When words are hard: my journey to writing a book about dyslexia

What do Australian authors Jackie French and Pip Williams have in common?

They’re both best-selling authors.

They both have a love of history and telling the stories of strong women.

They both have dyslexia.

What about Agatha Christie and Dav Pilkey?

Again, both best-selling authors (Agatha’s 66 detective stories and 14 books of short stories have sold over two billion copies, and Dav has sold over 80 million copies of his 48 books).

They are both award-winners.

Also, both dyslexic.

What about Jamie Oliver and Richard Branson?

They’re both hugely successful entrepreneurs and businessmen who have gone on to write books.

They’re both very, very rich.

They’ve both been recognised by the Queen for their service to the country.

They’re both also dyslexic.

In Australia, October is the month of dyslexia awareness. You may see people’s social media pages bordered in red or buildings and monuments across the country lit up red at night. I am lighting up my Instagram page red in October. Why red? Apart from the obvious red/read, it’s part of a campaign by Code Read Dyslexia Network:

By next October, my book sharing some of the most inspirational stories of people with dyslexia will be on the shelves of bookshops and libraries around the country. It’s something that fills me with incredible excitement but also, if I’m honest, also with a sense of trepidation and responsibility. That’s probably the topic for another blog, but today I just wanted to share just some of the incredible writers from around the world who have dyslexia.

Many writers say the same thing – dyslexia slowed them down, especially when they were at school, but it could not stop their love of stories. Moreover, the struggle they had with words, the extra effort they had to give to learn to read and write has just deepened their relationship with language and made the process of writing that much more special.

Awesome dyslexic writers:

  • Jackie French, Australian multi-genre, award-winning author, Diary of a Wombat and my daughter’s favourite, A Waltz for Matilda.
  • Pip Williams, best-selling Australian author, The Dictionary of Lost Words.
  • Catherine Deveny, columnist, speaker and author.

“The more you do it, the more you do. The more a pathway in the brain is used the better and faster it gets. Writing is a muscle. The more you work it out, the better it gets.” Catherine Deveny

  • Dav Pilkey, best-selling US author, Captain Underpants.

“Try to remember that being unsuccessful in school doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be unsuccessful in life. Lots of people who didn’t excel in school still went on to have successful lives.” Dav Pilkey

  • Agatha Christie, world’s best-selling author, Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Octavia Spencer, actress and author, Ninja Detective series.
  • Ahmet Zapper, children’s author (and son of legendary musician Frank). Ahmet left school at 12 due to his struggles with dyslexia but he is now the author of over 20 best-selling books.

“When we had to do book reports, I would pick a book that no one read and just make it up and turn that in. I got praised for my imagination.” Ahmet Zappa

  • Henry Winkler, actor (The Fonz) and children’s author, Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underachiever.
  • Richard Branson, entrepreneur and author. Virgin owner. Space tourist. Everyone knows who Richard is.
  • Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and cookbook author.
  • Andrew Dornenburg – author of five best-selling culinary books and cookbooks with his wife, Karen Dornenburg.

“As I tell other dyslexics, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be great.” Andrew Dornenburg

  • Sally Gardner, children’s author (and also writes for adults under the pseudonym Wray Delaney). She was considered ‘unteachable’ by her teachers and called ‘Silly Sally’ by her peers because she didn’t learn to read until she was 14. She’s now the best-selling author of over 45 books.

“Keep telling yourself stories and don’t worry if you can’t write them down. Try to find your voice. Don’t be put off by anyone telling you that you can’t do something – believe in your dreams.” Sally Gardner

  • Debbie Macomber couldn’t read until she was 11 but is now the best-selling author of more than 100 romance and contemporary books and she has sold over 200 million copies.

 “Often times when we have a disability in one area we are often compensated in another area by a talent – for me it was storytelling. I wanted to become a writer because I had stories to tell.” Debbie Macomber

  • Jeanne Betancourt, author of over 80 children’s and YA books and scripts, My Name is Brain Brian.

“Since learning to read and write was difficult for me growing up, I paid more attention to the world around me. I took clues to what people were thinking and feeling from their speech and body language. Today, as an author, it is easy for me to imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes.” Jeanne Betancourt

  • Anne Rice, author of over 30 novels, including one of the best-selling novels of all time, Interview with the Vampire (which was made into a movie with another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise).

“Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is.” Anne Rice

The list goes on…

  • Avi, author of over 80 books for children and young adults.
  • John Irving, American novelist, The World According to Garp.
  • The late thriller writer Vince Flynn.
  • Paranormal and urban fantasy writer Sherrilyn Kenyon (aka Kinley McGregor).
  • Lynda La Plante, best-selling crime writer.
  • Billy Bob Thornton, actor, scriptwriter and musician
  • and many, many more.

In many of the interviews I read, people said a similar thing: that their success was not despite their dyslexia, but because of it.

I pulled my daughter aside, pointed to the hundreds of names in my spreadsheet, and simply said: nothing is beyond you. Dyslexia can’t stop you.

Who do you want to read about? I would ask. Astronauts? Doctors? Actresses? Writers? The man who digs up dinosaurs? And she would tell me, and I would write their story and we would curl up in bed and I would read it to her.

Then I would find more names and write more stories. From Nobel Prize winners, Oscar winners and Olympians to Prime Ministers and Princesses. But not every child, dyslexia or not, can grow up to win a Nobel Prize, and few of us are born princesses.

I didn’t want to add to the stress she already finds herself under every day, so I found the stories of people whose names we do not know, with achievements no less breath-taking but more attainable for us mere mortals.

Soon I had so many stories she could pretty much name any career in the world, and I would be able to open the book to a page and point to a person whose story had been told. Chefs, artists, dancers, designers, musicians, sportspeople, comedians, inventors, philanthropists, activists, filmmakers and more.

Incredible people with inspiring stories and I can’t wait to share them with you.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

– Henry Ford

Published by Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a Perth-based writer and storyteller

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