Anne was “a consistently poor reader” until well into adulthood. Like many struggling readers, her memories of school are highly negative: “School was torture. School was like being in jail. It was captivity and torment and failure.” Though she dearly loved stories and spent hours flipping through picture books, her poor reading skills kept her from drawing more than a bare sketch of the “action and incident” described on the page. Instead, it was through books read aloud at school and home, and the radio dramas and movies she enjoyed, that she developed a love for the rhythm and flow of language.
Anne struggled with reading throughout elementary school, but writing grew easier. From fifth grade on she wrote adventure stories and plays for her classmates. They responded enthusiastically, and overlooked her spelling errors. Unfortunately, Anne found no way to turn her writing talent into classroom success.
It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that she finally read well enough to appreciate the actual words in the books she read. “The first novel that I recall truly enjoying and loving for its language as well as its incident was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens…. The other novel…was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre…. I think it took me a year to consume these two books. It might have taken two years. [I]t was a slow go.”
Despite these challenges, Anne’s love of literature and writing continued to grow. When she went off to college, she decided to major in English. Unfortunately, she soon had to abandon this plan because she was still so “severely disabled as a reader” that she couldn’t complete the assignments for her classes. Getting through even one of Shakespeare’s plays in a week was virtually impossible for her, and the written work was equally difficult: “[I] barely got by…because I wasn’t considered an effective writer. The one story I submitted to the college literary magazine was rejected. I was told it wasn’t a story.” Anne’s spelling, too, remained a problem. As she told us, “I can’t spell to this day. I don’t see the letters of words, I see the shapes and hear them. So I still can’t spell. I’m always looking up spelling and making mistakes.”
Anne began looking for another subject where she might find more success. She was passionately interested in the great ideas and beliefs that shaped the modern world, and wanted to form a “coherent theory of history.” She considered majoring in philosophy, but here too she was hindered by her poor reading. Anne found that she “could only make it through the short stories of Jean-Paul Sartre, and some of the works of Albert Camus. “One the great German philosophers who loomed so large in discussion in those days [during the early 1960s], I could not read one page.” Instead, Anne opted for a degree in political science, where she was able to grasp the key concepts almost entirely from lectures. She earned her degree in five years.
After graduation, Anne remained drawn to writing and literature. At age twenty-seven she returned to school to study for a master’s degree in English, which she earned in four years. “Even then I read so slowly and poorly that I took my master’s orals on three authors, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway without having read all of their works. I couldn’t possibly read all of their works.”
Fortunately, Anne could still write, and shortly after earning her master’s degree she began work on a new novel. One of the primary themes of that novel was the experience of being “shut out” from life and the fulfillment of dreams—an experience Anne knew well from being “shut out of book learning.” Three years later that novel was published, and it became a phenomenal bestseller. Anne followed that first novel, which she entitled Interview with the Vampire, with 27 more, and together they’ve sold over 100 million copies, making Anne Rice one of the best-selling novelists of all time.
You might think it’s extremely unusual for such a talented and successful writer to have trouble with reading and spelling. You would be wrong.
Many highly successful writers have faced dyslexic challenges with reading, writing, and spelling, yet have learned to author clear and effective prose. Even limiting our selection to contemporary writers whose dyslexic symptoms can be clearly confirmed, the list of successful dyslexic authors is impressive, and includes such notables as:
- Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Independence Day) Richard Ford;
- Best-selling novelist (The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany) and Academy Award winning screenwriter (The Cider House Rules) John Irving;
- Two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter (Kramer v. Kramer, Places in the Heart) Robert Benton;
- Best-selling thriller writer Vince Flynn, whose novels have sold over 15 million copies in the last decade;
- Best-selling mystery writer, screenwriter (Prime Suspect), and Edgar Award winner Lynda La Plante;
- Best-selling novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon (who also writes under the name Kinley MacGregor), whose novels have sold over 30 million copies.
We’re not mentioning these outstanding creative writers just to encourage and inspire you with their remarkable achievements. Nor are we merely suggesting that dyslexic processing can be helpful for creative writing, though for reasons we’ll discuss shortly we also believe this to be true. Instead, we’re focusing on these talented writers because we believe they reveal something important about dyslexic processing in general—not just for dyslexic writers, but even for many individuals with dyslexia who never write at all. What these authors illustrate is the profoundly narrative character of reasoning and memory that is shown by of many individuals with dyslexia.