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Tiah Beautement

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The writer who can’t write

My first drafts are the stuff of nightmares. Of course there is the obvious to deal with: plot, structure and trimming the fat. But my biggest demons hide in the details such as punctuation and spelling. Ah, I know, you are reading this and thinking, ‘Me too!’ Or maybe not.

If you are like me, when your editor tells you that you have spelt your character both Pumla and Pulma, you will blink in confusion. I read the sentence again and again, not understanding her complaint. It wasn’t until I actually circled the two names, did they stop looking exactly the same. Thank goodness for the invention of ‘search and replace’.

Nobody saw it coming. I learned to read at a very young age. But then the spelling tests began to test words bigger than three or four letters. I was seven; the bonus word was because. I emerged from my room and spelled it out to a catchy song. My father was so impressed. What nobody noted was that it had taken me a solid hour. One word. And I had to whisper the little ditty softly to myself for years in order to write it every, damn, time.

This was the early 80s. Even now, the benefits of testing a child on the cusp of a learning disability are still up for debate. Reluctance to label a child is due to fear the learner will: freeze up, use it as an excuse not to work or have an otherwise bright child treated poorly by less than stellar educators. And there were a few teachers who believed I just needed to straighten up my act: keep me from recess and write the words over and over and… Thankfully this was prevented by wise persons arguing that this might (a) be like beating a dead horse and (b) turn a child that adores school into one that hates it.

Back then, the concept of dyslexia wasn’t well understood. Nor was I a textbook case. Dysphasic (and in my case, more likely dysgraphia) was completely unheard of. But look it up and there I am: poor handwriting (childhood friends called it ‘chicken scratches’), reversing letters, mistakes when copying, poor spelling (misspelling the same word in a variety of ways throughout the copy) and erratic punctuation. I’ll even type a few words backwards, from time to time, when extremely stressed. These ‘quirks’ make a few other subjects harder, like learning other languages, but they don’t negatively impact on reading skills or on most other subjects (unless the teacher makes spelling and grammar count!). Thus, because so many people do have sloppy handwriting, spelling errors here and there, and do not always grasp where the comma goes, there was a tendency to blame me for not trying hard enough. The disbelief: She’s just used to school being easy. Look how well she reads.  If she just tried harder…

This is not to fault my parents, or claim they were in denial. I had a spelling tutor before the age of ten. My parents and teachers who loved to teach continued trying to find  innovative ways to crack the code: phonics, saying the letters out loud, breaking the word down (ass- ass-in-ate), special spelling workbooks to do over summer break, writing the word numerous times, finger spelling (sign language), and encouraging me to learn to type. But it all took an extraordinary amount of time.

How much time? In my high school, every freshman had to take Writing Skills. You had to pass it; besides, this course was supposed to be an ace: three parts, three weekly quizzes, including a spelling test – twelve words. I studied four hours a week just on those twelve words, while carrying six other subjects, like science and maths. Yet, despite all this time and effort, I rarely got them all right.

‘Just look it up,’ many were fond to say, thrusting a dictionary in my face. Dictionaries are lovely, but they have a limited use. Dictionaries don’t tell you if you have a made a mistake, but require the writer to suspect that one word is wrong and not another, and to be able to tell the difference.  Second, dictionaries require the user to have a vague idea how the word is spelt.  I’m not always sure what the first letter is, or the second.

There is a difference between the ability to read a word and write it. The eyes and brain are not required to ‘see’ in the same way. Thus, doing my own copyediting becomes a game of hide-and-go-seek, as my brain lies about the mistakes on a page. Yes, I know the advice: print the work, read it in another room, change the font colour, read it out loud…anything to try and trick my brain to seeing the problems lurking in the print. Yes, as the years go by, there is improvement, but it is at a snail’s pace.

Nor is it limited to what I see; I can’t always ‘hear’ my mistakes.

‘Just repeat what I’m saying,’ Husband said.

‘But I am!’ I said.

‘No, you’re not. Now try listening again…’

That was me trying to learn how to pronounce my new last name.

My university professors were baffled. They would ask me what an apostrophe was for. ‘Possessive.’ A semi-colon? ‘To join two sentences.’ Yet the errors would crop up over and over again. I would watch as the dawning of realisation hit that it wasn’t that I didn’t know, but some strange inability to consistently execute it on the page. Nor could I, despite proof reading, always be able to see where I’d gone astray. Thankfully my university was small, and my professors were willing to bend the rules for a student, like me, that worked hard. (You technically need documented proof of learning problems.) For papers, my roommate (God bless her) edited them all; for written tests, my professors ignored the errors and focused on the actual subject being tested.

