"Forgotten Letters"

This is a new book on dyslexic writers which has just been published. It has a brilliant foreward written by Thomas West which we publicize here.

"There are many puzzles and paradoxes linked to dyslexia. One of the most strange of these is that some of the best writers are dyslexic."

How can this be so? How can those who struggle so with words become such masters of words? Well, good writing is different from good spelling, reading out loud or rapid recall of memorized texts.
Good writing often requires an ear for the sound of language. Good writing often requires a strong visual imagination with powerful images and metaphors communicated through the words. Often the best writing is very plain, using well the most simple language. Also, good writing requires fresh language -- not the usual string of conventional terms and syntax. Good writing is thoughtful and sometimes surprising in its content and form.
Oddly, the difficulties experienced by dyslexics sometimes can lead directly to becoming advantages in service of the best writing.
Dyslexics are a heterogeneous group. They are unlike non-dyslexics. They are unlike each other. But there are many common elements.
They often, almost by definition, learn to read late and very slowly (after a long and difficult struggle). This is partly the reason that many never lose the sound of language in their head -- as sometimes happens with rapid and efficient readers.
They often have powerful visual imaginations -- seeing pictures in their minds as they read or speak. Some of the best storytellers say they never remember the words of a story. Rather, they have a movie running in their head and they simply talk about what they see. You don’t have to be dyslexic to do this. But dyslexics seem inclined to do this -- whether they want to or not. But as one can readily see, if you cannot remember texts as texts -- but only see images -- then the words are likely to be different each time. Sometimes fresh. Sometimes surprising. Sometimes shockingly apt.
Often I have heard the phrase, “they see what others don’t see or cannot see.” I have heard the phrase a thousand times, in a thousand different settings. It is not only having strong powers of observation. There is something going on in these larger than usual, slow moving, apparently overly connected brains that yields perceptions and insights often denied to non-dyslexics -- who may see the unexpected connection when shown. But they would never see it on their own.
Some say dyslexics are prone to ponder. Non-dyslexics may have a look, see what they have been taught to see, say the expected words and quickly move on -- scoring high on conventional tests of conventional observations. (This drives artists crazy. So many of the clever students learn the words to say about a painting and then they think they understand it. But they never learn to really see it.)
Many dyslexics find it very difficult to do things automatically -- which can be a problem. It can be very slow. Whether training the movements of their body (as in an Olympic sport) or observing nature (in a literary or scientific puzzle), they have to think and think hard. Big brains with many connections move slowly -- but they can do jobs fast brains cannot do. They see the big picture. Those who ponder hold on to an idea or problem or puzzle for a long time, turning it over and over. In literature, sometimes they come up with a fresh and deep insight. (In science or technology, sometimes they come up with a remarkable and unexpected discovery.)
It is a commonplace that the best artist or writer is an outsider, observing human events at the edge. Again, many non-dyslexics can take on this role. But many dyslexics, because of their deep humiliations from the earliest days, seem naturally to assume the role of distant observer. The truth-talking commentator who is not caught up in the race. They have felt the otherness from the start.
In my own research on talents among highly successful dyslexics, my literary friends were shocked and disbelieving when I told them that the most severely dyslexic historical person I came across was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It teaches us. Even in times unfriendly to formal poetry, his lines show up in songs and commentaries and book titles. He said that he often started with a rhythm, a pulse, and the sense then followed. He never lost the feeling of the sound of the language.
And everywhere you look there are vivid metaphors and images. About his early life, Yeats says: “I was unfitted for school work. . . . My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind.” A few years before his death, he observed: “It was a curious experience . . . to have an infirm body and an intellect more alive than it had ever been, one poem leading to another as if . . . lighting one cigarette from another. ”
I am honored to introduce this volume of the work of dyslexic writers -- sometimes harsh and angry, sometimes as beautiful as a song, sometimes so short and powerful that you feel you have been punched with a boxer blow. But always fresh, truth telling, full of vivid and unexpected sounds and images.
Thomas G. West
August 31, 2011

Thomas G. West, author of Thinking Like Einstein and In the Mind's Eye (One of the "best of the best" for the year, American Library Association; new revised edition with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, released September  2009). Research Scholar Study Office 1W-16C, National Library of Medicine, office tel. (mobile): 202-262-1266. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Member of the Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444