As a professional dancer, I can form my body into a prefect pirouette. But when I write, my words arrive on the screen so garbled that spell-check can’t even recognize them. I rewrite the word over and over again in slightly different ways until spell-check finally recognizes what I am trying to say.
I have known that I have a learning disability since I was young, and became ingenious at hiding it. I was ashamed to ask for help and ashamed to let anyone know. Luckily in my job as a dancer, writing was not needed. It wasn’t until I quit ballet at the age of 30 and went back to school to study expressive arts therapy that I built up the courage to be tested. I was diagnosed with limited working memory. Working memory is defined by researcher Alan Baddeley as “brain systems that provide temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning.” Working memory is like a “desk top” in your brain upon which you organize your thoughts. My desk top is too small to even be considered a desk. It can barely hold any word longer than three letters. Half way through writing a word, I become lost in letters, and the result is illegible. So, what is someone so profoundly handicapped in writing doing in Open Book: Toronto? Charles C Thomas Publisher is currently publishing my book, The Healing Dance: The Life and Practice of an Expressive Arts Therapist, and Open Book: Toronto has offered me the chance to share my process.
During my learning disability testing, I scored highest in the ability to complete a task. That is a nice way to say that I am incredibly stubborn and rarely give up. I began writing my book in 2002, with the goal of describing my work as expressive arts therapist. Expressive arts therapy is the career I chose after being forced to quit dancing due to cartilage damage in my knees. It is a form of psychotherapy in which the client and therapist communicate with each other not just through talking, but through dance, poetry, music and visual arts. In my practice, I worked intuitively. I define intuition as knowing something without actually knowing how you know it. In writing my book, I was trying to explain concepts that I didn’t actually know how I knew with very little space on my desk top to organize my thoughts. My first drafts were virtually unreadable. I plastered my actual desk with yellow sticky notes that acted as the desk space I was missing in my brain. I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until the concepts that kept falling off my way too small desk top finally began to organize themselves on their own. I had dreams in which the just-right description of a concept would arrive. I would wake and then run to my computer and write something like this: “If ioen seranches for creats aert for brastly sake then the chalisling will antaige any possibly of beatruy arribe because beaty is somethst that aaribes sunexectign and sursprsices uss.” I would sigh and then begin the task of un-garbling my words. I began to gravitate towards story telling as a way to describe expressive arts theories because the emotional thread running through a story helped order my writing. As clarity arrived, my learning disorder became even more frustrating because my ideas started arriving with great speed, but I was trying to catch them with a net with huge holes in it.
Five years into this process, my writing started to give me the same sort of adrenaline rush that dancing on stage gave me. I began to miss my book when I couldn’t spend time working on it. I had been working on it for so long, it had become my companion — a companion that I felt needed to meet the world. To help me believe this would happen, I took one of my favourite books and taped my name and book title over the author’s. I put this mock-up on my desk and every time I looked at it, felt joy at the thought that my book was going to be published. This helped to override the shame of having a learning disorder that made it difficult to believe I could write a book. I started to send my manuscript to publishers and editors. I got some interest, but no takers. Ten years after I started writing, my book started to feel complete but I still did not have a publisher. I decided to hire a professional editor and self-publish the book. However, I continued to send my manuscript to publishers. One month before my self-published version was due to be released on Amazon, I received two publishing offers in one week. I accepted an offer from Charles C Thomas, and now the real book sits on my desk. I share with you my final words that end my book:
In my forties, I am surprised to discover that I am a writer. With my learning disorder, I have struggled with writing my whole life. But a persistent need to document my way of working had been following me, like someone tapping on my shoulder. From the chaos of my dyslexic words, this book gradually emerged and I fell in love with writing. I am the crippled dancer who can no longer leap. I am the crippled writer whose words stumble along for years before finding grace. Through the process of writing this book, the message I discovered and rediscovered again and again, is that our humanity and beauty are in our imperfections. And that’s my final “wrod.”