Isabel Gillies on Writing and Dyslexia

Isabel Gillies on Writing and Dyslexia

You may know Isabel Gillies from her appearances on Law and Order: SVU as Detective Stabler’s wife, but this accomplished actress is also a writer. Gillies has written two memoirsand she made her YA debut earlier this year with Starry Night. Gillies’ protagonist, Wren, is dyslexic just like Gillies herself. Here, Gillies chats about how dyslexia has made her who she is today, and why the disorder makes for a particularly good protagonist.

Wren, the main character in my new book, Starry Night, is dyslexic. I gave her dyslexia because not only do I have dyslexia (I was in special help programs through college for it) but so do my son, my father, and one of my brothers. The Mannings have football, the Gillieses have dyslexia.

I’m not sure I can imagine writing a protagonist without dyslexia because it informs who I am to a large extent. And now that I have a child who is in the throes of dyslexia (the hardest time in a dyslexic’s life, in my non-scientific opinion, is between the years of 8-16) it surrounds us like bath water.

There are some things about dyslexia that naturally lend themselves to making an interesting character. First of all, you struggle. Struggling is a HUGE part of having dyslexia. When I was little, the academic part of school always felt like trying to get the top off of very stubborn jam jar. No matter how many ways I tried to open it (using a towel, banging the lid on the side of a counter, running the jar under hot water, asking someone stronger than me to help), it was always too hard. I constantly felt red-faced, straining and making crazy noises, struggling just to open the thing and get some darn jam. When you have dyslexia, you don’t struggle to understand text. You struggle to read it at all–it’s wildly frustrating. Anyway, you don’t want to have a main character who sails through life. There always has to be something to overcome, something to get through.

Another part of being dyslexic is that, for a big part of your life, you feel like a dumbass–and you’re not. It feels like everyone in your class didn’t just climb up the mountain, they sprang up happily, laughing about how much fun it was. You have to climb up with bare hands and weights on your feet, while balancing a glass on your head–or at least, that’s what it feels like. It stinks because sometimes you don’t even make it up the mountain! Everyone else in your class is at the summit having a picnic and you are stuck at the bottom eating grass and rocks. When you don’t make it up the mountain because you can’t spell and read, even though you would understand every last concept in the book if someone read it to you, you can’t help but feel dumb. And I believe that people think you are dumb, even if they have been told a million times that all people learn differently.

So as a writer, I like the idea of a really smart person feeling dumb. It’s fascinating to me, even if it’s painful. Pain can be good, because people learn from pain and become strong from it. I love, and I think everyone loves, a hero who finds strength in hardship.

Another juicy part about dyslexia that is good for a main character is, because your brain has trouble decoding, you have a hard time in some ways, but the other parts of your brain get very strong. For example, my son has an incredible ear for music. He can recall and sing a hymn he heard years before and only sang once. He is a great finder (as is my father). Anytime something is lost in the house, I ask him to help me find it, and usually in seconds he has. He has unusually high (if I do say so) emotional intelligence. When he listens to a book, like Huck Finn, he is moved by it, not just intellectually, but in his gut. He feels it. He can’t spell: were, where, won’t, weather, whether (and literally a million other words), but he weeps listening to Mark Twain. Wren is the same way. She can’t punctuate, but she can draw an owl so vividly, you feel as if you spotted it in the forest. (By the way, I just tried to spell forest three times and had to use spell check to get it right. I still can’t spell at all and often have to pick a new word to use because spell check doesn’t even work.)

I think in my next novel, I won’t write a main character with dyslexia. I should give myself that challenge, but in many ways I don’t want to. I don’t think I would have been able to survive the most difficult times in my life (like my divorce) without being dyslexic because dyslexic people learn how to overcome difficulty early. Dyslexia takes place in the brain, therefore you never grow out of it, but you learn how to deal with it. It stinks while you are young, but later on it comes in handy. It’s a part of myself I have grown to love. If I make my main characters (didn’t spell characters correctly either) dyslexic, I immediately feel love for them. It brings me closer to these made up people. I’m not a trained writer, and I truly question if I do it correctly all day long, but loving the hero in the book you are writing doesn’t feel like a dumbass move.

Isabel Gillies, known for her television role as Detective Stabler’s wife on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and for her cinematic debut in the film Metropolitan, graduated from New York University with a BFA in film. She lives in Manhattan with her second husband, her two sons, and her stepdaughter.

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