We can hypothesize that John Irving may have undiagnosed and untreated visual problems which contribute to his dyslexia but that is not the most important message in the following excerpt from Grit by Angela Duckworth. Our patients who have worked successfully to remediate their visual problems have some advantages over those who have found everything to be effortless to this stage in their lives. If you wonder about grit, I suggest that you read this well-written story.
“Garp was a natural storyteller.”
This is a line from John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp. Like that novel’s fictional protagonist, Irving tells a great story. He has been lauded as “the great storyteller of American literature today.” To date, he’s written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been best sellers and half of which have been made into movies. The World According to Garp won the National Book Award, and Irving’s screenplay for The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.
But unlike Garp, Irving was not a natural. While Garp “could make things up, one right after the other, and they seemed to fit,” Irving rewrites draft after draft of his novels. Of his early attempts at writing, Irving has said, “Most of all, I rewrote everything…. I began to take my lack of talent seriously.”
Irving recalls earning a C- in high school English. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800, which means almost two-thirds of the students who took the SAT did better than him. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. Irving recalls that his teachers thought he was both “lazy” and “stupid”.
Irving was neither lazy nor stupid. But he was severely dyslexic: “I was an underdog…. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words.” When his own son was diagnosed with dyslexia, Irving finally understood why he, himself, had been such a poor student. Irving’s son read noticeably slower than his classmates, “with his finger following the sentence – as I read, and I still read. Unless I’ve written it, I read whatever ‘it’ is very slowly – and with my finger.”
Since reading and writing didn’t come easily, Irving learned that “to do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself…. In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes more second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”
Do the precociously talented learn that lesson? Do they discover that the capacity to do something over and over again, to struggle, to have patience, can be mastered – but not overnight?
Some might. But those who struggle early may learn it better.
Dr. Gary J. Williams