How iPhone Unlocked My Dyslexia

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I just published my first novel. Being a writer seemed elusive not because I couldn’t tell a good story, but because reading was so difficult. Seriously.

I’m severely dyslexic. Here’s the story of how I got here, and the tech that helped forge the way.

When I was little, I had trouble learning to read. Lots of trouble. Before that, I had trouble learning to color and couldn’t grasp cutting or using scissors. I had significant fine motor deficits and visual perception problems. I preferred to play quietly by myself, or to explore the woods near my house, and I was constantly daydreaming.

My parents took me to see a specialist and I was diagnosed.

Dyslexia really is a catch-all of sorts. You have certain symptoms that fall within a certain range, and that places you within the clinical definition. The difficulty of learning to read is due to problems connecting speech and sound to written symbols. All of this is according to the Mayo Clinic.

Beyond reading problems, many dyslexics have difficulties with spelling, math and grammar. For me, I looked at a page and words ran every which direction as if something big was chasing them. My eyes would go first one way and then another. The longer I looked at the page, the better daydreaming sounded.

Today, this would mean tutors and utilizing new ways of learning and focusing on my strengths, maybe even a special school or program for dyslexics. But this was 1976 in the piney woods of East Texas.

I was placed in “remedial” courses and then speech therapy classes. Every year until I was in middle school, based on my standardized-test scores, teachers and administrators urged my parents to hold me back. They would insist that I just wasn’t ready for the next grade. Despite being articulate (I liked to talk), my reading and writing and math abilities lagged far behind my peers. Fortunately, my mother was an outspoken Texan — and a teacher. She knew the stigma associated with being held back a grade and wouldn’t have it. She also did her damndest to instill in me the kind of teeth-gritting confidence I would need to pick myself up and shake myself off anytime questions about my intelligence or academic merit arose.

During this same time, I developed a fascination and love of story-telling, which moved me to start scratching out little tales. Then I discovered audience and the crowd-pleaser in me came alive. In my fifth grade reading class, our teacher had us write stories and read them aloud on Fridays. Mine were a hit. Some of my friends would even offer to give up their turn so I could read another one of mine to the class. But whatever ideas I might have been stoking about actually becoming a writer fizzled the minute my reading teacher pointed out how my grammar and punctuation were that of a first-grader, my handwriting nearly illegible, and my spelling incomprehensible. She didn’t mince words either; I’m not kidding when I say this woman looked the 11-year-old me in the eye and pronounced “You couldn’t fix these things even if you tried.”

Okaaaaaay. Well, I persevered. I learned to compensate — memorizing what teachers said, taking (admittedly messy) hand-written notes ninety-miles-per-hour. I made it out of high school and, thanks to the numerous state universities in Texas that didn’t focus quite so much on SATs, went to college and then law school. And though my love of stories had not diminished, reading was still a chore. Actually, that’s an understatement. Reading for me to this day is an energy and time-intensive endeavor; a real workout. When I read something in print it involves using different colored highlighters, clear blue overlays, glasses I don’t necessarily need (but which help my eyes frame the page), and reading the text over and over and over. So, reading to write — that is, reading to study the works of others in order to create my own writing — was still pretty much out of reach.

Then Apple introduced iPhone.

I had used Apple computers since college. I wouldn’t say I was a “fanboy,” but I was pretty much a “fanboy.” My wife likes to tease me that the first time we bumped into Steve Jobs in our local Palo Alto grocery store, I damn near screamed like a seventh-grade girl.

Anyway, when iPhone 4 came around I, of course, traded in my 3G for a 4Gs and snagged the iBooks app in the process. I downloaded some books, just to play with the app really, and learned something astonishing. I could read so much better, 100% or more better, on that little screen.

The reason for this has been studied by Dr. Matthew Schneps. Dr. Schneps is a Harvard scientist and received his PhD in Physics from MIT in 1979. He is a founding member of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is also dyslexic. As reported by Fast Company, he had all but given up reading books and usually relied on others’ explanations to understand academic papers and proposals. But one day he was waiting for a bus and decided to open up a scientific paper on his iPhone that a colleague had emailed. His experience was much like mine, and it led him to research and discover that many dyslexics have broader peripheral vision. Increasing the size of the font and reducing the size of the screen to the point where there are only a few words per line helps enormously with reading. Dr. Schneps has done ground breaking work in this area, and I encourage everyone to look him up online and learn more about his important and helpful research.

So, I was off to the races. I started buying books via iBooks. Lots. I tried e-readers and then an iPad but they didn’t have the same effect. Their screens seemed too large, and as soon as I would open one either in vertical or landscape mode the words on the screen skedaddled for the hills with my eyes close behind. I stuck to my iPhone.

By the time I moved on to iPhone 5 and then iPhone 5s I had found James Salter, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, Mary Gaitskill, Pam Houston, Sue Grafton, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Ford, Elmore Leonard, and a respect for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that I had not known before. I now read that book over and over and over; not because I have to, but because I want to, because I respect the vision Hemingway brought to his prose, his disdain for commas and adjectives and adverbs and his precision in building a world in the reader’s mind with so little on the page. It’s an appreciation I could have never known without my iPhone.

My current iPhone 6s is filled with books. I not only use the iBooks and Kindle apps, but Kobo, and Google Play and Read. They’re all packed with fiction, history, biographies, and social science. My iPhone opened me up to a world that included diverse ideas and works from Jane Austen to Leonard Mloldinow, and from Paul Auster to Howard Zinn.

I began to understand and study character, voice, and dialogue, and how one can impact the other. I read James Scott Bell and others on writing and craft. I learned plot and pacing. Most importantly, the reading that I did on my iPhone — that I did because of my iPhone — led me to write, and to decide and believe that I could write. So, I did.

Riverside is part romance and part suspense novel. It’s a story about two young lovers struggling for the American dream, and the lengths to which they will go to protect it. It’s set in Austin, Texas in the early nineties and is out on Amazon in print and Kindle and, of course, iBooks, from Barton Creek Press. That’s my story; I’m sticking to it.

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