Learning Disabilities and Writing a Novel

This is a pretty personal topic for me, but I made the decision a while ago to be open about my learning disability.  An LD doesn’t have to be an embarrassing and awful thing. 

Before I share my experience of having a LD and writing a novel, I want to first address some of the most common misunderstandings about LDs.  I feel this is important because certain misconceptions about LDs are very prevalent.

Common Misconceptions about LDs:

–  In a 2010 study by the Emily Hall Tremain Foundation, they found that 70% of participants (parents and nonparents) link LDs to an intellectual disability.  Shockingly, 81% of the teachers surveyed believed the same.  The study also found that 51 % of participants believed LDs are linked to laziness.

–  In a different study by Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014, they found that over half of their participants believed counseling, medication, or corrective eyewear could “fix” certain types of LDs.  The study also found that a third of participants mistakenly believed things like vaccinations, diet, and watching too much TV caused LDs.

Now to clarify these misconceptions:

–  According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, NCLD, “Learning disabilities arise from neurological differences in brain structure and function and affect a person’s ability to receive, store, process, retrieve or communicate information.”  Because of this it is perhaps more accurate to call it a learning difference than a disability.  However, because of the stigma associated with LDs and our very standardized understanding of intelligence and education, I feel that it is important to acknowledge the learning disability side of the learning difference.

Calling it a learning disability ensures that legislation can be in place so that all individuals can have an equal opportunity to succeed in school and in the workplace.  For examples students with LDs can get extended time or be allowed to audio-record lectures.  (There are lots of different opinions on if it should be called a disability or difference.)

–  LDs are not a sign of an intellectual deficiency.  In fact, during my testing for an LD I was told that one of the common markers they see in people with LDs is an above average IQ.

–  Statistically those with LDs are also shown to spend more time on their school work than their peers (Denhart, 2008).  That doesn’t sound like laziness to me!

–  Lastly, as the definition from the NCLD indicates, LDs are not from vaccinations, diet, and watching too much TV.  Instead LDs are simply differences in “brain structure and function” and they can be linked to genetics (NCLD).

My LD:

Each LD is different, so I feel I must share a bit of information about my own.  My LD doesn’t fit cleanly into some of the specific categories such as dysgraphia or dyscalculia.  My LD deals with processing speeds and has features of dyslexia.  I also have ADHD, which is not that uncommon for people with LDs.  Lastly, I have some issues with memory and working-memory.  In a nut shell, I can accomplish everything any other student can, but it is going to take me longer to do it!

So how does this impact my writing???

It impacts every aspect of it.  But I’ll summarize some of my main challenges and let you know how I’ve tried to manage them.

1.  Organization:  I am a “pantster” by default because well, that is how my mind works.  Planning out an entire story from the start is not exactly my thing.  I’m working on this though, because it made writing my first novel very difficult.  I literally had NO idea where the story line was going.  When I felt a scene form in my mind I wrote it.

Then, when I started connecting all the snippets I wrote, I realized I was all over the place.  I got there in the end, but I didn’t make it easy on myself!  I probably had to rewrite about half my novel because of this.  Now that I’m working on a second novel idea, I’m experimenting with outlining more.  I’m also forcing myself to figure out the goal of each scene.  So far it is working for me, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

2.  Spelling & Grammar:  Ugh.  Let me just say I hate both.  Not because I think they don’t matter (because they definitely do!), but because I stink at them, despite wanting to be really good at them.  I was nervous to even start a blog because I was convinced the grammar police would eat me alive (they still might).

Grammar Police

Luckily I’ve got great friends, beta readers, and a wonderful husband looking out for me.  This is also why I write so much by hand.  The red squiggly lines in Word drive me nuts and take me out of my writing flow.  I know I can turn that feature off, but there are other reasons why I prefer writing by hand too (see previous post here).

Also even if I can’t spell a word correctly, luckily spell check or my husband can.  So I’ve learned not to sweat the spelling in my rough draft.  As for grammar, I Google search grammar blogs/resources and use grammar books to try to get my draft as good as I can before I send it off to my beta readers.  I also have specifically chosen some of my beta readers because I know they are grammar champs and will love to grammar police my novel.

On a side note… I’ve learned I omit a lot of words when writing.  I say them in my head, but I never write or type them down.  My friend pointed this out to me and now that I’m aware of it I try to read my writing out loud more.  I tend to catch these omissions a bit easier that way.  But still, I drop words like a ninja drops kicks.

