I was a technical writer before I’d ever heard the term. I’ve always loved science, loved research, loved learning how things work. And I’ve always loved writing. I can’t even go on an overnight trip without bringing a notebook along. To me, writing and thinking go together. Writing is how I think; and when I really need to think about something, I write.
What I have never loved is feeling confused, because feeling confused is painfully close to feeling dumb. It’s one of those great universal truths—no one likes feeling dumb. And I felt confused a lot as a kid; ergo, I felt dumb a lot.
Now this is the point where you may be asking yourself, How does someone clearly so smart, refined, well-educated, and thoughtful, someone who knows how to use ergo AND semicolons correctly, ever end up feeling dumb?
Thank you for asking.
Because I’m dyslexic. And my childhood was rife with moments that everybody seemed to find fun and easy—everybody but me. I studied for hours for the big math test and got big red slashes back. I tripped over my own feet at the big softball game, the kickball game, name a game. I always ran left when the gym teacher yelled right. Yeah, I felt dumb a lot. Dumb and I are well acquainted.
None of this is to say that dyslexia was the worst thing that ever happened to me, not at all. I would describe my dyslexia as mild to moderate, and I would never claim it kept me from achieving any major goal. (Okay, a career as a professional athlete was ruled out early due to the aforementioned directional challenges.) For example, I had no trouble learning to read. I don’t see letters flipped around or numbers backward. It’s never been like that. For me, if I’m not focused, words float around whole; I don’t see them in the order they’re written in. I don’t in the order they’re see them written in.
Numbers are similar. At the end of a long day, I might see 12 as 21 and 437 as 374. I wrote many wrong answers on math tests, for sure.
And should we ever be in a car together and I tell you to turn right but you see me point to the left, go where my hand goes, not my words. (Don’t worry—I’ve learned to warn people about this issue before we set off. Safety first!)
Instead of being a roadblock to happiness, I have to admit that being dyslexic has given me gifts I don’t know how I would have achieved otherwise. I didn’t figure out I was dyslexic until my sophomore year of college. (My calculus professor was the person who figured it out, bless her!) But before that big reveal, I had already spent 19 years teaching myself how to get around a problem I couldn’t name.
When I was a kid, I had no idea what was wrong, but I knew something was off. I saw my classmates fly through activities and had parents, teachers, and siblings who expected the same from me. I became determined to stop looking dumb before my peers. So without knowing what the problem was, I just kept trying different approaches to meet my expectations of what I should be able to achieve. Over time I developed systems that allowed me to level up to, or even surpass, my peers. My secret weapon, what got me through school and even earned me academic scholarships, was to teach myself how to recognize patterns: patterns of language, procedure, movement, and logic.
Pattern recognition became my way of negotiating through the world. How do I solve this equation? Determine what the solution pattern is. Break it down into its components. Figure out why it works and how moving the components around affects the answer so I can recognize when the pieces are in the wrong place.
The same method worked for writing as well. What to do about composition in English class? Master syntax, grammar, and other elements of language so I quickly recognize when words are out of place. Learn to distinguish tone and voice so that my mental ear tells me when something is inconsistent.
And on and on it went. I spent years breaking each pattern down into its separate components and then building those components together again. It was only when I knew them backward, forward, inside-out, and upside-down could I do what seemed to come so naturally to so many others.
After all, it’s how you put the pieces together that make the puzzle into a picture. Try to force pieces together or leave something out and the picture doesn’t make sense. But take the time to determine how pieces naturally go together and you can create something beautiful. For me, writing is like a puzzle, or perhaps a LEGO set. Once I learned to recognize how the elements of English connected to one another, I was able to use them to build all kinds of structures.
Dyslexia is rarely a problem for me anymore. Once I figured out what was causing my interior glitches, life became far more manageable. Ultimately, what I needed was to teach myself one more pattern—that of brain fatigue. For me, being tired is when the floating happens. Once I trained myself to recognize when my focus was slipping, I could keep the words and numbers still on the page (or take a badly needed break).
And once I knew how to avoid my internal tripwires, I found I could transfer my pattern recognition skills to finding the problems in other people’s patterns, which is a simplistic way of describing what an editor does. And thus a career was born. All that struggle as a kid ended up being perfect training for a professional life as a writer and editor of technical content. I’ve even built a successful small business around this skill, which has transformed my life and given me great satisfaction.
Today I use my pattern-matching and language skills to help industry professionals communicate their big ideas. Ostensibly, I’m writing about energy storage technology, grid modernization techniques, and other complex issues. But what I’m really doing is trying to make the world a little less confusing and make hard concepts a little more approachable for people in stressful situations. Every day my goal, ultimately, is to make readers feel smart and capable, because that’s how everyone should feel, and to make sure my clients look smart and capable, because they are. My dyslexia, my “disability,” prompted me to develop skills that I can use to support my family, my community, and my ambitions. Grade-school Molly would be pleased to know her hard work truly did pay off.
Just don’t ask me to help you with your taxes or shout directions from the back seat. I’m doing us both a favor here.
(My thanks to Elizabeth Arifien and Charlotte Edmonds of the Move Beyond Words podcast for inspiring me to finally publish this story.)