Not all institutions are so kind. Not having the problem officially documented and diagnosed is horrible each and every time I am required to take a written test where the examiner insists spelling and grammar count. There is not enough time to write the exam and check every word outside my comfort zone, and dictionaries can’t help with grey areas of grammar. This makes any future study highly problematic (regardless of subject), especially when I lived in Britain. (I tried once, and it was just short of a disaster.)  Then again, would I have ever been so foolhardy as to try to write a book if somebody had told me I had a ‘writing disability’? Probably not. It is one thing to be aware you have a ‘quirk’, quite another to grow up in an environment being told you ‘can’t write.’

Label or not, there is no fix. Trying harder is not enough. There is only, don’t give up. Thus, there are dictionaries on my desk and on my computer. I have spellchecker loaded onto every program, although not all are created equal. I own numerous grammar books; and, yes, I read them, too. But the real trick is the people who, heaven knows why, prop me up. They are the ones that read my work for chocolate, book vouchers or just (suckers!) because we are friends. There are lovely little ghosts in my life that email me a list of my blog errors, and I go back and correct.

Don’t give up. That is my advice to anyone who struggles like I do. You may not be able to try any harder, but you can keep trying. I write every day. My learning curve in the finer points of writing is slow, but there is positive progress. Writing may not be the wisest choice of endeavours for somebody like me, I admit. But I don’t suffer from writer’s block. A bloody good editor can fix my copy, but nobody can help the writer that truly can’t write.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    November 21st, 2010 @17:03 #
     
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    My fingers can't spell becasue, I can't fathom gmail and I can't tell right from left despite incredulous (and ever-younger) people telling me how easy one or the other is. Sometimes it's just easier to learn to live without stuff :-)

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 21st, 2010 @17:54 #
     
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    Wise advise.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 21st, 2010 @20:26 #
     
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    Good for you, Tiah. This editor can't spell "separate" right first go; has to wear an opal and an amethyst on her left and right hands to distinguish them (I've taught myself that opal = left, amethyst = right, but giving directions can be fraught: "turn opal now!") Your last line is absolutely correct. You can always find an editor; but no amount of time and money can conjure talent from within.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 22nd, 2010 @09:45 #
     
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    This thread is turning into a study re: poets =/ left & right.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    November 22nd, 2010 @10:27 #
     
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    I was once banned by Mr Delivery for being very insistent that the driver should turn left at a particular junction and got him hopelessly lost for half an hour. I meant right, of course. My husband is mildly dyslexic and it's made me much more tolerant of typos, particularly in emails.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    November 22nd, 2010 @13:23 #
     
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    A brave piece, Tiah. I recently met a writer who has a serious stammer... it's not the same as stammering on the page, but I think if you scratch only a little, most writers have something serious and socially debilitating in their formation that makes them writers. Otherwise we'd all be playing rugby/football and marrying the cheerleader/quarterback, wearing the clothes and going to the parties. Not reading or writing; then waking up when we're thirty-five without a thought in our heads.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 22nd, 2010 @13:49 #
     
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    Lauren, I am afraid I laughed at poor Mr Delivery. Shame. I will also bet that a hand written note from your husband is true act of love.

    Louis, thank you. From what I have read about stammering, there are parallels. A person with a stammer has to find a way to 'see' the word before they say it. I have tricks, too. But sometimes one must choose between the tricks or slamming the idea out before it all goes to heck. Then one is left with a solid idea, but a mess that is difficult to unpick.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 22nd, 2010 @23:29 #
     
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    My own unfiltered writing is a mass of typos, word omissions, etc, as anyone who ever reads my FB statuses might have noticed. If one more person says sniffily "You're an editor, you shouldn't make mistakes", I swear I will go off and marry the quarterback.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 22nd, 2010 @23:33 #
     
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    Which is not to say I have a problem, other than typing v. fast with only two fingers. In the days when I first lectured, and a few bright students somehow got through to university by hook or crook and in spite of "Bantu Education", it was not unheard of to stumble across someone who had made it to first year varsity who was dyslexic and had never had the condition diagnosed. I had so much admiration for those students, who had literally tricked themselves all the way through to tertiary education...

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    November 23rd, 2010 @09:07 #
     
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    Great post Tiah. To follow on from what Louis mentioned, here's a link to a Grauniad article that the writer Mike Grant wrote about his debilitating stutter. It's really worth a read:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/10/stammer-internet-voice-speak

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 23rd, 2010 @12:56 #
     
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    That's a fantastic link, Sarah. Hadn't thought of the implications of the Internet for those with this kind of affliction...

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 23rd, 2010 @20:17 #
     
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    Sarah, thank you.
    @ Helen, the last line of Ebert's 'Nil by Mouth' always chokes me up:
    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/01/nil_by_mouth.html

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