I remember as a kid I’d flick through the Sunday newspaper until I got to the art review section and I’d scan for the New York Bestseller List. I’d pick up my biro with a chewed lid and neatly trap the author's name in a box before scribbling out the name carefully, making sure the pen didn’t slip outside the lines. I’d avoid tearing the page by trying not to press down the nip of the pen too hard on the thin page. When the author's name was blacked out, I would neatly write my full name beside the number one bestseller.
Being a writer has always been my dream. I stopped writing stories as a teenager because I realized that to be a writer I had to grasp the written word. English is my first language, but I struggled with it. If I couldn’t pass English at school how could I be a writer? However, the dream to be published never left, and decades later I signed up for my first creative non-fiction course. The fear of showing my stories to the class always terrified me, but my desire to learn how to tell a story helped me to keep going. The writers I met in the three CNF courses became friends, and we created a writing group that’s been running since the summer of 2014.
I never told them of my struggle, too embarrassed and ashamed. I spent so much energy trying to pretend to be like other writers. I never asked my writing group if they knew or whether they thought I was a lazy writer, I just pretended my disability didn’t exist. The group discovered the truth when I touched on my learning disability in an essay I wrote. I felt a sense of freedom when they read the work.
When I completed the essay, I thought about my writing process and how I tried to be like everyone else. It occurred to me the writing process is meant to be personal, and an equally important part of my relationship with writing. I gave myself permission to let myself be the kind of writer I was meant to be by being honest with myself and open with others.
Google and Grammarly software are great tools for me to use. I don’t know the sounds of the alphabet, and unfortunately, that makes me a poor speller. Generally, I rely on Word to highlight my spelling errors, but when Word doesn’t even know, then I turn to Google. I type the word the way I think it sounds and it might take twenty or so minutes until I find the right combination for Google to finally understand what word I’m looking for.
I’m thankful that I am part of a writing group where we provide support for each other. Any of my work that has been published would never have been if it weren’t for constructive feedback and the offer to help with editing. I don’t write down the feedback I get from the group because it takes too long for the verbal information to process in my brain and by the time I’ve written the first point I’ve missed three others, so I listen and try to process what I can. I also listen to what my instincts are telling me. However, the group discussions help me to see the bigger picture of the story especially when I’ve spent so much time on a piece that I can’t even see it anymore, and the discussions help to relax and open up my mind again.
I know that I can’t submit a story to a magazine even after it’s been through Grammarly without the piece been checked and corrected by human eyes. I don’t necessarily understand some of the Grammarly recommendations, I accept the punctuation and spelling errors, but with anything more advanced I just go with what feels right, but even Grammarly doesn’t pick up on everything as I’ve learned from experience. I’m so thankful that my friends have gifted me with their time, especially as they have busy schedules and are trying to find time to write their own stories.
I try to tell myself not to make changes after my work has been edited, but it can’t be helped, and then I hope that the errors Grammarly highlights are straightforward.
Thinking back now I wish I knew when I was teenager that I had nothing to be ashamed about and that there were different ways of learning—not just one. Now I’m older and I’ve finally got to a point where I’m learning to accept my own learning difficulties and I’m finding my own ways of coping.
I will always worry, though, that the readers and judges will penalize me and think that I’m a lazy writer without knowing they are reading a piece from someone who's dyslexic.
Jagtar Kaur Atwal lives in Cambridge and is published in Room Magazine (women of colour issue), Love Me True Anthology, The New Quarterly and was the CNF 2017 contest winner for Prairie Fire and is soon to be published on the Invisible Publishing Blog.