My love affair with language and writing

I’ll let you in on a secret. I can’t write.

I know that’s technically not true. But that’s how I feel. That feeling has nothing to do with the quality of my writing. My problem is getting the letters arranged in a way, that if someone else reads it, it sounds the same in their head as it did in mine.

I am dyslexic. Luckily for me a very mild form that doesn’t hinder my reading. But my writing is a mess. The only reason you are reading these words right now, is because of the most awesome invention of the century (at least in my mind) Spell Check.

The idea that I couldn’t write got in my head in elementary school, where a teacher insisted on correcting all my spelling mistakes on my tests no matter the subject. She’d tell me “you’re a very smart girl, Aura, you just can’t write”.

Before that comes off as sounding too harsh or making it seem like she was a bad teacher, let me assure you she was absolutely great. I can tell you the words she said to me, but not the tone that made the problem seem that much smaller. She made it sound like an oddity I just had to learn to deal with. Work around it. She explained I would always get bad grades for spelling, but I could make up for it with other things.

And I did. I focused on rules. My grammar was impeccable. I owned every aspect of the language except for spelling. She told me that if I continued like this, I would never fail in school. And not failing in school was a very satisfying thing for 8 year old me.

Two years later, as words got bigger the problem increased. My teacher at that time pulled me aside one day to point out I could not really continue to ignore spelling all together. Because there were times that she just didn’t know what word I was trying to use. I still have that problem at times. I right click a word with that red squiggly line under it, and Spell Check has no suggestions at all. This was, and is, frustrating. It enforced my idea that I just can’t write.

Maybe these days there are more or better methods for teaching kids with dyslexia. Maybe there even were in my day, back in the Netherlands. But since I was living in Aruba already at that point, and schools were very much underfunded and little behind on the times, my teacher could only give me the advice that I still use to this day. And eventually made me love writing.

Read everyday to increase your vocabulary. If you are ever unsure about a word you will always have a synonym available. Write everyday to practice and stay acquainted with the words.

At first I hated having to do something I knew I just couldn’t do. But it worked. I started catching myself when I wrote a word backwards. If a word didn’t look right to me, I used an other. My spelling was still bad, but at least it was comprehensible. Again I got told if I continued like this, I would never fail.

That was almost true. I mostly got passing grades in Dutch and when I started getting English, I mostly got passing grades in that as well. However at 13, Spanish kicked my ass. I failed Spanish so hard that all my other grades couldn’t make up for it. I still blame my Spanish teacher for that one. Ninety percent of her final grade was based on students ability to spell. My hatred for the written Spanish language was as passionate as flamenco dancing.

Meanwhile something interesting was happening. I really loved the hour or so I spend writing every day. I was falling in love with how flexible language is. How you can play with words and make them mean multiple things at the same time. I enjoyed the absurdities of it. And language is absurd. Specially if you measure one against an other. I started getting much more creative with my writings. And incredibly secretive. I had developed two writing styles. One for myself where I could play and be intimate with the language and one for when I knew other people would be reading, which was formal and simplistic and felt forced. Writing was my secret lover I did not want to be seen with in public because we were such a bad match.

My mother, unbeknownst to me, read a lot of my private writings. She then, also without my knowledge, send some of those writings to a prestigious Dutch journalism school. I got accepted.

I was absolutely mortified. Those things she send in were not written for anyone’s eyes but mine. There was no way in hell I was ever going to set foot in a place where people, people who knew a thing or two about writing, professors even, had seen those raw, uncorrected, not bothered with reader comprehension, private, writings. Dammit Mom, don’t you understand that I. Can’t. Write.

I didn’t go to that school. I might cover bad study choices some other time, but if I had to do it all over again I still wouldn’t pick journalism school. Now, almost 20 years later, whenever that story comes up I still feel some of the pain of that betrayal. As it was, I went to study chemistry which I quickly changed for Pharmacy technician.

In the Dutch system, I was a little surprised to learn, studying pharmacy technician still meant having Dutch and English as required courses. And they still focus on things like creative writing. And there the second interesting thing happened. Whenever we had to write something and the papers came back, more often than not I got asked by the teachers if I wouldn’t mind if they read some of it to the class. By then I had discovered the wonders of Word and Spell Check, so I never objected.

It convinced me of two things. One, when you love writing it shows regardless of your skill level. Second, how it’s written is only half of the story. The other half is how it is read. My Dutch professor in particular was a fantastic reader. I swear he could make a dictionary sound exciting.

This was also when I started to understand that people who seek out and read opinion pieces, blogs, stories and think pieces tend to be really good readers. They want what they read to be interesting and exciting, so they will make it sound that way. All you have to do is provide some ideas and some words and the reader will do a lot of work for you. Getting people who have decided they don’t like reading to like your writing is probably the hardest thing in the world. Getting people who decided they like reading to like your writing is much easier. I can do that. But it would still take me a decade before I dared to go public with some of my writings.

I started small, with blogs on a relatively unknown social media site. Where the people who read it were known to me. Who had some interest in me and might therefore be interested in reading what I had written. People started telling me how much they enjoy reading my blogs. That feels better than I care to admit to.

Not so long ago I discovered Medium. I discovered it because a research scientist whose pieces I love reading keeps his blog here. I came here as visitor for a while but soon decided I needed to log in and create a profile because I realized I was missing a lot by only seeing the most popular stories. It was then that Writing, my no-longer-so-secret lover, seduced me in a way it had not done before. In the form of a button on the top of the page labeled “Write a story”

“Write a story,” writing whispered “for all the world to see. Your words alongside authors and scientists and celebrities. Wouldn’t that be great?” Yes. Great and exciting, but also scary. I doubted my writings would be noticed at all. Of course if I go unnoticed anyway, then there’s nothing to lose.

To make things a little less scary, I picked a couple of blogs I had already written and gotten some good feedback on, modified them a little, and posted those. I’ve also posted a few long responses to things I read of others on this site. And to my surprise, I have not gone unnoticed. I got views. I got reads. I even got a couple of recommends. Most exciting (and a little panic inducing, if only for a second or two) is that I now have a couple of people, strangers, who liked my writings enough to follow me.

Every time I come to Medium, Writing flirts with me. “Come on. Write a story. You know you love it.”

And today I did. No trial runs, no responding to other writers, my first completely original, written in Medium, Medium story. I am counting on it that anyone getting this far is a good reader and made it sound entertaining.

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