3.  Staying on Task:  This is a weird one for me.  Most of the time my brain is everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.  I also often feel this urge to be doing something, but I never quite know what that something is (this often comes out in a lot of leg shaking, doodling, excess energy etc.)

meow

On a serious and personal note I’ve got to say that ADHD gets a bad rep.  Some people think ADHD it is just the new term we use for people that daydream and are creative.  They make it feel like it isn’t real and you should be embarrassed to say you have it or need an accommodation because of it.  It is NOT like that though.  There is a serious distinction between just daydreaming and ADHD.

A daydream you can choose not to have or engage in. ADHD isn’t a choice like that. For example, on a very important AP Spanish exam in high school, that I wanted to do well on and studied really hard for, I saw a spider web which made me think of Charlotte’s web which made me think about messages in spider webs and people waking up and claiming Jesus is in their spider web, which made me think of… That stupid spider web completely derailed me until a loud noise brought my attention to clock and I realized I had wasted a HUGE chunk of my test time. The test proctor even made note on my results (I didn’t do well) that I appeared to have been distracted or zoned out for a significant portion of the exam.

Imagine trying to hold a train of thought, but before you can finish it another one cuts in.  Sometimes my mind just races.  I feel like I can’t hold onto any one idea for longer than a second.  It’s enough that I often have trouble sleeping because I can’t seem to slow my mind down.

ADHD for me also means that I often reread things because on my first attempt at reading something I’m often not really paying attention to it enough to comprehend what I’m actually reading.  Or I just get distracted or lose my train of though half way through.  Lots of things can happen in the span of a sentence.

I try really hard for these things not to happen and over the years have developed lots of strategies to help.  But at the end of the day I’m just attempting to manage it, I can’t actually stop it.

 

On the other side of this, there are moments when I do get in the zone on something and it can be weirdly like tunnel vision (I’m just talking about me here, I’m not sure if other people with ADHD experience this).  Everything else in the world fades away and I’m totally fixated on something.  These moments are rare for me, but I will say that they are most likely to occur when reading or writing fiction.  So I’ve got that going for me a bit!

 

So how did I manage to write a novel?  Like anyone else, one piece at a time.  I also reduce my distractions by not listening to music (see previous post about this) and by writing things by hand.  And when I feel that overwhelming urge to write, I try to always answer it because I know those moments are precious.  Those are where the focus and the magic happens.

 

4.  Self-Esteem:  Having an LD can be really rough.  It’s alienating and embarrassing at times.  There are moments when I know I’ve missed something or said/written something completely wrong and it can be an awful feeling.  What many people consider to be “basic” things are sometimes quite challenging for me.

 

What I’ve come to realize though is that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.  So while I do have some significant weaknesses in some areas, I also have other areas where I am very strong!  Those strengths are also often things that other people tend to struggle with (makes sense since my brain is working differently).  As a result, I don’t sell myself short anymore.

 

You need to have some pretty sound self-esteem to be a writer.  You’ve got to be able to handle the critiques and the judgements on a piece that you’ve poured your heart and soul into.  If I hadn’t made peace with my LD, then I don’t know if I’d be able to do this.  So I felt mentioning the self-esteem aspect of an LD is important.  Even though I’m in a place now where I feel good about my LD, I wasn’t always.

To Sum it All Up:

I felt this was an important post to write because I want to bring awareness to LDs.  They don’t have to be seen as this awful thing.  The stigma and misconceptions surrounding LDs are really a shame.  You can have an LD and be a doctor, a novelist, a scientist, etc.  An LD doesn’t need to hold you back, it can be a source of empowerment.

 

Sources:

Cortiella, C., & Horowitz, S. H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities:  Facts, trends, and emerging issues.  Report for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.  Retrieved from  http://www.ncld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-State-of-LD.pdf

Denhart, H. (2008). Deconstructing barriers: Perceptions of students labeled with learning disabilities in higher education. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(6), 483-497.

Emily Hall Termaine Foundation & GfK Roper (2010).  Measuring progress in public & parental understanding of learning disabilities.

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4 thoughts on “Learning Disabilities and Writing a Novel

    • Brooke M. Fowler says:

      Thank you so much! Yeah the grammar police totally freak me out. Although what does crack me up is when a person is grammar policing and has grammatical errors in their own correction…. makes me feel a bit better when I see things like that!!! lol!

      Liked by 1 person

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