Renowned Author John Irving Overcame Struggles With Dyslexia To Master His Craft
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Recently I learned that one of my favorite authors, John Irving, has struggled with dyslexia. When he was young, he was regarded by his teachers as lazy and stupid.
For me, this was a colliding of two worlds: an author I had enjoyed and admired in my personal life, whose work (A Prayer For Owen Meaney, The World According To Garp, The 158-Pound Marriage) I had marveled at is, it turns out, affected by a language-based learning disorder that I have become very familiar with in my professional life through my firm's work representing children with dyslexia.
Upon learning about Irving's dyslexia, I wondered what Irving's childhood school experience might have been like. Were his learning difficulties identified early? Was he placed in a full-time special education classroom? Did he receive multi-sensory instruction to address his unique needs? Did he attend a private special education school to obtain an appropriate education? The answer to all of the above is no.
In fact, Irving's dyslexia was not discovered at all until Irving's son was diagnosed with it much later in Irving's adult life.
What struck me most from the articles I read on this subject was Irving's doggedness and perseverance to master a craft that his language disorder must have made infinitely more challenging.
In Irving's words, according to a New Yorker article:
I was an underdog; therefore, I had to control the pace—of everything. This was more than I learned in English 4W, but the concept was applicable to my creative writing—to all my schoolwork, too. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words, and I kept the list with me; I had it handy even for unannounced quizzes. Most of all, I rewrote everything. First drafts were like the first time you tried a new takedown—you needed to drill it over and over again before you even dreamed of trying it in a match. I began to take my lack of talent seriously.
I was also struck by these words from a Yale Center For Dyslexia And Creativity article:
You would imagine that words would come easy to a tremendously talented and skilled master storyteller such as John Irving. But for Irving this was not the case. Writing was not automatic, but he has made it work for him. “To do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself,” Irving observes. “In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, when special education was not as prominent as it is today, Irving had to figure out how to succeed on his own. Irving's mastery of his craft in spite of the lack of interventions available during his childhood is truly inspiring.
Today, there is greater awareness about dyslexia. Families navigating the special education process today have many more options and access to greater resources. This is especially true in states like New York that are rich in resources for special needs students, including private schools tailored to educating children with dyslexia.
If your loved one is, like John Irving, "an underdog" struggling with dyslexia and needing individualized support, educate yourself and know your rights so you can give your loved one an opportunity to shine.