Poetry and Dyslexia

By Philip Schultz on 10.14.11

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz didn’t learn he was dyslexic until his oldest son was diagnosed with the condition. The following is an excerpt from his memoir, My Dyslexia, which chronicles his experience. Check back on Monday when Schultz joins us to answer a few questions.

I finally understand that the life of an artist is in many ways similar to the life of the dyslexic. Both are essentially dysfunctional systems that produce in each individual volumes of anxiety, perseverance, and rejection, as well as creative compensatory thinking. Each, by their very nature, makes a victim of its creator, turning him into an outsider and misfit. It’s true of all artists, I think, at every level of success, the more gifted, the greater and riskier the anxiety and struggle. Each must, without appeal, strive to tolerate its own forms of self-defamation, creative excitement, and lack of forgiveness.

My poetry, like my dyslexia, serves as a giant filter for my darkest feelings and ideas. Sooner or later everything of consequence passes through this filter. Everyone who suffers mild, or seriously debilitating, non-verbal or language-learning disabilities has trouble comprehending “the big picture.” Doubt is its silent partner, its secret sharer. There’s no little irony in the fact that the very things I couldn’t do have helped provide me with a profession and means of knowing myself; that I chose to master the very thing that once hindered and mastered me; to own what once owned me.

People often ask me when and how I knew I was a poet. There are several fancy responses and explanations but one certainly has to do with my longing for solitude. I can spend inordinate amounts of time alone in a room, living entirely in my thoughts and feelings.

I staved off boredom as a child by telling my grandma stories as my mother listened from the dining room, where she counted coins from my father’s vending machines. We’d sit on the tiny blue sofa in the living room, which she used as a bed, and my grandma would listen intently, smiling and nodding, as my dreamy stories took us far away from our unhappy house in Rochester’s inner city.

I can still see them in their peasant dresses surrounded by the drabness of the furniture and peeling wallpaper, and myself in their eyes, where to them I was more than what my performance in school described, more than what my teachers believed I was capable of, more than what I knew and didn’t know about the real world. They knew who I was from my stories. And from the love they felt for me. There are times, while giving a reading, when I will catch myself looking for their faces in the audience. I’m looking for the comfort and encouragement memory provides, and the nostalgia of reclamation. We are the stories we tell, the things we make up and invent, we are more than the answers we give to questions, more even than our limitations—we are the cantankerous, infinitely mysterious dreams we somehow find the courage to imagine and sometimes to tell others.

Writers are archaeologists of their own souls. We dig until we hit bottom only to find there is another bottom underneath and another after that. We are capable of great harm and great sacrifice, but the point of this struggle must have something to do with not giving up. For a long time I couldn’t imagine my life amounting to anything anyone else would view with respect and affection. I didn’t know there was something wrong or different about how my brain processed information and language; I believed there was something wrong with me. I still, on occasion, believe this. Perhaps I always will. But even when the entire world seemed to be ganging up on me, some persisting sense of myself argued on my behalf. I can’t say why exactly, though I’ve always believed what St. Augustine said to be true: “Everything that is, in so far as it is, is good.” And what is good is worthwhile and prevailing. No matter how rich or powerful or intelligent or wise we are, we are also small and inconsequential and of no worth at all. Everyone knows this. But we endure.

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