find out then she is an agent. She leans and whispers in my ear, You are going to be a brilliant writer. And I smile. Yes, I am.
It’s taken me a long while to be honest about my feelings surrounding this disorder and me. And even now I do battle with those demons. It is hard to shake the voices of teachers who called me lazy, and especially the one who ridiculed me in college and told me to get out of music. But the hardest ones are the ones that called me dumb. Those still breathe in my ears at times. And for those voices, I write strong words and hard passages, phrases that are louder and more powerful. And I drown them out.

copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I meant it. I have mean cats; don't make me use them.


  1. As a dyslexic I read this moving account. I to am a writer and struggle to get my thoughts down on paper. I often wish I could just cyphon them off straight from my brain. Thank you for your honestly.

    1. Joanna,

      I tried to reply to your comment properly, but the link wasn't working.

      Thank you for your comments. I've tried so many different ways to get through this. I don't know about you, but sometimes I have pretty great days; and yet some days, I can barely read my own name.

      When it's particularly bad, I just turn off my spell check and grammer checker. These things can make me more anxious, which in turn makes the writing that much harder. You can always go back later on a good day and edit it, anyway. You don't want some huge, red, underlined word screaming at you from the page, causing you to stop your thought process just to take care of it, right?

      I've had to have other people edit my work before I send it out, just in case there are problems I've overlooked, too.

      Are there others out there with suggestions on how to handle dyslexia obstacles?

    2. WOW. ***that*** is a revelation turn off my spell checker.

      T H A N k Y O U ,,,,,, some times... on some days, when I want it to just flow... I may just do that.

      and , park,, just for then., the incessant voice that I have to get it right, and right first time . . . and turn OFF those red squiggly lines ( of which there have been 10 in this last paragraph. ( now 14) and, just for once, just for a moment, that voice ( of Mr Bishop can go take a flying.....
      adn .. then I adn my fingser will ... F L Y

    3. Exactly! I'm so glad you got something good out of this. :) Phenomenal!

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  3. Hi Cass/Joanna

    I'm dyslexia and have been researching dyslexia and writing for about 6 years. I've spoken to lots of them (Rebecca Loncraine, Louise Tondeur, Andrew Solomon, Sally Gardener, Philip Schultz, Tom West) and heard all sorts of fascinating approaches to thinking about dyslexia/writing. I've got a paper about to be published on the subject, which should be out soon. But in response to your questions, about handling, I think that all the approaches that you use adds to the creativity of the writing. So while it might seem more difficult for us, it's also critical that we don't give up experimenting and exploring with your writing. I'm going to attempt to add a link below to my own FB page and website about dyslexic writers (RASP=Rebelling Against Spelling Press).

    1. shoot, didn't work! Will just paste it here (hope you don't mind)

    2. Hi Anonymous,

      I have no problem with you posting the information about your site.

      I think you're right about the experimenting until you find what works. So often we are told that as dyslexics we will have more problems than "normal" writers. What I've found is that our minds are more flexible and can twist and turn around issues and problems in ways that make everything feel and seem simple and straightforward.

      For instance, when I was working at a college, we sent out transcripts to over 26,000 students every semester. The transcripts were printed in a completely different way than the corresponding envelope labels. Invariably, we would get about 4,000+ transcripts that were labeled and sent out incorrectly. This was delicate information and releasing it to the wrong person could potentially cause multiple problems, including open the college up to lawsuits. Because I am dyslexic and could approach the problem in a different way, I was able to reduce the number of mismatched transcripts/envelope labels to 3. That's right...3.

      That's not to toot my horn. That's to let you know that even though we hit a little rough road as we go over pebbles in the road, we are able to take corners and small spaces like our brains are covered in oil while other people struggle to just figure out how to start.

      Likely, you're driving a Shelby for a brain that's had every phenomenal upgrade installed, brand new tires, sweet shocks, and an engine and body that barely disturbs the air as you whistle about. It's been built with the stick shift on the left, that's all. You just have to get used to it and from then on, it's all yours - the speed, the slick movement, the handling. Sure, once in awhile you forget and reach for the handle on the right side. But then you give yourself a minute, remember what you're capable of, and then you leave everyone else on the road to cough in the wake of your dust...

  4. Thanks. It wasn't until I was head of the English Department of a independent school, who always entered his students' grades in the box for math, or science, or history - anything but English- that I realized I was dyslexic.