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So many times I will get a couple of personal messages or a phone call saying how someone is concerned because they haven’t heard from me online for a while.
I’m sure most people who know me — even those I’ve have never met in person — probably all perceive me as someone who loves conversation. Be it face to face or some other way, such as on Facebook, for the most part those people would be right. So I can understand why there’d be some genuine concern about me when I go quiet online sometimes.
This silence is not typical for me, because usually, at any given time to any given person I have something to say. I’m the guy you search out at events to avoid the awkward silence.
Not only do I love talking with people, but I love to write my thoughts down, too. What’s nice about writing is that people only have to hear from me when they want, because they can read what I’ve written when they feel like it.
Judging from the responses I get back from all over, I would like to believe that there are people out there who enjoy my stories, or maybe they enjoy what I write as an update from a friend. But knowing this is exactly why I sometimes go dark.
I have an explanation, and it may surprise you.
Typically after writing an article, or posting one of my plumbing stories online, I will get back between four to 20 personal messages about my post. Mostly people are thanking me for the story. As much as I want to read people’s responses to my writing, at first I hesitate to open them because somewhere in there I know what I will find, and the messages usually start out the same.
“I love reading your stories that you post, but I find them painful to read as your punctuation is so terrible. Why is it that you don’t take more time to check for mistakes?”
Perhaps some of you who’ve read my Facebook posts in particular are nodding and saying to yourselves, “Yes! Why doesn’t he take more time to correct the mistakes!”
A few people have even suggested that I’m leaving those glaring (to them) mistakes in on purpose. What they don’t understand is how hard I have to struggle to do something that most find so easy.
Some of you may recall when Microsoft Word first came out. For most people this was probably a nice convenience. For me it was life-changing.
Something people probably don’t know about me is that from a very early age I have had a problem with symbols; mostly letters. For some reason I have always been able to do very large mathematical equations in my head with very little effort. But when it comes to words and letters I struggle immensely. There are many people who are poor spellers, but that does not even begin to describe the scope of my disability, and the frustration that I go through every day.
My disability is as difficult for me to attempt explaining as it is difficult for you to imagine, but I’ll try. For example, when some people say they can see a word in their head, for me, those words are more like pictures.
If I showed you a beautiful landscape picture with a farmhouse and animals running around, you would recognize it, and know what it was. But what if I asked you to draw the farm house from memory? Would you get it right? Would you put the right amount of windows in the house, and put the chickens in exactly the correct places? This is what I go through writing every sentence.
Most people are familiar with the term dyslexia or dyslexic. It is usually associated with a problem with being able to read or comprehend the written word. Although I can perfectly understand what I read, it takes great concentration for me to be able to write it back down. For this reason I have never considered my self dyslexic.
The best way I can describe it is that I seem to lack the ability to see the letters or words in my head. My condition started out when I was very young, at a time when kids who had trouble with putting letters in the right order or direction were accused of just not trying hard enough.
In an effort to avoid ridicule, I quickly learned to mask my disability as much as possible. Reading didn’t give me as much trouble, as long as I had seen the word before and was familiar with it. What I seemed to struggle with the most was being able to sound out a new word; a word I’d not seen before.
It’s as if you’ve seen a picture a million times, you know what it looks like. But for me, for some reason, it was – is – difficult for me to grasp and recognize an individual letter. That’s why, for example, I have difficulty remembering the difference between words like there and their, or then and than, or are and our. I use a cheat sheet that I keep beside me when I write, but I don’t always catch every word every time, and when that happens, the mistakes are out there for everyone to see, and yes, to sometimes point out and make fun of.
Maybe some of you are thinking that if only I practiced more, my writing would improve. Trust me when I say I have had more writing practice than you can imagine. My former teachers made sure of it. But nothing helped. One teacher in particular made me stay late after school for months trying to help me. In the end she decided that it’s best if I didn’t discuss my problem with anyone. Because of this, I remained silent for many years. I avoided writing at all costs. Even as a young man stationed overseas, I had to be very careful who I wrote to as they would soon discover my affliction and think less of me.
Then one day the I heard the greatest news: a new writing program had built-in spellcheck. I rushed out and purchased a copy and installed it on my home computer. What I soon discovered was that my spelling was so bad that even the spellcheck had trouble understanding me. It gave no help to my trouble with homonyms; words that are said or spelled the same. There have been many of times where I am struggling with a five-letter word, trying to get the spelling close enough for spellcheck to recognize what I’m trying to write.
My wife has always been very supportive of me, and is always willing to help when she can. I always found it amusing I married an English major who wanted to be a editor. She sometimes sees me struggling and asks why I don’t ask for help. To me this would be like asking your wife to tie your shoes, even though she has shown you a hundred times.
When Facebook came out I decided that I was not going to be silenced any longer. I found myself writing more and more, until one day I was approached by the owner and publisher of a News Cafe.com, who’d been following me on Facebook for a while. She asked if I would like to write a column. It took a while for me to build up the courage to tell her that my punctuation was terrible, and that I struggled with the simplest words. She said that she’d noticed the errors on Facebook, but she didn’t care, because she believed I was a natural writer. She said she knew plenty of writers who were technically perfect, but creatively imperfect.
We made a deal: I would just write down whatever I had to say, without worrying about punctuation. She said that if I got the words down, she’d figure them out and copy edit my work. She worked out a system where one of ANC staff does the first edit of my writing, and then she does the final edit. It did not take her long after I’d submitted my first unedited story for her to ask about my problem. We discussed it for some time, and I think she could tell it was an uncomfortable subject for me. After publishing quite a few of my articles, she asked if I’d ever considered writing about my condition. At first, I thought it was strange for someone like me who struggles with words and letters to attempt writing about it.
For the longest time I put it off, trying to keep my disability hidden, as not to embarrass my family and friends.
This all came to an end recently when once again I received a personal message from someone criticizing my spelling and punctuation. Once again I was silenced. Once again it felt as someone believed that if I lacked the punctuation and spelling skills they’d been blessed to master, that I probably shouldn’t be heard, because my writing was so filled with errors.
I realize that people who contact me about my poor writing, or who leave public comments about it on my Facebook posts, probably don’t mean it in a derogatory way.
What they probably don’t realize is how hurtful and humiliating their words are for me. Maybe they’d feel the same if I commented on something they’d written – perfectly punctuated – but it didn’t capture my interest, or hold my attention. What if I told them their stories were boring? Or what if I told them that I noticed they never write anything original, but rather, they just re-post and share others’ writing?
Of course, I would never say any of those things, because it would be rude.
I believe all of us have different strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, in my case, my strengths and weaknesses are connected, and battle each other daily. How unfair and cruel that I was born with the joyful desire to express myself through writing, but I was also born with a condition that makes it difficult for me to completely access the words I need for people to fully understand what I’m trying to say.
Why did I decide to tell my story? Part of the reason is that I hope it helps people to think twice before criticizing someone’s writing, because as helpful as it may seem at the time, that criticism can have a silencing effect. I hope that my story might help people unplug their inner editors and critics; to not judge, or give unsolicited feedback about someone’s writing, whether publicly or privately, and consider there may be good reasons for someone’s glaring writing errors that have nothing to do with ignorance, or laziness, or education or not trying hard enough.
The other reason I’m sharing my story is that I know there must be others out there like me, people who are as afraid and embarrassed to write as I was for so very long. I hope my story lets them know they’re not alone. I hope my story gives them the courage to write, even when the words aren’t right.